March 7, 2006

Review: MythTV 0.19

Author: Manolis Tzanidakis

I've been a MythTV user since version 0.16, so I was happy to find out that version 0.19 is now available. MythTV 0.19 brings a number of improvements, new features, and added stability and usability.

MythTV describes itself on its home page as a "homebrew" personal video recorder (PVR), but thanks to its many available plugins, it's actually a complete open source home entertainment system that lets you to watch and record TV programs, watch movies, view photos, listen to music, play games, and more.

My MythTV system includes a home-assembled 1.8GHz Intel Pentium 4 CPU on a VIA PT880-based motherboard, with 512MB DDR RAM, and an 80GB SATA hard disk used for the OS and recording TV shows. I have a RAID-5 array shared via NFS on an OpenBSD server for other media. The system has an ATI Radeon 9200 video card, a TV/radio tuner with BT878 chipset, and a custom-built serial IR receiver. Although my system doesn't use the newest hardware, it gets the job done without problems.

The distribution running on this system is Gentoo stable, with a few packages (such as ATI binary drivers) from unstable.

Upgrading

I was able to upgrade my MythTV installation without problems, just by unmasking ebuilds (see Gentoo's documentation page for more information), waiting for everything to finish compiling, and running mythtv-setup to verify that everything was correct. Maybe I was lucky, since other Gentoo users have noted a few problems upgrading MythTV.

Unofficial MythTV packages are also available for Red Hat and Fedora, Debian, and Slackware, so upgrading should be easy on those distributions. Make sure to check the upgrade notes in the project's documentation.

New features and changes

Version 0.19 has many interesting new features, in addition to the regular bug fixes. For a complete changelog, check the release notes. The project now also has an official wiki that's worth visiting, with a great deal of useful information.

A handy new feature of mythtv-setup, which I wish had been available when I was setting up my system for the first time, is the Channel Scanner in the Channel Editor. The Channel Scanner automatically scans for available channels, saving you the trouble of having to manually enter channel frequencies in order to tune them. Fine-tuning channels with signals that are too weak or too strong has now changed to kHz from Hz, allowing for better adjustment.

LiveTV, the ability to pause and skip backwards or forwards in normal television programs, was rewritten and is now treated more like a normal recording. By pressing "R," everything you've seen since you switched to a particular channel is recorded -- assuming you have enough disk space available. Being able to change the ending times while recordings are in progress is worth upgrading to the new version alone.

An important addition for users with multiple tuner cards is that you can now change channels across tuners without having to change tuner manually first, so you can now zap through analog TV, HDTV, and satellite channels without hassle.

You can now control mythfrontend via telnet. I don't really like this feature, since telnet traffic is unencrypted and thus insecure. I prefer using VNC over SSH tunnels for remote configuration and administration of my mythfrontend, but less paranoid people might find this feature handy. However, if you're security conscious, you can leave this feature off.

On the other hand, I find mythcenter, the new mythfrontend theme shown in Figure 1, quite attractive and elegant.

Figure 1. Mythfrontend theme

Making its debut in this version is the MythFlix plugin, which allows you to manage your Netflix queue through MythTV. Since I don't live in the US, I haven't used it.

MythDVD has a new internal DVD player feature that sounds promising. Previous versions of MythDVD relied on external programs, such as MPlayer and xine, for DVD playback. You can now choose the internal player by setting the Player Command to "internal" in DVD Play Settings. The downside is that, at the moment, the internal player has no support for DVD menus -- but it does provide nice, smooth DVD playback. Still, until the developers add support for DVD menus, I'll stick with xine for DVD playback.

MythGame's setup also seems to be redesigned. It now uses a unified screen for all emulator types, and even PC games, so you don't need to browse lots of menus or create custom XML files anymore in order to set it up. See Figure 2 for the new game configuration screen. Indexing games is also faster. Most importantly, MythGame doesn't depend on specific emulator versions; previous versions needed some ugly hacks in order to work with XMAME versions greater than 0.99.

Figure 2. MythGame configuration

Most other plugins seem to have only bug fixes and usability improvements. However, MythWeb has made important changes in the Apache modules and file permissions it requires in order to run correctly. See the README file before you upgrade in order to configure your Web server accordingly.

Mythwelcome is an interesting new program that displays a welcome screen with information about the back end status while the front end is not running. It also includes a button for starting the front end.

Another new program is mythlcdserver, which handles LCD display interaction within MythTV. Displaying information on LCD displays is also improved in the MythMusic plugin.

Overall, MythTV seems more stable and polished than previous versions. MythTV 0.18.1 crashed quite a bit, especially when using OpenGL-based transitions on slideshows in MythGallery, or when I was watching TV or previewing recorded TV programs. So far I haven't managed to crash the new version, but if you do, or if you have any problems, make sure to report them using the Bug Tracking System.

Conclusion

MythTV still needs a lot of tinkering in order to get it working as promised. However, for those willing to take the time, and for existing users, MythTV 0.19 is highly recommended. MythTV keeps getting better.

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