With the arrival of Freesat in the UK, there has never been a better time to build your own digital video recorder. Freesat uses the same satellite and dish setup as Sky, but the contents of the broadcast are free to receive.
MythTV is a digital video recorder on steroids. It can pause, rewind and fast forward while you're watching live TV, and it's also a curiosity shop of plug-ins and extensions. You can listen to music, watch videos and DVDs, view photos, play arcade games, make phone calls, read the news, stream everything to everywhere, burn discs, watch iPlayer broadcasts in the integrated web browser, schedule recordings across the web and watch them in the kitchen. The whole system is extensible and it's free.
MythTV is one of the most important open-source projects being developed. In the monetised and proprietary world of commercial television, MythTV plants a stake for freedom of choice, showing that community-developed alternatives can compete with multi-million dollar enterprise. On the other hand, the price of that freedom is complexity.
Free software developers seldom have the resources to fine tune the user-interface, or write a book's worth of documentation. And MythTV takes this to the extreme. Since its inception in April 2002, MythTV installation has always been considered singularly complex and unforgiving, even for the world of open source.
However, things have changed. It's no longer impossible. In fact, it's quite straightforward if you stick to a few well-trodden paths It's not that MythTV is any easier, it's just that it's now bundled by several excellent, custom-built Linux distributions.
The most popular of these is called Mythbuntu, and is unsurprisingly built around the latest release of Ubuntu. Mythbuntu will configure your hardware, map buttons on your remote control and set up the TV guide. When you've finished with the installation disc, slot it into a spare PC on the same network and you'll be able to use the disc as a Live CD that accesses all the content on your Mythbox (as they're affectionately called).
The first thing you need to consider is how you're going to record a television broadcast. Five years ago, most people were condemned to recording an analog signal received through an aerial connected to a PCI tuner.
This method suffered from interference and you were restricted to a handful of channels. With the advent of digital television, the number of channels has improved, as has the quality. In the UK, you can freely receive digital television through your terrestrial aerial (a service known as Freeview), or through a satellite dish aligned to the same satellite used by Sky (the recently launched Freesat). To grab the raw stream of data, you'll need either a Linux-compatible DVB-T or DVB-S receiver for terrestrial and satellite services respectively.
In the UK, most channels are broadcast as 'Free To Air' (FTA). This means the raw channel data needs no decryption for direct playback. Exceptions are Channel 4 and 5 on satellite. Both are currently 'Free To View', which means they're only freely available to viewers with a Sky Digital receiver and viewing card. However, both Channel 4 and Channel 5 plan to switch their broadcasts to Free To Air before the end of the year to take advantage of the momentum behind Freesat.
Commercial services – such as those offered by Sky and Setanta Sports – areencrypted and locked to a subscription. These channels can't be decoded without wading into a complex legal and usability quagmire. If you need to record these services, your only option is to record the output from the vendor's digital receiver.
Mythbuntu, like Ubuntu, is a self-contained CD. Boot off the disc and choose your language. From the boot menu, select 'Install Mythbuntu'. The first part of the installation routine is a modified version of the Ubuntu installer using an altered livery.
You only need to answer basic questions about your location, language and the base username. The first question specific to MythTV is titled 'Advanced Installation Type', where you need to choose between either 'Standard' or 'Advanced'. Choose the first option for minimal pestering. The next page will take you through the configuration of a remote control and an IR transmitter. For remote control functionality, Mythbuntu uses a popular application called LIRC, which is compatible with hundreds of PC-based remote control solutions.
Select yours from the drop-down list. There's also the option to configure an IRtransmitter. These are used tocontrol set top boxes that are connected to recordable inputs on MythTV. The transmitter will emit a channel-change signal just before a scheduled programme.
The next window will let you select additional drivers and firmware. This page deals with the thorny issue of proprietary drivers, and what you choose will depend on which hardware you're using. Owners of Nvidia graphics cards should choose the Nvidia proprietary driver from the drop-down menu.
This offers much better performance than the open-source driver. You can also choose to enable the TV output onthe card. For ATi and Intel devices, we recommend sticking with the open-source drivers fornow. Clicking on 'Forward' willstart the main installation process. This will first repartition your drive (you have the chance to configure this manually), before moving on to package installation. On an average PC, the process takes around 10-20 minutes. Enough time for a cup of tea.
Setting up MythTV
When you return to your machine, all the required files will have installed and you'll see the Configure Guide Data/Backend window. The first option is only of interest to US users, as they can download programme data from a paid-for online service.
The rest of us need to click on the 'Launch MythTV setup' button. This will launch MythTV's low-level configuration application. This holds the options you set once and forget about. After choosing your language – British English is in the list – you'll see a window with six further options.
We only need toworry about the first four. Selecting the first option, labelled '1. General', you only need to make sure 'TV Format' on the second page is set to 'PAL'. Don't worry about the channel frequency table, that's for older analog cards. Quickly skip through the rest of the General options, and switch to '2.Capture cards'.
Press [Enter] on the 'New capture card' and scroll through the card types until you find DVB DTV. This selection will work for both Freesat and Freeview, but satellite users need to add a few further settings. You should click on the 'DiSEqC' button, press [Enter] and choose 'LNB' as the device type. From the resulting LNB Configuration page, ensure Universal (Europe) isselected and click on 'Finish'.
Now we move onto '3. Video sources'. Under the video sources list that appears, select 'New video source' and press [Enter]. This page tells MythTV how to get the EPG (electronic programme guide). Give the video source a name – we used 'default' – and select 'Transmitted guide only (EIT)' from the listings grabber drop-down menu.
This will get programme data from the digital television transmission. Click on 'Finish' to move back to the main options menu. The '4. Input connections' page ties together the two previous options, linking the capture card to the video source. Press return on the only item in the list (our capture card), and change the video source to the name you gave in the previous step.
Press the 'Scan for channels' button. Terrestrial viewers can now click 'Next' to scan for new channels. Satellite users need toenter '10788000' for the frequency, 'Vertical' for the polarity and '2200000' for the symbol rate. Clicking on 'Next' will open the Scan Progress window, and you'll need to wait for MythTV to find every channel it can.
Exit back to the main options menu, press [ESC] and save the changes you've made. You'll then be asked for your password, and a small window will appear asking whether you want to run a program called 'mythfilldatabase'. You should answer 'OK'. MythTV will then populate its own MySQL database with all the information you've just entered, and also grab as much programme information as it can. A terminal appears for the duration of the program's execution, and when it disappears you're ready to use MythTV.
The frontend should now run automatically. If it doesn't, choose 'Mythfrontend' from the 'Applications Multimedia' menu. The first thing you'll see is the main menu from where you can easily get to MythTV's important functions. Top of the list is Watch TV.
This is the PVR functionality, and it allows you to watch a live broadcast on any channel you've added, as well aspause, rewind and fast forward. There's a lot of functionality hidden in this function. For example, press 'm' and a menu appears from which you can change things like the aspect ratio, interlace mode and zoom level. You can also get to the programme guide from here. When selected, you can scroll through all the channel data, as well as watch the currently selected channel in a thumbnail view in the top right of the display.
Back on the main menu, the Manage Recording option is MythTV's most powerful addition. It's from here you can search for the programmes and schedule recordings. It does this in all kinds of clever ways. The programme guide lets you jump through hours and days, and you just press 'r' to record the selected broadcast.
Programme Finder is an A-Z of all programmes in the database. You can also search by titles, keywords and people, and save those searches so that you can easily add them again. It's from here you can also delete recordings. You shouldn't have to worry about this though, as MythTV will automatically delete the oldest programmes on the disk when it runs out of space.
You can mark programmes you want to keep so that this doesn't happen. Pressing 'm' on a selected recording will open the manager window. From here you can delete and re-record the same programme, but you can also record others in the same series. You can also choose between a single showing, recording the same time slot each week or one title per week – MythTV is clever enough to know if the same show is being broadcast on another channel, and will shuffle the recording schedule to make the best use of the recording time.
The functions we've described above are just the beginning – MythTV is full of features, and it can take a long time to try everything. Happy exploring!