Three MythTV Linux distros compared


My curiosity toward MythTV-specific distros was touched off by MythBuntu’s latest release earlier this month, Public Alpha 3. I run Ubuntu on my primary desktop machine, and had a relatively painless experience installing MythTV on it courtesy of the official repositories. Only while waiting for the MythBuntu ISO image to download did I decide to check out its competition.

MythBuntu Public Alpha 3 is based on development builds of Ubuntu 7.10 “Gutsy Gibbon,” and provides users with MythTV version 0.20.1. It is available as a 423MB ISO image via BitTorrent download.

MythDora 4 is built on top of Fedora Core 6, also providing MythTV 0.20.1, and is available (via direct download only) as a 1.0GB DVD ISO image or as two CD-sized ISO images.

KnoppMyth R5F1 is built from scratch using pieces of Knoppix 5.0 and Debian Sid; it comes with a slightly older version of MythTV — a patched version of 0.20 — and is available through BitTorrent as a 584MB ISO.

I tested all three distros on two configurations: an Intel-based test machine with both analog and digital capture cards, and a VMware virtual machine through which I captured the lovely screenshots littered about this page.

Once you burn a disc and pop it into the optical drive, all three contestants follow the same basic playbook: install the operating system, set up MythTV’s back end, then launch the MythTV front end. But, as always, the devil’s in the details.

Installation and configurationfest

MythTV distro installer start screens

The MythBuntu install started off rocky. The installer misconfigured X by attempting to use the disabled onboard video instead of the attached video card. Normally that is a fixable mistake, but when the live CD fails to start X and drops to single-user mode, you first must repair xorg.conf, then figure out how to resume the installation process. Since MythBuntu is at such a preliminary release stage, this problem will probably get fixed when upstream Gutsy Gibbon stabilizes.

Like other *buntus, MythBuntu boots into a live CD system. From the live CD desktop you have to manually start the install process. The installer itself is slick, as is typical of Ubuntu. The GTK theme, however, needs replacing — not for the aesthetic reasons I usually complain about, but because the on and off button states are too difficult to distinguish. That is very important at install time, when a bad selection can hose your entire hard drive, and doubly so when running a live CD with its slow user interface response time.

The installer prompts you for the usual system setup preferences — language, user name, etc. — but also asks you for several MythTV configuration details, which at this stage of the installation you may not be expecting. You are asked whether you want to install proprietary video drivers (a normal OS installation question), then how many tuners the MythTV back end will have (a MythTV installation question), then how you want to partition your hard drives (another OS installation question).

Once you’ve answered all the questions, MythBuntu jumps right into the OS install, without giving you a chance to select packages. As soon as the OS install finishes, you can launch the mythtv-setup tool and configure MythTV.

MythDora by contrast is not a live CD; when you boot from the MythDora disc you head right for Fedora’s Anaconda graphical installation program. Here again, the installer is straightforward on the OS-level decisions. You do have a minimal selection of packages to choose from at install time, including proprietary video drivers broken down by video card, wireless networking drivers, and some MythTV development packages.

MythDora requires a reboot after initial OS installation; upon restart you must walk through a “first boot” wizard to finalize the OS configuration, covering items like firewall settings, SELinux configuration, and sound card setup. Only after you have done this do you begin setting up your system for MythTV-specific configuration like IR Blaster and remote control devices. You can elect to start the normal MythTV front end automatically, or to start the power-saving alternate MythWelcome front end.

The Linux system installed by MythDora differs from MythBuntu’s in one fundamental way: user accounts. During installation, MythBuntu prompts you to set up one regular user account; there is no root account, so you perform all system maintenance using sudo. MythDora, on the other hand, sets up a “mythtv” user account for you, and a root account for which you must set the password.

MythTV distro installers in-progress

KnoppMyth can run as a live CD, and in fact it can boot directly into MythTV front-end mode, but I tested it in the most common MythTV configuration, as a combined front- and back-end box. KnoppMyth uses a text-based installer, but it walks you through OS setup just as smoothly as the flashier GUI installers in the other distros. KnoppMyth takes yet a third approach to account management: it creates a “mythtv” user, but prompts you to create a basic user account of your own, and creates a root account for which you must select the password.

After you install the basic OS, KnoppMyth reboots, automatically starts a user session, and launches a second-stage installer for detailed setup, including video drivers and sound card testing. Once finished, this second-stage installer launches the MythTV setup program for you.

Comparing the running systems

As mentioned above, all three distros ship with a 0.20.x-series MythTV setup. This is the latest stable release from the MythTV project. Although the patch levels differ between the distros, all are on equivalent ground when it comes to hardware support and critical software features like video deinterlacing.

Similarly, all three distros purport to use the same version of MythTV Plugins, the official package that enables all of the advanced “media center” features of MythTV. It includes MythArchive, MythDVD, MythFlix, MythGallery, MythGame, MythMusic, MythNews, MythPhone, MythVideo, and MythWeather. MythBuntu alone omits MythStream, a newer plugin designed to handle audio and video RSS feeds.

Conveniently for the reviewer, all three distros choose a different default MythTV theme. MythBuntu uses “G.A.N.T.,” MythDora “Retro,” and KnoppMyth “Titivillus.” Among those, I find Retro by far the nicest and most modern, so MythDora picks up some points for taste. Of course your preference may vary wildly, but the choice of theme can be important for usability — most MythTV setup and navigation is done with the keyboard, cursor hidden, so a theme’s highlighting can make the difference between knowing where in the menu you are and guessing.

A hassle-free, click-to-start MythTV box is the dream, but from time to time MythTV users will need to administer their systems like normal Linux machines. Some consider that a shortcoming (i.e., “MythTV isn’t as easy to use as TiVo”), but don’t forget that it is part of the power of MythTV, too. One of the benefits of the system is the ability to make changes — to add features with plugins; add new capture, storage, and output hardware; or connect multiple MythTV boxes together.

MythTV distro menu themes

All three MythTV distros include only the bare minimum of nonessential packages. MythBuntu uses the slim OpenBox window manager, but it includes the graphical Synaptic package manager, through which you can install anything available through the normal Ubuntu repositories. MythDora provides a normal Fedora desktop (including its package manager), so if you are used to running GNOME, you will find it easy to work with. KnoppMyth uses Fluxbox, and provides the text-mode Aptitude package manager, but does not offer much in the way of additional software to install.

How to choose

To decide which MythTV distro is best for you, you have to determine where you want the convenience. In my tests, KnoppMyth booted and installed to hard disk the fastest, while MythDora was slowest. On the other hand, the install process itself is easiest to follow in MythDora — the steps and the options better explained, with none of the jumping back and forth between OS and MythTV configuration so prevalent in MythBuntu’s installer.

Of course the power of the running system matters more than the installation process. All three distros give you more or less equivalent builds of MythTV and its plugins. If you care about security, you should consider the three different user/root account models and pick the one with which you are most comfortable. MythDora installs the most packages out of the box (hence its long install time); if you are trying to build a slim system you might think that’s bad, but it’s not bloat — some of the included apps are really useful, such as the optical disc burner utility K3b.

For regular system maintenance, KnoppMyth simply isn’t in the same ballpark as MythBuntu and MythDora. The live CD heritage of Knoppix means you cannot update individual packages, which is fine if you like that, but for an always-on system like a MythTV back end, I’d prefer flexibility and configurability of a mainline distro.

When all is said and done, if I were building my TiVo replacement today, I would do it with MythDora. MythBuntu shows a lot of promise, and I will give the final 7.10 release another look (in part because I run Ubuntu on my desktop machines), but it isn’t ready yet. But whichever option you choose, rest assured that setting up an up-to-date, correctly configured MythTV box has never been easier.