MythTV on Ubuntu

A few months ago I rebuilt my development box to be a PVR using Ubuntu Linux and MythTV. I originally planned to use Mythbuntu but had a lot of issues installing it, let alone getting it to work the way I wanted it to.

Firstly I did a standard Ubuntu 7.04 desktop install – Gnome desktop, LAN connectivity – and hooked it up to my Dad’s Panasonic widescreen projector via VGA cable. This was a little problematic as both Ubuntu and the Projector were trying to adapt to each others settings rather that just going for WXGA like they ought to have. Eventually I got a nice 1366×768 picture going and set about installing MythTV.

MythTV screenshot

MythTV is a PVR software project that is roughly comparable to Windows Media Centre. There is even a theme that will ape WMC if you like, but at it’s heart it is a TV recording and playback system, but you can make it do almost anything using the various plugins. In my case I was using an old Twinhan Digital TV tuner card, outputting to the projector and the stereo amplifier in the lounge room.

Installing MythTV isn’t painful at all using Ubuntu’s software repository: $sudo apt-get install mythtv

Configuring it on the other hand was very complex. If you are very lucky your system will detect your video card — my tip is to get it working beforehand – if /dev/dvb0 exists configuring MythTV is much simpler.

Once you have MythTV talking to your TV card you can scan for channels and watch and record TV, if you like. MythTV is setup as a frontend/backend arrangement (or client/server, if you prefer). The MythTV backend needs to be constantly running so it gets schedule updates and can start and stop recording when unattended. The frontend does not have to be on the same computer and is the part where you get to interact with the program and videos.

One cool thing I got working after a bit of effort was the Electronic Program Guide (EPG). Until this was working the box was really a learning experience rather than something useful. Using the community provided guide over at Oztivo and some clever scripting to get the EPG periodically, suddenly MythTV was alive and autonomous. Tell it you want to record Formula 1, or the Rugby World Cup, or The Unit or Heroes or Doctor Who and it schedules it as soon as the program appears in the guide data. You can pay for the IceTV guide if you like, but I found the XMLTV format provided at OzTivo to be both accurate and accessible.

Playing back recorded videos has a few cool features. Using simple keyboard commands or your remote control (once setup) you can easily skip advertisements or jump forwards or backwards through the video. Even better, you can get MythTV to scan the program for Commercial breaks (blank screen, lack of station logo etc) and it will automatically mark or even skip these breaks for you. This was great and makes TV much more watchable.

The recorded programs are stored in MPEG2 format and are simple to edit and store for future reference or archive (to DVD or as XVID).

All in all this was the most powerful PVR I have come across, but was a definite challenge to get going. If you want a HTPC, I’d recommend almost everyone to use Windows Media Centre as it is much simpler to setup. If you want a PVR, buy one from a shop – they are getting quite affordable, are much quieter than a PC and are simple to use. At Strathfield Car Radios they even have a SD Set Top Box for $79 that you can put your own Hard Disk Drive into for an incredible bargain PVR.

The advantages of MythTV over those kind of setups are mainly in the EPG, the Commercial skip/delete facility and the built in Networking. Plus the fact it is completely free – both free as in beer and free as in speech.

MythTV screenshot 2

Cheap PC = GNU/Linux

GNU and Tux

An interesting opinion piece over on Desktop Linux today – Linux is about to take over the low end of PC’s.

Basicly the author, Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, cites the recent development of low cost hardware platforms such as the Everex gPC, Asus eee PC and OLPC – One Laptop Per Child along with the excellent usability of the modern GNU/Linux desktop as an excellent alternative to the power hungry and wallet devouring Microsoft offerings.

Obviously a lot of businesses are tied in to Microsoft platforms and services, but when companies come up to upgrade time a lot will start looking at alternatives compared to the leap to Vista.

Open Source advocates have been claiming Vista as a great advertisement for FOSS but in reality the Vista install procedure isn’t that bad – so long as you are prepared to purchase a new computer along with the operating system. Open Source would do very well to target the price conscious segment of the market before going for the power users.

GNU/Linux and modern distros are really easy to use and very stable, but they are different to Windows so take a little getting used to. A lot of non-technical users want their computer “to just work” and aren’t interested in how free a system or learning a new method to check their email or edit a document.

Power users will probably be attached to certain software on their current operating system – games, CAD, illustration, multimedia – and therefore resistant to change, but as alternative operating systems gain more acceptance and use, the native software will improve and many commercial programs will be ported over to work on the O/S.

But basic users need office, email, web, messaging, media playback and VOIP – all of which have excellent offerings available on GNU/Linux or via “software as a service” on the web. By making their products easy to use and available at a low monetary cost and able to run on older or cheaper hardware GNU/Linux may have finally found it’s niche onto the desktops of home users and small businesses.

gPC from Wal-Mart

Over in the US, budget department store Wal-Mart has started selling the Linux based gPC for US$200. It runs a modified version of Ubuntu with the E17 Enlightenment desktop environment called gOS.

gOS screen shot

Applications installed seems to be at a minimum as they encourage you to use Google’s online applications for your regular use (hence the g in gPC and gOS). Mail, calendar, office are all handled by Google webapps by default.

Gizmodo have a review online saying they believe this is a good unit for the price but aren’t too complimentary about the clientèle at Wal-mart. Indeed they believe this is the direction Linux should go – people new to PC’s or basic computer users.

Also linked from the same site is some info on the Google mobile phone software development kit (but better info from the official website and the new sub-notebook from Asus, the Eee PC. The Eee runs a customised version on Xandros Linux, by the way.