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My -cheap- HTPC project: budget is spiraling

posted under category: General on October 2, 2006 at 1:00 am by MrNate

So I had this grand idea a few months ago, to build a home theater PC. You know, a DVR/PVR to record TV, and if it doesn't record, I can have it hit the torrents and download the episodes, have skype running as our long-distance phone, hold my 20+ GB of music and play it whenever I want, let my kids use it to play disney/pbskids/nickjr sites and other kids games, and download video podcasts. The best part was this was only going to cost a couple hundred bucks, thanks to a Fry's GQ cheap PC ($200), a simple memory upgrade ($40) and MythTV on Linux ($0).

Well, here's my story so far...

The GQ PC has an AMD "Geode" processor. Yeah, I hadn't heard of it either, but it's for low-power, low-heat applications, so it's fine. 1.4 GHz or so. I tried out the Linspire Linux OS that came standard, and let me tell you, Linspire is garbage - I installed Ubuntu (dapper). I had a simple TV card ($40) that I thought would work, and I would use that 1.4 GHz to compress TV to MPEG on-the-fly. Well, it turns out, there are no linux drivers. Ok, so I buy a Hauppague 150 card, with a remote ($90). The S-Video connector on the 150 is only video-in, so I buy a cheap nVidia card ($50) to get video out because I know it's well supported on Linux.

Now I try to install MythTV. The Debian library for Dapper only has MythTV 0.18, and MySql 5.0. Those are incompatible. I downgrade MySQL to 4.0. MythTV has other problems, I manually upgrade to MythTV 0.20 and re-upgrade MySql to 5.0.

Sigh. It works. Kind of.

I get no sound in MythTV. Also, there's a blue border on top of my TV screen. I try to ignore it. I use VLC to check the TV signal, it works great, as does the sound. I'm starting to figure out how Linux works, but I'm not sure why they chose to do it this way. MythTV is recording sound, but can't play it back. It's not muted, it's not the volume. Hey, maybe if I install the remote, I can turn the volume up (sounds nice, right?).

IVTV (the IR remote driver) is a mess, their entire model is crap. I'm sure they put a lot of work into it, but it just doesn't work. I can't use the latest version of the remote driver because Dapper's kernel is a couple micro-versions back.

Originally, I thought MythTV would do a lot more. Turns out, it doesn't do hardly anything. It connects a few disparate systems and drivers, and ultimately is just calling other applications via the command line. I'm having less faith in it.

So now I can watch TV without sound, or record it and watch it later in VLC with sound. My remote doesn't work, and there's still a blue border around the top of the screen.

I figured this was a good time to give up. I've got all the parts, and certainly enough horsepower to run Windows, so I install Windows Media Center Edition ($no comment). It's great. It works. I install the drivers and I'm watching TV in minutes. It sucks that Windows works so much better.

But, now, the remote doesn't work. It controls the tv card's native software, which is pretty lame compared to the Win MCE TV software. Now the remote will let me rewind & pause TV, etc, but not change channels and control MCE, and after a couple minutes of working, it quits, every time. Why doesn't it work? Apparently MCE can only use MCE remotes. Period. Sigh.

MCE remotes are another $40+, so I talked Alanda (my wife) into getting a lower-end Logitech Harmony remote ($90). It's on its way as I write this, so I hope it will eliminate at least some of my 7 remote controls. Otherwise, Windows Media Center is chugging away, recording all the important shows (like Lost and JoJo's Circus).

I have some high hopes for it still. I couldn't get the new remote interface to uTorrent working, but I'll keep up on that as they release new beta versions. I'm thinking of getting Democracy running to manage video podcasts, but I'm not convinced that ther are any worth watching on TV. I also need to buy a skype phone handset ($50?) so it feels like a telephone. I think that will make it a lot easier to use. Then I need a bigger HDD ($100). And a DVD drive ($30). And... (forever).

Grand total so far? Over $500 and climbing.At least it's been gradual, and it's a fun hobby, and a real learning experience. That's what I keep telling my wife.

Too old to comment!
On Oct 2, 2006 at 1:00 AM Craig McDonald (http://blog.neuralmotion.com.au) said:
If you want to have another crack at mythtv, it might be worth checking out KnoppMyth (www.knoppmyth.net). It's a superb out-of-the-box way to get mythtv up and running without anywhere near as much pain as doing it by hand.

If you want to stick on the windows route, definitely checkout Mediaportal (www.team-mediaportal.com) - which is IMO the best media centre solution currently doing the rounds. It's developed by the guys who built xbmc for xbox.

On Oct 2, 2006 at 1:00 AM TJ Downes (koldfuzun who loves gmail.com) said:
I know this sounds like blasphemy to all you Linux guys out there, but Windows Media Center would have saved you a ton of hassles and is going to support pretty much any hardware you throw at it.

Im building a Vista Media Center, I really like it and the ability to use a remote is a huge plus.

Sure, it doesn't hold the geek value that doing it with Linux will, but it is functional and works extremely well and is easy enough for anyone in your family to use.

On Oct 2, 2006 at 1:00 AM jdanylko (http://www.dcs-media.com/) said:
I ran into the same problems as you and I was determined to create a build a PVR on Linux.

I even posted my info on my site. I know it's over $800, but if you want a TiVo on steroids, it's the way to go. I don't regret it.

How to create a TiVo clone.
Hope it helps.

JD

On Oct 3, 2006 at 1:00 AM Rob Wilkerson (r.d.wilkerson via gmail.com) said:
I always thought it was just laziness (and that was certainly part of it), but it sounds like TiVo was the right way to go financially as well. Both of my TiVo's cost less than what it sounds like you'll end up spending. :-)

And they work. And they're networked.

On Oct 3, 2006 at 1:00 AM Joshua (jcyr, visiting us from besavvy.com) said:
When I bought my new PC a few years back I got a windows media center 2004 box. Didn't cost any more money than normal. I promptly sold my TV, stero, and entertainment center. I got a 21" monitor and was all set. My girlfriend (now wife) got a new pc a year later, and did the same thing. We now have 2 pc's side by side recording our favorite shows. The only complaint I have is that our remotes get confused as they didn't design them with two side by side pc's in mind.

Almost half the new pcs I see now have media center 2005. Even the notebooks. Just get an inexpensive external USB tv adaptor and you are all set. In my opinion MS is missing the boat by not advertising this. It is my favorite feature of my machine and a requirement of any future machine (unless a good competitor offers something). Apple really dropped the ball by not offering a complete solution with their OS.

For those that are looking for alternatives there is also http://go.connect.yahoo.com/go/tv which I haven't tried yet, but am curious about. Anyone use it?

On Oct 4, 2006 at 1:00 AM Cliff Pearson (cliff has underestimated the power of capcomms.net) said:
I have to mention MediaPortal, which is an open source competitor to MCE.

After the demise of Meedio, this has become to most configurable HTPC software available. TV works and there are are loads of plugins etc. to customise it.

I've been using it for a couple of months now and it's working out fine.

http://www.team-mediaportal.com

On Oct 9, 2006 at 1:00 AM Dan Morphis (http://www.milkcarton.com/) said:
Hey MrNate!
MythTV actually works very well, but it does take some configuring. I've been running it since 0.9 (like 3.5 years ago).

As far as hardware goes, you can't run it on really obscure stuff. I use an ancient Hauppauge WinTV frame grabber card, and my mobo has onboard S-Vid out (nForce 2 chipset).

For OS, I used Fedora Core 5 and took the important parts from Jarod Wilson's setup guide (http://wilsonet.com/mythtv/fcmyth.php). For my servers, I much prefer to run ubuntu, but for my PVR, I just want it to work without ANY hassles so I used FC5 when I upgraded the OS last week.

Sound was the hardest thing for me to get setup correctly. It took me a while to realize that one of the /dev/dsp devices is for capture, and the other for playback (I last fought the sound battle 3+ years ago and had forgotten all the troubles). If you need help with sound, shoot me an email.

For IR, I built the sender and receiver circuit at lirc.org (http://www.lirc.org/receivers.html, http://www.lirc.org/improved_transmitter.html) and put it in an IR project box I bought from Radio Shack and painted black. The IR transmitter circuit I built is overkill, you could use the VERY simple one at http://www.lirc.org/transmitters.html I've built it for a few people and it works great.

Specs for my system:
Can't recall the mobo w/ nForce 2 chipset, AMD 1800 XP, with 512 MB RAM, 160GB HD. Case is a Cooler Master ATC-620, Vid, ethernet and sound are coming from the nForce 2. Hauppage WinTV frame grabber for the capture card. DVD drive is some pioneer drive I bought in '98; I took the bezel off and paint it black so it would match my case.

All told, I think I had around $600 into the hardware when I bought it 3.5 years ago.

On Nov 2, 2006 at 1:00 AM Antinator (billyrokk at the endearing bendbroadband.com) said:
I recently decided to take the plunge into the TV/PC realm. I've been extremely impressed with WinXP Media Center as a whole. It still gives me the control freak otion of managing users through the management console (die XP Home!) while providing an excellent interface for video componants.

I purchased my Dell XPS400 nearly a year ago. I did this mostly to get my hands on one of the new dual core procs and the free upgrade to the all digital 19" ultrasharp was a nice bonus. Immediately I threw away the 128MB video card and replaced it with an X800XL 512MB Radeon. The 2GB of DDR2 and 160GB SATA150 drive make for one fantastic gaming machine.

So then comes the decision to record TV onto my PC... Thank you Battlestar Galactica season 3.

I purchase an ATI TV Elite w/ remote. The install was very easy and one 3-way gold tipped RG6 splitter later, I was recording my favorite shows. Xp Media's guide is ab fab. 2 weeks of shows at my fingertips. It record entire seasons with a click, let's me set how much space I want to allocate for recording, and allows me to burn to a DVD-/+R that I can watch on my main TV in my living room.

53GB later and I'm starting to run out of room. Enter the Western Digital MyBook Elite 500GB USB 2.0 external hard drive. What an amazing piece of hardware. I was able to set Media Center to use it as it's default recording drive and place all of my previously recorded shows on it (they were immediately picked up when I placed them in the "recorded tv" folder). What this means is... I can play my MMO of choice without taxing my OS hard disk at all.

Most of the things I did on this system are completely out of character for me. I've been a professional computer tech since 94 and have built all of my systems (save my first Packard Bell 486DX2). Buying a bundled system was painful, not loading my own OS was painful, using an ATI card was painful, and using an external USB hard drive was painful.
Happy DVRing everyone!
Ant

On May 14, 2007 at 1:00 AM Justin (http://tonesmith.blogspot.com/2007/05/mythtv.html) said:
I built a stable, silent Myth box, and the WAF is very, very high. ;)

I've built four Myth systems, starting with 0.18, and it's dramatically easier to set up just in the last six months -- 0.20 is trivial to set up on Feisty with the right hardware (which you have). I'm not sure what you mean by "doesn't do hardly anything." Installing MythWeb, MythWeather, MythArchive, MythGame should get you started.

MCE's DRM on recordings is pretty offensive to me, and there's really no point in the overhead of running Windows on a computer that is going to be running Myth and maybe Firefox.

I'm not sure about your audio problems, but here's a few pointers:

IVTV is the capture card driver, not the remote. LIRC is the driver for the remote control. Can't say that I've noticed that it's crap. They do get bitten by new hardware in old boxes pretty frequently.

I was bitten by exactly the Dapper/Edgy kernel version problem too. Edgy includes IVTV but the version was not new enough; Dapper was old enough that I could build a version of IVTV with the fixes I needed. Feisty Just Works.

You probably aren't willing to give it a shot anymore, but Myth in Feisty is pretty much a trivial affair. My MCE friend is running out of reasons not to switch.

I'm sure 0.18 was a pain to set up; I used KnoppMyth back then and things were a lot easier.

I'm not a paid endorser. I schill because I love.
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