MythTV, Rainy Day Project With Staying Power

by Ostatic Staff - Oct. 14, 2008

The Capital Times ran a piece on "home-brew," open source DVRs (digital video recorders, in the tradition of TiVO). Though TiVO's software is open source, any "unsigned" modified code is blocked from running on these devices. Home-brew DVRs act like TiVOs, with a few side benefits. The article mentions, incidentally, that this is not a project for the faint of heart.

My MythTV box has been humming in my living room just shy of a year. It's not a project for a new user, but it's a better application, and less complicated to install and maintain than you've been led to believe.

Opting for a MythTV powered DVR requires some planning. Building a MythTV box might cost roughly the same as TiVO (or equivalent) hardware. As MythTV is surprisingly easy on hardware resources, even if new components are needed, they don't need to be cutting edge. Schedules Direct, the non-profit organization that supplies channel line-up feeds to a number of MythTV (and similarly oriented) applications is less costly than a TiVO subscription. But cost isn't the only consideration.

Even when things go exceedingly well, installing MythTV is a learning process. It requires a level of comfort with physically installing (or removing) hardware, and troubleshooting a relatively small amount of software powering a wide variety of potentially obscure components and peripherals. Before undertaking a MythTV install it's important to answer the question: "Am I going to get as much enjoyment from building, hacking, and tweaking this install as I will using the finished product?" If the answer isn't a confident "yes," a commercially available solution might save some heartache.

There are a number of MythTV-centric distributions available which make the installation and configuration process easier. Knoppmyth, Mythbuntu, and Mythdora install the base distribution, common drivers and services used on DVR boxes (such as LIRC), MythTV packages, and offer the easy install of any add-ons and plug-ins. Configuration is, conceptually, anyway, really simple. The sticking points for me -- and for many others -- came down to hardware.

Configuring LIRC to power my remote, and ultimately my satellite receiver, was time consuming and frustrating. It was fun, and getting it to work was infinitely rewarding. The fact that it wasn't working well had nothing to do with LIRC, or the very Windows Vista-branded remote I was using. It had nothing to do with the model of infrared receiver I was using or the placement of the infrared transmitter. Everything translated through MythTV and transmitted to the satellite receiver without incident. The satellite receiver couldn't always determine the light pulses it was receiving, and channels were frequently missed.

This is a great example why cost shouldn't be the only consideration. The sure fix was to find a satellite receiver that had a port to make a physical connection to the MythTV box. A supported satellite receiver cost roughly $30, and the appropriate cables and adapters were nearly that amount. It was a relatively small price tag, and the channels change perfectly now. It also involved two weeks of modifying channel change scripts, hoping, perhaps, changing sleep times or coding in null keypresses would help the receiver "see" the pulses correctly.

Building and installing the system was fun, and it was a great opportunity to learn more about software (and hardware) I wasn't familiar with. The added benefit? MythTV is a genuinely fine bit of DVR software. Plug-ins allow for weather reports, web browsing, viewing Netflix queues and listening to streaming media. I can view pictures, videos and listen to music. My MythTV box stays in the living room, but I can install the Myth Frontend on my desktop in the office, authenticate to the database, and watch recorded shows -- and live TV -- on it.

I wouldn't recommend an undertaking like this to every Linux user. Even very capable and skilled Linux users might find such a project frustrating. It seems those who find this most enjoyable have a healthy interest in the "mechanics" of hardware -- how it works together, as well as how it interacts with software. I would encourage anyone intrigued by the project to explore it further, as the time invested often yields entertaining and rewarding returns.