WinMedMoviesGoogle’s announcement of the $35 Chromecast streaming dongle is rightfully big news this week, but I want to talk about another bridge between the internet and your TV set. This technology should appeal to anyone who’s contemplating cutting the cable cord. Its main strength is a free-subscription DVR for over-the-air (OTA) TV, but it’s also a great tool for streaming Netflix and countless other internet-based entertainment sources. That DVR is any PC with Windows Media Center (WMC). If you’re running Windows, you’ve probably got it already.

Well, there is one gotcha when it comes to that PC – it needs to have an OTA TV antenna connected to a TV input card or USB dongle. If OTA signals don’t reach you, that’s also a problem. Otherwise, the PC just needs to have a modestly fast processor (roughly 1 GHz or faster), at least 1 GB of RAM, at least 16 MB of hard drive space, some kind of internet access, and a video output that your TV can use.

For example, as I type, MicroCenter is selling a number of refurbished desktops that meet these requirements for $99. All they require is a cheap TV input card (here’s one for $20 from an eBay seller) and sometimes a basic video card (here’s more than you need for $26 from another eBay seller). For more advice about how to build your WMC box, this Motherboards.org page is a good start. WMC would also love to organize and serve up your music and photos, but remember that your WMC box is also a computer, so you can use it to run other entertainment apps (such as Hulu Desktop), type emails and do anything else you can do on a computer.

Instead of needing to buy another older computer, it’s just as possible that you’ve already got a hand-me-down or underused Windows computer that you can set up as your WMC box. Microsoft included WMC in a special version of Windows XP, then more editions of Windows Vista (Home Premium and Ultimate) and most editions of Windows 7 (Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate). Windows 8 users have to upgrade to the Pro Pack to get WMC, but the older versions of Windows will work better on the kind of leftover hardware we’re talking about now.

Once you’ve got it set up, WMC works as a DVR and adds a few extra features. As with most DVRs, it keeps a constant buffer so you can go back a few minutes to check something you missed. WMC lets you record programs to your hard drive, and you can set just how much of the hard drive you want it to use. WMC downloads two-week guide data, always for free, that includes all significant OTA subchannels. As shown in the screen capture above, WMC displays all the movies that will be available, making it simple to click and record them. (It does the same for sports, but most events work better live, and few markets have many OTA sports broadcasts these days.)

If you’ve got broadband internet access, then you may appreciate the Netflix plugin for WMC. For all other internet-based entertainment, you’ve already got that computer hooked up to your TV.

If you’re a free-to-air satellite TV fan, thanks for continuing to read this blog. It turns out that WMC supports some FTA satellite input cards as well. The setup process is a little more involved, and I don’t think WMC will drive an FTA motor, but it works okay for stationary dishes with known transponders. In North America, guide data for FTA channels is spotty at best, but we FTA viewers are used to that.

WMC is hardly the only PC-based DVR available. MythTV is one well-regarded open-source alternative. NextPVR is closed source but free for personal use. And there are any number of commercial DVR alternatives. But nobody beats WMC for price, ease of setup, and ease of use. For cord-cutters who want to embrace and explore their local OTA TV signals, WMC is often the best choice.

map of Major League Baseball territories

Major League Baseball territories, from Wikipedia

Baseball’s Opening Day always makes me feel like a 10-year-old. I grew up watching the local team on local TV. In those days before cable, I was lucky to see 60 games a year that way, usually on the independent station, plus the NBC Game of the Week on Saturdays. I got to know who the players were, and both the sport and the team grew on me. That team’s unwitting investment then paid off with years of game tickets, video subscriptions, and pilgrimages to baseball parks.

One of the lures of FTA satellite TV when I started with it was major league baseball. A lot of teams had regional over-the-air packages of games for stations within their territories. Thanks to MLB’s inscrutable territory rules, some cities were claimed by several overlapping teams. And some of the stations in those cities took advantage of that.

Buffalo NY is claimed by four teams – Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and both New Yorks. One station there carried Mets, Yankees, and Indians games whenever they were available. (I guess they couldn’t get the Pirates.) Arkansas is claimed by Texas, Houston, Kansas City, and St. Louis, and stations there carried some of those games as well. I looked at these as the second incarnation of superstations – those satellite-delivered TV stations that delivered lots of programming, including baseball, starting in the late 1970s. WGN and TBS survived and morphed into true pay-TV networks, and only two of the remaining five legally defined superstations still carry baseball games. That sure was fun while it lasted!

(Of course, now if you want to see out-of-market baseball games, all you need is high-speed internet, MLB.TV, and enough cash to subscribe. If you’re a baseball fanatic, it’s a great deal. But I digress.)

What about today’s viewers? The National Association of Broadcasters said last June that a growing number of Americans, 54 million back then, rely on over-the-air TV. Almost 18% of households use OTA signals to watch, up from 15% in 2011. That’s not the 99% of my youth, but it’s still a lot of people.

How is baseball reacting? By sharply curtailing OTA broadcasts. In an effort to squeeze every dime out of every game, most teams have sold all their games to regional sports networks. For 2013, only 10 of the 30 MLB teams plan to broadcast as many as five of their games via OTA. Aside from the two Chicago teams, which still use WGN, only Philadelphia and the Dodgers plan over 25 OTA games this year. (There’s also a weekly regional game on Fox (PDF schedule), but that won’t be much help to get folks to identify with their hometown team.)

Baseball probably won’t see any negative results from cutting off OTA until today’s 10-year-olds grow up and get some money in their pockets. The ones who never got to watch games on TV probably won’t be fans, and they won’t buy tickets. If the backlash against pay TV grows, baseball will miss even more young never-will-be fans. One day, they’ll realize what happened, but by then, it’ll be too late.

Me, in front of my largest satellite dishI’ve been putting this off because it’s a little embarrassing. But I suppose I really ought to tell you that in the back of its latest issue, the global digital TV magazine Tele-Audiovision (formerly Tele-Satellite) published a 9-page spread on me and my FTA websites.

It all started at the NAB Show last year, where I met the publisher, Alexander Weise. His magazine has had a booth at NAB and CES for years, but this was the first time I caught him sitting at it. Alexander’s a friendly, burly guy who looks a little older than his Page 3 photo. He’s got a good command of English, though it’s clear that it’s not his first language. I told him how important Tele-Satellite had been to me when I was just getting started with FTA, and we chatted about what’s going on in North America. (FTA is much more popular elsewhere.)

I gave him my card and talked about what I do here, and Alexander surprised me by suggesting that he make a stop in Denver on his way home to Germany. I had thought that Alexander was just making friendly conversation, but he called a few days later to set up a meeting. When the day came, he arrived and got to work efficiently gathering what he needed. He asked me a few questions about my work, though he might have made some notes from our NAB meeting. When he saw the dishes that I use, he got out his camera and posed me next to a couple of them. He also took a few other pictures; based on what was published, I believe that he printed every photo that he took at my place.

After lunch nearby, Alexander dropped me off and drove away, and that had been the last I had heard about it. In a previous life, I used to edit a magazine, so I know what it’s like to keep an article in inventory for a rainy day but also what it’s like when a projected article just doesn’t pan out. Months went by, and I quietly doubted that any of our visit would ever see print. At CES a couple of months ago, I dropped by the Tele-Audiovision booth a couple of times just to say hi. The folks there always said that I just missed Alexander, so I gave them my card to pass along. Did that card poke my story loose from its file cabinet? Or was Alexander just waiting until he needed something like that to fill an issue?

I forget who it was, but I heard a comedian once say that when you look back at what you were like a year ago, you curse at your mistakes. (He followed up by wondering whether that ever changes; will you complain at 97 about the dumb stuff you did when you were 96?) Sure enough, when I look at this 11-month-old moment frozen in time, I see some things that I could have done better. I know it was a warm April day, but maybe shorts weren’t the best choice if I was going to be in the photos. It was fun to talk about possibly streaming video, but the delivery method, TVU Networks, didn’t work out nearly as well as I’d hoped. The article’s title “The FTA Fan” makes it sound as if I do this all just for fun; maybe if I’d stressed the serious public service aspect he would have written something different.

So now you know the whole story. If you want to take a look at my motorized 1.2-meter dish, go for it. If you’re impressed by my easy-to-make wood platforms, let me know and I’ll write more about them. Or just go to discover a great magazine about the TV receivers we like to use. Tele-Audiovision is always worth reading, even when I’m not in it.

Sirius satelliteWhen we talk about communication satellites, we sometimes mention that each is roughly the size of a school bus. That provides a bit of scale, and suggests how difficult it might be to launch it into orbit.

But it would still be nice to see a real example for an even better understanding of its size and bulk. There are occasional prelaunch photos of bunny-suited workers prepping one for launch, but it’s hard to relate to human sizes in that sterile environment.

Now we’ve got an alternative. One of the first Sirius radio satellites was donated by SiriusXM Radio and Space Systems/Loral to the Smithsonian last week. The Sirius FM-4 broadcasting satellite was a backup for its three working satellites, which covered the US in an inclined elliptical orbit. The FM-4 satellite will be on display in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar of the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

“The availability of a flight unit like Sirius FM-4, which was never launched, is extremely rare and will be a significant addition to the museum’s collection,” said Martin Collins, space history curator.

John Celli, president of Space Systems/Loral, said, “It is an honor to participate in the donation of the original spare satellite, which we are pleased to say was never needed.”

The National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is in Chantilly VA near Dulles International Airport. Next time I’m traveling through, I’ll try to make time to take a look. Too bad they probably won’t let me touch it, even if I wear a bunny suit.

I’m deeply envious of Dennis C. Brewer. He’s written Build Your Own Free-to-Air (FTA) Satellite TV System, which is like the free-to-air beginner book that I had been promising myself to write for years. When I saw it, I asked myself, How did he do it?

The most important factor that Brewer no doubt employed was persistence. He did the work, he got the photos, and he convinced McGraw-Hill to publish it. That’s quite an accomplishment, and it shouldn’t be understated.

But another obstacle that I encountered when I was trying to put a book together was length. I mean, I’m able to explain all the necessary steps for setting up a FTA system in five web pages, maybe 10 if you count glossary and troubleshooting and all that. With this new book’s index, it runs over 260 normal-sized pages. So how did he do it?

  • A long chapter on tools and equipment. “First of all, do not let this chapter on tools and equipment frighten you away,” it begins, then it rolls through at least eight different categories of tools, illustrated by over 20 photos. Large pliers, small pliers, hex key wrenches, a keyhole saw, a tubing cutter, a drill and bolt gauge card, a reciprocating saw with assorted blades, circuit testers, a soldering gun, a multimeter, and a rivet gun. The chapter covers all of these, with photos, and I’ve never used any of them in my years of FTA satellite work. The tools I did use are also there, and at least the chapter begins its conclusion with “You might not need every tool covered here …”
  • The book takes a break for a broad list of some of the networks and stations that “you might find on FTA” including, for example, all those great old Equity Broadcasting channels that haven’t been on satellite for years and at least one call sign that no longer exists. The book is copyright 2012; maybe Brewer was working on it longer than that.
  • A very long chapter that painstakingly describes how antennas work, then thoroughly illustrates the step-by-step process of assembling a dish. I had glossed over this part on FTAList because each dish is a little different, but this was a good way to add pages. There’s also a shorter chapter that includes a great guide on how to crimp a cable connector.
  • Ten pages on satellite receiver selection, with each possible feature and what it means. Ten more on switches with charts showing how to set them up.
  • A chapter on aiming the dish and setting the LNB skew with a cute homemade device. I always go by the algorithm that you can’t get it perfect to start, but you just need to get it close enough to pick up signal, then adjust manually until signal quality is maximized. Other folks want to get it precisely accurate the first time. Maybe they’re right.
  • A chapter on picking up local over-the-air TV stations. See, here is the wisdom of a true author of books. When I was thinking about putting together what I know about FTA into a book, it never occurred to me to add a section about terrestrial reception.
  • Five chapters about choosing a TV set, hooking up FTA to your set and DVR and stuff, adding a speaker system, watching video over the internet, and “putting it all together” for a home theater. Wow. I never would have thought to include any of that. That’s why I had a pamphlet, and he has a book.
  • A chapter on installing a FTA satellite card in a PC. This one I had considered, but nothing like the 14 pages of detail this book devotes to the topic.
  • A chapter on mobile FTA installations. Now that’s fun, because I think it’s one of FTA’s best uses – something to set up in a dozen places during a long-distance RV trip.
  • No summary, but a couple of appendices. The first is Product Sources, but it doesn’t list dealers, and that’s what I think most folks need, not manufacturers. The second lists FTA web sites, and includes Lyngsat but not FTAList. That hurts.

So there you have it. I’m a little concerned that the book doesn’t mention choosing a site for the dish; it seems to just jump in with assembly and pointing without first checking line of sight. And I also wonder how many readers will buy the book and get started because of the now-bogus list of networks available on Ku-band FTA. But for most readers, if they buy this book and don’t get too scared by the tools list, they can put together a FTA satellite system.