Your editor's eighth-grade son was looking around for an end-of-year school
project. Fearing the alternatives (most of which seemed to involve
explosives), your editor made the logical suggestion: let's build a MythTV
box together. That project looked
like a good Linux learning project which might just yield a device which
would be useful around the house. Plus, with what he thought was expert
Linux guidance (kids are so gullible sometimes), the project couldn't
Well, it didn't fail, but it was not always clear that a successful outcome
was in the works. For the benefit of others who may be considering the
creation of such a box, here's a few things your editor learned on the way.
Do not expect it to be easy. Contemporary Linux users tend to be a
spoiled bunch. For the most part, any of thousands of programs can be
installed by way of a single package manager operation. Often these
programs come pre-configured in some sort of minimally working way;
finishing the job is just a matter of making a few tweaks. So what could
be so hard about installing MythTV? After all, there are packages for many
distributions just waiting to be used.
Even with pre-built packages, installing MythTV reminds your editor of
installing Linux back in 1993. Remember trying to come up with an XFree86
configuration file for a previously unknown monitor? MythTV is somewhat
like that. There's a great deal of configuration to perform, and a lot of
parameters to tweak. Get one wrong, and the whole thing fails in
mysterious ways. Anybody who is not up for a long setup experience would
be well advised to stick with simpler tasks - like writing new sendmail
Choose your hardware with care. MythTV requires a fairly strong
system in general; it's not a suitable application for that Pentium 100
system gathering dust in the basement. A capable (but supported!) video
card is required. Then, there is the issue of choosing a TV card.
Your editor, after some digging, stumbled across the pcHDTV HD3000 tuner
card. It had a number of seemingly nice features, such as the ability to
tune in high-definition TV broadcasts while avoiding obvious obnoxious
misfeatures - broadcast flag compliance, for example. What won your
editor's heart, however,
was the statement that, while Linux was supported, Windows drivers were not
available. How could a card which supported only Linux fail to work?
And it does work, once one gets it configured correctly. That involves
tracking down the firmware and putting it in the right place, ensuring that
the correct modules get loaded (something that doesn't seem to happen by
default), and going through a
lengthy process of figuring out which stations can actually be tuned
and carefully instructing MythTV to avoid all the others. That last step,
incidentally, requires a development version of the dvb-apps package
obtained from CVS. Then
one finds out that, in order to cope with a high-definition signal, one needs
a seriously fast processor; that 1.8GHz Athlon you have gathering dust in
the basement just won't cut it. Meanwhile, getting plain old,
low-resolution TV out of the card, while said to be possible, has proved to
be a challenge in real life.
Expect pitfalls. One of the many MythTV configuration screens is
for setting up the TV card(s). One of the options given there is
the pcHDTV HD3000. Every day, some well-meaning MythTV user probably tells
the system that his or her pcHDTV HD3000 is a pcHDTV HD3000, while a
hundred experienced users, if they only knew, would be shouting "NO, YOU
FOOL! It's a trap!" at the top of their lungs. This poor user is heading
for some significant pain; MythTV will never work in that configuration.
As the battle-hardened veterans know, an HD3000 card should be configured
as a DVB device (described in the
documentation as "a video standard primarily found in Europe"). Then
it will work. One can only imagine a legion of sadistic MythTV hackers
leaving the pcHDTV-HD3000 option on the menu as a way of ensuring that
beginning users spend more time staring at Google than watching TV.
The allegedly easy path isn't necessarily so. Part of the work plan
involved researching the best distribution for the creation of a MythTV
box. What better way for an eighth grader to learn about how Linux systems
are created? He quickly settled on KnoppMyth, which comes
with claims like:
KnoppMyth can be installed in as little as 10 minutes (depending
upon your hardware speed) then all you have to wait for is the
first week of TV scheduling to be downloaded. If all your hardware
is supported under Linux, you may not have to edit any
Why bother with anything else when you can get all of the pieces off a
KnoppMyth does not appear to be a project which receives a great deal of
development time; the 5.0 release has been in the works for quite a while.
A number of the download links on the main page are dead. It still uses
version 0.18 of MythTV.
More to the point, however: while one may not have to edit configuration
files, nothing gets one out of the need to go through a couple dozen MythTV
setup and configuration screens. There are dozens of operating parameters
to tweak. TV cards must be set up. A separate step is required to set up
video sources. Yet another step exists just to connect the configured TV
cards with the configured video sources. Then there's the set of channel
configuration screens. One has to figure out where the
programming information will come from and set that up. Then one has to
actually make the resulting combination work - something your editor never
succeeded in doing.
Among other things, KnoppMyth did not set up the video card (a Radeon
9250-based card) correctly in its XFree86-based graphics system, with the
result that the XVideo extension was
not available. Suffice to say that MythTV (along with lower-level tools
like mplayer) is not happy without XVideo.
So your editor dumped the whole mess and installed Fedora Core 4,
which had no trouble figuring out the video configuration. The excellent
document made most of the rest of the setup relatively easy - modulo
the level-60 secret incantations required to make the HD3000 work properly.
Don't expect it to tell you anything.. The MythTV setup program
will not work properly if the MythTV backend daemon is running. But it
won't check for said daemon, and it won't say why it is failing. MythTV
has a built-in logging system with eight log levels, but your editor has
yet to find anything of interest there. Other things just fail silently,
with no indication of why, for example, an attempt to watch TV in real time
yields a black screen for ten seconds before returning to the menu.
In summary: MythTV may have a lot of things to recommend it, but
there is some work to be done to make it installable by normal people.
Today's MythTV reminds your editor of installing early Slackware releases:
a long and fiddly process with the occasional trap to avoid. The Linux
installation problem has been nicely solved; if the target hardware is
supported, putting together a Linux system to use that hardware is usually
a straightforward task. What has been done for Linux as a whole can
certainly be done for MythTV. Until it has been done, MythTV is likely to
be inaccessible to many who would like to use it.
Having written the summary, your editor would like to briefly touch on two
It's seriously cool. Once the system works, it does just what it is
claimed to do. It can watch and record television, skip over
advertisements, move around quickly in the program, handle multiple tuners,
juggle conflicting recording schedules, work with a wide variety of remote
controls, browse the web, play games, etc. Packaged in a suitably powerful
and quiet box, MythTV could be a welcome part of one's larger entertainment
We may not be able to build MythTV boxes for much longer. The
capabilities provided by MythTV go against everything the Powers That Be in
the entertainment industry want us to have. As they continue to push for hostile
legislation and DRM-encumbered hardware, they will eventually make the
creation of a MythTV box impossible. Hardware which can tune in tomorrow's
signals, and which makes the result available to software that doesn't know
the secret handshakes, will be unavailable. MythTV is a powerful - if
rough-edged - tool; it's how access to video programming should be. It
would be a shame if MythTV were to smooth out the setup experience, only to
be obliterated by legal systems worldwide.
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