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My -cheap- HTPC project: budget is spiraling

posted under category: General on October 2, 2006 by Nathan

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.

Nathan is a software developer at The Boeing Company in Charleston, SC. He is essentially a big programming nerd. Really, you could say that makes him a nerd among nerds. Aside from making software for the web, he plays with tech toys and likes to think about programming's big picture while speaking at conferences and generally impressing people with massive nerdiness and straight-faced sarcastic humor. Nathan got his programming start writing batch files in DOS. It should go without saying, but these thought and opinions have nothing to do with Boeing in any way.
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