I don't want to pay for bloody TiVo!
June 19, 2006 10:30 PM   Subscribe

I know about MythTV and Freevo. My question to the hive mind is

I have a useless whitebox PC with a 2400 "PR Rating" Athlon processor, a gigabyte of RAM, and a 200 gigabyte hard drive. I'm comfortable with Debian and a bit less so with Fedora. I'm willing to buy whatever expansion card it is I need to hook the computer up to my tv/cable.

I don't ask a whole lot, just that I can set it up to record shows so I can skip commercials and cut my TV time by a third. Is my best move to buy a TiVo already, or can I jigger up something with no monthly fees by using this useless spare PC of mine, a distro like Debian/Ubuntu or Fedora, and a minor investment (under the price of a TiVo box) in an expansion card? Are this PC's specs underpowered for the task or will it suffice for my purpose?

I really want a TiVo, but man, I hate to add yet another damn monthly bill to all my other monthly bills. I don't even really need the whole TV listings business, I don't care. I don't need my PVR to suggest shows to me; I already know what I like and want to watch. I know when the things I want to watch are on (mostly [adult swim] and the Simpsons and South Park, plus some stuff from the Annenberg/CPB channel, History Channel, and Animal Planet).

Bonus points for anyone who can suggest a way of having a remote control for the whitebox PC contraption. I would not mind paying a hundred bucks extra for a remote and receiver to install into the PC so I can control the Freevo/MythTV from across the room, although if consumer-level hardware for this doesn't exist, then I guess it doesn't exist.

All advice, comments, persuasion and dissuasion welcomed. If the answer is "get a fucking TiVo already and shut up", I can accept that. But if there's a way to get a reasonably tolerable experience with open source software, my currently useless extra PC, and maybe a few hardware upgrades, I'd be delighted to put a little elbow grease and IRC begging-for-help-time into the effort.
posted by evariste to Technology (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
How do you get your signal? If you use DirecTV, tivo is a negligible $5/month, very very worthwhile imho. OTOH, apparently some of the cable companies also offer PVRs for a small additional fee, it'd be worth checking out.

Finally, and slightly OT- if you don't have a PVR, you *don't really know how you'll use it*. It's a paradigm-shifting device that can change how you watch TV, and (in my limited experience) usually does.
posted by carterk at 10:40 PM on June 19, 2006

Response by poster: I have cable from Comcast.
posted by evariste at 10:42 PM on June 19, 2006

Response by poster: They offer their own PVR, but I'd rather have TiVo or a generic solution than theirs. I understand PVRs from cable companies and DirecTV aren't all that great, especially from the "skipping commercials" standpoint, which is the most important thing to me. I don't want to watch more TV or timeshift all that much, I just don't wanna see any damn commercials any more. If I have to deal with a klutzy UI from an open source cobbled-together setup, that's fine, but I'm certainly not going to pay Comcast a monthly fee for a klutzy UI that doesn't do the thing I care most about, skipping commercials, very well.
posted by evariste at 10:45 PM on June 19, 2006

Response by poster: I might be wrong about how good Comcast's PVR is, of course. If so, tell me.
posted by evariste at 10:46 PM on June 19, 2006

Response by poster: Another disadvantage with TiVo/other commercial PVRs for me is that I don't have networking in my bedroom, where I do most of my tv-watching. I don't think they come in WiFi variants, do they? I certainly don't want to string 100 feet of ethernet from my router in my office all the way back to my bedroom.

And even if they did come in WiFi-capable mode, honestly, I would rather prefer something that works whether or not I'm paying TiVo a monthly fee.
posted by evariste at 10:51 PM on June 19, 2006

Best answer: That box is more than capable of running Myth.
Get yourself a copy of Knoppmyth and a Hauppauge PVR and go crazy.
If you get the right card, it'll come with a remote and IR sensor.
posted by madajb at 10:52 PM on June 19, 2006

Best answer: It all depends on how much money your time is worth.

Setting up a mythtv box can be time consuming depending on how much luck you have with your hardware and how comfortable you are in linux. If I were you and you decide to go the mythtv route, I would use the Knoppmyth distribution which makes setup alot less painful.

As for hardware, pick up a hauppage pvr-150 or pvr-500. They are the best tv cards on the market IMO. They record the tv with hardware acceleration so they don't suckup cpu cycles which is important on a weaker machine like yours.

As for remote, I had a good experience with the ATI Remote Wonder but there are several other good remotes that I can't recall the names of.

Just be aware that the project might take awhile. Once I got mine setup perfectly it was great! It skipped commercials automatically and was very stable.

(Another less legal option is to download torrents of your shows that are already edited and probably better quality then what you can get from your pvr.)
posted by meta87 at 10:54 PM on June 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your PC plus a capture card plus MythTV will be more than enough to record and playback shows, and have TiVo like "pause-live-tv" functionality. There's definitely a way to hook up a IR-reciever to your TV and have a remote. Seriously, sorry I dont have any links handy but all you need is google. I'd start with MythTV homepage to discover what TV capture card would be the best for you (I recommend Hauppage WinTV 250), buy it, install it, install MythTV, you're in business.
posted by aeighty at 10:55 PM on June 19, 2006

Response by poster: Side-question: is there any way to use my Macbook's Apple Remote with a receiver? That would be so cool.

You guys are giving me a lot of confidence with going the "retooled PC" route so far, thanks!
posted by evariste at 11:06 PM on June 19, 2006

Best answer: I'll also recommend the Hauppauge card plus MythTV. I had this setup for awhile, but the other TV users weren't okay with linux, so they weren't so okay with it. The only real problem in that regard was I wanted to use the machine for other linux activities, so it didn't auto-login and go straight to Myth, or wasn't always in Myth. This was too much for non-techies.

The WinTV 150/250 are similar, the difference being in the tv out functionality. I'm too lazy to look it up right now, but one has hardware decoding on the TV out, the other doesn't. You can get it with the remote control, so that you can do that too.
posted by stovenator at 11:08 PM on June 19, 2006

Response by poster: (Another less legal option is to download torrents of your shows that are already edited and probably better quality then what you can get from your pvr.)

Yes, but I'm allergic to copyright infringement lawsuits, plus I don't want to have to seek out the torrents I want, transfer the video to removable media and then to the PVR-PC, and figure out how to play it. I'm not really interested in watching TV on my 15.4 inch MacBook Pro either.
posted by evariste at 11:10 PM on June 19, 2006

Response by poster: stovenator, madajb and meta87, how does the remote situation work? Do I have to have the ass of the PC facing me, or do they have a setup where the IR receiver is in the front of the PC, perhaps in an optical drive bay?
posted by evariste at 11:14 PM on June 19, 2006

I vote for the PC.

I came across this article while thinking about World Cup preparation. It describes how to make a nice media center out of an old PC (Windows based). I didn't end up building it, so I can't offer a good review.

However, there are a few nice things about using the PC. You can upgrade, it can perform multiple functions, it's often cheaper, and you get to play around with it until it's just how you like it. Hell, if you have a bluetooth capable cell phone, you can set it up to pause when you get a call or leave the room, or use your phone as the remote. Ridiculous!

As for the IR question, you can buy remotes at pretty much any computer store that have a USB receiver that will sit wherever you like.
posted by dsword at 11:35 PM on June 19, 2006

I have a Comcast PVR, and I have to say that it is pretty disappointing overall. The UI is slow, ugly, and poorly designed. You can probably get the same (if not vastly better) experience with an open source Myth TV variant.
posted by anarcation at 1:24 AM on June 20, 2006

Best answer: The remotes that work with MythTV/Hauppauge are on a wire so you can stick it where it can see the remote.

Knoppmyth is the easiest way to get this. The only real complaint I have is inability to move individual show files to a different location conveniently. (Maybe we're missing something here, but the files are not named to identify themselves to humans).
posted by Goofyy at 2:47 AM on June 20, 2006

I don't think they come in WiFi variants

My ReplayTVs work fine using wireless adaptors plugged into the ethernet socket. I assume Tivo can also do this. It's no big thing. The main problem is ensuring that your signal is strong and clean enough to carry an MPEG-2 stream without drops or pauses. Before I got a DD-WRT onto a Linksys clone with traffic shaping I was really limited to lower-bandwidth MPEG-4 variants such as XVID for wireless.
posted by meehawl at 4:47 AM on June 20, 2006

TiVo works great with a wireless adaptor -- you just need to buy a model that TiVo recommends on their website.
posted by k8t at 4:51 AM on June 20, 2006

Best answer: Keep an eye on www.bensbargains.net - you can get a TiVo for free just about twice a month.
posted by k8t at 4:51 AM on June 20, 2006

FWIW, I am very happy with my Comcast DVR. I have tried TiVo, and frankly was not any more enamored of that than I am of the Comcast service. Also, there is a code that you can map to one of the useless buttons on your Comcast (or universal) remote that will provide you with 30-second skip forward. Yes, it is the best code in the world, and no, Comcast will not tell you about it, but you can Google it in like 3 minutes.

I think it adds $9 or $12 to my cable bill and it is COMPLETELY worth it. I'm just scared that Comcast will jack the price up like 500%, because there is no way I could watch TV without it at this point.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:02 AM on June 20, 2006

Best answer: Since you indicated that you watch TV mostly in your bedroom, one thing you might want to consider if you haven't already is the noise factor. If you would be leaving it running all the time so it could record at night the power supply + cpu fan + hard drive noise might get old after a while. On the other hand, if you're planning to turn it on and off then waiting for a computer to boot up every time you want to watch TV might be a little annoying too. You could invest in a quieter power supply/fans if necessary but unless you build a system from scratch with the goal of making it super quiet it'll probably still be noisier than a commercial PVR. Maybe not a problem for you, but something to think about.
posted by shinji_ikari at 5:53 AM on June 20, 2006

Best answer: STFU and just use TIVO!

Hehe... Just kidding.

Last summer I found a tutorial on Makeblog (I'd give you the link, but I'm typing on my PPC) about turning your old PC into a multifunctional DVR/Gaming/Server unit. I followed the tutorial pretty closely and came out with a hell-of-a PVR system. My old Dell P4 1.6ghz now has a new life - working hard to provide me with time shifted content!

My Setup::::
*Beyond TV
*Beyond Media
*Neverball (Awesome open source - free game)

*P4 1.6ghz
*200gb HD
*256mb RAM
*Hauppague PVR-250 (Came with IR remote + has the Mpeg-2 hardware encoding which allows your system to work more efficiently)
*EVGA GForce FX 5500 - video card (I've been switching between DVI + VGA out)
*Firefly RF Remote (Came bundled w/ Beyond Media)
*Belkin MediaPilot Wireless keyboard/mouse unit
*Syntax Olevia 32'" LCD
posted by drkrdglo at 5:55 AM on June 20, 2006

Best answer: I have 2 PVR Solutions at home. I had tried MythTV and was pretty dissapointed with it - I understand they have made a lot of improvements and admittedly I need to try it again.

My main PC uses SnapStream BeyondTV for PVR. This software is great - it has some great functions like cutting out the commercials so you can skip with 1 button, automatically compressing the shows to DivX or WMV, and HDTV support. As far as I know MythTV doesn't do HDTV yet (someone correct me if I am wrong). Of course, the downside is twofold - it sounds like you are a Linux kind of guy and this software is Windows-only, and it is not free (It costs 69.99 reg, you can find it on sale occasionally).

My downstairs HDTV uses the Comcast HDTV PVR. I used their older one, which has a slow UI and only had one tuner. That one pretty much sucked. This new one has 2 tuners and seems to have a faster CPU (and larger hard drive). It isn't so bad - really the only features I wished it had are the commercial skip and show compression. There is an undocumented feature which helps with commercial skip - you can program a "30-second skip" into the remote so skipping commercials takes 5 or 6 presses. The cost for me is $9.99 a month but this changes from area to area.
posted by aurigus at 6:05 AM on June 20, 2006

Best answer: Besides TiVo and roll-your-own, there's a third general solution, which is to get an off the shelf PVR. There are lots of models on the market now, and the key is that they get their electronic program guide (EPG) data via the TV signals themselves. That's the data that your TiVo has to phone home for, but most generic PVRs just have built in TVGuide EPGs that collect their data from a signal transmitted within the local PBS channel's video (NDI's datastream via a VBI line, for those curious to learn more).

I have a Pioneer DVR-533H (~$400) and it works beautifully: rapid skipping of commercials (manually), regular recording of shows by title, even simple editing of recordings (although that's tedious with the remote). And the killer is that these days they all are integrated with DVD burners, so you can replace your DVD player in the stack and archive off shows if needed. The guys over at AVS Forum will have lots of information and opinions, so go read up over there.

To paraphrase JWZ, MythTV is free only if your time is worthless ...
posted by intermod at 6:11 AM on June 20, 2006

Beware the over-the-air EPG that intermod mentions! I don't know if it's been improved since the last time I looked at it (2001ish) but it used to be terribly unreliable. For example, I believe that in some areas local channels are not listed.
posted by jewzilla at 7:22 AM on June 20, 2006

Best answer: MythTV is free only if your time is worthless ...

I have been thinking about giving MythTV a try for a while now, but it seems like it's more trouble than it's worth. Beyond TV took next to no time to set-up and the quality is wonderful.

Then again, last time I tried to put a Linux based OS on my computer I spent two hours trying to get the resolution to look decent with my video card. I'm sure for a Linux Pro setting up a MythBox is a piece of cake. The only real question I would have would for those with the Mythbox would be about the quality.

FWIW, I thought quality between all the PVR software out there was about the same -- I was sadly mistaken when I gave SageTV a try this weekend. The quality (even using the system's best decoder) looks like crap compared to Beyond TV.

Beyond TV is still the only software I've bought since CD burners hit the market -- and it's worth every penny of the $69 price tag. The "Smart Skip" commercial skipping feature is incredible. BTV 4.3, which was released in the past week or so - generates commercial skipping points (blocks out the commercials) in just minutes after the show is recorded!

BeyondTV also comes with a remote (internet) recording interface called Snapstream.net. I've used it many times when I was away from home and forgot to set my show to record.

I think BTV has a free 15-day trial (snapstream.com) -- couldn't hurt to give it a go.
posted by drkrdglo at 12:05 PM on June 20, 2006

Best answer: The biggest reason to build a PVR as opposed to just buying a Tivo is that you like to tinker/build things and you want DRM free access to your TV shows (IMHO). The other main benefit to the DIY approach is the customizability and expandability you get.

On the downside the time/effort involved in rolling your own DVR/PVR probably doesn't outweigh the 5 to 12 bucks a month in charges, unless you like the tinkering aspect. Although once you set it up you shouldn't need to mess with it that much unless you want to. Using the PC as a platform for your PVR means it's very expandable/customizable BUT underneath the pretty menu's and software it's still a PC with all the pratfalls associated with it (driver issues, configuration, etc)

Did you mention if you had analog cable or digital cable?

The PVR150 is a pretty standard hardware encoding card available for less than a hundred bucks with remote control and IR blaster and works well with both windoze and linux PVR software. Speaking of windows, even though it isn't open source, GBPVR is an excellent free pvr solution with a very active community.

Shameless self plug: I run a site dedicated to this topic Build Your Own PVR so consider my opinion somewhat skewed towards rolling yoru own (although I did own a series 2 tivo for the longest time).

good luck!

posted by rampy at 1:39 PM on June 20, 2006

Response by poster: rampy-Analog cable.
posted by evariste at 2:18 PM on June 20, 2006

If you really like to tinker, then build your own.

If you are avoiding TiVo because you don't want the monthly fee, then pay for the 3-year deal. It is the best value per month, anyway. Our TiVo works great with the wireless USB adapter.
posted by achmorrison at 4:50 PM on June 20, 2006

Best answer: ...Just a little clarification about the time it takes to build a PVR setup (for anyone who is still thinking about building one). . .

Everyone is making it sound like there are hours upon hours of time involved when trying to turn an old computer into a PVR box. It took me about an 45-Minutes to one HOUR tops to put in the PCI cards and setup the software.

Setting up a Linux box is where the time will come into play, but if you're willing to go with a Windows solution you should be up and running in no time at all.

BTW -- Great site Rampy!! I've been following it since I put together my box last year.
posted by drkrdglo at 11:22 AM on June 21, 2006

Response by poster: This looks like fun.
posted by evariste at 12:48 PM on September 21, 2006

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