July 15, 2005

Simple PVR with KnoppMyth

Author: Aditya Nag

Personal video recorders free you from the constraints of TV schedules, let you skip advertising, pause live TV, and much more. You can find commercial PVR products, such as Windows Media Centre Edition; dedicated devices, such as TiVo; and open source PVR projects, such as MythTV, which is widely hailed as the best free PVR solution, with features that even commercial competitors lack. MythTV's downside is its complex setup; you need to install a Linux distro, then MythTV, which can be a daunting prospect for non-technical users. In 2003, developers combined MythTV with the Knoppix live CD distribution, which aims at simplifying Linux installations, to create KnoppMyth, a product that's as easy to use as Knoppix, with the power of MythTV.

As anyone who has tried to install MythTV from the source can testify, simply getting it running can be quite a task. You need to be an adept user of Linux, and be able to take care of dependencies, file and directory permissions, compiler options, and other such complex tasks. Pre-compiled packages are available, but even these require some knowledge of Linux, and might entail some tinkering with file and directory permissions, user setup, and the like. KnoppMyth aims to simplify all that.

I tested KnoppMyth on a Athlon XP 2400+ with 256MB of DDR-RAM and an 80GB hard drive. You can use an older machine as well, but the authors recommend at least an 800MHz Duron with 256MB of RAM. The TV tuner card can be any one that is supported by the video4linux drivers, but you'll get the best results if you use the recommended TV tuner card. I used an older TV tuner based on the Conexant 878A chipset, and it worked reasonably well. For TV output I used an Nvidia GeForce FX 5700 with TV output.

I began by downloading release 5 Alpha 15.1. The name suggested an alpha release, so I was expecting to find many rough edges and bugs. While the 517MB ISO was downloading, I looked for the documentation on the Web site. I found the Pamphlet of KnoppMyth, an eclectic mixture of a FAQ, a HOWTO, and a manual rolled into one. It's not very detailed, and it has a bit of a rushed look about it. It does have important information, though, so it's a good idea to read through it before you start. Specifically, it has instructions on upgrading your drivers if you use an Nvidia card, and also instructions to install KnoppMyth on a SATA hard drive.

KnoppMyth's installation routine starts out with the standard Linux boot screen. The help screen has not been modified, since it refers to Knoppix, and the options listed don't work. I just pressed Enter. After a few seconds, the main installation routine started. There are four installation options:

  • Frontend -- This lets you use the KnoppMyth machine as a pure front end that connects to a MythTV server you have running. This is useful if you have a couple of TVs, or are already using MythTV. After setting the date and time, you have to enter database settings, after which Knoppmyth starts up as a pure front end to your MythTV server. This is the quickest way to get going, but it does require a previously configured server. You don't need to do any partitioning, and you won't lose any data on your hard drive. It's basically just a live CD front end.
  • Auto Install -- As the name suggests, this installs KnoppMyth on your hard drive with a minimum of user prompting. All you have to do is set the date and time, enter some user information, the administrator password, and the hostname. After this, KnoppMyth shows you the partition scheme it has chosen, and warns you of the impending format of your hard drive. Just to be sure, it warns you twice, so that you don't accidentally end up losing all your data. After you say yes, it proceeds to partition and format the drive and install KnoppMyth. It took five minutes, and one reboot, before it was up and running on my machine.
  • Auto Upgrade -- This is a simple way to upgrade your existing KnoppMyth installation. Before you do this, make sure you back up your KnoppMyth setup via an option on the menu. Once you run the upgrade, it'll restore your settings and restart once.
  • Manual Install -- This is the final installation option, where you have complete control over the installation. You can partition the hard drive the way you want, install the bootloader according to your partitions, load a previous configuration, or save the current configuration for future installations. This option gives you a little more control, while still being fairly simple. This is the only way to install on a SATA hard drive, or a partition other than/dev/hda.

Running and recording

I used the auto install option. It took about five minutes to copy the files. After removing the CD and rebooting, KnoppMyth started up. I was asked for the root password, then prompted to "Choose a Module Action." This required a quick trip to the documentation. After choosing the correct option for my hardware, a lot of text messages scrolled by, and a few seconds later, the MythTV configuration window started up. I left that alone, and used Ctrl-Alt-F1 to start a console window. Here, following instructions, I installed the Nvidia drivers. It was easy to do, simply a matter of typing one command and watching some text scroll by. After 10 seconds of this, the X server restarted, and I was back to the MythTV configuration screen. The rest of the configuration is the standard MythTV setup. You can read the MythTV documentation, and set it up to your liking.

There really isn't much to write about KnoppMyth as distinct from MythTV, except that it works, and works well. The list of supported hardware is growing daily, and as of this writing, there's a new version out, which runs kernel 2.6.11.9-chw-2. You can read the complete list of changes on the Changelog. As long as you build a machine using standard hardware, you should be fine.

Once I had MythTV configured, I was able to use all the features. KnoppMyth automatically partitions your hard drive appropriately, so you don't have to bother about directory permissions or anything like that. My 80GB drive was partitioned into a 2.8GB system partition, 6GB cache partition, and a 68GB Myth partition. The filesystem layout is listed in the documentation.

I tried Auto Upgrading as well. Before doing this, you have to make a backup of your current configuration by selecting an option from the main MythTV screen. Once you're backed up, you can start the auto install process by booting from the CD. The upgrade wipes the system partition, installs the new version, and sets up MythTV by reading the backup file. You don't lose any of your recordings, pictures, or channel information. It's a quick and easy way to upgrade.

A promise fulfilled

So does KnoppMyth work as promised? The answer is yes. It does what it sets out to do, which is provide a simple, fast, effective method of getting MythTV running on your system.

I was surprised to find KnoppMyth so functional. The alpha tag doesn't seem to fit, since it seems like a beta version at the very least. However, the very fact that the alpha version is so functional makes me wonder what the KnoppMyth team have in store for the stable release 5!

KnoppMyth makes it possible for people to just run MythTV without being forced to learn too much about Linux. It's orders of magnitude easier than installing MythTV from source tarballs.

What's next for KnoppMyth? The authors are focusing on increasing ease of use and adding a graphical installer. The user forums are active, with more than 3,000 registered members. It's a good place to hang out to learn more about KnoppMyth, ask for new features to be included in the next version of KnoppMyth, or just learn more. You can also help the team out by contributing documentation, beta testing, or simply writing a few words of appreciation.

KnoppMyth is a promising application. It needs a bit of work to make it more appealing to the absolute beginner, but it has made a great start.

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