The XYZs of TV for RV

Avoid slow wi-fi and expensive data plans with off-line viewing.

Don Cohen Don Cohen  |  09.17.2016

(This story has been updated).

A while back I wrote a widely read story on how we set our Navion up for watching TV.  I talked about off-the-air and satellite solutions.  But, increasingly our home television viewing habits have been changing.  Rarely do we watch anything in real time (outside of sports and news).  Everything seems to be either recorded on our DVR (Tivo) or streamed through either our Tivo or AppleTV.

In making our Navion our home away from home I added a roof mounted satellite dish (Winegard Mission RT) and a Dish Network receiver.  I also added an AppleTV the mix.  Additionally we have a coach RV audio/video system (Jensen) that plays DVDs, but I’ve yet to play one with it.

The problem with streaming

These days, streaming is where it’s at and it seems endearingly quaint to remember the tedious minutes of indecision peering across the shelves of a Blockbuster trying to figure out the evening’s entertainment.  But here’s the problem – streaming on the road is a challenge and it can be very expensive.

In the dozens of campgrounds we’ve stayed at over the past several years you could count on one hand the ones that had good enough wifi to handle a video stream.  Almost all campgrounds prohibit or physically restrict you from streaming across their wifi system as they’re just trying to make sure all their guests have at least some basic e-mail and web surfing capability.

If you have a data plan through a cell carrier then, depending where you are, you may be able to get a good 4G or LTE data signal that can handle a big data stream.  However, that can be very, very expensive as a two hour movie can chew through 2-4 gigabytes of a data plan.  If you’re lucky enough to still have a legacy unlimited data plan this may be less of an issue.  However, many carriers quietly start to limit your bandwidth speed on these types of plans.  Sure it’s unlimited. . .but. . .you’re. . .going. . .to. . .wait.

So if you have an AppleTV, Roku, Chromecast, or Fire streaming player it can be pretty hit or miss if you want to fire up for an evening of streaming TV viewing.  If that doesn’t happen there’s always the fallback option of a book.  But wait! In this moment of entertainment despair there is an answer.  It’s called off-line streaming and it has opened up new options and flexibility for evening viewing.

The better answer:  off-line downloads

The two most popular subscription streaming services are Netflix and Amazon.  Amazon was the first with downloadable (offline) viewing and now Netflix has joined the party.  Additionally some cable providers such as Xfinity (Comcast) are starting to offer downloads.

It starts with a Netflix subscription at $7.99 per month or Amazon Prime subscription for $99 dollars a year.  I’ve been a Prime subscriber for years specifically for the free two-day shipping.  We use Amazon for a huge variety of purchases and it’s always my go-to vendor for RV gear.  For us the free shipping alone is worth it.  But now, with our Prime membership the access to movies and TV shows is the whipped cream and cherry on top.  We also have a Netflix account and while there is some overlap between Amazon and Netflix, both offer different fare and an increasing selection of top-notch original programming.

You might have to pay a rental fee for the latest movie release on Amazon (like you do on services such as cable pay-per-view or iTunes) and more than likely these are available for streaming only. However, there are thousands of programs available for offline viewing that are included for NO additional charge with your Amazon Prime subscription — notably many top HBO and PBS series.  Similarly, Netflix offers older movies, but also many new TV series and made-for-Netflix programs.

You download either Netflix’s or Amazon’s free iPad app (they also have an Android version through Google Play), log into your account and start browsing their extensive catalog.  Each service will indicate what programming is available for downloading.

Amazon DownloadI watched a two hour Amazon movie take five minutes to download via our fast cable connection at home.  Though the videos are temporarily stored on your device the files do eat up memory storage space.  A rough estimate is that you need about one gigabyte of storage per hour of downloaded video.  If you’re downloading a bunch of shows and movies, you’ll want at least 32GB of storage.  I have a 64GB iPad and with music, photos, and apps I have about 20GB of free space.  When I’m done watching a program, I simply delete it to free up space for future downloads.

The Netflix files downloaded faster and I soon found out why.  While the Amazon files play back on your TV at full screen size (more about this below), the Netflix downloaded files play back on about 2/3’ds of the screen meaning that the viewing image will be floating with a wide black border on your TV.  Nonetheless, the program is still highly viewable, just not as theatrical.  (I did find that any content that you stream from Netflix does fill an entire HDTV screen, just not the downloaded ones).  What you trade off for smaller external screen size is quicker downloads and the ability to store more programs.  This may be of additional benefit for traveling RVers who have to rely on campground wifi or are carefully watching their cellular data plan.

You do need to think ahead before you leave on a trip and decide what and how much to download.  Both the Netflix and Amazon apps allow you to download a batch of programs so, while you’re home and connected to fast Internet, you can queue up programs to download overnight or during the day when you’re doing other things.

And while Amazon and Netflix have the most extensive selection of programs, there are emerging alternatives.  For instance, if you’re a Comcast customer, their app also allows downloading of selected movies and TV shows for later playback.

Connecting to your TV

Any flat screen TV with an HDMI input will work.  And of course you can choose anything you’ve downloaded to watch directly on your tablet (headphones really make a difference in the experience!).  Some TVs have multiple HDMI inputs.  Using your TV remote you can select the proper input. Ours only has one input and that’s where the satellite is plugged in.  Instead of cable swapping I bought a simple HDMI switch that senses if there’s a signal running through the cable and switches to the input device.

Ipad and screenIf you already own a late model AppleTV then there’s the option of keeping your AppleTV connected to your flat screen and wirelessly beaming a video from your iPad.  I’ve tried that with limited success.  For a variety of reasons it can be finicky.  That’s why I’ve come to the much lower tech solution of using an HDMI cable.

The iPad doesn’t have an HDMI output, but Apple makes a $39 dollar adapter that has both an HDMI jack and a power cable pass through so you can charge your iPad while you’re watching.

lightning_hdmi_digital_av_adapter_heroYou can pick up an HDMI cable just about anywhere.  I have generally found the best price on decent cables are from Amazon.  In a pinch on the road I ran into a Best Buy and it irked me to spend nearly $20 dollars for a six foot cable that I could have bought on Amazon for about four bucks (think ahead Don!).  HDMI cables are generally pretty thick and can be a bit unwieldy.  I found a nifty 15’ foot ultraslim cable for $18.49 on Amazon.

The long cable allows us to move the iPad around at different locations in terms of where we’re sitting.  Just for grins I connected my iPhone 6S using the Apple HDMI adapter and a test download from Amazon played back perfectly in hi-def.  While I don’t own any Android devices, my research indicates that they would work in a similar way with the proper cables and connectors.  An added bonus is that you can also view, display and edit photos and videos from your phone or tablet with the benefit of viewing them on a larger display.

One happy camper

I have yet to find the perfect one-button, no-hassle, no wires solution to playback media for the road.  I’m a little closer to ultimate happiness at home, but the technologies I use aren’t practical for adaptation in an RV — especially a compact one like our Navion.  Sometimes simple is better.  And the rather low-tech solution of attaching my iPad via a cable to our flat screen television has proven to be easy, convenient, and surprisingly satisfying.


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21 Comments

  1. Janet P. Posted on 09.18.2016

    Those are some great ideas Don! I did not know Apple had a HDMI adapter. We did a sample test at home hooking up our AppleTV to our TV in our View. It worked fine. We do have iPad’s and iPhones with 32-64 gb of storage so we could try the adapter and see how that works. If we are going on a short trip, we will get a few movies from our local library. The usual loan time is 1 week, but if there are no holds on the movie they will let us keep it up to 2 weeks. I usually have some books on my Kindle app also.

  2. evan Posted on 09.24.2016

    Why did you buy an RV in the first place if all you’re going to do is watch TV…wasn’t the idea to get away from it all… TV cell phones Netflix cable internet… and be a family again

  3. Terry Duffy Posted on 09.24.2016

    Hi, I have a 750 GB Macbook Pro. I know I can hook up the computer to my TV via HDMI but how would I download the vidio from Amazon to my computer? Not yet an Amazon Prime member. Thanks Terry

  4. Lewis Edge Posted on 09.24.2016

    Thank you, Don, for your thoughtful suggestions and sensible comments. During the past four and a half years of traveling more than 35,000 miles in my Itasca Sunova motorhome, I have not found a single campground with Wi-Fi that was robust enough to stream uninterrupted video. Many campgrounds also have crummy low-resolution analog cable TV.

    For those who’ll are living in a motorhome full-time, as my wife and I soon plan to do, downloading videos at home for viewing on the road will not be an option. As you’ve already noted, streaming videos via a 3G or 4G cellphone network can be prohibitively expensive.

    Here are a couple of alternative solutions:

    1. Adding a hard-drive to our motorhome’s DISH satellite receiver for a one-time $40 activation fee, plus the cost of the hardware, enables us to automatically record and store movies in HD for convenient playback. The main downside is that DISH requires that we pay for gobs of channels we will never watch in order to subscribe to their commercial-free movie channels, but it still costs less than our FiOS Internet plus TV at home.

    2. Redbox has tens of thousands of automated retail kiosks, often in grocery stores where we’re food shopping. There we can rent a $1.50/day DVD or $2/day BLU-RAY disk for an evening of viewing but with the hassle of returning the disk promptly to avoid extra charges. That’s still cheaper than an evening at a movie theater.

  5. TJL Posted on 09.24.2016

    Instead of iPad or Android tablet, download Amazon Prime movie to laptop which probably already has an HDMI port and has loads more storage. My laptop conveniently fits in the cabinet where my HDMI connection to TV is located. I load my laptop with movies from Amazon and other slightly irregular sources before each trip.

  6. Don W. Posted on 09.24.2016

    Great article! I thought I was being clever by using our AppleTV and beaming with AirPlay from my laptop, with both devices connected to our own WIFI router. It worked great for one night. The next night it stopped working 1/2 way through the show and the computer could not find the AppleTV. Sometimes simple is best. I’m going to connect directly like you. Thanks especially for the idea about the HDMI switch!

  7. Ray Posted on 09.24.2016

    Thank you for your useful information.

    We are full-timer RVers with Android smartphones and Amazon Prime but no Apple TV. Our RV has a home entertainment system with satelliteTV. The satelliteTV’s output HDMI routes as input to a receiver, and the receiver routes to the TV’s HDMI input. The receiver audio output is routed to surround sound speakers. Therefore, the TV serves as a monitor for the receiver, and the receiver drives the audio system.

    What do you think about connecting Android smartphone HDMI output to receiver’s HDMI input as a means to view Amazon Prime movies on home entertainment system?

    1. Don Cohen Posted on 09.25.2016

      Ray,

      If your Android tablet either has an HDMI output or can use an HDMI adapter, you should be in good shape downloading and then playing back any kind of video content. The HDMI cable also carries audio so it will play through your sound system. Think of it as taking the place of a DVD player in your system.

  8. Edwin Irving Posted on 09.24.2016

    Excellent, concise and clear. However, I am not sure of the application for an HDMI switch. (Using your TV remote you can select the proper input. Ours only has one input and that’s where the satellite is plugged in. Instead of cable swapping I bought a simple HDMI switch that senses if there’s a signal running through the cable and switches to the input device.) where is this situation applicable? Home? Motorhome – we have a View? Thank you. Ed

    1. Don Cohen Posted on 09.25.2016

      Yup, you figured it out correctly. Your View, like our Navion, has only one HDMI input so to eliminate tedious cable swapping, an HDMI switch is the way to go. Other RVs with flat screen TVs (like those you find in most residences) usually have 2-4 HDMI inputs so you simply run a cable from one of the TV inputs to your tablet, computer, iPod or phone. Then you use your television’s remote to switch inputs.

  9. Hal Posted on 09.24.2016

    The new Apple TV OS update fixed the airplay issue. It now connacts easily and stays connected. And yes people watch TV and movies while camping. Get over it Evan.

  10. Elizabeth Eversman Posted on 09.25.2016

    Another very helpful idea from you in our years long Apple collaboration, Don! I just ordered the adapter (“used” ones are cheap on Amazon), and the HDMI cable. I have been downloading Amazon movies onto my iPad at campgrounds. At 2-3 mbps where I am in Great Falls, MT, right now it takes awhile, but if I start in the morning it’s done by evening. I might even use my TV now!

  11. Charles Hardin Posted on 10.03.2016

    Don, we have a 2017 Navion V24 that we have been trying to equip for our future travel needs so far we have installed a three panel solar array, and a 250ah AGM battery bank. We will upgrade our inverter to the 1800w version before we set out next summer.

    Since you have the “ABCs” of TV, we just purchased a King tailgater with Wally receiver I was wondering what is required for both tv’s to pick up the same channel. I know that for each tv I will need 2 receivers to get different channels. Enjoyed your article, we have purchased a hdmi cord for the iPad Pro and are busy downloading on Amazon for the winter. Thanks for the great work.

    1. Don Cohen Posted on 10.04.2016

      Charles,

      First of all it depends on how your back TV is hooked up. For ours, I paid an additional change fee to have an HDMI cable wired to the rear (something that needs to be done in construction). Most back TVs in the View/Navion have a component only cable which reduces the hi-def picture to lower res and crops the image. Unfortunately, the Wally doesn’t have component out – only HDMI. Now if your back TV does have an HDMI cable that runs to your TV cabinet in the front, you’ll need to get an HDMI splitter box which can send one signal to two screens. This is a $21 box that I bought from Amazon that has worked well: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00LIQY0G0/ref=oh_aui_search_detailpage?ie=UTF8&psc=1

  12. Dudley Loomis Posted on 10.05.2016

    Don
    My wife has an extensive library of Movie and TV Series DVDs (over 550) and has always wanted to be able to take them on the road as we travel. Previous investigation showed available solutions to be cost prohibitive. Then this last January I found a solution that worked perfect for us – a software tool (makeMKV-$49) to copy the DVDs to a computer hard disk and a media player (PLEX-free) that uses the library from disk to build a graphical library and play the movies.
    The software tool uses the copyright specification that allows you to make a “backup copy” which avoids any movie right infringement. The PLEX media server operates independently from the copy process and is legal for your use to “play” the media.
    The real bonus is that the PLEX media server function is free and it supports multiple devices including iPads, iPhones, Samsung TV and PCs. PLEX does charge a nominal fee ($4.99) for the apple device players.
    I purchased a 5Tb external USB HDD and copied the movies to the disk. Our laptop then acts as the PLEX Media server and builds a graphic display of all the movies which can be searched and selected for play. The PC based server includes the player too. I then hook the laptop via an HDMI cable to the 4x Matrix system in our coach. This puts the display onto the TV and selection and play is done with the PC mouse. Everything is offline and requires no internet or cellular service.
    makeMKV – http://makemkv.com/ PLEX Media – https://www.plex.tv/

  13. Lisa Posted on 10.08.2016

    I’m a Prime member and haven’t yet delved into Prime Video. Will be doing this for my trip to FL next month. So far (just 2 trips to the same place) I’ve not had issue with AppleTV wirelessly but I’ll likely get the adaptor to be on the safe side.

    I’m also interested in Youtube Red because I subscribe to various Vlogs (gosh I hate that word for some reason)…. Unless I can find ability to do that free.

  14. Caleb Cissna Posted on 12.03.2016

    Don,
    Did you look into Netflix’s new download service? Thoughts?

    1. Don Cohen Posted on 12.04.2016

      Just tested the Netflix service and have updated the article. It works well, but there are some tradeoffs that I mentioned in the update. Definitely a big step forward!

  15. Karen Posted on 12.17.2016

    Just throwing this out there… AT&T customers who also have DIRECTV can stream through their DIRECTV app without it counting against their data usage.

  16. Charles Hardin Posted on 12.31.2016

    I read your first article and purchased the lighting/hdmi adapter for my iPad Pro, was blown away by how easy it was to download on Amazon Video. It will only download 25 movies. We did this before heading south. When we got to the USCG station in Marathon they had “free” wifi. For all the places we have been “free” actually means better than nothing or the same as nothing. At the Coast Guard station we have better than nothing. First movie we tried to watch did nothing but load, our solution was to get off the wifi and turn on the Verizon broadband. The movie came up immediately and played the same as wifi at home, I kept checking my usage and by the end of the movie my data usage was the same so at least less than 1 mb. So I have not found your solution for true offline viewing. We have a 2017 Navion 524V. We have tried to equip the coach for long term dry camping with a three panel roof solar system with a 250ah AGM battery bank. We use a Wally receiver with a King tailgater antenna, I have noticed that with Wally off I hear my dish moving through the night? Thanks for all the good info.

  17. Mia R Posted on 01.03.2017

    GREAT article! I love the “hints”. For the gentleman that wrote, “Why did you buy an RV in the first place if all you’re going to do is watch TV…wasn’t the idea to get away from it all… TV cell phones Netflix cable internet… and be a family again”. Let me tell you- with three little ones on a rainy day(s) you need to stay inside and watch TV! AS A FAMILY!