MythTV to the rescue

I’m not much of a TV watcher yet I appreciate devices like the TiVO and DVRs and have always wanted one. The problem is, sometimes I’m really cheap, I don’t want to pay for a TiVO and I really don’t want to pay a recurring fee just to get a program guide. Being the techie geek I am I also want to be able to watch recorded TV shows on other devices and again, pay nothing for it.

MythTV to the rescue. (

MythTV has existed for a number of years now and I’ve given it a try multiple times. Each time I gave up on it any one of a few reasons and it usually could have been resolved by throwing more money at the project. I usually hit two snags with my MythTV setup. One of the reasons was, where do I put a loud computer that isn’t too far away to hook up to the TV (for those times when I *did* want to watch a show on the TV) but most of the time it was because I didn’t have enough computing power to do transcoding, better known as, the ability to pause live TV. This was a real bummer to me because it’s one of the key features of any DVR, any VCR can record a TV show, but only a DVR can pause live TV.

There is a lot of things that go into building a good MythTV box and it usually revolves around buying more stuff. Well I have lots of stuff already and I wanted to put it all to good use. I’m also not entirely sure I’ll continue using a DVR so I really didn’t want to spend a lot of money on something I might end up declaring useless to me anyway.

So rewind a bit to about, six months ago, when I finally decided I would use my laptop as my primary computer for everything, pictures, music, video editing…everything. This decision freed up what I call my “big computer” which is now an old by today’s standards Pentium 4 system with 1GB of ram and a 120GB hard drive. It has all the rights specs to run MythTV but has a few things going against it. It’s loud, big and uses more power than it should.

There isn’t a whole lot I can do about the power consumption of the machine, but now that we’re living in a house, there is one trick I can use to get rid of the noise and ugly computer case while spending minimal cash. Put it in the basement!

Our house (a 4 level split) has an unfinished basement and as part of a different project I had already replaced an existing phone port in our TV room with some keystone jacks. Keystone jacks are part of a larger system usually referred to as structured cabling. Anyway, I used a keystone wall plate and associated jacks to also pass provide a data port, new CATV port and of course the existing phone line. I had a few blank spots on the wall plate so I simply bought two RCA ports and another CATV port. From there I was able to connect my computer located in our basement to our TV/Receiver located in the TV room.

Controlling that computer and the associated MythTV software on it was the next challenge. Luckily there is already some software freely available that does just that called Synergy. Synergy is a program that lets you control two distinct computers using the same keyboard and mouse. Where as a KVM switch will let you use a number of computers using the same keyboard and mouse, Synergy lets you control two computers that also have their own monitors. Using synergy, it’s possible to put the monitors of two computers side by side and then by simply sliding the mouse off the edge of one screen it’ll appear on the edge of the screen of the other computer. It works very well. So I setup Synergy between my MythTV computer (with the TV as a monitor) and my laptop. This allows me to control my MythTV box using my laptop’s touchpad and keyboard.

So that’s fun right? Well I also said I wanted to be able to watch recorded shows on other devices and this is where it gets really cool. MythTV was designed with a client/server architecture. The software is divided into two parts with one part that is actually responsible for recording TV shows and the other part responsible for displaying the recorded content. These two parts don’t necessarily need to reside on the same computer and when installed in different computers the role of the computer gets a name. A computer with the part that records shows is referred to as a “backend” server. A computer with the part that displays content held on a backend server is called a frontend. MythTV’s architecture makes it possible to have multiple frontend computers and just one backend computer and so I’ve setup my laptop to also be a frontend computer. This allows me to watch live and recorded TV anywhere in the house that I have a strong wireless signal to my computer.

Now obviously all of this setup isn’t for the faint of heart. I did spend a considerable amount of time getting everything setup but although it was a long process, it really didn’t require much more than installing the correct software and following instructions on how to set each piece of the puzzle up. On my MythTV server and laptop I installed Ubuntu 6.10. Setting up wireless on my laptop was probably the most difficult part due to Linux not truly supporting my wireless. But if you’re looking for a useful and rewarding project it doesn’t get much better than MythTV. MythTV is capable of much more than just recording TV so give it a look.

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