All this and more for free, sounds unbelievable but its true and it can only happen because its free. A company selling software that allowed consumers to record television, cut out the ads and compress it to divx automatically via a scheduled task, might run in to some legal trouble pretty quickly. But due to to the open community nature of a project like Mythtv it resides somewhere in the grey area. All this is good and well but the million dollar question is.... Does it work?
To test out Mythtv I assembled a fairly 'middle of the road' system with the following hardware.
- AMD Athlon 1700xp CPU
- 1 Gigabyte DDR Ram
- Brooktree 878 based analogue capture card
- Twinham Vision Plus DVB card
- 20gb Seagate IDE hard disk for the OS
- 100gb Seagate IDE hard disk for the OS
- LG IDE DVD Writer
As I have read many reports of nightmarish installation and dependency hell I opted to have a few plans of attack if necessary. Luckily I never needed to go further than plan B, which probably should have been Plan A if it wasn't for an inherent laziness and abundance of wishful thinking which gave birth to Plan A.
Plan A - After some initial reading I decided to install Via Apt, the Debian package manager, on to the installation of Debian Sarge that was already on the machine. But due to a circular dependency and various other problems beyond the scope of this article that failed and I moved to Plan B.
Plan B - Plan B was to download and install Knoppmyth, a custom distribution that automatically installs a trim Debian based media centre running a recent version of Mythtv, with all the additional modules available via apt, and a very basic Desktop environment consisting of fluxbox and little else.
Plan B was a breeze and left me ruing the many hours spent on the ill-fated Plan A.
The text based installation of Knoppmyth would probably be enough to scare off intrepid beginners but was reasonably straight forward, for anyone with experience installing Linux, as was the post install configuration which asked some basic questions about location, timezone and hardware. Program listings can be problematic in many parts of the world, due to changing sources and legal issues, but as I had installed a DVB card I just set up the channels to pull the data from the DVB stream. Once I was finished with the basic configuration I was dropped into a functional Mythtv with basic Media players and live TV, a simple apt-get command installed the remaining packages that I mentioned earlier.
Too easy, on to the fun stuff.
First impressions... Wow.
I have played with Windows Media Centre before, concluding that it was an overpriced clunky frontend for Windows Media Player aimed at no market in particular and ultimately doomed for failure. This was another kettle of fish altogether. Facing a similar dilemma to the child who was inadvertently locked in the candy store, I had no idea where to start, so many menu's, so many options, so many colours.
After some serious button pushing and obligatory "oohs" and "ahhs" from my fellow housemates, who were dragged unceremoniously from whatever they were doing to witness this marvel of modern technology (although I had suspicions there enthusiasm didn't quite mirror mine), I pulled myself together.
The logical place to start would have to be the 'Watch TV' menu so I headed back there to see what I could see. The onscreen display, although slower than those on some hardware PVR's, was clear concise and up to the task. The options for recording were mind blowing "Record In This Timeslot Every Week", "Record On Any Channel At Any Time" and many more or just plain "Record" I opted for this and got about twenty minutes worth of Spongebob for review.
I exited from the live TV menu and headed for "Watch Recordings", not only was my recording in there, the icon for it was a small video preview of the recording itself. Very Gucci. I clicked on the preview to start playback and the recording instantly jumped to life in crystal clear fullscreen. Just as I was about to exit, however, the video jumped a little. I knew it was too good to be true, I dragged the navigational slider back a couple of minutes and to my surprise was dropped right in the middle of a commercial. Turns out that the jump wasn't a glitch at all, it was the program automatically skipping the commercials which had been flagged but not removed yet. My excitement was palpable, the housemates were called back. The "oohhs" and "ahhs" were far more enthusiastic this time and "can you only get that on Linux?" was answered with a gleeful "afraid so".
The other menus, although possibly not as exciting as the first, were functional and well layed out. The DVD ripper/transcoder worked without issue. The music player left a lot to be desired and didn't compare to Amarok, my player of choice, but still succeeded in playing all formats of audio I threw at it, as did the video player. The video editing facilities were also in an early stage of development and served more as a glimpse of things to come than an actual replacement for other open source alternatives that are available. The emulator frontend played my ROM's flawlessly and displayed them in an easy to navigate manner. The web browser failed to display many websites correctly due to a lack of plugins but let me read my email which is all many people will want it for. The weather module didn't work for my region but was extremely impressive nonetheless and again showed the amount of polish and innovation that was possible from a community based project that was available free of charge.
All in all Mythtv is not suitable for beginners and probably never will be unless someone with commercial interests gets involved, but that would likely kill the spirit of the thing. However if you are already familiar with some basic Linux administration, or are willing to learn, you should be able to get it running and the rewards are pretty impressive. It will be going on the 'production' box in our house but will be run alongside Amarok, Firefox and Cinelarra as it isn't a suitable replacement for these fully featured applications. As far as comparing Mythtv to Windows Media Centre, there is really no comparison, Mythtv is in a class of its own and puts WMC to shame in almost every department possible. This is the sort of application that could introduce Linux to many new users and households. Well done Isaac and the rest of the team, keep up the good work.