Build your own DVR and get free HD TV

For about 4 years, I subscribed to DISH Network.  I subscribed to the bare minimum package that gave me the local sports channels (e.g. Comcast Sports Network).  This was primarily so I could watch Cal football games (Go Bears!), however I recently decided to cancel my subscription because it cost almost $60 a month, and it turns out that my family doesn’t really watch TV that much.  We had put the service on DISH Pause for 6 months where they just charge you for the DVR rental fee of $5 (still a ripoff), and during those 6 months we never even managed to finish watching the movies we had recorded during one of the free Starz weeks. The lack of a good Cal quarterback prospect also diminished my appetite for watching Cal games.

The one thing we did like about having DISH was just that we had a DVR. We still wanted  to record kids shows from KQED, the local PBS station, and recording some TV shows, movies, or NFL games from the broadcast networks would be a plus also.  Sure, a TiVo DVR would be nice, but then you still have to pay a monthly fee. So, the challenge was to get a DVR setup that could record from the local broadcast networks without having to pay any monthly fees.

My solution was to setup a home-theater PC with Windows 7, and use its Windows Media Center as a DVR to record over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts from local stations. Here’s how I did it:

1. Buy a nice antenna

Terk HDTVa Indoor Amplified High-Definition Antenna for Off-Air HDTV Reception

Many people aren’t aware that local broadcast stations have over-the-air (OTA) HD signals that a tuner can pick up.  If you have good reception, then you can get an HD quality signal comparable to HD service from DISH or DIRECTV.  From my house in the SF Bay Area, I manage to pick up clear signals from the local ABC, NBC, FOX, CBS, and PBS stations (KGO, KNTV, KTVU, KPIX, and KQED). Having the amplified antenna made a big difference.  Without the amplifier, my signal quality dropped a lot and I can’t get FOX or CBS.

2. Buy a tuner

SiliconDust HDHomeRun Dual High Definition Digital Television HDHR3-US (Black)

This converts the antenna signal to something with which your PC will know what to do. I liked the HD Homerun because it connects to the antenna and then to a router Ethernet port. Connect your PC to the same router (either wirelessly or wired), and your PC will find the tuners so that Windows Media Center can record shows from the OTA broadcasts. Having the signal sent through the wireless router makes it so you don’t need the antenna and the PC in the same room (unlike some tuners which require USB connections to the PC).

3. Buy the computer

ZOTAC ZBOX-AD03BR-U PC Barebone System

Technically, you could buy pretty much any PC that runs Windows 7, but there is something to be said (and in my case, it will primarily be said by my wife) to having the PC look nice when it’s in the living room.  The Zotacs are built a lot like laptops, but in a living room friendly form factor. They’re pretty quiet too.

Since I got the barebones system (no memory, no hard drive), I had to purchase those separately. My advice would be to max out both. The most annoying thing in the world is a DVR that runs slowly due to lack of memory or which runs out of hard drive space.

Seagate Momentus 750 GB 7200RPM SATA 3Gb/s 16 MB Cache 2.5 Inch Internal Notebook Hard Drive -Retail Kit ST907503N1A1AS-RK
Crucial 8GB Kit (4GBx2) DDR3 1333 MT/s (PC3-10600) CL9 SODIMM 204-Pin Notebook Memory Modules CT2KIT51264BC1339

Also, you’ll want an HDMI cable, a wireless keyboard, and perhaps a Windows Media Center remote:

BlueRigger High Speed HDMI Cable with Ethernet (15 ft) – CL3 Rated – supports 3D and Audio Return [Latest HDMI version]
Logitech Wireless Touch Keyboard K400 with Built-In Multi-Touch Touchpad (920-003070)
Windows 7 Vista XP Media Center MCE PC Remote Control and Infrared Receiver for Home, Premium and Ultimate Edition

4. Install Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 64bit

Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 64bit (Full) System Builder DVD 1 Pack

The Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate all include Windows Media Center, so any version except for the Starter is ok. After the installation completes, you will have to do some setup the first time you run Windows Media Center. This will involve configuring it to find the HDHomerun tuner, scanning the airwaves for the local channels, and configuring the TV schedule to show the channels you’re interested in.  All of these steps are described in the HDHomerun documentation.

[ UPDATE Feb. 2014– I’ve gotten a few questions about whether or not you should use Windows 8 for your home DVR instead. From what I’ve heard, you’re better off sticking with Windows 7. Apparently Windows Media Center with Windows 8 doesn’t offer any improvements, and Windows 7 in my mind will have less hardware and software compatibility issues with other items you may be using. Read more: Is it worth upgrading a media centre to Windows 8? ]

I pretty much bought everything off of Amazon.  The no shipping and no California sales tax (btw Amazon starts charging sales tax in CA in Sept. 2012) made stuff cheaper there than anywhere else.

There obviously are other alternatives – such as the open-source MythTV, and Google or Apple could always come out with something that sweeps the world, but my setup has no monthly fees and is relatively straightforward for those who are ok with installing Windows 7. Plus, I still have the ability to skip commercials during my favorite network TV shows. And now I can stream YouTube videos, surf the web, and do email from my TV, none of which I could do with my old DISH Network DVR.

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