Blowing a Raspberry at my media centre

Not long before Christmas, as part of a new AV system, I installed an Acer Aspire Revo as a frontend for my now well established MythTV setup. This works great, but it did set me back a fair amount.

Today I took a look at the Rasberry PI website and found this video:

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A simpler solution to the signal problem

The weak-signal problem with the MythTV PVR downstairs has been mostly resolved by replacing the coax cable between the computer and the booster by a wider diameter hand-made one. This has helped greatly with improving the signal although it’s not completely perfect. About 80% of recordings now succeed and are watchable. The remaining failures are bearable. The plan to move to satellite has hence been put on hold until things get worse.

Alternatives to DVB-T in the UK

Here in the UK there are a few ways to receive digital TV. Some of them are free (after an initial outlay for equipment) others are based on a subscription model. Here are some of the most common ones:

  • Digital terrestrial, received through a suitable TV antenna (DVB-T)
  • Cable, in most cases through Virgin Media (DVB-C)
  • Sky (DVB-S)
  • Freesat (DVB-S/DVB-S2)

My MythTV installation is currently solely using a dual-tuner DVB-T receiver to record TV. However we are right on the edge of the closest transmitter’s reach with no usable overlap with any other transmitter, so at best our signal is spotty.

As spring progressed and the trees regained their leaves our signal has gotten weaker and weaker to the point that about 90% of recordings fail due to a lack of a signal lock or a very weak signal producing something that’s unwatchable.

The TVs in the house cope slightly better, but still suffer a lot from a broken signal. With digital being all-or-nothing compared to analogue’s degrees of static snow, it’s either you can watch something or you can’t… unless we change to the analogue tuners in the TVs, which we often have to.

We are being forced to consider alternatives, either to back up terrestrial or replace it completely.

I’m keen to keep to things which can be used legally with MythTV, which would rule out Sky and Virgin Media which essentially bind you to using their hardware. The benefits of those two services however is that they have a more complete selection of channels as well as the option to upgrade to significant bonus content, compared to the one remaining alternative – Freesat.

Freesat was launched recently by a collaboration between the BBC and ITV. Most of the transmissions are in Standard Definition (SD) with a small sprinkling of High Definition (HD) services. More channels are expected to sign up, but at the moment there’s all of the UK BBC and ITV channels plus Channel 4 but at the moment no Channel 5 (who seem to insist on transmitting encrypted signals). Also there are none of the UKTV-owned channels including Dave.

Freesat is transmitted unencrypted over DVB-S & DVB-S2, both of which can be received by a computer using an appropriate satellite receiver card. Naturally I’ve been keeping my eye out on eBay for such cards, and there are usually a few on at a time. I’ve not bought any just yet and I won’t until a decision is made for sure that we’re going for Freesat rather than the next alternative, cable.

DVB-S2 is used for carrying HD programmes. It is relatively new, so although there are PCI cards out there cable of receiving the transmissions, the software for Linux hasn’t caught up yet. MythTV is in the early stages of including support, and some basic drivers are available. The cards come with software for Windows, but that’s not much use for a distributed MythTV-based PVR. I’m hoping that at least I can get DVB-S working for recording and such, then upgrade to DVB-S2 when it’s reliable. In the meantime HDTV can be watched on a normal set-top box.

Before Freesat came on the scene, as already mentioned the next alternative was cable from Virgin. In my investigations it quickly became apparent that connecting a DVB-C card (a rare thing in the UK) to Virgin’s cable network was not a good idea since it would almost guarantee disconnection of all services including my 20 meg broadband.

To keep within the T&Cs of that means using the analogue output from the V or V+ box, connecting it to a capture card and then doing digital->analogue->digital conversion. The result of this would be relatively low-quality video and audio, at a limited resolution (SD only). An IR transmitter would need to be used to control channel changing, and since it uses the only externally-available tuner you couldn’t watch one channel on TV and let another record on the same box. It’s certainly not an elegant way of doing things.

If we were to go for Sky, a similar thing would probably have to happen, although with a little work it may be possible to get a PCI DVB-S card to work with it, provided it had support for a decoder card so that the signal could be decrypted.

In the likely event that we decide to go for Freesat, the cheapest solution would be to do a complete self-install. However the easiest solution would be to pay for installation of a single-room service. We will need a 4 room service however, so the plan is currently to pay for a single room installation at £80, then buy a quad LNB and run the 3 other cables ourselves. That way we don’t have to worry about getting the correct size dish, mounting and positioning it. Apparently there’s some satellite-grade coax around somewhere that should do the job.

There will probably be 2 tuners in a machine that will do the recording (possibly boron) and the other 2 runs will go to the living room and the master bedroom.

Naturally there will be photos and such if/when the project takes place.

Another HTPC and a TV more than worthy of it

One of the things that has been lacking in my bedroom is a TV. I can watch recorded TV programs, DVDs and other videos on my PC, but not at the same time as relaxing on my bed. While I had a week off work I was looking around the Dabs website and ventured across a real bargain of a TV (now discontinued). It supports full 1080p HDTV as well as being a relatively huge 37″ all for just £539. I couldn’t pass this by, so I spent a while doing investigation work and finally decided to take the plunge and buy the thoroughly indulgent item.

When I designed the rack, the idea was that I would eventually get an LCD TV and it would be mounted to the side of the rack. However, it now contains so much equipment that the weight has become a bit of a concern. To avoid problems with the rack castors collapsing under the load – or even the floor of my bedroom doing the same – I decided to mount it in a more traditional location, on the wall at the foot of my bed (though I had to turn my bed around to make it the foot).

Now I needed something decent to connect it to, with the ability to run MythTV and watch video at possibly 1080p resolution. Boron used to live in a HTPC case, but it started getting a little crowded and warm and with the construction of my rack the innards were moved to a 19″ case. That meant that I’ve had a spare high-quality case lying around doing nothing for a while. Now I had the opportunity to bring it back into service.

The Core 2 Duo in my gaming machine has done nothing but impress with its performance and cool running, so I knew what I wanted to base this new machine around. The E7200 2.53GHz was the cheapest Core 2 available on Dabs, so into the basket it went. I wasn’t too bothered about having a high-spec for the rest of the system, and indeed it needs to be farily quiet and cool so for graphics I went with the Asustek Radeon HD3450 256MB and a cheap-but-capable Gigabyte motherboard.

The processor ended up getting swapped for the slightly slower one in aluminium, so I got a small upgrade for gaming at the same time. For the OS I’m currently experimenting with MythBuntu for amd64. I’ve also taken another look at LinuxMCE, which I might give a go some time.

The new machine was named barium, and sits fairly neatly under my bedside table.

Completing the first phase of the MythTV setup

After finding out that the two tuner cards I already have are too large to fit in the new Camulus case of the new MythTV master backend (aka sodium), I ordered a Nova-T 500 dual-tuner PCI card. This was a little risky because Hauppauge produced a limited run of cards for the UK that are not compatible with linux. These cards are normally identified by their model number and certain stickers on the box.

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The wonders of MythTV

MythTV, as previously mentioned, is an open-source project that provides a client/server based media centre solution. One of the parts I like most about it is the ability to have multiple ‘recorder’ backends anywhere on the network, and all recordings are combined into one listing. You can also watch live TV through any of the backends on the network. You can also listen to music, watch videos in pretty much any format, play DVDs, watch/listen to internet streams etc.

MythTV Main Menu

I’m going to exploit the distributed nature of MythTV by setting up a network of backends and frontends in our house. Here’s a diagram (click for larger version):

My MythTV network

Currently the master backend is set up in the living room, connected to the TV via a VGA cable, and the slave backend is set up in the cabinet in my bedroom. Until the new tuner card I’ve ordered arrives, the only tuners sit in the computer in my room. However the client/server basis for MythTV means that the computer in the living room can connect to the card in my room and use it for watching live TV or recording from.

I also have a single Hauppauge Media MVP. This lovely bit of kit is a thin-client that is intended to be used with it’s own Windows-based software. However, the mvpmc project provides a way to get a far better client onto the little box which can connect to a MythTV backend. So not only can MythTV be enjoyed via a standard computer, but also a small set-top-box. The main advantages of using a Media MVP box are that it is silent, so suitable for quiet rooms, and it consumes very little power.

Eventually there will be at least one more Media MVP and another PC-based front-end in the kitchen and dining room respectively.

Ubuntu as a media centre PC

A little over two weeks ago I ordered a new computer from EfficientPC. They appear to be the only independent business selling true linux-based machines. Anyway, what I was after was a box that could run MythTV reliably but quietly (since it will be in the living room).

At our previous house I tried to set up Boron as the machine for this job, since we had the space under the TV (though I had to take a jigsaw to the back of the cabinet) and it was the only suitable machine for the job at the time. Our huge and heavy CRT (now retired to the master bedroom) has component input, so I tried several DVI to component converters that supposedly worked on the Radeon 9600 that sits inside Boron. As these things always go, it didn’t work. So now that we have a TFT TV with VGA input, I have another chance to get a fully-functional media server set up.

This new machine is pretty much silent – certainly quiet enough to sit in the living room, behind the TV (it’s also very slim). I’ve also discovered that it’s pretty nippy, sporting an Intel Core 2 Duo E2140 with just 512MB of DDR2 (since there doesnt need to be a huge amount of RAM for a media centre – processing power is more important). The 500 GB drive should give a few hundred hours of recording capacity. It has been called Sodium, because I try to go for things that are orangey with the Ubunto machines – sodium lamps shine orange – and it will be the ‘Master Backend’ server for MythTV. Boron will be a slave server, and there will be various front-ends around the house.

I found out after ordering this new Asus Camulus-based computer that EfficientPC is run by a single person, so service is not speedy. He is apparently struggling to keep up with demand, so emails often go unanswered. I am not bothered by this, and the quality of the product is pretty good. This guy makes sure that the hardware that he provides works with Ubuntu, which provides more peace-of-mind than if I would have ordered the parts myself then found out that they don’t work under linux.

The only problem, other than breaking a PSU, is that the PCI DVB-T tuner cards that I have will not fit inside the Isis case. I’ve ordered a Nova-T 500 dual tuner card to compensate (along side the replacement PSU and another 500 GB drive). The beauty of MythTV is that it will allow me to use all of the cards in separate machines, combined into one set of recordings that can be watched through any of the MythTV front-ends in the house. So that’s 4 tuners allowing 4 shows to be recorded simultaneously. Eventually this may be expanded to include satellite tuners because we have a very weak digital signal around here. More on the specifics of MythTV and how it’s being set up in our house soon.

There will be photos shortly, once I’ve got the system fully set up.