I now have 5 HDTVs in my house and exactly zero SDTVs. As HDTVs replace the SDTVs in your house, it gets incrementally more expensive to provide a HDTV signal to your TVs.  In the old days, if your TV had a cable ready tuner in it, all of cable's programming was made available to your TV.  Then cable introduced "digital" channels which could only be accessed by a set-top box at each TV but you could still get all the local stations and such without paying more than your basic subscription price.  With HDTV, no HD content is available without a set-top box, not even the local HD channels that you can pick up with rabbit ears.

This presents me with a problem.  I've bought HDTVs as my SDTVs needed replacing and I cannot use them to their fullest capabilities without forking over a mind boggling $79.75 per month in set-top box fees.  This has lead me down the path of figuring out how to get cable TV either out of my life for good or in a position where I can watch HDTV without the massive rental bill.  If I'm going to spend $1,000 in rental fees over the next year getting content to my TVs, I'm willing to spend $1,500 on a solution that would free me of the large never ending rental fee.

 Here's how I plan to do it.

As I did more research into the matter, I've come to the conclusion that I can do what I want to do for about $1,800.  That's a 20 month break even point by doing raw math.  Consider that three of the TVs don't have DVD players and at least two of the TVs (in the kid's rooms) will eventually need game systems and our $1,800 expenditure really feels like $1,400 (2x$199 for Xbox 360s) which is in the right ballpark for a roll your own solution.  Prior to this year, rolling your own DVR solution wasn't possible.  CableLabs, the certification authority for all cable equipment wouldn't give anyone but OEM system builders access to the necessary CableCARD technology required.  As a result, whole home DVR systems remained in the $5,000 range which makes renting 5 set-top boxes from the cable company an easier price to swallow.  The alternative simply wasn't there.  It is now.

For my home, I'm moving to a headless Windows 7 Media Center server with 5 Xbox360s serving as HD capable set-top boxes.  There are other solutions from Apple and in the Linux world but today, the only operating system capable of decoding the encrypted QAM signal that comes from your cable company is Windows 7.  (Vista can do it as well) The server machine will have the following components:

  1. Intel Core i3 550 3.2Ghz Clarkdale processor and Intel H55 motherboard. ($199.99)
  2. Corsair 8GB DDR3 1333MHz RAM ($139)  
  3. ATX Case w/650watt PSU ($99) (I'm putting the server in a closet so it doesn't have to be terribly quiet)
  4. Hard Drives Western Digital  (3x$79)
  5. Incidentals such as case fans, DVD burner, etc, etc. ($50)
  6. Ceton InfiniTV 4 Quad CableCARD tuner ($399) 

Total System Cost: $1024 ( I can save $99 by reusing a case and power supply that I already have.)

 At each TV, I need an Xbox 360.  Since I already have one, I need 4 more.  The 4GB models will do perfectly fine for this and casual game play.  Each of those are $199 and readily available at any Best Buy.  I’ll admit that I am concerned about RROD issues.  It’s a risk that this setup brings with it because I’m not convinced that the Xbox 360 can handle the rigors of daily multi-hour uses without breaking down.  Additionally, I’ll need Xbox 360 Media Center remotes and I have to upgrade my Xbox Live account to the $99 /year family pack.  In the end, I’ll have a whole house media servers and five extenders, though I might simply use the AV capabilities of the i3 processor and directly connect the PC to my theater.  That’ll depend upon the performance that the other TVs receive while I am using the box in the theater.  If using it as a HTPC is too much, I’ll simply use the Xbox360 extender instead.

Xbox 360 Media Remote (4x$16)

HDMI Cable (4x$2.50)  Monoprice.com to the rescue.

Total System Cost: $874 + $1024: $1,898

UPDATE: I managed to get a Xbox 360 4GB for 149.99 this weekend so I'm already ahead of the game by $50 bucks.  I'll update this post as I purchase the rest of the components and will create a new post when I actually get this setup working later this year.