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Cutting the Cord with a Raspberry Pi 3

10-9-18



Scissors Cutting Cable If you've been paying attention these days, you know that it's increasingly harder to find a DVR that will record Over-The-Air (OTA) TV without subscription fees to some online service. This is in addition to the $170 to $400 cost of the DVR. Being the cheapskate that I am, I wanted to see how cheaply I could do this. So, at the beginning of August, I spent a couple of weeks cutting the cord using a Raspberry Pi 3. That's not exactly true. I don't pay for cable. What I actually did was attempt to use a Raspberry Pi 3 coupled with a Hauppauge 950Q model 72001 TV tuner to watch and record TV and watch Netflix and other things online. The results were mixed.

I spent a large portion of my time researching and looking for workable software. The choice of operating system was easy. I went with OSMC for the Raspberry Pi 2&3, because I had already tried it and found that it works well. It didn't cause the Raspberry Pi 3 to baulk or mp4 videos to stutter. And it has a lot of great plugins and skins, because it's based on Kodi. Internet articles refer to nearly twenty different DVR software packages. DVR software was absolutely necessary, in my mind, because I have been spoiled by Netflix to the point that I will no longer watch live TV with advertisements. My criteria were that the DVR software must run on the Raspberry Pi 3 (which requires Linux compatibility) and be free (and no subscription fees). Most DVR software is not Linux-compatible. The requirement that the software be free eliminated SageTV, which no longer has a free programming guide. In order to program my DVR software to record TV in advance, I would have had to sign up for a service that charges a monthly fee. I eliminated MythTV, because I tried to install it a year or two ago and found that I couldn't understand how to get it to work. The setup procedure involved a lot of terms that I didn't understand, and I couldn't get sufficient help online. That left TVHeadEnd.

Despite all the talk online of TVHeadEnd, I found that it was very difficult to actually get my hands on. Many articles I saw referred to TVHeadEnd being in the Kodi repository, but I couldn't find the server part of it there. TVheadEnd uses a client and server that can both run on the Raspberry Pi 3. A lot of "TV media box" software in general no longer includes DVR software. It seems that a couple of years ago DVR software started quietly disappearing without any explanation. It just isn't in the old places online. And no one is saying why. My guess is that there is some crack-down going on by the movie industry to remove individuals' ability to pirate movies with Kodi. But I have not been able to link the disappearance of DVR software directly with this. After a lot of searching, I finally found the TVHeadEnd server software in the OSMC "App Store" under "my OSMC"/"shopping cart" in the OSMC menu on my Raspberry Pi 3.

Eventually, I successfully installed and set up the TVHeadEnd server on my Raspberry Pi 3. This took several installation attempts. The server kept locking me out of its web interface--after I had set it up, logged out, and tried to log back in, because I didn't understand the way TVHeadEnd administrative account permissions work. You also have to be careful to hit the "log out" button and hit the "new login" button to log back in. Otherwise, you will not be able to log in again, and you will get no error message explaining why. You have to install a driver for the Hauppauge TV tuner, and there are online tutorials that explain how. There are also several other tricks involved in the TVHeadEnd installation, like you have to grant anonymous access for a non-administrative account on the TVHeadEnd server setup webpage and use the actual Raspberry Pi IP address assigned by your router in the TVHeadEnd client setup, not the default 127.0.0.1. The TVHeadEnd client is a OSMC plugin (addon) that can be installed from within OSMC. The details of installing and setting up the TVHeadEnd client and server are long--really long--and outside the scope of this article. I think it is sufficient to say that this may take quite a bit of time. There are several detailed guides written by third parties online that help a lot. None is complete, so I had to read several to get the complete picture.

Now, for the important part: how well does this all work on the Raspberry Pi 3? First, I found that the Hauppauge TV tuner got so hot that I thought it wise to cool it with a fan to keep it from overheating. It is never a good idea to let anything electronic overheat, because its life can be shortened significantly. I also put the Raspberry Pi in a case with a fan, because I have found that when it gets too hot its CPU slows down, causing performance problems. I was able to get the TVHeadEnd Electronic Programming Guide (EPG) working and was able to use it to schedule recordings of TV programs in advance. However, TVHeadEnd wants to record for a set amount of time. It won't automatically record for just the length of the TV program in the EPG. At least, I couldn't figure out how to get it to do that. I could also manually start and stop recordings while I was watching a program without using the EPG. Another problem is that the EPG requires an internet connection. For some reason which I can't even imagine, you can't use the over-the-air programming guide. This is how most of the DVR hardware and software manufacturers trap you into paying a monthly subscription fee. Also, this makes me suspect that either Kodi or TVHeadEnd is logging and sending to a central server a record of every TV show that you watch or record. This is creepy. Why can't someone figure out how to get TVHeadEnd to use the OTA TV programming guide? Anyway, it turns out that I was only able to record Standard Definition (SD) TV stations. Due to processor limitations, there are glitches in the SD video that you see on your computer screen while you are recording, but the recordings come out okay. However, when I tried to record HD TV stations, the Raspberry Pi 3 processor just couldn't handle it, and it locked up. I could watch HD TV just fine, as long as I didn't try to record. Also, when I set up the TVHeadEnd server, I had to tell it to record on a particular USB stick. When I tried using a different USB stick later, I found that I had to give it the same label (using gparted or something else). Otherwise, TVHeadEnd said it couldn't find the USB stick it was expecting to record on. By the way, OSMC has no problem playing mp4 movies on the Raspberry Pi 3.

There is a long procedure for installing software for getting Netflix on OSMC on the Raspberry Pi that I did'nt try. This was for two reasons. First, Netflix is very picky these days about what browsers and operating systems it will run on. It limits itself to only a few. And Netflix takes up a lot of CPU power. I have also noticed that the Raspberry Pi 3 has difficulty just surfing the the internet. I just didn't believe that it was worth the effort of setting this up only to fail in the end.

The bottom line is that, due to the Raspberry Pi 3's limited processor capabilities, I failed to create a working DVR that could record OTA HDTV without a subscription fee for just the cost of a Raspberry Pi 3 ($40 with case) and a Hauppauge 950Q TV tuner ($43 used on ebay). However, it was a partial success, because I could watch SDTV and HDTV and record SDTV with this setup.

I ended up solving the problem and cutting the cord using my core-i5 laptop. I installed Linux Mint 17, Kodi 18, and TVHeadEnd from the Trusty repository on a USB stick. Setting up TVHeadEnd on the USB stick was just as hard as it had been on the Raspberry Pi. However, after plugging the USB stick into my laptop, I was able to meet my requirements of watching and recording OTA HDTV without a monthly subscription fee and watching Netflix (outside of Kodi, with the Chrome browser). The fact that either Kodi or TVHeadEnd or both are likely logging everything I watch on some central server somewhere does bother me. I wish I had an alternative that didn't require an internet connection to schedule TV program recording in advance. The total cost of this solution was $50 ($43 for the Hauppauge TV tuner and $7 for a USB stick).



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