Cutting the Cord Part 3: MythTV (Two Hairy Yaks)

Posted on Sat 03 December 2011 in General

I already talked about my motivations and the home theatre PC I put together, but I haven't talked about the software that makes it useful.

There are several options for PVR/DVR software, and there were a few things I wanted it to do:

  • Have mostly the same capabilities as my existing Bell Satellite PVR
  • Replace the current big, dumb file server I use for media files.
  • Be controlled by my Harmony Remote
  • Be stable once up and running.
  • Not require much in the way of ongoing care and feeding.

With those in mind, I really only considered using Windows Media Center on Windows and MythTV on Linux. My gut told me MythTV would be a bigger hassle to set up, but less overall hassle over time, whereas WMC would probably basically work out of the box, but at the very least, Windows' need to frequently reboot itself for updates would become a pain. As well, the existing media server I use is Linux, so making this new box serve that role would be pretty straightforward.

So, I grabbed the latest Mythbuntu release (11.10) and installed it. Since I normally use Ubuntu when I can, and Mythbuntu is more or less Xbuntu with MythTV plonked on top, it seemed like the best place to start. I had already confirmed that my TV Tuner card had kernel support since 2.6.something, so I figured I was good to go.

A wild hairy yak appears

No so fast! As these things sometimes go, the tuner card wouldn't show up in the MythTV backend setup. After googling, I learned people were saying it worked in Mythbuntu/Ubuntu 10.04 LTS, but people who started at 11.04 were having similar trouble. (The version I was using - 11.10 - was barely a few days old at that point). Reportedly, starting at 10.04 and upgrading through 10.10, to 11.04 would work fine. If that's the case, I'm sure there's is probably a way to just get it working in 11.x directly, but the chances of that taking longer than just doing a couple of distro upgrades was pretty high, so I wiped of 11.10, installed 10.04 and went through the steps to set up the tuner card. Success!

Next, I upgraded to 10.10, confirmed the card still worked...yup, then 11.04, still good. I couldn't find anyone to confirm that the last step of upgrading to 11.10 would work, but I gave it a shot anyway. Huge success. With everything up to the latest version and working fine, the last hurdle was getting the Harmony remote set up to control it. All in all it took quite a while to get the current version of a thing running.

Yak number 2 arrives

The tuner card I'm using has a built-in infa-red receiver and transmitter and even came with a corresponding remote control, so I figured it would be a piece of cake teaching the Harmony to act like it. Alas, it was not to be. It turns out nobody bothered to write the Linux driver for that feature of the card, so there was no way to even use the IR features. Determined not to be thwarted at this point, I went out and spent $20 on a generic "Windows Media Center Remote" and corresponding USB IR receiver after a bit more research on what would actually work in Linux. The setup was pretty straightforward, and the Harmony remote already had it in its massive database of remotes it can emulate, so I just had to tweak the configurations a bit so that some of the buttons would perform that actions we're all used to with our current PVR and we were all set.

Lastly, I set up a subscription to Schedules Direct so I'd have good guide data, set up some scheduled recordings. I'm happy to report, everything's been running swimmingly for just over a week with no additional intervention required on my part. It also plays our existing library of digital video in various formats (avi/xvid, mkv, etc) without difficulty, all from the same interface, which is great. If the stability remains and we're still happy with it in a few weeks, I'll officially cut the cord and dance a small jig while I call up Bell and tell them to get stuffed.