Watching TV on your PC, part 1

The title of this post suggest that there is more to come on this topic…. Time will tell if that’s the case, but my general feeling after having spent a fair amount of time on trying out various options for building a mediacenter/htpc/whatever you want to call it, is that the technology may be there, but it takes some serious hacking skills to get it working. And that most of the mediacenter software packages out there aren’t really mature.

Background is that I’ve thrown out the old VCR, I don’t own a DVD player, am looking into getting a new (flat) TV – and that I like the idea of accessing music, movies, basic Internet browsing etc through the TV.

So, when I replaced the trusty old Dell Dimension 8100 (P4 1.4 GHz, 384 MB RAM, 70 GB HD, Haupaugge PVR-350 TV card) with a custom built, small form factor PC the timing was right to see if the Dell could be rebuilt to act as media server. Apart from being big and loud, it should have enough horsepower in it. Or so I thought, at least if I used a suitable Linux distro. Another dimension was to us OpenSource or freeware tools, rather than buying a Windows Mediacenter license. Finally, if a mediacenter was to enter my (our!) living room, it must easy to use and offer some real advantages to having DVDs, CDs etc – my girlfriend would not accept anything else. Fair enough, I actually agree on this. Technology and gadgets are cool, but for day-to-day use things must be usable.

As my Linux skills are rudimentary, I went with Ubuntu and MythTV, as others seemed to recommend it, and there is a good guide at https://help.ubuntu.com/community/MythTV_Edgy. Especially MythTV is very flexible and powerful. The guide is both good and pretty complete, but I nevertheless ended up spending a full day on reading, installing, re-doing same thing again because something didn’t download properly, configuring MySQL etc etc – lot’s of time. Eventually yes, I managed to get MythTV running, but it is slow, hangs every now and then (too often) and is generally useless on this particular machine/setup. May very well be that I have configured things incorrectly, but having followed instructions in the guide to the letter, I’d say the configuration is at least decent. This ain’t working..

Ripped the TV card out of the Dell and put it into the newly built, shiny PC (AMD Athlon 64 4000+, 2GB RAM, 550 GB HD, Nvidia GeForce 7950GT). Even though this PC is not to be used as a mediacenter, it wouldn’t hurt being able to watch TV while doing other things, right? Next step is then to look for software to achieve this.

With a pretty fast AMD CPU and a good graphics card, I expect this Windows XP Pro based system to handle any reasonable TV task I could throw at it. Starting off with Hauppauge’s own tools, these are pretty archaic. The PVR-350 has been around for some years, but the drives are still reasonably recently updated. Anyway, they worked fine and I could watch TV in the provided tools. But the Hauppauge tools are basic to say the least – not nearly what I want.

Enter GB-PVR, a Windows based PVR (Personal Video Recorder) software that has been around for some years now. I tried it a few years ago and it was then quite buggy and not nearly something you could use in a living room setting (the girlfriend-acceptance-factor). To GB-PVR’s benefit, it has come a long way since I tried it last time (as I recall it, a couple of years back I had to re-install my entire PC after trying out GB-PVR on it…). It worked ok, but hung a few times and is not quite as slick as I would like it to be. Specifically, the xmltv programming features were a bit tricky to get working. And the fact that a private Swedish company has strange connections (sorry, in Swedish) to the product makes me hesitant to use it in a real/live/permanent setting.

Next and final attempt so far is to use Media Portal. Also Windows based, Open Source. It took a few hours to set up everything, but the installation is smooth, even offering on-the-fly download of all the TV channels offered by my cable TV provider (ComHem) – way cool! By the options tried so far Media Portal is by far the best. Ok, it’s running on a much more powerful PC than MythTV was, but considering I that MythTV requires you to be more than a little familiar with Linux to install and especially maintain, that is not an option for most of the people out there. User friendliness is key for the vast majority of people.

All in all, I now have Media Portal running nicely. There are some quirks such as occasional hanging when you view TV in full screen mode, the keyboard shortcuts doesn’t always work at all/as expected, but the automatically updated Program Guide is really, really cool. Many thanks to the people at xmltv for this! If you are interested in xmltv and live in Sweden, I recommend a visit to tv.swedb.se.

The main problem with both Media Portal and GB-PVR has been that TV picture and sound get out of synch or chopped up when you do some other heavier work on the PC, or when Windows for some reason decide it needs to do a lot of swapping or similar. On the positive side both GB-PVR and Media Portal installs just as easily as any other Windows program. Configuring them takes some time, but nothing too bad, and this is expected from any similar application.

As a proof-of-concept that you can watch TV on your PC the work so far has been successful. But I still don’t see it as good enough for deployment into the living room… Will keep looking at options though, some of the options left to explore are:

  • Windows Vista
  • LinuxMCE. Open Source Linux project
  • SageTV. Looks a bit similar as Media Portal. Commercial
  • Beyond TV. Commercial
  • Media Engine. Open Source for limited hardware
  • … probably several more
Advertisements

2 Responses to “Watching TV on your PC, part 1”

  1. Göran Says:

    Found some other initiatives:

    – Freevo (freevo.sourceforge.net). Looking nice judging from the screen shots at http://freevo.sourceforge.net/screenshots.html.
    A video showing the user interface (don’t know which skin they are using) is found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mdXcQa5URBE&NR.
    Down side once again seem to be that it is not an out-of-the-box experience (you need to install and configure it, i.e. Linux skills needed), and the girlfriend-friendliness can be questioned.

    – GeeXboX (www.geexbox.org). Interesting in that it is a complete Linux distribution with some serious multimedia features built in from scratch. Looks like GeeXboX will also use Freevo up ahead, could be interesting.

    Having thought about this a bit more, the conditions I have for a mediacenter are (not necessarily in this order):

    1. Easy install.
    2. Not require the latest hardware (as it is expensive and creates a lot of heat, requiring noisy fans etc)
    3. Smooth, nice looking and intuitive end user experience (the Girlfriend Factor!)
    4. Automatic updates. Hacking away in a Linux shell to find, download and install upgrades (to support new codecs or just bug fixes) is not user friendly. I want to be notified (by visual notification in the mediacenter, by email or whatever) when an update is available, the updating should then be automatic once I initiate it from for example a menu in the mediacenter.

  2. Göran Says:

    Another update, favoring MediaPortal, is that the upcoming version of MediaPortal is split into separate server and front-end components, much like MythTV. Nice indeed, as it allows for a server stuffed away in a closet, with multiple clients (some of which may be handheld like the Nokia N800?) showing media. More info at http://tvengine3.team-mediaportal.com/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: