I just want to watch tv!
November 26, 2010 7:14 AM   Subscribe

Help me fix my parents' ridiculous TV/DVD/Internet set-up. There are wires and boxes everywhere and they've paid for all this stuff, but they can't actually do what they bought it for.

I'm about as proficient with technology as most technology consumers in their 20s are, but since I don't own a TV, satellite, or free-standing DVD player, this is all new to me.

Here's what they've got:

Satellite TV service from Direct TV
a big screen TV that is not HDTV ready
a DVD player and recorder (HDMI)
a laptop
high-speed internet from Verizon
Netflix (now downgraded to the streaming only account since that's what they mostly watch)

Here's what they can do:
watch TV
watch DVDs
watch VCR tapes
watch streaming Netflix movies on the computer

record tv shows to DVD
record tv shows to VCR tape
use the computer in other parts of the house (it has to be connected to the modem)
connect other computers to their wireless network (it wouldn't let me previously when I put the key code in, and now they've accidentally thrown that away so I can't try it again. I couldn't even connect when I connected to their modem physically.)
watch streaming netflix movies on the TV

It seems to me that they should be able to do all of those things. The wireless internet thing I realize is sort of a separate issue, but I included it in case it impacts the watching Netflix on TV business.

Some notes from my mom:
They used to be able to use the internet in other parts of the house but now can't.
The guy who set up their TV/DVD/satellite told them that because their tv is not HDTV ready they don't have enough "red, white and yellow things" (input/output outlets, it looks like. I see an actual spare cord sitting there) to connect the TV to the DVD recorder. The connections I can see now are:

satellite box output to TV input (red, white, yellow plugs on both ends)
DVD player output to TV input (red, white, yellow plugs on both ends)
satellite box output to DVD input (red, white, yellow plugs on both ends)
VCR out to TV (one black cord with hexagon plug)
VCR in to nothing (one black cord with hexagon plug -- guessing that's why they can't record to VCR)
TV audio out to nothing

They are not super tech savvy so it needs to be a system they can use when I'm not around. Would also prefer they not have to buy a bunch more stuff/services if possible. (But I'd consider buying it for them for Christmas if it would solve a lot of these issues.)

Thanks, hive!!
posted by unannihilated to Technology (41 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
On the computer. - are you sure there is a Wireless network? Sounds like you need a Wireless Modem / Router rather than what I presume is a USD Mopdem plugged directly into the Laptop - and hence you don't have a WiFi network?

I think you really need to specify the exact models or all the inputs/outputs of these devices to get a sensible answer.
posted by mary8nne at 7:26 AM on November 26, 2010

What would be most helpful is if you could post photos of the input & output sockets of each of the devices.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 7:33 AM on November 26, 2010

I had the same thought on the wireless network, but as posted above, my mom said they used to be able to use the laptop throughout the house and now no longer can. Verizon just told them something vague about possible interference. The modem is Westell VersaLink Model 327W and the lights for both wireless and DSL are steady green. I will probably just call Verizon myself regarding this part.

If having specific models and input/outputs really helps anyone, I will post them...
posted by unannihilated at 7:35 AM on November 26, 2010

I will post pictures in a bit...
posted by unannihilated at 7:39 AM on November 26, 2010

You can probably reset the router to factory settings (which will reset the wifi password the to the default) and then re-configure the wifi from there. Contact Verizon for any specific settings required to get the router working.

And in future, write the wifi password directly on a sticky label on the router :)
posted by EndsOfInvention at 7:42 AM on November 26, 2010

if they're just using RCA composite input (the red,white,yellow cables) to the TV, you can get a fairly cheap switch to plug all the other devices into and then run the required output to the TV. I agre with EndsOfInvention, pictures of the input and output sockets from each device would be helpful.

regarding your wireless internet, are they using a combined DSL modem/wifi access point? you should be able to a hard reset on that and then sign in with the easily googleable default username and password and re-setup the wireless.

Once the wireless is fixed... does the DVD player support netflix streaming? if not, they'll need another setup box that would, and they can't go wrong with a Roku player, which would make an excellent christmas gift.
posted by jrishel at 7:45 AM on November 26, 2010

also, when you get this all cabled up right, you might want to get them a Logitech Harmony remote, and program it from them. then they just have push the "watch netflix" button and it will setup everything correctly, turning off the devices not in use.
posted by jrishel at 7:49 AM on November 26, 2010

If you're not particularly familiar with TV hookups, you might consider getting a service like the Best Buy Geek squad people to come out. I've successfully done these kinds of setups in my own home and those of friends, but this particular set of components has some challenges.

There are two upgrades here that might make life MUCH easier:

- a new TV. Newer TVs have gobs and gobs of inputs. The plumbing on this would be much easier if you could connect each component directly to the TV (and perhaps route the chosen output from the Tv back to the recorder(s), and quality would be better if you could route HDMI or at least the 3 cable video output from your devices.
- for Netflix, some type of Netflix player. Trying to do this through the computer is going to be harder to make happen, esp. if the TV doesn't have a PC input. The Roku, some of the newer Blu-Rays (which are also nice because they make DVDs look a lot better by upsampling them), etc.

If the DVD is a recorder, why don't they use that to record shows? That's what my dad does, and he's a guy in his 70s with an average amount of tech savvy. It's about as easy to use as a VCR, generally*, and most of them digest DVD-RWs which can be used over and over.

Working from the ground level up on the internet, 2nding - make sure they really have a wireless router, and the plumbing should be:

verizon modem plugged into router.
router could have a cable from it to computer, if it doesn't move around, or just enable wifi on the router and use EVERYTHING in the house wirelessly.
assuming the router you have is a wireless router, you realize you can usually do a hard reset on those and just start over on everything, right? Download the owner's manual from the router manufacturer. OTOH, if what you're really saying is that some access to the Verizon modem is hosed, then you're calling Verizon to get that reset.

*which isn't saying much...
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:52 AM on November 26, 2010

RE: using DVD recorder to record shows, part of my original question was that they said they couldn't get this to work. The guy from DirectTV told them they don't have enough "white, yellow, and red things." A friend of mine just told me that he didn't think it was even possible since the TV does not have an HDMI port.

RE: the DVD player supporting Netflix streaming...I don't think so. I was just looking on Netflix and the only DVD devices that support streaming seem to be DVDRs like TiVo. Their player isn't anything like TiVo, it just records stuff to DVD.
posted by unannihilated at 7:59 AM on November 26, 2010

Back of the TV
posted by unannihilated at 8:23 AM on November 26, 2010

Front of TV
posted by unannihilated at 8:27 AM on November 26, 2010

DVD Player and Recorder, Left Side
posted by unannihilated at 8:31 AM on November 26, 2010

DVD Player and Recorder, Right Side
posted by unannihilated at 8:34 AM on November 26, 2010

Whoops, forgot to link the actual pic...

DVD Player and Recorder, Right Side
posted by unannihilated at 8:35 AM on November 26, 2010

Satellite Box, Middle
posted by unannihilated at 8:42 AM on November 26, 2010

Satellite Box, Left
posted by unannihilated at 8:44 AM on November 26, 2010

Satellite Box, Right
posted by unannihilated at 8:46 AM on November 26, 2010

Just so you know ... don't assume that they'll be able to record DVDs even if everything is set up correctly. I once hooked up a DVD recorder to an AT&T Uverse setup and got messages saying that recording was not allowed.
posted by pmurray63 at 8:49 AM on November 26, 2010

On the TV you have:
Input 1 - this has audio (red & white) and composite video (yellow).
Input 2 - this has audio (red & white) and component video (red, blue, and green).
Unlabelled black cable - ???
Input 3? (front) - same as Input 1.
Looks like you also have a separate Audio Out (red & white) which presumably goes to some speakers.

DVD has:
Component video out (red/green/blue)
Composite video out (yellow)
Audio out (red & white)
Composite & audio IN

Satellite has:
Component out
2 x composite out

So in theory you should be able to go:

Satellite---[composite cable]----DVD----[component cable]----TV input 2
Satellite---[audio cable]--------DVD-----[audio cable]--------TV input 2
VHS----[composite cable]----TV input 1
VHS----[audio cable]--------TV input 1

This will let you watch satellite/DVDs via TV input 2 and record satellite to DVD, and watch VHS via TV input 1.

If you'd rather record on VHS for some reason you can switch the Satellite to going into the VHS.

The only downside is that the DVD does not have component IN as well as component OUT. Component is better quality than composite so you would get the best possible TV picture from satellite by going:
Satellite---[component cable]-----TV
However if you want a permanent set-up that allows recording you'll have to compromise on the TV picture quality.
Note, however, that you'll still get a decent picture watching normal DVDs as that will go directly from DVD to TV via component.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:52 AM on November 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

pmurray63, do you know why? Is it because of the cable provider, the network, etc.?
posted by unannihilated at 8:53 AM on November 26, 2010

Ends of Invention, I will give that a look/try...
posted by unannihilated at 8:54 AM on November 26, 2010

pmurray63, do you know why? Is it because of the cable provider, the network, etc.?

No experience personally, but I think it's down to the TV network not wanting you to record stuff (so you'll buy extra channels/buy DVDs/pay for on-demand stuff).
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:55 AM on November 26, 2010

I think they need to give up on recording things to DVD or VHS and upgrade their directv to a DVR (or just start paying for and using the DVR that's already there).

Neither will ever, ever, under any circumstances whatever, ever be able to record anything except what the directv box is currently watching. It will not be able to record what's on another channel, ever. It will not be able to record when the directv box is off, ever. Never ever ever. The short answer for why is that neither the DVD recorder nor the VHS have the equipment and decoders necessary to "tune into" the directv the way they used to "tune into" OTA or old-style cable. It's just not possible.

The only thing they ever do, ever, is make a copy of what they're watching right then.

The way the cables are set up right now *should* allow them to use the DVD recorder to record what the directv box is currently outputting. On the one hand, maybe they have the DVD recorder set up incorrectly; the only ones I've seen seemed like absolute bears to set up. On the other hand, they may need to do go into the setup menus on the directv box to allow it to simultaneously output to both composite outputs. On the third hand, they might need to do both things. On a fourth hand, directv may have set things up to render recording to DVD impossible.

tl;dr: There might be a way to set up the DVD recorder and directv box to play nice and record what the directv box is showing, but that is all that it will ever be able to do. It will probably be complicated and involve lots of messing with setup functions. Also, directv may have rendered it effectively impossible. There is no point trying to set anything up with the VCR because it will die sometime soon and be impossible to replace.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:12 AM on November 26, 2010

ROU: They know they can't do the old-style thing where you watch one channel and record another. They just want to be able to turn the **TV** off and record a show (like if it's on after they go to bed, for example). It is okay if the DirectTV remains on.

I know the VCR is very old technology, but they still have tapes that they watch and at this point it seems easier to use to record things than the DVD Recorder.
posted by unannihilated at 9:26 AM on November 26, 2010

If they could get the VCR recording to work either, that is.
posted by unannihilated at 9:26 AM on November 26, 2010

There is no point trying to set anything up with the VCR because it will die sometime soon and be impossible to replace.

You can still buy combined DVD/VCR players. Speaking of which it might be easier to get one of these, then you don't have to mess around with two separate boxes...
posted by EndsOfInvention at 9:32 AM on November 26, 2010

FWIW, most electronic devices have a lot more capability than owners employ. Getting all boxes to 100% feature utilization can be a challenge, once the number of boxes exceeds one.

Before you go off re-running cables, you need to decide what they want to do. Armed with that, set it up that way. Then, commit them never to touch it again, as it will malfunction and you will own the problem, as you apparently do currently.

As often as not, the chimera of a perfectly operating suite of AV gear that is simple to use, has all features accessible and enabled, up-to-date/not obsolete, and is easy to use is elusive.

I am trying to be kind, but what I really want to say is that folks who are competent running a checkbook are a lot more common than folks who are knowledgeable about a site/user specific system design. Even those of us who are usually forgo feature set for ease of use/hookup and rewire as needed for exceptional circumstances. Sounds like your users aren't in the latter crowd, so I'd get it to 50-75% of ideal and run like hell. That is, unless you enjoy doing it every year, for every new box, every time something breaks down, and every time the ISP decides to change something or every time mom rearranges the furniture and messes it up. It's not like this is life or death stuff. It's entertainment, (sic), and is just filler between now and death.

If you insist on achieving perfection... make a list of features on each box. Make a list of connections available. Get all the manuals. Study them assiduously and with great detail. Envision some operational scenarios and rank them in descending order of likelihood of use. Screen this last list for what is possible with the existing hardware and what is not. Resolve what is not via replacement of the pieces with shortcomings or else auxiliary boxes which patch the holes. Cable it up and test it. Once it's working as needed, photocopy all the documentation that you read and save it for the inevitable phone calls.

And for the coup de grace... try explaining how to use it all to your folks.
posted by FauxScot at 9:34 AM on November 26, 2010

Ends of Invention: What you see is what they have in terms of cords (except for an extra Red, Yellow, and White one laying around). You mentioned utilizing the composite cord for this part:

DVD----[component cable]----TV input 2

I don't see any cords like that laying around. Currently the DVD and TV are connected via red, white, and yellow cords from the output on the DVD to the input on the TV. Not sufficient?
posted by unannihilated at 9:36 AM on November 26, 2010

FauxScot: Yeah, at this point I'm about to throw up my hands and buy them a damn TiVo for Christmas at that does exactly what they want to do. They tend to do one thing and stick with it.

There is no Best Buy here (nearest is 40 miles away) or I would have just called GeekSquad or something similar.
posted by unannihilated at 9:40 AM on November 26, 2010

Oh, it looks like TiVo doesn't want with satellite service? For pete's sake, I had no idea watching TV was so complicated these days.
posted by unannihilated at 9:44 AM on November 26, 2010

*doesn't work with
posted by unannihilated at 9:45 AM on November 26, 2010

Independent AV stores will also do installs, you don't need a big-box store for that. They might even do a better job of it.
posted by mendel at 9:47 AM on November 26, 2010

I don't see any cords like that laying around. Currently the DVD and TV are connected via red, white, and yellow cords from the output on the DVD to the input on the TV. Not sufficient?

Yeah it shouldn't be an issue to use composite instead of a component in that link, although you can probably buy a component cable for like $5.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 10:26 AM on November 26, 2010

The only reason I suggested a component cable originally is that you'd get a better picture quality when watching regular DVDs.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 10:27 AM on November 26, 2010

I might post this one to craigslist, see if you can find somebody with some experience to tackle it for you.
posted by zug at 11:46 AM on November 26, 2010

If they really want to do this, this should allow the vcr to record what the directv box is outputting.* They would then watch tv by switching the tv to the input for the vcr.

(1) On the tv, remove the cables from the directv box going to the tv.

(2) Instead, run those cables to an a/v input on the vcr instead of the tv. There should be a set of yellow/red/white inputs on the back somewhere.

(3) Remove the black hexagonal cable from the tv and vcr and throw it away.

(4) Take another yellow/red/white set of cables and connect the vcr *output* to the tv input you removed the directv box cables from.

(5) Turn on the directv box, tv, and vcr. On the tv, select the input from the vcr. Then do whatever you need to do to the vcr to tell it to look at its a/v inputs instead of the cable input; how to do this varies. You'll know you succeeded when you get the picture and sound from the directv box.

(6) For this to work for time-shifting, they would need to tell the vcr, when they're programming it, to record from the a/v inputs instead of from a channel.

This is not a long term solution.

*Unless directv inserts pseudo-copy-protection into their signals. This would show up as a recording that was unwatchable because it kept rapidly going from very dark to very bright.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:21 PM on November 26, 2010

Unfortunately, this is one of the few exceptions to the adage, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

I would take the following approach:

1. Call DirecTV with a copy of Dish network's latest subscriber offer in hand, and haggle the customer service rep to upgrade my plan to a satellite receiver/DVR combo.

2. Buy the cheapest Roku available (unplug the VCR), and connect it the TV.

My parents existed in similar labyrinthine mess of cables and multiple devices for a long time, until my sisters and I did the above. The DVR helps my dad record his basketball games, but the real difference is their addiction to Netflix streaming via the Roku. They now view the VCR as an outdated, tiresome device that they do not have the patience for (they are both 62).

I know the VCR is very old technology, but they still have tapes that they watch and at this point it seems easier to use to record things than the DVD Recorder.

It may seem easier to use to record things; but for lack of a better phrase, the VCR has seen its heyday. Time to let it go.
posted by invisible ink at 2:07 PM on November 26, 2010

Thanks for all the suggestions. Just a few updates for anyone who may refer to this thread in the future:

Wireless internet problems are fixed:

Network key for Westell devices is on the bottom. When I stuck that in, my computer connected to their network just fine. They just had the wrong key. On my mom's laptop, there was a problem with the wireless network card. After uninstalling and reinstalling, it connected to the wireless network just fine.

They don't have any spare recordable DVDs around to test whether the current set-up/ the one Ends of Invention suggested would work to record. I'm looking into some fairly cheap cords/converters to hook computer to TV to watch Netflix, but I know the quality will be low.

To invisible ink (and everyone else): The more I've messed with and investigated this, the more I agree that a DVR + some sort of device to stream Netflix is the best solution. (And perhaps even upgrading to an HDTV to pick up signals over the air free, but I think there are sports and other things my Dad likes to watch that they couldn't get that way.) It looks like TiVo will have one that does both with DirecTV in 2011. I'll probably talk with them about it for Christmas. They actually have gone to DirecTV and tried to get more from them, but when they threatened to leave, DirecTV just connected them to an agent to disconnect the service -- i.e., they couldn't care less.

Since they invested money in all this equipment, I thought I'd give it a good try to get that working first before buying even more.

They really are not THAT attached to the VCR, I think they just keep going back to it because this DVD recordable thing is not working for them.
posted by unannihilated at 3:21 PM on November 26, 2010

(And perhaps even upgrading to an HDTV to pick up signals over the air free, but I think there are sports and other things my Dad likes to watch that they couldn't get that way.)

You just need a converter box and a pair of rabbit ears. or a bigger antenna if you have crappy reception, which you probably will because digital is a lot more finicky than analog TV and will simply cut out if the signal gets too noisy. Something like this (no idea if this one is any good, but this is the type of box you want).
posted by BungaDunga at 5:44 PM on November 26, 2010

BungaDunga: Though they have been complaining about the cost of DirecTV going up over time (they're lower income), I don't think picking up free HD would be good for them. They live in a semi-rural wooded area. When I checked out maps and info online about digital signal strength in the area, it looks like there are only one or two channels they could get and those are just the basic channels. I know for sure my Dad likes boxing which is on some cable channel. He's not good enough with the Internet to find sporting events online.

It's a good option to keep in mind for myself though, should I ever get a real TV.
posted by unannihilated at 7:14 PM on November 26, 2010

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