• Published on | Jul 16, 2006 | by Chris Osborn

TiVo definitely has no competition here

Well I finally broke down and did it. I bought a tuner card to use with MythTV. Not just any tuner card, an HDTV tuner card. Why? Because I found out the local PBS station has two more channels that are being broadcast in digital! Yes, that's right, I wanted to receive more PBS!

After a bit of research to make sure that the extra channels were really being broadcast and not just available over cable/satellite, I went searching for a tuner card. Not an easy task, all the online stores don't really note whether a card is HDTV/ATSC/Digital or not. A trip to Fry's found only one card on the shelves that could do it, and it was some way overpriced no-name brand that likely wouldn't work. When I got home I tried searching online again and found an Air2PC-ATSC-PCI for sale on eBay for $40. Even better, it was "local" and being sold by a company over in Oakland. I did the Buy-it-Now and it was here the next day.

When it arrived I was quite anxious to try the card out. I ran around to all the antenna jacks in the house to see if any of them worked. Unfortunately when I had hooked the living room up, I hadn't bothered to connect anything else. That means I would need to climb up into the attic and fix things. The weather has been hot lately and the attic was well over 120 degrees. It would have been suicide to try to crawl around up there so I had to wait until morning to fix the cabling. When I got up in the attic the next morning I decided to take the antenna off the 4-way splitter and used one of the 2-way splitters that was also there. Made a difference in signal strength, as a bonus I now get KQED too!

Next thing to do was to stuff the card in a Windoze box and make sure it was what I was expecting and that the card worked. My first reaction after getting the software installed was "Oh no! I got the wrong thing, this is some kind of satellite receiver!" Eventually though I figured out the options and the card found the OTA signals and I was able to tune them in. I wasn't real impressed with the software though, on some stations the video and audio skipped and stuttered a lot. I was using a relatively fast computer, an Athlon 2200+. Oh well, whatever, it worked, so the next battle was getting Linux & MythTV to use it.

I moved the card to the computer I am going to use as the MythTV backend and then went online to see how many kernel patches I was going to have to download and rewrite to get to work. (After all, Linux doesn't have drivers, just source code that you modify your kernel with.) I was surprised to find the driver was not only already part of the kernel, but it had already been compiled! Looking through dmesg it had even detected my card and loaded the module. Sweet!

I fired up the MythTV setup program and fought with it and getting it to recognize my keystrokes. The backend computer is essentially headless so I had to run X over VNC. Another frustrating thing was no matter how huge I made my X desktop, the stupid setup program would increase its window size to push the Cancel/Back/Next buttons just off-screen. ARGH.

I ended up spending most of the day going around and around with the setup program. I finally noticed some messages on the console and discovered I had to download a firmware file from the internet and stuff it in /lib/firmware. At that point I was now able to get the setup program to do a scan and find channels. Some success finally.

The next problem was figuring out how to get a frontend to connect to Watch TV. The box I have in the living room is too old and has a protocol mismatch so it didn't work. I downloaded a new KnoppMyth CD and booted it on another computer and gave that a try. When I hit the Watch TV menu, I got a black screen for about 30 seconds, then it went back to the menu. No errors, no info, no nothing. I found something online that said when setting up the backend, if you don't set both of the IP addresses in the configuration to the ethernet card's IP address then you get strange errors about not getting a version from the protocol. I also saw stuff about making sure that I tell MythTV what directory to use as a buffer for live TV.

I changed the settings so both IP addresses were the same (I had previously had the top one at since when I tried to connect via telnet from another box it seemed to connect fine). I then went searching through the config trying to find where I can tell it what folder to use as the buffer. Couldn't find anything so I changed the other folder I had setup to rwxrwxrwx. I have no idea which setting made the difference, but when I tried again to Watch TV it worked!

Ok, all that was a real pain in the ass, and you're probably thinking that's why I'm ranting and telling you that TiVo is so much better. No, I'm used to spending way too much time trying to get stuff to work "as advertised." It's the Linux way after all, you pretty much expect setup to be difficult. In this case though, things are much worse.

When I got the live TV to finally show up, the next thing I wanted to do was change channels. So I instinctively pushed the arrow keys expecting it to change channel. Nope, some kind of info bar popped up on the screen. But it wasn't presenting me with the info for the channel I was on, it was for a different channel. I found if I pushed the arrow keys some more it would scroll through other channels. If I pushed the keys for the other axis it scrolled through different times. WTF?? I just wanna change the channel! What the hell is this?!? I did find if I pushed space while viewing the info it would change the channel to the one listed on the info bar.

Since the arrow keys weren't how to change channel, I wanted to find the real keys that would change the channel. So I did what any normal person would do: I started pushing each key one at a time trying to see where the channel change button is. I didn't find it so I hit ESC and got back to the menu to try something else. I figured it didn't really matter if I could change channels right now, I really wanted to be able to record shows to watch later.

I went looking around to see how to do that and I was presented with menu after menu of stuff about recordings. All very confusing and some of them seemed like they were redundant, but they did unexpected and different things. What I was really looking for was something with an on-screen "keyboard" where I could type in a word or two and search. I found something that seemed like it might have done that, but it wanted me to setup some kind of list that it would remember. And there was no on-screen keyboard either. Gah! I don't want to program in a list, I want to type in a word and search. Now! This one time!

In frustration I decided to go back and try the live TV again. Maybe there might be something interesting in digital vs all the regular analog stuff that I already knew was junk. This time when I hit Watch TV I got back an error message telling me that I can't watch TV right now because I'm recording something. WHAT?!?!? I CAN'T WATCH LIVE TV?!?! This is beyond idiotic! The error message tells me that if I want to watch live TV I have to go digging through menus and lists, and somewhere I can choose the show that's currently recording, and then somewhere (I never did figure this out) I could tell it to let me watch that show right now. No way! How can anyone be so stupid as to set it up this way? I just want to watch whatever is on right now! I can do this on my TiVo anytime! I can even do this on a regular VCR! Just show me the live feed already!

For a while there before I got the card I was thinking about how maybe I would phase out my TiVo and build some uber box with tons of tuners in it and record every show from every channel. I could have huge archives of everything to watch whenever I wanted.

Less than a year ago, after suffering without a guide on my TiVo for 3 months, I went ahead and plunked down for the $300 lifetime service. My TiVo is a first generation which I wasn't sure how much longer I would be using before replacing it with a newer one. I knew that to break-even on the lifetime I would have to use my TiVo for at least 2 more years. I decided it was worth it though since a TiVo without a guide is just not TiVo, even if I could record things manually. Even if I didn't use it for 2 more years, at least I wouldn't have to deal with monthly fees and my TiVo would find shows for me again.

Now after this MythTV experience I definitely feel I made the right choice in sticking by my TiVo. The MythTV interface is absolutely horrid. I thought it was bad when I originally set it up just to watch video files, but I had no idea. It's certainly typical of open source software though. 99% of OSS is being developed by people that have never even used the thing they think they're cloning and "making better." They have no idea how the real thing works and just how nice it really is. This is why I keep telling people Linux makes great servers, but it makes lousy desktops.

MythTV has a long way to go before it'll be as usable and friendly as TiVo. I know you MythTV people think you're saving money by building it yourself and running free software. But before you go out and spend thousands to get the hardware you need for MythTV, spend a couple hundred and get a TiVo. You just might like it so much you'll wonder what the heck you were doing with MythTV.

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