Tag Archives: mythtv

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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Tivo goodness

Well, I finally succumbed.  The day before the Olympics, we took a drive to Harvey Norman and bought a Tivo.   I couldn’t decide for a while whether it was worth it as there are other PVRs like the Topfield now at an affordable price, but it was the difference in the approach to recording TV that I have been spoilt with previously (with MythTV) that I wanted.
After putting the kids to sleep, I finally got to unpack it.   Here’s the red “friendly” box and the Tivo USB wireless adapter so that I can connect it to my wireless home network.
Tivo box and wireless adaptor
Tivo box and wireless adapter

It comes with a standard set of cables.  But it’s disappointing that a system designed for Digital TV has no optical cable and no HDMI cable included.   Harvey Norman tried to sell me extremely expensive Monster cables, but I had said no – I had spares at home.   Alternately, I could’ve bought extras off eBay for much less.

What's in the box
What's in the box

I had a peek at the back of the Tivo.   Nothing unusual here – but there is no coax digital audio connection. There is a fan on the back for cooling.

Component, HDMI, Optical, Ethernet, USB Connectors on the Tivo
Component, HDMI, Optical, Ethernet, USB Connectors on the Tivo

It was good to see an eSATA connector for future expansion, but I believe it is disabled in the current firmware for the Australia box.   Tivo and Seven – PLEASE don’t make us pay for firmware upgrades in the future!!!

Also, there is only a single antenna in socket and no RF out.  No big deal – you just have to place it on the end of your antenna chain.

eSATA connector on the Tivo
eSATA connector on the Tivo

The Tivo is surprisingly “big”.  Here it is next to the PS3, which already is quite big.

The Tivo next to the PS3
The Tivo next to the PS3

So what next?  I connected it all up using the easy to follow instructions, turned it on and followed the configuration wizard and 24 minutes later..  it all worked out of the box!!!

Tivo setup all done!
Tivo setup all done!

I was SO HAPPY!  No wireless drivers to install, no ifconfig or iwconfig to run, no worries about Nvidia or ATI drivers, no need to think about what file system type to use, no need to determine what Graphics card chipset and CPU combination required to record and playback high definition video, no need to install IR drivers or set up perl scripts to download the latest TV guide – IT JUST WORKS!

And just in time for us to watch, pause and replay the Olympic opening ceremony last night.  And tape Star Wars – A Phantom Menace in high def at the same time.

And this morning, the kids were up early and worked out how to watch the opening ceremony again.

Only problem – I’ve scheduled so many things to tape that I need to upgrade the hard drive 😦

To Tivo or not to Tivo?

Tivo Logo

Some exciting news today – it is the official release date for the Tivo in Australia.

So what does that mean?  Aren’t there boxes out there that record TV already?

Yes there are.  But the thing about Tivo is not what it does (record TV), but the way it lets you do it.  It’s a paradigm shift.

The old VCRs (Video Cassette Recorders) and most of the PVRs (Personal Video Recorders – really a DVR) – out there now are basically dumb.  You, the viewer, need to know what show is coming up, what time it is, what channel it is on.  Then you can program the VCR/PVR to record that channel at the right time.

Sure, some are a bit smarter – they may show you a little of the TV guide, but in Australia, the TV networks don’t make proper use of the EPG (Electronic Program Guide) capabilities of DTV.  Some may allow you to configure a periodic recording – for example, record the same show every day at the same time, or each week.

These are not the same as a smart recorder – for example, a HTPC (Home Theatre PC), MythTV or Tivo type solution.  These recorders are different in the following ways:

* You select what to record by browsing the TV guide and choosing the program – no need to program the time or channel
* It allows you to record shows based on keywords – for example, record any program that stars Harrison Ford or has the word “Dance” in its title or description

These type of recorders are an example of technology assisting you rather than controlling you.

Three years ago, I started my attempt to get/build a smart recorder.   I evaluated importing a Tivo from the US and modifying it for Australia.  However, it seems that the US had moved on version 2 boxes.   I decided to resurrect my Linux project by using an old PC, installing Ubuntu (a Linux OS) and putting MythTV on it.  I bought a cheap DVICO Dual HDTV Tuner card.  For me, it took me HOURS to sort through Linux installation problems with my wireless card, video card and TV tuner.  Then setting up the EPG to read from a “free” EPG server in Australia.

But when it worked, it was magic – the entire TV guide was shown and colour coded by genre.  I could just click on a show and decide to record once, record each week, record anytime that show comes on, etc.  I had Formula 1 races, all the rally shows, episodes of Bob the Builder for the kids, ABC’s Compass every Sunday, Australian Idol, any program with the word “dance” as a keyword in it taping automatically.  In fact, it recorded too much TV for me to watch!  Unfortunately, my PC died (motherboard capacitors popped) and I couldn’t be bothered to start again.  Especially since it took hours to get it going.

What the Tivo does is bring that type of interface and usability to the mass market.  No Operating Software or hardware to install or tinker with.

Any downsides?

* If you’ve set up a MythTV box, then you probably don’t want to go to Tivo.  And you already know why.  For others – MythTV, being a custom application solution developed by a worldwide community has lots of extra functionality like automatic ad detection and removal, automatic recompression into other formats, remote controllable via a web browser (eg. tell MythTV to record a show from work), server/client architecture, plugins for web, DVDs, music, games (eg. MAME), etc.   I believe there are even plugins to get the closed captions and search on that.

* It won’t automatically detect and skip ads (see above).

* If you have a wireless network, then you have to fork out extra for the wireless card.  Of course, if you’re building your own HTPC, then you’ll have to buy all the hardware anyway.

* From the information I’ve read, the Tivo is fixed to using channel 7’s EPG.  The good news is that it’s legit.  However, I’m wondering if it will have as much information on each show as some of the community run EPG’s out there or ICE.

* May need to pay for upgrades to the firmware.  I hope not – but it’s a possibility.

So will I be rushing out to buy a Tivo today?  Hmmm…  I do know that I now have less free time than I used to, so I don’t really have the time to set up a MythTV box again.

But I’ll have to consult our household financial manager first 🙂

For more information, read:
Tivo home page – http://www.tivo.com.au
The Australian Tivo FAQ – http://www.pcauthority.com.au/News/115698,the-australian-tivo-faq–what-it-does-will-it-skip-ads-when-it-launches-will-it-work-with-foxtel.aspx

Alternatives that I am also considering:
PlayTV on the PS3 – http://playstation.about.com/od/hardwareandaccessories/a/PlayTVPS3.htm
DViCO TVIX 5130 – http://www.cnet.com.au/dvdpvr/pvr/0,239035858,339283113,00.htm
Beyonwiz DP-S1 – http://www.cnet.com.au/dvdpvr/pvr/0,239035858,339279087,00.htm
Topfield TF7000HDPVRt – http://www.cnet.com.au/dvdpvr/pvr/0,239035858,339272283,00.htm

HTPC software alternatives I am also considering:
MythTV – http://www.mythtv.org/
Mythbuntu – http://www.mythbuntu.org/
MediaPortal – http://www.team-mediaportal.com/

Other resources:
Vista & XP Media Center Support Community – http://www.xpmediacentre.com.au/
The Green Button – http://thegreenbutton.com/default.aspx
Comparison of PVR software packages – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_PVR_software_packages