January 30, 2004

Easy personal video recording for Linux? It's a myth

Author: Lee Schlesinger

I just spent several weeks installing and configuring MythTV, an open source application that gives a computer TiVo-like personal video recorder capabilities. I learned a lot of lessons along the way that I'll share here. The biggest one is... Don't do it! Unless you can view the process as an intellectual challenge, spending the money for an actual TiVo will save you dozens of hours you could spend on more pleasurable activities.First, build MythTV only if you have a spare computer already. If you have to buy new hardware to set up your MythTV appliance, it makes no economic sense, and the TiVo unit is a lot prettier than a white-box mini-tower sitting next to your home entertainment center. According to the project's hardware requirements, the computer you use should have 256MB of RAM and a video capture card. I used Hauppauge's $49 WinTV-Go Model 190. It lacks remote control capabilities, however; if you're planning to put your MythTV to heavy use, consider paying an extra $50 for that feature. I also suggest using a faster CPU than the 600MHz PIII I used.

Second, don't try MythTV on SuSE. I spent days getting the source and compiling components before taking the recommendation of someone on the mythtv-users mailing list, who suggested sticking with Red Hat or Debian; apparently the developers use the latter.

After trying and failing to install Debian from scratch, I went with Red Hat Linux 9. The project developers recommend giving Red Hat Debian-like powers by installing atrpms via the atrpms-kickstart package. Once you've installed it, add the line rpm http://apt.physik.fu-berlin.de redhat/9/en/i386 at-testing to the /etc/apt/sources.list file. You can then apt-get install mythtv-suite after making sure the drivers for your video capture card and ALSA sound are working.

For some reason the mythtv-suite install failed to install mythtv-backend on my system. I had to download the RPM for that application and install it separately. It in turn lacked a dependency on xmltv, which I solved by apt-get install xmltv.

With all the software in place, the next step was to set up the back end, using the mythtvsetup application. That went fairly smoothly, until I got an error message saying Zap2it, a TV program listing site, was unable to provide a list of service providers. A search of Google groups advised me to install the latest version, 5.23, of xmltv, which fixed the problem.

The setup procedure directs you to run mythfilldatabase, but just to be on the safe side, run /usr/bin/tv_grab_na --configure first to populate your channel list. When you run mythfilldatabase, walk away and get a snack, because the procedure adds program listings to your database for more than a week's worth of time for every channel.

Finally my setup was done. I had a working MythTV installation; working, but not working well. The problem was hardware -- my old CPU, old video adapter, and old sound card just couldn't keep up with the demands of real-time video. At this point I could have upgraded my hardware, but at some point you just have to say it isn't worth it.

You might think at this point I took my own advice and bought a TiVo. Not so. The $149 price tag for a "factory-renewed" unit isn't bad, but I object to paying $12.95 a month for the required service agreement. Given the small amount of TV I watch, the cost/benefit ratio is way too high.

I had fun struggling with the software and eventually succeeding in getting it to work, but even I got impatient at all the detours I had to take along the road to success. I spent a lot of time, but I learned a lot too. I'd be interesting in hearing from others who've tried MythTV or Freevo or one of the lesser-known PVR applications.

Beyond the satisfaction of making it work, was it worth it?

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