Cancel Your Cable and Still Watch Great TV

Debra and Mervin James are pioneers. They are braving the Wild West of home entertainment by canceling their paid TV service and getting all their shows, movies, news and sports through their computer.

In the 16 months they've gone without paid TV, they've saved $1,488.

The savings are there for anyone with a broadband Internet connection, but it takes a bit of do-it-yourself spirit and some patience -- because the Internet TV revolution is a work in progress.

Think of these tips as a starting point for your experiment -- like a recipe that gives you a rough idea of all the ingredients, but acknowledges that you need to figure out the exact measurements for yourself. Every home Internet TV setup will differ, so I'll try to technically explain how the Jameses did their Internet TV system, and you can use it as a guide.

The Jameses are sports fanatics with a 52-inch HDTV to prove it. In the past, they paid $115 a month for satellite TV service. To cut costs, they ditched the satellite dish and bought a $600 HP Media Center computer. This is a small computer with a big hard drive, special hardware that connects the computer to an antenna -- rabbit ears for receiving over-the-air TV broadcasts. For playback, the computer utilizes Windows Media Center which comes standard with Windows Vista Home Premium and Windows Vista Ultimate.

HP Media Center PC

Let's start with their HP Media Center PC. With a wireless keyboard and mouse, this is a "regular" computer that browses the Web and lets you write documents and send and receive e-mail.

The Media Center program, which is available on any computer that's running Windows Vista Home Premium or Windows Vista Ultimate, allows the computer to organize and control all the different audio, video and pictures that come into your computer.

There also are add-on programs and hardware you can use to transform an existing computer into one capable of receiving TV signals and recording shows like a DVR. But upgrading your computer to become a media hub is a very involved process, and even for an experienced computer user it has some pitfalls.

Using their Media Center PC, the Jameses have three ways of getting video on their computer:
The over-the-air antenna picks up free high-definition TV broadcasts and plugs into the back of the computer.
The broadband Internet connection also plugs into the back of the computer.
The Blu-Ray DVD player built into the machine lets them play high-definition DVD discs.

Over-the-Air Antenna

Remember the days before cable when you had rabbit ears that sat on top of the TV? That antenna picked up the free live broadcasts from television stations in your area. Those broadcasts still are happening, and as of Feb. 18, they will be exclusively digital with some channels even transmitting in high definition.

When you think of antennas, you think of channels that fade in and out with a snowy picture. That's not how over-the-air digital TV broadcasts work. It's an all-or-nothing proposition: You either get a crystal-clear signal or you get nothing at all.

The Windows Media Center program allows the Jameses' to plug the antenna into the back of their Media Center PC and watch TV (some in high def) from ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX and PBS. There are about 50 channels they can receive in the San Francisco Bay Area, including some independent channels and alternate language broadcasts.

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