3 Ways to Get Your Money's Worth from Cable TV


Use it or lose it is what they say about fruit, milk, and cable TV. Unless you're a vegan or feed lots of mouths, the larger chunk of the family budget likely goes toward your cable subscription. A typical household can easily spend some $1,000 a year on cable TV channels. But unlike the money paid for a new TV set, what do you have to show for paying last month's cable bill? This month's cable bill!

So, considering the unremitting drain on your resources, you might be interested in ways to increase the value of what your cable dollar buys. One way is to record and stockpile as many shows as you can, assuming someone in your household will eventually watch them or will want to watch them again. Even if you have only one HDTV set, you'd be prudent to arm it with a dual-tuner digital video recorder (DVR). Two tuners enable you to record programs from two different channels at once, even while you're watching something completely different that was recorded earlier. The most advanced set-top boxes rented by cable companies come with about 160 Gigabytes, sufficient for storing perhaps 20 hours of high-def shows. That's not a lot considering how many new and returning series, movies, and sports events vie for your attention every day.

Increase Program Storage

To accommodate new recordings, older ones are deleted whether watched or not. Why put pressure on yourself to play viewer catch-up when you can simply plug an external hard drive into the cable box and warehouse multiple episodes of favorite shows?

Western Digital's My DVR Expander and the Iomega DVR Expander each add 500GBs or 60 hours of high-def storage to Scientific Atlanta 8300HD DVR's available to subscribers on some but not all systems operated by Time Warner Cable, Cablevision, Comcast, and others. Expanders come with an eSata cable for connection to the leased DVR. They also work with a TiVo HD, HD XL and Series 3 DVR's. Check to see if your DVR is compatible with one of these expanders before making a purchase. Self-installation is mainly a matter of powering down your DVR, plugging in, and powering up the DVR and external hard drive together. Keep in mind that you won't be able to move the external drive to another device without losing the recordings.

Western Digital My DVR Expander
                        Iomega DVR Expander

Buy a Better DVR

Stepping up to more storage raises the question about whether you'd be better off owning your DVR, namely a TiVo HD or HD XL. Their advantages over a leased cable box include the ability to set recordings from an Internet-connected computer, mobile phone, or Blackberry; access to a more robust and easier to search program guide that learns what you like to watch and can record shows without asking; and the ability to leapfrog commercials in 30-second increments. You can also watch YouTube, designate season passes to download video podcasts from the Internet, record over-the-air broadcasts, play music and photos from a networked computer, transfer TV shows to your computer, and rent movies from Amazon or music from Rhapsody. The downside of TiVo is that you won't have access to the cable company's video on demand channels and you'll need a TiVo subscription in addition to leasing a CableCard from your cable company. (Card rental is cheaper than leasing a DVR.)

TiVo DVR HD Digital Video Recorder

Attach a Place Shifter

You can greatly leverage your TiVo or leased cable DVR by attaching another component called a place shifter. Popularized by Sling Media's Slingbox, a place shifter borrows the analog video (component video for best quality) and stereo audio outputs for encoding into an MPEG stream that is sent through your home network. (Pass-through outputs transmit unaltered video and audio signals to your TV.) An infrared blaster from the place shifter lets you control the DVR from a virtual remote on a computer screen in a different location. The computer could be in another room or, if there's broadband Internet access at both ends, another continent.

The upside of this arrangement is that you only need to buy or lease one DVR to support screens in more than one room. If you have your notebook in a hotel, you can watch anything you'd be able to see (live or recorded) as if you were on your own couch pointing the remote. Why add movie pay-per-view charges to your hotel bill when there are plenty of programs accumulating? You can also watch the home team and local news. If you have a vacation house, you can get double use from your year round home's cable or satellite TV subscription. If you're traveling on a plane or bus that offers Wi-Fi access, you can watch your home TV in your seat. One caution is that if someone is watching TV at home, he or she may not take kindly to having the channel changed by your unseen hand. Of course, if no one is home, it seems wasteful that you're paying for all those unviewed channels. A place shifter helps you get the most value from service you're already paying for.

The most capable place shifter is the Hava Titanium HD WiFi from Monsoon Multimedia. It works with an Ethernet jack or Wi-Fi and can "broadcast" to multiple PC's on the same network as well as to one computer over the Internet. The included player software turns each computer within a home network into its own DVR. You can capture still images from any show, and you can use the computer's recordable DVD drive to burn discs from programs you've saved on the PC's hard drive. (DVR and DVD burning functions are disabled when using the Hava software to place shift over the Internet.)

Monsoon HAVA Titanium HD Wi-Fi TV Place-Shifter
              Sling Media Slingbox Solo Internet TV Broadcaster

Sling Media's Slingbox Solo Internet TV Broadcaster is less capable than Hava. Its shortcomings include screen captures that result in black holes, the exclusion of a Wi-Fi link, and the software's lack of DVR or DVD burning capabilities. Still, Sling Media's player software has the advantage of being compatible with Windows and Macs and many mobile devices. And unlike Hava, Slingbox is easy to install and nearly glitch-free to use.