MythTV on an old Dell Laptop

The Past

A few years ago I tried to build a MythTV box.   Which obviously meant playing around with Linux.   (For those who haven’t heard of it – MythTV is basically a software program that makes your PC be like a PVR.)   Back then, it was my third time playing with Linux, so I knew the basics, but after a month of trying to get my TV card (homebrew drivers!), graphics card (never seemed to work right), wireless card and networking (what!  text files calling iwconfig!?!?), sound card (ALSA?), TV Guide and other stuff working, I just gave up.  It was just too hard.

I was spending hours configuring text files for X and networking and other things without really knowing what I was doing…  I was trying to get Linux to work by Googling.    I really think a lot of this stuff should be able to be configured without having to go to the command line.  I know it may sound totally noobie, but why does Linux have a plethora of text configuration files?   It’s been around for so long, you’d think someone would have made it easier to use.

Anyway, just recently my old Dell Inspiron 630M laptop’s Windows install got corrupted, so I thought – why not try and make it a MythTV box for playing videos now that my PS3 is out of service for a while.

After all, things should have improved in 4 years right?   Yes… and no..

Installation

To save time, I looked for a distribution that was tailored with both the OS and MythTV.   I decided to get Mythbuntu, downloaded it, burnt the ISO onto a CD, popped it in and rebooted.  No problems – it came up with the Live CD version of the OS and asked me if I wanted to install the OS onto the Hard Drive.   I said yes and was pleasantly surprised with the usability improvements in the setup.   The partition tool worked with no problems, I just had to choose easy things like timezone and user account name.

Thumbs up to the Live CD concept.

MythTV Initial Setup

But once it came to MythTV configuration, things went too hard again.   This time I have no TV card, so that’s one thing to not worry about.   But lately I’ve converted a lot of the kids’ movies onto an external USB hard drive.   I want to be able to play the movies off that in MythTV.

Unfortunately, in MythTV’s initial configuration, I was faced with ’Videos’ Storage Group Directories with a default setting of /var/lib/mythtv/videos.   To the average user – what the heck is that?   Why isn’t there a folder picker here?   What is the path to my USB hard drive?   Why can’t my USB hard drive be picked up automatically by MythTV?

After some mucking and googling around, I found that it could be something like /media/USBHDDName but made a mistake and ended up with just a / as the path.   And I could not figure out how to delete my wrong entry.  I tried the Delete button, Backspace button, pressing Space for the menu.   Only after more mucking around did I find that the “d” key was to delete it.

Looking through the General Options, some settings are self explanatory like “TV fomat” and “Your Local Timezone”, but unfortunately most of the settings require detailed Linux or MythTV knowledge.   I mean, what is EIT Transport?   And all the commands like “Backend Stop Command”, “Commercial Flagger command”, etc are all Linux commands that a Linux newbie would have absolutely no idea.

MythTV Setup

After rebooting with my USB HDD plugged in, I found that it didn’t seem to be found at all in MythTV.    Quitting MythTV, I started a Terminal and ran “mount” and it seems my USB HDD wasn’t mounted.   Huh?  Is Linux that dumb?   I booted with the USB HDD plugged in, and I can’t access the files on it.   Even running Terminal and running mount is something no typical user should have to do.  (Funnily, the first thing I did was press Ctrl+Alt+F1 to get a terminal window. )

I googled around for automatically mounting a USB HDD and came across suggestions for adding entries to /etc/fstab.  Now – that is definitely something a user should NOT have to do either.    And editing the file using the default Mythbuntu text editor of Mousepad will not work either.  Users will need to use sudo to edit a system file like /etc/fstab.

In the end I did find another workaround not requiring any command line interaction – quit MythTV, double click on the USB HDD icon on the desktop which seemed to mount it and then restart MythTV.   Or, just plug in the USB HDD after Linux had booted up!

The other inconsistency I found on my first use – the directories for videos in the initial MythTV setup did not appear in the MythTV Setup itself (under Utilities/Setup -> Setup -> Media Settings -> Videos Settings -> General Settings.  Was I confusing the back end with the front end setup?

I know there will be Linux enthusiasts who will defend it saying that I just don’t know enough about Linux.   Or others who will say I should have read the “seems to be written by a developer” User Manual.   But you know what – MythTV has heaps of potential, has more functionality and is more customisable than any other PVR out there.  It could be so much more widely adopted, if it was just easier to setup and install.   Perhaps “they” should do some Usability Lab testing on it?

Wireless Networking

Also, it’d be great if I could get the MythTV box on my home wireless network.   Again, not being familiar with Linux, I couldn’t find any menu item to connect to my wireless network at home.   I had to resort to Google and the first few pages I found seemed to indicate that the situation had not changed at all since I last played with wireless networking on Linux.

But then I looked around the Mythbuntu Xfce desktop again and saw a Wireless networking icon in the top right – I was saved!   I connected to my home network, put in the WPA password, created a Key Ring and I was connected.   Seemed much easier than my last experience!

What next?

Well, it was now finding my movies on my USB HDD.  But it seems some of the later High Definition ones weren’t playing properly.  The sound was coming out at too low a pitch – almost if MythTV was playing the sound at the wrong sampling rate.  VLC played them fine though.   I don’t know what is going on here and I haven’t been able to sort it out yet.   I’m guessing I might need to change the video player used by MythTV?   Time to read the MythVideo documentation more I think.

After this, other things I need to do include connecting the laptop to the TV, adding a video folder from a network path and then making sure the kids and Wifey can use it.

Summary

It’s not all finished yet.   But the experience was definitely better, faster and less painful than last time.  I guess it was also easier this time because I was not setting up a TV card.

I think Linux distros still have a long way to go before they can be used by the general public and newbie computer users. I’m not the only one who’s tried and been frustrated (eg. http://www.tf2.org/?q=node/170).   At least the installation is getting easier.  I remember the pain of old Slackware distributions years ago, trying to configure X11 by trial and error in text files.  That was definitely not fun.   I liked how the Wireless networking just worked – the way it does on Windows and Mac OSX too.

As mentioned above, some Usability Lab testing would greatly benefit.  As well as reworking the configuration/setup screens to that options are easily understandable in easy English, use of file/folder pickers and no weird acronyms that require Googling for basic configuration would be good next steps.   I don’t want to need to use the Internet to set up a MythTV box.

Of course, the flipside of MythTV is that it’s so configurable and extensible!  I’ll keep on working at it…

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