Cutting the Cord : From Infant to Teenager

Over the past few years I have heard about so many people that have cut the cord and got rid of traditional cable TV, this seemed like a great way to save money but could my wife and I really do it and not get annoyed? Also would it really save us alot of money? Spoiler : We save about $115 a month but it could be more.

Over the next few paragraphs, I will take you through my journey from all in with xFinity to only paying them for internet and using multiple services and pieces of hardware but having a rather good experience.

Over the next few post I will break down the cord cutting into a few areas that you may only need a few pieces of so to help it will be in a few articles.

Overall our experience has been smooth but took alot of time and research to make it fit for us.  We are still learning as we go but for over $100 a month worth of savings

Cutting the Cord : Switching to Internet Only

This part is two fold. First its the experience of actually telling Xfinity that I was done.  This wasn’t too bad but just stick to your guns.  I could not do it online and had to call them and she tried to figure out what other packages I could use, even acting shocked when I said we had never picked up the land line we used to have but only had it because it was cheaper with a triple play than with a double play.  Once we got past the part where I constantly turned down the extra offers we got to the point of figuring out what internet only plan I wanted.  My current plan was for 200 mbps, which for most people was probably fine but was going to be about $80 a month anyway.  I asked what they had better, after I had already researched online but I gave her a shot.  She claimed she could only do a 400 mbps or a 600 mbps.  I politely inquired about a gigabit service I had heard about, “oh well we could do that but you would need a new cable modem/router” Since I spend the $10 fee every month to rent the router from Xfinity this seemed like something that should not have been an issue.  I spoke with her a little longer and found out that gigabit to my house was $115 a month.  Since I have all my smart home components plus we planned to only stream this seemed like a no brainer. It did require them to come install it which was more so they could configure it to the house but that was actually handy because I could turn in all my old cable boxes to the technician and didnt have to ship them.

Everything was going well with the install but after a day or two of testing I found my Ubiquiti AC-LR access points could just not handle the speed well for me and needed an upgrade.  I have been a big fan of the Ubiquiti gear but it is expensive, this was when i found the Google Wifi mesh network.  For $249 for a 3 pack on Amazon I figured I would try them and worse case return them.  I was very happy with them.  The install took less than 15 minutes and they are tucked away and hardly noticeable.

I did add the CloverTale outlet wall mount that was $10 just to make things easy. I will say that this is engineered very well The cable coils completely behind the mount and it hands from my outlet without any problem at all.  I expected this since I have similar for my Amazon Echo Dots .

Overall I have been very happy with the google wifi.  I switched the Xfinity wireless off and am running all my devices through the Google Wifi, it makes them very easy to manage, including port forwarding, DHCP, DHCP reservations, custom DNS and all from an easy app.  I did find that the range was good for my house (1200 sq ft.) however I did end up adding 2 more access points to extend the range for our deck and for our outdoor cameras.

Cutting the Cord: Streaming Service Selection

Probably the most important part of making this decision was making sure we could still watch the things we wanted.  I did trials with Sling, PSVue and DirectTVNow.  While each of them had rather decent interfaces and some channels, I had a few criteria that needed to be met:

  • Provide access to major networks (Be warned that no one had CBS yet)
  • Good Interface on Amazon FireStick, Apple TV and Mobile
  • Game Show Network (We watch a lot fo Family Feud when just sitting around)
  • DVR Functionality – O later determined I didn’t need this but more on that to come.

All seems pretty simple except PSVue didnt have GSN, Sling had it but it was an extra plan.  In the end I ended up with DirectTVNow for everything except the DVR function which Sling didnt have either.  What DirectTVNow did have was a free Apple TV 4K if you paid for 4 months upfront.  I had to use one of the old gmail tricks for this however.  My account is not my basic email but rather I used a + in my email since gmail ignores that.  I normally would not need to do this but the free AppleTV was for new subscribers only and if you have done the trial it wont work.  I didnt have to have the new AppleTV but one of mine was a version 3 and could not get apps so this seemed like a good reason.  More on the AppleTV in the next blog.

Cutting the Cord: Whats on the TVs Now?

Traditionally you either just plug the TV right into the cable or most likely a cable box, but since I dont have any of those, I needed to determine how we would watch TV.  I have five places I needed to worry about this, Living Room, Master Bedroom, Spare Room, my office and when I am traveling (since I can get local channels now) I am going to detail each one because they each had their own challenges although they have all been overcome now

Living Room

I have a Samsung Smart TV in the living room, I assumed this would be the easiest but the DirectTVNow app isn’t on it so I needed to add some other device.  Since I had the new AppleTV 4K this was the logical place for it.  I wanted to be able to control it all just like I had in the past so i hooked everything up and reprogrammed my Logitech Harmony Hub.  This let me turn everything on from my Amazon Echo as well since the Harmony Hub is configurable to it. I did have to factory reset the hub however but that could have been the combination of changing Wifi and lots of configuration changes.  It really was pretty simple and lets us use the Apple TV or the Smart TV although its pretty much always on the Apple Now.

Master Bedrooom

This one should also have been simple, I have a newer generation Vizio however I do not have a Harmony Hub in here and had been using an older Logitech Harmony non IR remote.  This meant that I could not control the Apple TV 4th Gen that I moved in there.  I found out thanks to my friend Nick over at DatacenterDude.com   that he was able to turn his TV on and off from sleep mode with his Apple TV remote.  I looked into this a bit and it just requires you to turn on CEC on the TV and find the device.  Keep in mind that most TV have this but many of you went a little cheaper have it disabled and you cant use it.  I was lucky and it works great. I simply hold down the TV icon on the remote and it puts everything to sleep and when I click on the touchpad it wakes up again.

Spare Bedroom

I expected this to be the hardest since its a small, old and cheap TV but it had an HDMI port and I had a Amazon FireStick I could hook to it.  This worked great to access the apps and watch things but I ran into the problem that I did not have CEC.  After a little searching I found a universal remote that clips on as a replacement to the back of the FireStick remote, it was on Amazon (of course) This did the trick, now I was down to a single remote in the spare room and it was easy for guests to navigate.

Office/Traveling

I am combining these two because I only need one at a time and the requirements seemed close.  In the office it was easy, I would just connect my laptop to my larger monitor, I can login to the DirectTVNow website and I can view TV.  The extra challenge was when i was traveling.  I have tried things like taking an AppleTV but they didnt work at hotels that required a website login.  This is where the new FireStick is amazing.  Anytime you are at a hotel you simply connect to their wifi and if you need the website login, then it will pop up and allow you to enter your required info, then you are online.  It is small as well and will power off the USB on the back of the TV.

Cutting the Cord: What about a DVR and Local?

This was one question that I really wasnt sure how I was going to answer or if I would find a good answer but then Plex Premium came to the rescue again.  One of the add ons for the premium version is the ability to stream live TV and act as a DVR.  All that was required was a compatible TV tuner.  I have not used a TV tuner on a computer since the early days of XBMC and quickly realized it wasnt worth my hassle, but this time was much easier although I did have one mistep along the way.  I started by looking to use a small USB based tuner, the Hauppague WinTV-DualHD. This is a fine device if you are running things on a Windows 7 system or something consumer level, but since i have my server running on Server 2012, I found out that the drivers were not compatible and I could never get the system to do anything but recognize the device.  It did that fine but then would not find any channels.  Keep in mind this is for over the air TV only and will not work well if you are too far away from the antennas.  That being said there are some very long range HD OTA antenna available today.  So since I could not get any stations, i returned that device.

The reviews on the Plex site spoke very highly of the SiliconDust HDHomeRun devices, but they were a bit more expensive.  I opted for the HDHomeRun Extend.  I could have probably gone with a lower end unit but with hardware transcoding and compression built in, I felt like I would get better use and efficiency.  I wasnt quite sure what to expect form this device since it has a power cord, an ethernet jack and a coax connection for an antenna.  I did the initial setup for it and it picked up an IP quickly and to my surprise, the Plex server saw it almost instantly over my LAN.  From there it was just setting a few configuration on the settings screen in Plex and I had a program guide and Recording schedule added to my manage screen.  The recording options are limited but gives you the basics you need.Once you get your shows selected it gives you a nice interface of what will be recorded, and they all go into a TV Show folder you have created.  You will also notice that I get CBS shows this way.  I dont have to miss out on any of the shows I enjoy just because they wont let me stream them with any of the services.

Overall the Plex DVR is incredibly easy to setup and about $150 more to get configured, I look at it that what I save every month, even with all my purchases it will take less than 6 months to get all my return.

Keeping the Nest warm in the winter time

This one probably goes without saying but the Nest Thermostat was one of the easiest add ons for the home automation setup.  They manage to work with just about every system out there and it does exactly what it says.  That being said there are a few things to be aware of.  #1 if you have a rectangle standard thermostat you will probably want to order a surround or wall palte to use to cover up the screw holes, unless you plan to patch the walls anyway.  I went with this one http://www.amazon.com/Round-Wall-Plate-Nest-Greenfii/dp/B00T3TEPT6    Connecting it into our system did have a problem on switching what was heat and A/C  If this is the case call support.  They were fantastic and we determines that the back panel actually had one bad pin.  They sent me a new one within days and we had it all set up and working.

Nest

Since we have had it installed I have been asked once to reset it but they did that via email to let us know so they could do a firmware update.  Overall very easy and the ability to change the temperature from anyway has been great.  This is probably the one piece of electronics that I have added that my wife picked up on right away.

I can see clearly now.. Wink (ing) fully

IMG_0140With now my fifth hub that I have worked with I am now so far able to control almost everything (Waiting on you Sonos and Xfinity).  I picked up the Wink Hub from Home Depot for $49.99 (If it rings up at $69.99 check the shelf) which comparably is not bad at all since it does allow alot more functionality although you would think the much more expensive Relay would give you as much also.  That being said, so far I have been happy with the integration options on the Wink Hub.  As you can tell I have most things through the app now.  Cant do the alarm from XFinity or the Camera but those are integrated on their own app.

The biggest problem I had with the Wink Hub was getting it updated.  The app will continually tell you that you need an update until you are past version 0.89.  Interestingly they tell you to basically get it as far away from your wireless router or access points as possible.  The problem I have is I like to not have dead spots in my house so I have wifi that covers the house.  To get around it, I ended up setting up tethering from my iphone and then joining the Hub to my iphone and using my ipad to get it to update.  Once I did that I had no problem with it.

The integration with the Lutron lights did take a little work, although it might be easy if you do a fresh install.  If you had not done a fresh install you will have to remove each switch and Pico remote from the Lutron hub as well as reset the switch before you can join it to the Wink App.  Also you will not link the remotes specifically to the remotes via Lutron.  You will have to redo that in the Wink app.  It took a few minutes but overall not bad at all.

I also added a couple of the GE Link LED bulbs.  These needed the update as well but I have them set as a group so I can turn two of them on at the same time.  The one issue I have with these is that I have to leave the light switch in the on position all the time for the app to be able to manage them and since my wife is not fully set up, that means I will hardly use them via the app.

Another plus of the Wink Hub is that is is integrated with the Amazon Echo.  I had friends over and was able to say “Alexa turn on the living room lights at 50%” and the reaction from everyone was that it was pretty cool.  I would prefer if it was integrated with the Apple HomeKit like the Lutron Hub so I could use Siri from any room and not need to be in the vicinity of the Echo but I am also almost all Apple at this point so itsjust easier.  if you had Android or PC this would not work as well.

The next thing I added to the Wink App was the ability to run Robots.  These are essentially If This.. Then That for the Home Automation.  One example is that if I come home anytime after sundown but before midnight it will automatically turn on the entry lights for me.

IMG_0142IMG_0141

Maybe just Wink a little.. with the Relay

I have been admiring the look of the Wink Relay for quite sometime as I have been looking at home automation.  How great would it be to have a touchscreen on the wall that is convenient and be able to control everything without bringing out my phone but i didnt like the high cost of a unit that seemed to get mixed reviews.  I finally found one for a decent price on a trip to Home Depot and decided to give it a try.  The look of it is exactly what i expected, very slick as you can tell from the picture.

IMG_0138

I did have to try it in a couple places and had some install issues.  First off if you have a 3 or 4 way plug it wont work because you cant add a remote tot he buttons.  If you are using smart bulbs you are fine i would guess but i have lots of 3-way switches, in fact I think I only have 9 places in the house that are not 3-way.  Three of those are bathrooms so that seems weird, one is my guest bedroom that I dont really want a guest to have to try to figure it out, my office and then I have 3 spots for closet lights.  The next issue was the buttons wont work as dimmers so I cant put it anywhere that I want to be able to dim the light, that eliminates my office.  Since the option seemed to be one of the closet spots, luckily the master bedroom had a decent spot for it.  I installed it and right away had problems.  The push in connectors it comes with were never getting a good connection.  I ended up pulling them off and using normal electrical connectors that I had.  Once I did that I got good connection.

IMG_0139

Next came the issue with functionality, I was able to get the closet light working fine which by the way only uses the top button, if you replace a double switch you can use both but i just replaced a single.  You tap it on and off which is not a big deal.  I was able to tie it into my Nest without problem as well as my garage door.  It also shows the weather nicely and connected to the app without any problem. (Will show the app in the next step..)   The problem came when I tried to connect it to my Lutron dimmers that run the lights for the rest of the house.  This requires the Wink Hub also.  The Relay is pitched as a home automation hub on your wall but according to a reply tweet from @Wink it only has 1 antenna while the Hub has 6.  So began the search for Hub #5

Connected Garage-yes please

This one seemed like a no brainier although I am sure some would disagree.  The argument seems to be that why would you want your garage to be opened over the Internet? For me it was simple, I still needed a username and password and our garage is not connected to the house so it isn’t a home security concern. Also with the app and the xfinity integration I could have the door opening when on my motorcycle without having to stop and find the garage remote.


The setup was rather easy, add the MyQ Internet Gateway (it wants to be hardwired) and download the app.  Once downloaded you just tell it to discover and press a button the the wall panel. That’s it!  Then you can set alerts to tell you when it is open and even to close the door if it has been open for too long.  Overall this was is easy to recommend.

Hub #2 Lutron 

So this was the one that was really needed first.  We have some can lights that I wanted dimmers in and the only ones that worked with the Xfinity were the Lutron Caseta but for them to work you need the Lutron Caseta Wireless Smart Bridge. The nice part is you only need the basic bridge and not the Pro that I had heard many other alarm systems need. This is a nice small box that I was able to put out of the way and it does not need to be right beside your router. In fact it doesn’t even need a wired connection it just connects via Wifi to your network.  

This one also has its own app that you need to configure the lights on.  It is supposed to work with the Lutron blinds also but I haven’t added those yet.  

  
Adding lights and setting scenes is very easy and can be done either schedules or manual.  The ones listed I set manual. 

The downside so far to this was that it only works with the Lutron switches and no other Zigbee or Z-Wave devices, so now I am limited to only what they offer.