August 15, 2008

Using Windows, Xbox, and iPod as alternative MythTV front ends

Author: Joseph R. Baxter

Digital video recorders (DVR) are becoming more and more mainstream. TiVo, in fact, has passed the truest test of any popular technology -- having its name transformed into a verb. MythTV, a free and open source application that lets you turn a computer into a DVR, burst on the scene a few years ago, and has found fans among Linux users. However, with a little effort, it's possible to run MythTV front ends on Windows XP, Windows Vista, Xbox, and even an Apple iPod Classic.

When MythTV first emerged, only the bravest of the open source faithful dared to try it. Few had the specific hardware to make it work, let alone the knowledge and the patience. Now, though, setting up a MythTV system is easy. It readily supports most video capture cards, and several MythTV-centric distributions have been created based upon various Linux flavors.

Most MythTV packages install both the back and front ends by default. You can also install a front end by itself on an additional machine. One front end is all that most users require, but some users want additional front ends scattered throughout the home. If you want to add a MythTV front end to your home office, child's room, or master bedroom, for instance, you might consider using alternative hardware, such as an Xbox or iPod.

Windows

Many homes already have a Windows machine, so using one as a MythTV front end may be an obvious choice. Using Internet Explorer, the MythTV back end server can stream video from MythWeb as .ASX files. However, a better option is MythTv Player from Mikkel Bystrup Stensgaard. The stable 0.40 version quickly finds a MythTV back end server on the network and connects to it to play recorded files. Version 0.50b, available from the forum, includes commercial skip and a live TV player option that's absent from the previous version.

MythTv Player is missing a full-fledged scheduling portion, but Stensgaard believes that this isn't the purpose of his application. He states in a forum post on future development, "In the FAR future I imagine the possibility to search and schedule recordings. This is not that important to me, as MythWeb really does a good job."

MythTV Player is relatively stable, although it occasionally doesn't release a capture card properly after you view live TV. This can be annoying, but it's easily fixable from the back end. Stensgaard knows about this fairly rare issue and says he is working on a remedy in the next version.

Xbox

Another option for a MythTV front end is an original Xbox. Many homes already have one of these black behemoths sitting lonely and unused, made redundant by the flashier Xbox 360. Older Xbox machines may not have the power to run the newest games, but they're still essentially computers with excellent integrated audio-visual connections, and you can add a helpful Xbox DVD remote controller kit for little money after a visit to eBay.

The Internet offers myriadwalkthroughs that describe exactly how to modify the Xbox for MythTV use. Because no hardware changes to the Xbox are involved, this "soft-mod" can easily be reversed if necessary.

Once you configure the Xbox, you have four main options for how to use it with a MythTV back end. First, you can simply use Xbox Media Center (XBMC) and Samba. Once configured, XBMC can play any recorded media file on the MythTV back end. However, it doesn't give any information about the recorded show, and it doesn't feature commercial-skipping functionality. A slightly better approach would be to compile the latest CVS of XBMC and use the alpha-state MythTV client being built into the system. Some people report that this client works well, but like the Windows MythTV Player, it cannot be used to schedule recordings.

Alternatively, you can run the XBMC MythTV add-on Python script in XBMC. It's stable and responsive to control -- but the project is effectively dead, as many of the developers have moved to the XBMC team. In my experience, XBMC MythTV works well when viewing recorded shows, even with commercial skipping. However, watching live TV is more problematic. Those users who can get live TV functional usually do so by compiling the most current version from CVS. Naturally, this requires more effort and expertise.

The last option for the Xbox is a full Xebian (Debian for Xbox) or Gentoo install with the full MythTV front end loaded on top of it. You can do this manually or by loading a preconfigured Xebian/Myth distribution. The primary upside of this method is that you get a full MythTV front end with all the capabilities -- it just works. The primary downside is the performance of the Xbox -- the slow processor can be overtaxed by such a relatively heavy system.

On the subject of the slow processor, high-definition (HD) content can also cause performance issues with the Xbox. While XBMC, and presumably Xebian, can play almost any video format, few users seem satisfied with streaming MythTV HD content to the Xbox. Standard-definition MythTV content and compressed wide-screen files such as Xvid pose no problems.

iPod

A fifth generation or better video iPod makes for an excellent portable video device, and iTunes has great podcast-catching feature -- all of which make combining an iPod with MythTV seem an obvious choice. myth2ipod bridges this gap, allowing you to sync recorded shows to an iPod. Although it's not a full-featured front end, it provides the type of flexibility that allows MythTV to outshine closed source solutions.

The package is built primarily upon Perl scripts and may take some work to get installed and working satisfactorily. There is, however, a prebuilt install script that you may find handy if your backend is Knoppmyth.

myth2ipod works much as you might imagine. A back-end job converts recorded video to MP4 files for iPod compatibility, and links them into an iTunes-readable RSS feed. Once everything is set up, simply use iTunes to subscribe to the feed like any other podcast. Presently, there is only a single feed for all recordings, so you cannot subscribe to recurring shows by title. Previous versions did provide this functionality; according to the author, this feature was simply missed in testing before this release.

Final thoughts

What makes these front end solutions unique is their support of unexpected, albeit ubiquitous, hardware platforms. There is no shortage of solutions available to gaining access to content when and where you want it.

Category:

  • Entertainment