Saturday, January 12, 2008

My MythTV Setup

I have made a few large changes to my home services in the last year that I wish I had taken the time to document. It's hard to have something working and remember all of the tricks you had to do in order to get things working right. I won't say that setting MythTV up was easy but the result is fantastic.

I have been a die hard TiVo fan from the start. I won my first TiVo in an essay contest with an essay on why every pregnant woman needs a TiVo. The TiVo was great to begin with, it was provider agnostic, Linux based, configurable, upgradable and with a few additional codes you could enable some of the anti-commercial features like 30-seconds skip. When I switched over to DirectTV and purchased a DirectTivo, I noticed that each version of the software that came out provided less and less end-user features and more provider features. It is the sad fate of most companies that they must first service their stock holders and then their retail customers. I wanted to get into a series 2 TiVo but then DirectTV decided they could do it better and abandoned the TiVo platform altogether. I was also looking in to HD and I realized I could either use money or brains to solve the problem. It was time to take control of my PVR and try to provide TV recording, on-demand viewing of my DVD collection and some integrated web services like weather and browsing.

My first attempt at a PC based PVR was Microsoft Windows Media Center. I'll admit that it was easy to setup, quick to configure and worked very well. However I felt the DRM noose from the get-go and realized that it was going to be incompatible with my long term goals. After building a new primary box, I rebuild my AMD Athlon 64 3200 into a box running Fedora 7.

I followed Jared's Fedora MythTV howto and began creating my first MythTV system. After a few days of playing with it on and off, I had it running. I quickly recognized that I would need to add some hardware to get the system going so I went out to CompUSA and bought a Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-150 MCE capture card. This solved both the capture problem and the remote control. After all, who wants a PVR that only plays DVD's and that you have to control with a full keyboard. I had toyed with the remote control that came with my Dell XPS M170 but it turns out that even though it looks like an MCE remote, it isn't and won't work with lirc at all. The next step was moving it into a case that looked at home in my entertainment center. I picked up a Silverstone LC10 and moved the system into it's new home. I was still using an old Toshiba 32-in CRT TV that I've had for about 10+ years and it was starting to develop some purple and green spots in the corners of the screen.

Before I got into replacing the TV, I wanted a tested solution in place that was storing HD content. After researching options for HD capture, I settled on a relatively new solution from Silicon Dust called the HDHomerun. This miracle device provided 2-tuner HD support in an external appliance that hooked directly to the network via Ethernet. No internal installation meant better compatibility and no need for drivers. During this trial I had purchased a picture frame antenna from Radio Shack that was feeding my 150MCE for over-the-air TV channels. It worked pretty well and I was able to pull in a good signal for the local channels. I had the MythTV system and my DirectTiVo running side by side recording the same shows so that in case the MythTV system had a problem, I could easily watch the show on the TiVo. This also helped to gradually introduce the MythTV to the family and help them get used to it. All I had to do was copy a few of the kids favorite DVD's into Myth Videos and they were on-board. My wife really enjoyed the automatic commercial skipping and while still hesitant to the change, was warming to the idea day by day.

Switching over from the 150MCE to the HDHomerun was fairly painless, the signal quality jumped way up with a digital solution and provided a comparable signal to the DirectTiVo. I moved the antenna and the HDHR down to the walkout basement and quickly realized that it might be a good idea to get a better antenna. While some channels were reasonably strong, others were unreceivable. I once again researched and picked up a $50 DB2 antenna from Antenna's Direct. Using a compass and, I mounted it to the ceiling in our unfinished basement and aimed it. The signal difference was night and day. It was about this time that I made another commitment to the MythTV system by purchasing guide data from SchedulesDirect, the pay service for guide data for MythTV. There was a lot of concern when Zap2It, the previous free provider decided to bow out of their deal to provide schedule data but the MythTV group came through with a great solution. For several weeks we enjoyed all of our favorite shows in digital broadcast and could see the quality difference in the HD signal but couldn't really take advantage of it with the old TV. We were switching to the DirectTiVo less and less. I had a coax line run from the back of the DirectTiVo to our bedroom and we were still using it for before-bed shows but it was being phased out. I was still having some problems with the ATI Radeon X850 card so I took the opportunity to pick-up a card with better Linux support, an Asus NVIDIA 6200 which had good reviews on the MythTV-Users mailing list (speaking of which, you can see my sordid posting history there to see some of the struggles and solutions). Having the NVIDIA card in there made all the difference. Everything looked very crisp and clean and I verified with a few downloaded examples that the system was capable of HD.

My failing TV, having a DVR that was capable of HD and the support of my wife led me to getting a Samsung LNT4665F 46-in 1080p HD TV (a fathers-day gift dream). I also bought an HDMI to DVI cable and hooked the MythTV system to the new HDTV. I changed the resolution of XWindows to 1920x1080 and marveled at what I had put together. I watched a few of the local newscasts in awe of the image quality. As we were watching Law and Order in HD one evening, my wife asked me why we were still paying for DirectTV. I told her that we still needed it for the bedroom TV and she said it would be OK to cut that off. We had a few dozen of our favorite shows on the DirectTiVo so I called them up the next day and cancelled my service. It was sort of a liberating feeling. We were still getting all of our favorite shows and not paying a dime for them in recurring costs. I had a few shows that I was missing but it was easy enough to find them available as bittorrents and transferring them to the MythTV system was a breeze. I also ran into a little gem called TED that would automatically monitor the bit torrent sites for new episodes and download them. I transferred a good deal of my DVD's to the system as well. Things were going well except that we were running low on shows in the bedroom.

I built another system from NewEgg specifically for upstairs this time with a 250GB HD and a motherboard with an on board NVIDIA card. The hardest part to setting up this system was running an Ethernet connection to the bedroom. I didn't have to worry about any capture cards so it was pretty straight forward. I also decided on a smaller case since I could build on a micro-atx form factor. The NMEDIAPC 200BA fit the bill although it didn't take me long before I realized the LCD display was nothing more than a fancy fan-speed/temperature monitoring device, not a true LCD display for MythTV. The good news is that NMEDIA has a list of good LCD's that are controllable and fit in the box. Another good idea in concept is that you can add a disassembled MCE IR receiver inside the box. They created an internal mounting bracket and supply the cable to connect it to the USB header on the motherboard. In practice though there seems to be a reflection problem or the window isn't wide enough because I have a hard time getting any remote to be received without multiple repeats of the same command, even with the repeat set to 5 in lirc.conf. We are able to watch all of our recorded shows in the bedroom again. I was a little frustrated when I found out that MythVideo isn't shared quite as easily. I ended up copying my Star Trek: Voyager Series DVD's onto the upstairs MythTV system using DVD Decrypter and AutoGK. I read that you can create NFS shares between the two MythTV systems and then you can see videos from both drives but I have yet to tackle that challenge. The down side is now every time I go to manage video's, it wants to remove links to the videos stored on the other side. Not a big deal but I am doing a lot more database management through phpmyadmin.

I am very happy that I have taken control of my media needs. I am using MythTV for what it is designed for and not taking advantage of much else yet. I am getting consistently high quality recordings of all of my favorite shows too and can share the recordings to my bedroom system. The kids no longer smudge and scratch their DVD's since they are all stored on the drive of the MythTV system. I have a Harmony 890 to control the main system and using my old Harmony 679 in the bedroom. I don't foresee the need to add DirectTV or cable and because of the draconian measures they are taking to lock out open source systems like MythTV, I don't even want to attempt it nor am I willing to pay for their efforts. I look forward to more and more media being available directly over the Internet and would gladly pay for a service that provides additional channels in open source standard formats like xvid. Until then I am very happy that I can get all of the major networks in HD digital free of charge. A huge thanks to the authors, developers and community that has helped create MythTV, fantastic work.


  1. Hi Jim,

    Nice to see you still ike playing with toys! ;o)

    You are running this on Fedora, when this article was written. Have you tried the new MythUbuntu? How much easier would using it make your setup. Also in MythUbuntu they talked about servers and clients, would this feature help resolve your shared folder problem? or is this the feature your struggling with?

  2. Great to hear from you Randy. I haven't yet checked out MythUbuntu but did recently upgrade both my MythTV boxes to .21, an adventure that required bringing both systems to the Fedora 7 level in order to clear out the kernel dependencies. What a difference a version makes. All of my DVD playback issues are fixed, DVD bookmarks are awesome.
    I did resolve my folder sharing problem with the help of the newsgroups and using Samba instead of NFS as well as some symoblic link trickery, mostly discussed here.