Is MythTV any good? Is TiVo worth the crazy costs?
February 1, 2008 1:30 AM   Subscribe

I'm getting cable for the first time in 5 years soon, and I'd like to get one of these new-fangled PVRs. I've found plenty of info on TiVos, but I'm having trouble finding recent information on alternatives, like MythTV. Does anyone have first-hand experience or quality links?

I'm a tech-savvy Linux user at home, so installing something like MythTV isn't going to be a problem. I also love the idea of having all of my recordings freely accessible, so that I can load them on my iPod, watch them on my computer, burn them to DVD, etc.

I'm a bit worried about the details of MythTV though. The old reviews I can find were all kind of halfhearted, and I haven't found anything that reviews the latest and greatest versions.

What particularly worries me (and my non-techie fiancee) is the usability of the system:

- Are the menus as easy to navigate?
- Is scheduling shows as easy?
- Are there advanced features of TiVo that I'll regret not having?
- Is the maintenance relatively pain-free?

If I do go the TiVo route, how difficult is it to get my recordings off of a PVR like that? I read something about hacking the TiVo, but I'd prefer a simpler solution. (bonus points if that solution is linux-friendly)
posted by chrisamiller to Technology (29 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I've not used TiVo, but I built my own MythTV box and it is wonderful.
I'm not particularly Linux-minded, so I had a few issues getting the final configuration working, but I installed from a Knoppmyth disc (which I believe can be used by booting directly from the disc) which made things very easy.

The menus are easy to use, and are completely customisable (they're just XML files) and the scheduling is very cool - especially when upon adding a new recording, the system automatically re-shuffles other recordings around it to other channels (e.g. the +1hour) or other recording cards.

I'm having a few hiccups where the backend just stops itself (and therefore nothing records or plays), but there's a few workarounds out there - not ideal, but hopefully something that will be smoothed out in time.

In addition, I'm in the process of playing with the automatic transcode-to-iPod functionality, which converts recordings to an iPod format and moves them to a directory which iTunes can subscribe to and download as if they were podcasts... very cool :)
posted by Chunder at 1:54 AM on February 1, 2008

Which cable company provides service in your area? A lot of them now offer PVRs for nothing more than an extra few dollars per month on your bill. You don't pay anything for the box itself, and if it breaks you just trade it in for a new one.
posted by Venadium at 2:40 AM on February 1, 2008

I'm a die-hard TiVo fan.

But MythTV is kinda cool. You'll need a tuner card, but past that, it can handle basic recording tasks. I think that the free source of programming information may have discontinued, but I think alternatives are available.

TiVo just works. TiVo Desktop is their solution that lets you send your shows to your PC, but only to a Windows or Mac system. Though I've heard stories of a Linux tool or two that works to do the same.

TiVo has some other neat features. It's beyond user friendly. It can play Rhapsody on your TV. You can share pictures and MP3s from your PC onto your TV very simply. It works reliably. Cable providers DO offer DVRs, but I've heard bad bad bad stories, consistently of terrible interfaces and dropped recordings.

TiVo does cost about $13 a month. I think it's worth it and I'll be upgrading to their $250 HD model soon. TiVo comes with somewhat limited storage, but if you aren't archiving, all the latest models will give you more than enough TV, I assure you.

What's more, TiVo allows you to record two programs at once—something you'd have to buy two TV tuners for. (Or a dual tuner, though I'm not... sure they exist readily in the PC space.)

There are also automatical transcoding tools for TiVo To Go which let you push it to iPod ready format right quick.

You can always pick up a tuner and try Myth first...
posted by disillusioned at 3:22 AM on February 1, 2008

Best answer: I built my own MythTV box. I took some doing, but I find it's amazing once you get it configured and running.

I don't know about the cable service you're getting. If it is digital cable, you will need a device to change channels on your cable box. I bought the WinTV PVR-150 MCE tv capture kit which came with an IR-Blaster. When I built my original box a few years back I had to solder a serial port connector for it, but now the IR-Blaster and remote controle are supported directly in Linux. If you have regular cable that needs no cable box, you will be able to tune directly without an IR-Blaster so that's one less component to setup.

The menus are very easy to navigate. I use my remote control and press on up/down arrows for changing my selection and OK to confirm. MythTV menus are logically laid out, and the TV Show selection can be done by date from most recent to oldest, or select a specific show and you will see a list of recorded episodes.

Scheduling shows is dead easy, but there is a catch. You must have an account with SchedulesDirect ($20/year) and then configure your account with the channels you subscribe to. Once that is done and MythTV is configured, you can browse a tv schedule and move around it, flagging shows to record. You can also search by show name, browse through an alphabetical index of shows, browse through an index of shows by genre, etc. It's easy to find the show you want to record, or just browse lazily to find new shows. Once you decide on a show, you define the recording schedule. It could be just one time, or every week at that time, or any time on any channel, etc. You can also define a priority so that if there are conflicts the shows you like best will be recorded first.

I have not owned a Tivo ever so I cannot say if there are any features you would miss. Certainly MythTV is advanced enough for me, with a number of power features. It comes with commercial detection built in, you can choose to have it activate automatically or not. You can set a "save point" within an episode, quit viewing, and later reselect that show and have MythTV start right where you left off. With plugins you can archive your TV shows directly to DVD video by navigating through a few menus. It can even tell you the weather if you want it to. There are many more useful features.

Maintenance isn't required often. It will manage its own hard drive space by deleting old shows (unless you told it not to delete that particular show). About the only complicated maintenance I've ever done was rebuild the database when it was corrupted (couldn't schedule new recordings). It was somewhat complex but I got it done and everything was ok after that.

Drawbacks: don't even think about HD yet. You may output it to your TV, but getting HD TV from your cable box to your MythTV box is another story. In my area it's not possible because there are no unencrypted HD channels. If you are lucky and have some, then you must get another type of capture card for that. Still, my cable company's HD box has SVideo output. It's not HD, but then it's not standard NTSC cable either. If you watch a lot of HD videos downloaded from the net it probably would be the best compromise you can reach. Not quite HD TV recordings, HD Videos, and if you really need to you can always watch your cable normally on TV for the full HD experience.

Of course if you're not a technically-minded person MythTV may not be for you. I know there were times when I despaired of ever getting everything working, but when it was done, it was glorious. If you have a friend that has built such a box that would be some help.

My current MythTV box (built about 4 months ago) has been up and recording for 118 days, 11 hours and 29 minutes. 670 episodes recorded for 33 shows. It's a nice little box and I would not ever replace it with the feature-bare version my cable company offers.
posted by splice at 3:40 AM on February 1, 2008

There have been quite a few past questions about MythTV, including this one that I contributed to a few years ago. Everything I said then still stands, and it pretty much answers three out of your four questions...
posted by web-goddess at 4:02 AM on February 1, 2008

Damn. Botched that link. My comment is here.
posted by web-goddess at 4:03 AM on February 1, 2008

The fearless founder of Mefi has his PVRBlog.
posted by jeremias at 4:31 AM on February 1, 2008

Unless you want to record from the analog output of your cable box, or feel like investing a ton of time getting firewire capture working or other workarounds, you're better off either requesting a DVR box from your cable provider or getting a Tivo box with cable card support. This isn't going to be going away at any point soon, if ever.

Unfortunately, we'll probably never see cable card support for PC's unless something comes out for a heavily encumbered OS of your choice, which as of yet hasn't happened. While this would be, by far, the best option, content providors aren't too hot on this idea and absolutely zero effort is being put into development.

If you're in Comcast-land, it's only a matter of time until the Tivo firmware is released into the wild for the Moto DVR boxes. There is a test market in new england for it currently, and things are going well there.
posted by onedarkride at 5:27 AM on February 1, 2008

This isn't going to be going away at any point soon, if ever

If the link Pryde provided has it right, it may be going away very soon, in fact.

Recording HD content over component would neatly bypass all the HDMI kerfuffle, no? You can bet I will be getting one of these when they come out.
posted by splice at 7:15 AM on February 1, 2008

Best answer: It sounds like you'd be find with MythTV for everything except encrypted digital and HD cable, which requires Cable Labs certification and unfortunately, a TiVoHD will have that and a MythTV never will.

On the positive side, thanks to an open source tool like TiVo Decode Manager (mac only), I can pull any video off my TiVo in its original MPEG2 format.

So I'd say if you just want to record analog cable or over the air basic HD, then a MythTV box will be perfect, but if you want to record HBO in HD or Discovery Channel HD, then you'll need something like a TiVoHD box with cablecards, then a bit of software to get stuff onto and off of it.
posted by mathowie at 8:01 AM on February 1, 2008

Best answer: Another alternative is a software called Sage. It is a commercial software (around 80 bucks) that runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux. (I haven't used the Linux version, but since Sage was developed in Java, the Linux version should be identical to the Windows and Mac versions.)

When I started my PVR project 4 years ago, I really wanted to go with Myth TV, but I had the same feeling that you did. The reviews were lukewarm, and I was concerned about hardware support. So I tried all of the commercial softwares that were available before settling on Sage.

I've had a great experience with Sage. Their support is top-notch, and they have opened the software up to their very active user base, who have developed some indispensable plug-ins (e.g., commercial skipping, DVD burning, Web interface).

Some of the issues that folks have mentioned with Myth are resolved with Sage. The program guide info is free for the life of the product. You can record HD with the right hardware. Setup is relatively simple.

Since you describe yourself as technically apt, I highly recommend building your own PVR, regardless of the software you choose. It's fun, you gain serious geek cred, and there are so many more possibilities than what the TiVo man has to offer. Good luck!
posted by mattybonez at 8:04 AM on February 1, 2008

Seconding Please give it a look before you go mucking about in Linux with MythTV, or spending too much on locked down garbage with Tivo.

I've been using Sage for years now, and it's wonderful.
posted by SlyBevel at 9:02 AM on February 1, 2008

Personally, I have been using Windows XP - Media Center Edition for about 6 years, and it works perfectly. About a year ago, I added an HD tuner to pull HD shows via antenna (= free)

It is a lot easier to setup than MythTV, and TV listings are free. It also has great hardware support.

I came from using Tivo for several years and personally, I think its better. (It's way more responsive)
posted by mphuie at 9:17 AM on February 1, 2008

Oh, and it is extremely simple to get recordings off. I currently use a util that automatically reencodes my recordings to H.264 nightly. (mpeg2 recordings get big, 4+ gig for HD). It can also encode another copy for your ipod/zune/portable movie player.
posted by mphuie at 9:20 AM on February 1, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the feedback so far. You guys are great!

Here's a related question: I know that broadcast TV is going HD-only next year. Will the same thing be happening with cable? If so, I want to make sure I'm prepared for it.
posted by chrisamiller at 9:39 AM on February 1, 2008

I built a PVR with a Hauppauge TV card and GBPVR few months ago and it's working perfectly.
Just search AskMefi for PVR and you will get enough info.

And as for your last question, I don't think Cable is going digital.
posted by WizKid at 10:04 AM on February 1, 2008

I have a myth box, and I love it, and I've never even had a tivo experience at a friend's place.

If you're not a geek, and won't mind occaisionally having to ssh into your machine to either rebuild or fix things, I'd recommend myth. Part of it is that I have a problematic input source, so I have to put a bit more maintenance into my setup, but the way that I currently do things doesn't involve paying anyone for episode guide data (sorry, I'm not providing more details). While Ms. nobeagle uses linux on her desktop, she'll ask my help for anything beyond a trivial fix that she can pull off in a gui. She doesn't have issues with using mythtv as a user; nor of using mythweb (I find that a more convenient way to schedule recordings).

If you have kids, myth is lacking a bit of parental control. Sure, I by default flag videos as adult in mythvideo, and only on a case by case basis set them to default showlevel, but from the time that it's recorded until I reencode it, that's sometime that it's viewable in the fully accessible "recordings" directory. I'm not too sure that a 7 year old needs to see an uncut version of a Clockwork Orange. Yeah, if I was really bothered, I could modify the code to require a PIN to watch TV or enter recordings. But with newly having kids, there's no free time. So far they're obeyed on the command that they can only watch TV with our permission, and ms. nobeagle stays home.

As one who eventually reencodes everything to divx to dump to dvd's (standalone player in the basement for ms. nobeagle to watch while falling asleep), or to USB drives for the EEE, a mythbox is great. Plus, if your SO goes for the geek factor, you'll score points.

As a note, my hardware seems to be pushing the limits of myth - athlon 850 mhz, 512 100mhz ram and an nvidia 6200a graphics card. I'll note that with mplayer's more highly optimized drivers, I can watch 720x480 dvd's without about 40% cpu usage (and 640x480 xvid around 15%), but mythfrontend takes about 80%+ to display a 702x480 3mbit/sec mpeg stream. I was annoyed that I was not able to find a way to make myth usable with my ati rage128, when mplayer worked beautifully for displaying movies.

That's another thing. If you ever download an episode from the net (suppose you have a power outtage), itwill be trivial to play on a myth box.

I haven't bothered with mythGallery/weather/cruft/cruft/and/more/cruft. Just mythtv and mythvideo.

on preview: hasn't broadcast been going only HDTV next year since 2005 ? Rather than worry about cable going HDTV, I'd worry about the providers dumping analog cable in favor of digital cable. And I'm under the impression that there isn't a legal way to record encrypted dvb-c or dvb-s, even if one's a subscriber. Because of the bandwidth of HDTV I wouldn't worry about it invading standard cable.
posted by nobeagle at 11:01 AM on February 1, 2008

Best answer: If you're not a geek, and won't mind occaisionally having to ssh into your machine to either rebuild or fix things, I'd recommend myth.

I mind a lot. An HTPC is for entertainment, not for constantly fixing shit on.

I was working on a Myth box before I came around to SageTV. My problem was that there were always issues getting Myth to work. Always. No matter what distro I tried, no matter what Myth build I tried, and no matter what walkthrough to set the damned thing up I paid attention to, it never worked right, and it never played nicely with the Win boxes on my network.

I finally saw the light and built a Win box with Sage on it. I'm SO happy that I did because it works with every device I throw at it, and it does everything else that a Win box does. Easily.

So here's the deal. The SageTV box has triple tuners, a big hard drive, and feeds out to the plasma TV. It also records all video to plain vanilla MPGs, in a shared folder that anyone in the house can access. So everyone gets all the TV they want over the network. Works great!

Sometimes friends want a TV show recorded, and they just bring a flash drive over and pull the file off the Sage box. Again, easy.

And please don't mistake me for anti-Linux, because I'm not. I have two Linux boxes here, and they're great for what they do. But administering my WinXP Sage box is easy as hell, and it just works. So much happier.
posted by SlyBevel at 11:20 AM on February 1, 2008

Crap, I'm so sorry if that was snarky.

I didn't intend it that way, I just feel strongly about my bad Myth experience, and my good Sage experience.
posted by SlyBevel at 11:30 AM on February 1, 2008

I've been using MythTV for several years to record non-HD cable. I have two secret tips that make the difference between frustrating/not worth it and fun geek weekend project.

The first is Fedora Myth(TV)ology, The actual Myth install docs try to be universal, and they frustrated the crap out of me when I tried following them. I was also trying to build it from source on Debian. I started over with the Fedora guide (which you'll sometimes see referred to as "Jared's guide") and had Myth 90% working in one evening, with just a couple of issues left to resolve. Which takes me to my second tip...

The freaking mailing list. Most open source project mailing lists I've been on have sucked. MythTV's is really great. Finding the searchable archive on was a major help, because the list is really active and odds are that someone else has had your problem before. People tend to be nice and willingly answer newbie questions as well, so it's worth subscribing and posting when you have a problem that you can't solve with a search.

It looks like the Fedora guide is now recommending a Myth-specific build of Fedora, called MythDora, that might make things even easier.

I haven't needed to change anything on my Myth system in well over a year (i.e. since I first installed this incarnation of it). It doesn't mysteriously break. It just works. The setup can be a little time-consuming, but when you've got it working it just clicks along. What I like about it is that I can extend it for other purposes. I have all my MP3s on it, so my TV and surround sound system becomes a stereo. I download video off the internet to it. I use it as a backup server. The list goes on...

Start with an NVidia video card, a Hauppage tuner card (I actually use a horrible old ATI tuner and it works fine but Hauppage have better support), and a decent sound card (I lucked out that my current onboard one works OK but I've had problems with others; can't go wrong with a Creative). You'll be fine.

Of course, TiVo is cheaper and simpler :)
posted by autojack at 12:08 PM on February 1, 2008

slyBevel: it didn't appear to me as snarky; especially with the disclaimer at the end.

If it were a relative, I'd say get a tivo. No way I'm going to deal with the flack of them not taking advantage of throwing media files around, or of them not having a spare computer, or explaining why the 386 in the basement really won't work. Plus, as audiojack mentions, the cost of hardware/software together is way cheaper. However, the subscription issue sucks, and if you keep the hardware long enough one could easily spend more on tivo. Again, as a geek with suplus computers, I moved my fileserver behind the TV and put the input card (which I got for free) and a $60 video card into it. *Way* cheaper than tivo. And I don't have to worry about my myth box reporting viewing habbits, or dropping commercial skip capacity, or any other revenue increasing issues.

If you're a bit of a geek, but don't want to spend any time, sage looks pretty decent. But there are some geeks who derive satisfaction in the possibility of tinkering, or who would rather invest a bit of freetime than $$ in their setup; even if it's a lose comparing $$ vs. hourly rate. For those, myth is good. It's not like it requires contant rebuilding - there's no killer bugs/issues with my rev; the only thing likely to make me rebuild will be for parental control over tv/recordings instead of just videos.
posted by nobeagle at 12:53 PM on February 1, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice all.

SlyBevel - no worries - you weren't snarky, and that was exactly the type of answer I'm looking for. It's good to know that Sage exists as a solid alternative.

Based on the positive input I've gotten here, I think I'll put together a box myself, and if MythTV is lacking, I'll look into Sage.

As one last question, does anyone have advice on which remotes are cheap and work well with MythTV? I'm sure I can dig around on their mailing lists and find recs, but I figured I should ask while I've got a thread open.
posted by chrisamiller at 2:22 PM on February 1, 2008

If you are buying a TV capture card, a Hauppauge WinTV PVR-150 comes with a remote and IR-Blaster. Other than that, it's just about finding if the remote you're looking at has a readymade config file for LIRC (the Linux Infrared Remote Control suite). The LIRC homepage has a list of supported hardware, both home built and commercial. You can also browse the depot of remote control config files. Notice that there is support for commercial TV remotes, Dish network remotes, etc., so that's another option. But may TV capture card kits come with perfectly workable remotes.
posted by splice at 4:04 PM on February 1, 2008

Ahh, sorry, of course you need a way to receive the IR signals from the remote to process them. Again, some kits come with that. Some DVR PC cases also come with inbuilt IR receivers, check what chipset if you can and see if LIRC supports it. Otherwise a remote meant for PC media systems (like a MCE remote) will come with its own receiver. ATI has some OK ones, I understand.
posted by splice at 4:09 PM on February 1, 2008

nthing SageTV. I've been an exceptionally happy user since 2004. Although I am planning on migrating to an HD PVR of some flavor (Tivo or provided-rental) within the next year. That being said, I'll always have a computer hooked up to my main display for network streaming of dvd's etc.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 4:21 PM on February 1, 2008

I have an ATI Remote Wonder that came with an All-In-Wonder card I bought a while back. Once you install the card, you can download macros that tell it how to talk to SageTV, WinAmp, WMP, etc.

I'm sure you could Ebay one ultra cheap. I've had this one for ages.
posted by SlyBevel at 4:40 PM on February 1, 2008

...Yeah, this would be your search.
posted by SlyBevel at 4:41 PM on February 1, 2008

This thread is dying, but I thought I'd duck in and correct myself really quick...

Once you install the card

The Remote Wonder I talk about above is not a card to install, it's USB with a little wireless receiver on a dongle. The remote itself is a wireless unit, which means that it does not require line of sight to function, like IR remotes do.

/Correction mode OFF.
posted by SlyBevel at 1:54 PM on February 2, 2008

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