A nicely polished Myth configuration on excellent hardware with slightly weak HD performance.
MythTV is arguably the most popular multimedia platform for Linux. It has excellent support for television—allowing you to pause, fast-forward and rewind live TV streams by spooling the stream temporarily on disk. It has commercial detection, so you can skip advertising, and it can use a variety of tuners and video input devices, including DVB- and ATSC-based digital tuners, as well as traditional analog tuners both with and without hardware MPEG-2 encoders.
It also includes a music player interface capable of ripping, encoding, sorting and playing most popular audio formats, with nifty full-screen visualisations. It will rip and transcode DVDs and play almost any video format you can imagine off the hard disk.
One of the weaknesses of MythTV is that it's not very easy to set up and configure; it's hours of hard work for people who know what they're doing—vastly beyond the capabilities of average consumers.
myPVR, from OpenMedia (openmedia.co.nz/openmedia/content/section/3/44) provides a PVR solution built on MythTV that smooths over most of the rough edges. OpenMedia has put a lot of energy into polishing the MythTV interface, and it shows. When requesting a unit to test, we were asked what kind of display we'd be using, so that the profiles could be set up for us. When it arrived, it worked straight out of the box, without any configuration required, and all of the PVR's functionality could be accessed using the remote control. The New Zealand TV channel listings already were set up for us when we turned on the device.
In order to stress-test the system, we played BBC's Planet Earth in 1080p H.264. It tried gamely, but we managed to crash the media player in fairly short form. This is excusable though, as almost nothing manages to play H.264 content well on Linux. It did, however, perform very well on 720p HD content and SD content. The sound card was very well isolated, with crisp sound that had almost no discernable hiss, even when we turned up the amp as high as it would go. The box itself is a little noisy—if you were to have it sitting across the room, it probably wouldn't be noticeable, but behind the couch in our Official Audio/Visual Testing Suite (er, Jes' living room), the fan noise was audible during very quiet scenes. Still, we were very pleased with the choice of hardware.
Some other nice touches are a slick default theme, although it is a little like Windows Media Center. The New Zealand channel guides were programmed for us already, as well as little touches like the official channel icons. The unit itself looks very appealing, with a slick black case and muted-blue glowing LCD showing the internal temperature and fan speed.
Some fun games were pre-installed, including Frozen Bubble, Tux Racer and the XMAME emulator. The specifications claim support for USB gamepad and joystick devices, but unfortunately, we couldn't get it to work. We feel this is probably a make-or-break issue for gaming on the device—if USB gamepads worked without requiring arcane configuration, we imagine it would be quite popular for casual gamers who were not interested in buying a dedicated console.
Another excellent improvement from the default MythTV distribution is the ability to download and apply updates to the software from OpenMedia, using a reasonably simple update interface and a tool to configure networking easily.
Steven Ellis from OpenMedia was kind enough to talk to us about MythTV, his product and DRM.
JH: So, how did you get started in MythTV?
SE: I played with video codecs back in the UK as a developer, so I've always been into that side of things. I kept an eye on Freevo and MythTV and did test installs, but I never felt the hardware was good enough for what I was after. Plus, one of the guys at my old job was playing around with TiVo and MythTV, which gave me some exposure. Then, about 18 months ago, I felt there was a good-enough hardware platform for my needs, which eventually became myPVR 1.0.
JH: What were the issues with the previous hardware platforms?
SE: Speed wasn't there to do HD, or you had to do a lot of cooling. I was after as integrated a solution as possible, and it had to be future-proof with good composite/svideo TV out as well as DVI/HDMI support. The NVIDIA 6150-based platform was perfect—great graphics with good drivers, excellent TV out and all integrated into the MB.
JH: How do you feel about MythTV as a platform—how far it's come, and where it's likely to go?
SE: The video side of it rocks, but for music, it has a long, long way to go. People who have used other PVR software solutions are always blown away by how quick MythTV is, but they are shocked at the MythMusic plugin. It was okay three years ago, but it doesn't measure up against iTunes. As a platform, it provides an amazing base, but it is still hard for the average user to customise, which is why OpenMedia provides myPVR fully configured. As to where it is going, lots of interesting work in the digital TV space is where we are playing catchup to MediaPortal. Also, there's some nice work in the IPTV space, but we always will be hindered by the proprietary DRM solutions on the market. Commercially, the biggest gap right now is the lack of Blu-ray and HD-DVD support. I have to be very careful about any statements I say, as I don't want potential customers assuming support.
JH: Do you think this is going to be a big issue for MythTV and myPVR?
SE: We have to keep up with the technologies. We showed off myPVR at Auckland's Big Boys Toys show last year, and the feedback was awesome, but a lot of consumers assumed it would already have HD-DVD or Blu-ray. Geeks usually can get by with the technology at hand.
I think that DRM and potential legal issues are a bigger risk to MythTV, and myPVR. The pending changes to the New Zealand Copyright bill will make myPVR effectively illegal.
JH: What changes are those?
SE: The law finally makes time shifting legal, which is great, but some of the rules and provisions are simply idiotic. For example, you can time shift only material that isn't available “on demand”. How are you supposed to police that?
It also provides a lot more weight to the providers of DRM. They capture most of this under TPM (Technological Protection Methods). It becomes illegal to remove, tamper, reverse engineer or study TPM except for a couple of exceptions. Where it really hurts is that it becomes illegal to provide, produce or sell equipment or software capable of removing TPM. That hits us hard, as DVD playback on Linux is effectively TPM removal.
JH: Yeah, that's pretty rough.
SE: Plus, we might be required to enforce the restrictions on time shifting. For example, our units would not be allowed to keep material for more than a reasonable amount of time, but there is no definition of what a reasonable amount of time really is. Days, weeks, months? There also is a provision for format shifting of audio, but not video or pictures. Hence, we shouldn't allow our customers to copy their old VHS tapes to HD or DVD, as that is breaking the law. They are pushing the policing to the equipment providers.
Overall DRM is a potential killer for nonproprietary devices like MythTV.
JH: I'm assuming this is the same in the US as well?
SE: Consumers would love a one-device-fits-all product, but with the advent of competing DRM systems for IPTV on top of the DRM used by traditional pay TV companies, there is a lot of lockout. At least some of the US cable companies provide cable boxes that do the DRM that have FireWire connectivity for PVRs to hook into. Then, there is the DRM in the audio space. Consumers just get annoyed when their iTunes tracks don't play on their Zune, etc.
JH: It all sounds pretty bleak really for Linux PVR devices.
SE: All PVR devices. Microsoft has similar issues with Media Center. But, as shown in the UK and parts of Europe, there is a large market for FTA (Free to Air) services. We are finally starting to transition to FTA digital here. Thankfully, New Zealand is going for a third-generation digital terrestrial system based off H.264 rather than the bandwidth-hungry MPEG-2 HD you get in Australia and the US. One of the greatest strengths of MythTV is the global development. The support for the HD tech we will use here already has been written and tested by guys in the UK.
JH: Are there any good open-source alternatives to MythTV?
SE: MediaPortal is open source but on Windows. Some people love Freevo, but it is more of a wrapper around existing tools, rather than an integrated solution. The Elisa work from the Fluendo guys also is really interesting (elisa.fluendo.com). At the moment, their focus has been on playback, but when they have the PVR features, it could be a real killer app.
JH: So, what else would you like to share about myPVR before we wrap this up?
SE: A couple odds and sods....
We try to contribute back where we can—for example, support for the New Zealand MHEG profile for digital interactive TV in both MythTV and the external RedButton application. All the work has gone back to the community. It's not a lot of code, but there was a hell of a lot of testing. Plus, we had full support the day the Freeview network launched in New Zealand. Another area we got involved in by accident was a user interface for a customer with cerebral palsy (www.mythtv.co.nz/mythtv/remote/remote-wide.html).
He can't use a normal remote control, but has a special keyboard/mouse. With this Web remote, he can use all of the features of his PVR.
JH: That's a very cool example of the flexibility of open-source software.
SE: Yeah. He helped iron out the niggles and just loves the way it works. Finally, we were originally based on KnoppMyth, but we currently are collaborating with the Mythbuntu team to get some of the tricks we've learned included in their build.
JH: Thanks for your time.
myPVR 2.0 is a pretty polished product given the limitations of the platform. It doesn't diverge far from standard MythTV, but what it does do is put together a solid product that saves you many hours of pain attempting to configure it yourself. We give it a thumbs-up and look forward to seeing how it improves with Mythbuntu.