Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Le Geek, So Chic

Christmas time is almost here, which means things are busy. CJ's birthday is Friday (he turns 4 and is very excited about it), then Tom's birthday is less than two weeks after Christmas. I almost have all the shopping done. I know it isn't CJ's or Tom's fault that they were born so close to Christmas, and I know I'm not going overboard, but I'm sure it will seem almost obscene once I get everything wrapped.

This past weekend we put up the Christmas tree, and CJ had a grand time helping us put up the ornaments and a star. Now he wants a tree for his room, and another tree in some unvoiced location. He just decided this morning he must have three Christmas trees. He also wants a lion, a fire engine, a rocketship, a cowboy, and blocks for his bath.

I've been getting into the holiday mood by cooking and baking. A couple weekends ago, I baked a chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream frosting and several batches of oatmeal raisin cookies. I've also cooked large pots of beef stroganoff, chili, and chicken and dumplings. Later this week I'll bake CJ's birthday cake (spice cake with cream cheese frosting) and I'm sure I'll make some more warm comfort food. I plan to spend part of next week making gingerbread cookies with Christopher since he asked. I've never done homemade gingerbread, but it should be fun and I can't wait to have my boy help me with cutting cookies and decorating them. It's been cold and rainy--not as bad as folks back East are seeing, but cold for the desert. CJ wants to see snow and a fireplace and snowmen. I might need to turn on the YuleLog on TV on Christmas morning!

Speaking of TV, I recently stumbled across a site called CancelCable.com that gave some wonderful information on how to cut the ties with the cable company and access TV in other ways. Some are old-fashioned, others are new-fangled, but it opened my eyes overall to how much I have been paying for my entertainment.

See, I get cable. I have for a while. I used to have a satellite dish but it came loose during a monsoon season and we could never get it aligned just right after that. I got tired of coming home to find "Attention: Acquiring Signal" on every channel. Shortly before CJ was born, we got a TiVo Series 2 with DVD burner and lifetime subscription that I loved dearly until it died. I haven't buried it yet. It sits in my linen closet while I decide whether to buy a new hard drive for it.

After the TiVo died, I got an dual tuner HD DVR from the cable company and fell in love again. Oh, how fickle I am! I like shiny things. I especially like shiny things in HD. But I read the site and started thinking about what I actually watch versus what I pay to watch, and I realized I wasn't getting quite the deal I thought.

See, I thought I was being frugal for eschewing the premium channels, but getting the "free" tier of movie channels. I never watch them. If you include football on Sundays, when the TV is on for about 9 hours for all the games, we watch about 30 hours of TV a week. Most of that is recorded via DVR and watched later (except the football games, which we watch live). It roughly equates to me paying $1 for every hour I watch. That seems like a little, but not enough of a deal for me.

Spurred by my reading of CancelCable.com, I decided to reevaluate the situation based on what I had. I have an XBox 360 that can run as a Media Center Extender. I have a PC with a TV tuner running Windows Vista Home Premium with Media Center. I have a wireless-B network that I need to upgrade anyway. I got an over-the-air digital antenna to hook up to the PC and enabled Media Center to watch live TV and record. I got a new router that I need to hook up, and a couple of plug-in ethernet adaptor to create a wired network--they use existing electrical cabling to carry the signal. Once I get that done, I'll finish setting up the XBox as an extender, which will let me watch live TV or recorded TV from my PC elsewhere in the house.

To replace my other cable channels, I'll use Hulu.com and Netflix streaming (a membership with Netflix costs less than $10 a month, significantly less than my cable service). Some shows I can catch on YouTube or on the network website.

I did have to invest in some of the infrastructure for needed upgrades, but the Circuit City stores near me are closing so I got great deals on the equipment. Plus, I'll recoup those dollars quickly once I cancel the cable service. I plan to do that shortly after Christmas, after I make sure my network is setup correctly.

One interesting thing I learned--I knew that HD signals are compressed through the coaxial cable due to bandwidth. The picture was nice enough that I didn't realize how much degradation that compression causes until I went over the air. The difference is incredible! I feel like such an idiot since I didn't know one could catch HD signals over the air. I thought you had to have some sort of converter box. Maybe it was my confusion from when HDTVs were really HD Monitors, and you had to have a converter box for the signal. I didn't know my TV could display the signal as sent without any help.

It will be a fun project to complete over the holidays. Most of all, I'm just looking forward to some time off and spent with my family instead of at the office.