At the beginning of this year, I looked at my DirecTV bill and realized I was spending over $100/month for TV service that I hardly used. Not only that, but one of the more popular shows at the time that I was interested in, "Mad Men" was NOT available in High Definition on DirecTV. How could I be paying so much and STILL not be able to watch what I wanted in the best possible format? It was time for a change....
I decided it was time for an experiment. I called up DirecTV and put my account on hold for 6 months to see how much I'd miss it. The goal wasn't necessarily to stop watching TV or to save that money entirely, but to use the money I would have spent on DirecTV towards watching stuff I REALLY wanted to watch. As such, I had an arsenal of tools at my disposal.
Mac Mini as a dedicated "Home Theater PC"
EyeTV from Elgato for watching/recording over-the-air broadcasts
DVD and BluRay player
Boxee (running on Mac Mini)
Remote Buddy (remote control software for Mac)
Plex (a multi-media app for Mac, based on XBMC)
The following is a more in-depth summary of each of the services listed above.
Mac Mini The MacMini was the core to this entire experiment. All of the software listed above ran on the Mac Mini (except for BluRay disks). It was the central repository for all music, movies, live and recorded TV as well as streaming video over the internet. The Mac performed admirably, but I may have tasked it with too much. 90% of the time, it ran perfectly, but occasionally there were times when it appeared to be over burdened and video would stutter or the remote commands sent to it wouldn't respond as quickly as you'd expect. In addition, running a desktop computer as a media center just has an additional overhead that users don't have to deal with on a dedicated consumer electronics device -- system updates, disk space issues and application crashes required a bit more know-how to troubleshoot where most home video devices at worst require you to just cycle the power if something goes wrong. With that said, I feel future software updates could still make this the ultimate media centerpiece.
EyeTV EyeTV provided us our solution for broadcast television. Not only could we watch live television through the Mac Mini, but with two USB tuners from EyeTV, we were able to use the Mac as a DVR and record up to two shows at once -- we were only able receive the broadcast stations (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, etc..) but there was no monthly fee for the content OR the DVR service (other than the initial hardware purchase, which we essentially earned back in the first two months). The quality and quantity of content from broadcast stations can't compete with the volume from cable or satellite, but we were still able to find more than enough shows that we liked that there was always something recorded to watch when we sat at the TV. Sure, I still couldn't watch Mad Men through EyeTV, but I could use my savings from DirecTV to buy the entire season on BluRay or iTunes and it would be mine to keep.
The feature set from EyeTV was very solid, but there were some issues with its execution. It has a built-in TV guide that you can use with their remote, but the interface still strongly favors a mouse and keyboard to get the most out of it. Also, the dual-tuner capability wasn't the most reliable, and in some cases, I found that it was using both tuners to record the same show. EyeTV clearly states that multi-tuner functionality is still in "beta", but in order for it to become a full fledged replacement for my DirecTV, they have to work out those kinks and clean up the user interface.
Netflix Netflix exceeded my expectations during my DirecTV hiatus. I really stepped up my turnaround on movies so I almost always had a movie ready and waiting when I was in the mood for something outside of the TV realm. But where I really got the most out of Netflix was with their Watch Instantly streaming content. I was able to catch a few movies and quite a few full TV seasons over their Watch Instantly and the quality was quite good. Unfortunately, several movies were only available in standard definition, but most TV shows were in high def. It seems like only a matter of time before the entire notion of physical discs goes away and all content will be available on demand over the internet. I also really appreciated Netflix's approach to put their software on as many devices as possible. Mac, PC, Xbox360, PS3, iPad, Wii and BluRay players... there's very few network cable devices now that Netflix doesn't support.
Hulu Desktop Hulu's Desktop app allowed me to navigate their content using a remote control rather than a mouse and keyboard. Often times, it served as a backup to EyeTV when it would miss a recording for some reason (like the 24 Season Finale). A majority of Hulu's content is from broadcast networks, but I was able to watch the entire first season of "Archer" (an FX show) on Hulu. Also, @babymama used Hulu exclusively for her "Glee" fix. Hulu was a greay ally while I was satellite free, and had it been available at the time, I'm sure I would have jumped on their Hulu Plus product.
DVD and BluRay I didn't end up buying as many bluray disks as I thought I would during this experiment, mostly thanks to Netflix, but there's still no question, for the absolute best in video and audio quality, you just can't beat Bluray. High Def streaming from Netflix or even HD movies purchased through iTunes definitely look good, but bluray is still a very noticeable step up. For any movie that is praised for its picture or sound, in my opinion, it's worth waiting for the bluray version over watching a streaming/downloaded copy.
Boxee At the outset, I really felt that Boxee would be my primary "Go To" app on the Mac Mini, but it ended up getting very limited play time, and I primarily ended up using it for streaming Pandora music. If Boxee was the only option, it would suffice, but it seemed to be more of a "jack of all trades, master of none". I used my Bluray player for Netflix, Hulu Desktop for Hulu, and Plex for DVD's I'd ripped to the hard drive. Most of the issue was the interface. I found even the latest beta build confusing to navigate, and often times, I couldn't tell if it was doing something or if it had hung up. I'd also get stuttering video and times where audio played with no video at all. I think Boxee has a lot of promise still, but the alternatives I had access to were preferable to it's all-in-one solution.
Remote Buddy Remote Buddy for the Mac was more of a helper app than anything else. By itself, it's not terribly useful, but it allows for easy access to your applications and allows you to control them with a single remote control. Without Remote Buddy, this DirecTV-Free experiment would have failed before it even started, but Remote Buddy made everything work together. Unfortunately, even Remote Buddy was prone to the challenges of a "deskop app", and there were times where it, or the app it was controlling, would crash. Or "alert messages" would pop up that were difficult to close out. For anyone trying to repeat my experiment on a Mac, Remote Buddy is a must.
Plex Plex is very similar to Boxee in that it tries to centralize your local media content with content from the web. Although in some ways, the interface isn't quite as slick as Boxee, I prefer Plex's more straightforward approach. Plex also has several downloadable plugins to get access to additional online content such as Netflix, South Park, ESPN3, etc. I just found that it was often easier to find something of interest to watch on Plex than it was using Boxee.
iTunes I originally thought iTunes would be a major resource for acquiring "premium" content to watch through the Mac, but after 6 months, I think I only downloaded 3 shows. I feel like iTunes needs a "store" interface that you can browse with your remote in order to make it more useful in the "Home Theater" space. If content was just "there" for me to buy and watch, I would have taken advantage of it more. Instead, I would have to use a keyboard and mouse to navigate iTunes to buy the shows I was interested in. In the end, iTunes had some of the best available content, but it was the least accessible for my particular setup.
Summary So, if you've read this far, how did it all end? Unfortunately, we just recently reactivated our DirecTV account. As outlined above, there was more than enough content to keep us happy, however, the reliability and ease of use of the system persuaded me to return to DirecTV. The "desktop computer" overhead was just to much on a day to day basis when all you want to do is plop on the couch and watch some TV. However, as the software improves, I'll be more than willing to give this a try again. It might become a yearly ritual to cut off my subscription for half a year to see exactly what shows I would actually miss.
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About the reviewer
I'm a technology early adopter. I thoroughly enjoy geeking out with the latest hardware, software and electronics. I probably have as much fun setting up, tweaking, and configuring systems as I do actually … more
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