It takes an EE to spell gEEk

There’s a little known saying: when you have an electrical engineer, everything looks like it should be wired. I installed our ReplayTV and its broadband connection with a surprisingly minimal effort, though it initially didn’t start out that way.

Two months ago I was trying to build a Tivo-equivalent so I could watch Star Trek: Enterprise when I wanted. I got the basic set up recording video fine, but the missing link — literally — was a way to get the signal to my TV set. The PC card had only S-video output whereas the TV and VCR only took coax(*).

I had given up on the idea until ReplayTV had a promotion where I could get the unit with a 3 year subscription at a substantial discount. The ReplayTV didn’t take a wireless card, which would have made this really easy, so in anticipation of needing a ethernet connection near my TV set, I had elaborate plans to run twisted pair from my study through the crawlspace and into the living room. I supplied myself with a 500′ spool of cat-5 cable, a hub, a signal amplifier for the cable TV, 250′ of speaker wire, plus various connectors and wall faceplates.
This had the hallmark of a project going out of control.

Fortunately, there were two differences. First, because this did not involve plumbing, I had a reasonable chance of succeeding. Second, as the project got bigger, higher cognitive skills clicked in and realized I should draw this as there might be a simpler way to do all of this. Here’s the diagram:

The cable connection comes into the house in the garage (blue line) where it goes to an array of splitters and filters. The red line, for the cable modem, snakes along the garage wall where it goes through to the study and the computer. This is where my cable modem has been for the last three years. The other three green lines are for various connectors throughout the house: bedroom, play room and living room. We have only one TV, and that’s in the living room.

The initial, complicated way I thought of doing this was to run twisted pair from the study to the living room through the walls and under the house. It gets tricky near the study because it sits atop the concrete pad the garage uses, but it’s doable with my jedi-like fish tape skills. The primary advantage is I don’t move equipment.

The easier way becomes apparent when you look at the diagram:

and realize (a) cable’s already running to the desired room, (b) we have only one TV and (c) the machine in the study can take a wireless card. I disconnected the other two feeds, moved the split to the living room, installed the wireless router on top of the TV assembly (out of sight), and popped a wireless card into the PC in the study.

Benefits:

  • Project was completed in an hour, including re-soldering the speaker wires going to the play room
  • Wireless in the living room is crystal clear now 😉
  • Cable reception is better because we don’t split it.
  • The study doesn’t have a morass of wiring.
  • Before plugging in the ReplayTV, I replaced its 40Gb disk with the 200Gb hard disk out of my Freevo project and ran the Replay TV disc copy utility. This increases recording time from 13 hours (at highest quality) to 66 hours.

    I was nervous when I had to reboot the ReplayTV during the installation process, though the message boards say it’s not uncommon for the network stack to die on the installation. It was otherwise a flawless setup. The first true test came last night when we were watching the incredibly gory Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror and my daughter came down for (insert excuse here) — just hit the pause button with the knowledge we can resume later. Later, I was browsing its programming segmentation setting it up to record strange things throughout the week. My only gripe so far is the remote is pretty weak or has a very narrow beam — I have to align it very well.



    *Okay we’re luddites. When we buy something, we go for the middle tier — after thoroughly considering the repair history— because we expect to use a product until it irreparably breaks. For example, our TV is over 13 years old, stereo 16 years, CD player 14 years, and the VCR 11 years old. Although I’d wanton consumer lust for one of those sexy flat screen plasma TVs you can put on the ceiling, they’re just not a priority. Besides, I don’t want to be an early adopter of HDTV.

    18 thoughts on “It takes an EE to spell gEEk”

    1. St. Heave of the Wandering Focus

      Do the new Replay’s have fans now? I have a very very early model (hint: I am not paying a subscription) and during the summer months I tend to unplug for various amount of time, or better yet train a small desk fan on the unit to keep it running. Ah the perils of being an early adopter.

    2. I won’t comment on the general geekiness of the article, but I see you finally came over to the dark side of DVRs eh? How’d you manage to bring the wife over to your side on this one? She seemed pretty against it a few months ago…

    3. > Do the new Replay’s have fans now?

      Yes. It’s a fairly noisy unit, all things considered. I have the 5504, which is a fairly large unit. There’s a spot (but no power/drive connector) where a second hard disk could be added.

    4. > How’d you manage to bring the wife over to your side on this one?

      The price was too good to pass up, and it included the service, which I think was the sticking point with the TiVo.

      The difficult part will be augmenting our cable subscription from “basic” to “expanded” to get all the additional programming I never watched because I didn’t have time to find. 🙂

    5. Choosing between a Tivo and a Replay based on price is like choosing between a Ford and a BMW for the same reason. If you’re choosing for price, you’ve probably never driven a BMW before 🙂

    6. > Ford and a BMW

      You’re right.

      It comes down to what’s important to you. There is an interesting article in Fast Company that talks to the quirkiness of customers and their brands. For example, while I bought the ReplayTV on price, I don’t hesitate to shop at PCC (the local Whole Foods Equivalent). (Another sign I’ve aged: I’ve also been drooling over the Duet washer and dryer With two kids, we do a lot of laundry…)

    7. Choosing between a Tivo and a Replay based on price is like choosing between a Ford and a BMW for the same reason. If you’re choosing for price, you’ve probably never driven a BMW before 🙂
      —-

      Heh, as a BMW driver and a TiVo owner – I have to agree! (course, my BMW is probably cheaper than most fords and the TiVo was a low end Target close out before hacked into proper form)

      The stand alone units are going away anyway (TiVo has stopped making them and Replay with chapter 11 again). They’ll be standard features built into cable/sat/hd tuners soon enough. So it’s good to snap one while you can since the 3 year service will tide you over till then.

    8. Well, Jim, since you described how you installed your Replay TV, here’s a full descrption on how I installed my Tivo:

      1. Bought Tivo/DirectTV combo from Circuit City
      2. Came home, plugged in power, hooked to TV
      3. Called DirectTV, game serial number of new card
      4. Opened beer and watched television

    9. > Bought Tivo/DirectTV combo

      Coolness!

      > Opened beer and watched television

      Fair enough. The lengthy steps required were because:
      a) As long as you have known me, I have never done things the easy way.

      b) I wanted to put a broadband connection near the TV. I could have also gone with just a modem.

      c) I was upgrading the ReplayTV from 40Gb to 200Gb (essentially 13 to 67 hours at high quality). I would have done the same thing with a TiVo.

      c1) I was doing this with Microsoft XP, which required some extra steps because the OS isn’t equipped to deal with large block addressing.

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