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Home Theater PC Project - Phase 1: Requirements

My TiVo Series 3 finally died. Over the past several weeks it went from being a bit sluggish, to not showing the Now Playing list at all, to occasionally rebooting itself, to finally being in an endless reboot cycle when it's powered on. I attempted to save it with a new hard drive and power supply from, but neither did the trick. The new hard drive didn't get it out of its endless reboot cycle, and with the new power supply it won't power up at all. According to weaKnees the Series 3 TiVos fail quite a bit in comparison to other models, and they've seen cases where a known good power supply is simply rejected by the TiVo. So after throwing $300 in repairs at my Series 3 with no results it's time to give up.

I could replace my dead Series 3 with a new TiVo, but as I outlined in a previous post, the world has changed pretty dramatically since TiVo first hit the scene, and for my purposes I'm just not sure TiVo has evolved enough to justify spending $500 on a TiVo HD XL (and that's only because it's $100 off right now), plus $10/mo for service or $299 for a lifetime contract. And though I've never had a single problem with my previous TiVos, since my Series 3 failed after having it for only a little over two years, there's no way I'd risk throwing $299 away by getting lifetime service on a unit that may up and die on me.

I've also been wanting to build my own Home Theater PC (HTPC) for quite a while, so I've been paying attention to projects like MythTV, XBMC, and a few others over the past couple of years, and they're very compelling for several reasons. First, they're open source and that appeals to me in a huge way. Second, there's no monthly service fee for using them. And finally, because they're open source they support a much wider array of formats and options than any of the proprietary options.

Since the TiVo was more than a simple DVR, however, there is additional functionality that I still need, specifically Netflix streaming and Amazon Video on Demand. So the first thing I need to do is evaluate all my options so I make sure whatever solution I do come up with covers all my bases.

The Requirements

My needs are relatively straight-forward but since I'll be asking for input from others who've already done this, I thought I should be very clear about what I do and don't need my solution to do, as well as mention some specific things that are non-starters for me.

At a basic level here's what I absolutely need:

  • PVR functionality, meaning schedule recordings as well as pause, rewind, and fast-forward live TV
  • Record two HD programs at once
  • Stream video from other network resources
  • Stream music from other network resources, specifically Squeezebox Server
  • Play DVDs. Standard DVDs are fine--I'm just not enough of an HD junkie that I need Blu-Ray capabilities on this particular box.
Pretty basic requirements. Even the music is optional since I do have a Squeezebox Player, but it would be nice to free that up to use elsewhere in the house and I figure asking one of these boxes to play music is basic enough to call it a must have.

Now here are a couple of nice to haves:

  • Stream photos from other network resources
  • Be able to watch video recorded on the main PVR from other rooms in the house
Other things I need in the mix but don't necessarily expect to be on the PVR box itself:
  • Netflix streaming
  • Amazon video on demand
What I Don't Need/Won't Use
  • It can't be Windows Media Center. No offense to those of you who use and like WMC, but I can't do it, and I'm really interested in the "project" aspect of this endeavor so I really do want to build my own to a greater or lesser degree.
  • I don't really need a Blu-Ray player, and I definitely don't need a PlayStation 3.
  • I don't want or need to buy a new TV.
  • I already have a FiOS DVR. It's fine, but it doesn't do enough that it qualifies as a true HTPC, so "use the cable company's DVR" isn't really the answer I'm looking for.
What I Already Have

As most geeks do, I do have some hardware laying around already that I'm willing to sacrifice to this project or at least throw in the mix as part of the overall solution.

  • Xbox 360. I don't want to hack this to bits since I do like to play games on it, but if it can serve as a front-end to the main PVR without wrecking the Xbox for other purposes, that would be fine.
  • Mac Mini. It's an older one (Core Solo if I remember correctly), but I never use it at all. I assume at a minimum I could throw software on here (something like eyeTV) and use it as a front-end box?
  • Apple TV. Apple TV is so astoundingly frustrating that it's about to go on Craig's List already, so if this can serve some purpose I'll hack it beyond recognition. I've heard it's rather underpowered for most uses though.
  • A system76 Meerkat that's currently running Amahi and nothing else. I figure at a minimum I can store some video on this box since I have about 2TB total storage available on it.
Netflix Streaming and Amazon Video on Demand

Since this is a bit of a tangent that will likely require a separate box let's get this out of the way first. Yes, the Xbox does Netflix streaming (and maybe the Amazon VOD as well; I haven't checked), but the Xbox is connected to the basement TV (as is the Wii) and needs to stay down there, so I need something for the upstairs living room.

One option would be to get a networked Blu-Ray player, but I'm not sold on Blu-Ray honestly. After getting burned by HD-DVD I'd still love to see physical media go away altogether, and I think we're closer to that than a lot of people realize.

There are networked TVs as well, but I really don't want to blow money on a new TV since I like my TVs, and also because I think the idea of having that sort of thing built into the monitor itself is a dumb idea. There's also the PlayStation 3, but I really don't want or need another gaming system and since I don't care about Blu-Ray, it's overkill to use a PS3 only for Netflix and Amazon.

Given my requirements I see only one option, namely the Roku Player. Inexpensive, simple to set up, and does exactly what I need, so this will likely solve this piece of my puzzle. If people have experience with these or other solutions I haven't thought of I'd love to hear about them.

TiVo Replacement Box/"Back-End" PVR Box

Here's where the options immediately explode. Given the myriad options it's probably good to set some general guidelines. Note that here I'm talking specifically about the box that will replace the TiVo only, meaning this is what will do all the recording and storage as well as provide the PVR functionality for other front-end boxes elsewhere in the house. If I can find a solution that works in the living room and isn't too big or loud that's great too, but a backend/front-end solution is ultimately probably more flexible.

In terms of budget, if I start spending as much or more as I'd spend on a TiVo, I'll just buy another TiVo or maybe a Moxi. I want a solution that works and works well, but I don't need the be-all end-all of every component in the system. So the cheaper the better, but it needs to be decent stuff and work well, and I absolutely don't mind buying the components individually and putting everything together myself.

With respect to form factor/size, how loud the thing is, etc. I'm OK with the main PVR box being a bigger, louder box I can stick in the basement so long as it will support (and support well) a small, quiet front-end box in my living room. Note that it needs to support streaming over Wi-Fi since my basement and living room aren't wired. I do have very good wireless signal strength throughout the house, but if doing HD over Wi-Fi isn't going to work, then I'll have to re-think the solution and make sure the PVR that would sit in the living room isn't too obtrusive.

Now for the software. As far as I can tell based on what I've researched, MythTV is pretty much the only full-blown solution for doing a real PVR, and the nice thing with MythTV is I believe it supports both MythTV and XBMC on the front end, which gives me some options. Also from what I can tell MythTV is DLNA, which a lot of hardware (including something like Moxi) supports.

I'll cover hardware, tuners, etc. in a separate post. There are way too many options to cover here, and at this point I'm still evaluating all my options even if it means I'm not actually building something myself.

Front-End Boxes

At a minimum since I'm assuming the PVR box itself may be something bigger and louder than I want in my living room, I'll need at least one front-end box (potentially more).

  • Small form factor. Something like the system76 Meerkat Ion or even smaller (like an Acer Aspire Revo) would be ideal.
  • Works with a remote control. I don't want to mess around with a mouse and keyboard in my living room. Ideally it would work with my Logitech Harmony remote.
  • Quiet
  • Built-in HDMI output
  • Supports 1080p
Other Options/Components

Some of these I've just read about so mainly I need to do more research, but these are some interesting components that could play a role in the overall solution, so if anyone has experience with these or others I may not be aware of, I'm all ears.

  • HDHomeRun networked tuner. This is a REALLY interesting solution at least on the surface. My main concern is if it causes tons of network traffic, since my girlfriend and I both work from home and do VOIP, VPN, video teleconferencing, etc. I can't have my TV tuner sucking up all my internal network bandwidth.
  • WD TV Live. Love the price and form factor, but it's a bit difficult to tell what it would and wouldn't support. I assume this would work as a front-end box and would connect to MythTV
Other Questions/Miscellany

If anyone has answers to these I'd love the feedback. I've read quite a bit on these issues but still get mixed signals, which ultimately probably means YMMV applies, but particularly if someone reading this has FiOS TV and has experience with any of these issues it would be great to hear from you.

  • What channels will I get on a tuner card? I have Verizon FiOS TV and I'm not sure what they do and don't encrypt. Since I scaled my FiOS service back to more or less the basic channels, so long as I get the major networks in HD I'll probably be fine.
  • Can I use the firewire out on my cable box to interface with the HTPC? I've read mixed reports about whether ot not this works.
  • Are there non-TiVo options like Moxi people have had good luck with? I like a good DIY project, but I don't need this to consume my life, and the Moxi apparently does Netflix streaming as well, plus no monthly fees.
  • Any other devices either on the front or backend that I'm overlooking?
Next Steps

I'm asking a lot of questions in this post, but I have researched a lot of options for each of these so I'll cover the various areas individually in future posts. Once you get into things like tuner cards, etc. things get detailed rather quickly.

I'd greatly appreciate any feedback anyone might have on any of this, even if it's "just buy a TiVo and save yourself the headaches!" Not that I'll do that, but if I can learn from the mistakes of others who've gone down this road that would be fantastic.

More soon!


Anonymous said…
Couple of questions Matt, and maybe a couple of answers.I'm a little confused about your front end/back end choices. If you already have a media server, is it your intention to add the pvr capabilities to that box and then have a separate thin box for the front end? Or are you putting the pvr on the front end? It would seem to me that if you have the capapbility on the back end, then that would be the way to do it, and probably the only way to do it for less $ than a Tivo or Moxi, plus having the added benefit of watching all your stuff from anywhere you have a network connection.In Denton, everything Verizon sends on Fios is encrypted, even the local channels, as of August of '08.The tuner card you use for your PVR will have a spot for your cable card that you use in your Tivo. You should be able to receive the same channels as your Tivo. If you have a dual channel cable card, get a tuner card that supports it.I don't know what cable box you have, but my reserach has indicated that all of the networking ports on the Motorola tuners and dvrs are disabled, and cannot be enabled without doing things to it that will make Verizon really mad. =)Good luck. I look forward to your updates and will be really interested in where you end up.
Matthew Woodward said…
Currently I don't have a media server at all. I do have Amahi but it doesn't really serve as a full-blown media server (though it can), and it definitely doesn't support TV tuners, etc. at least it won't on the NetTop I have it installed on. So I'm looking for a media server box of some sort. The reason for the separation of front-end and backend is because once I get a big enough machine to handle the PVR part of the equation, it'll be just that--a big machine and likely more noisy than I want in my living room. So I was thinking of having that sitting in the basement where I don't care if it's noisy and then sticking small, quiet front-end boxes in the other rooms where I have TVs. As for cable cards, problem is as far as I know there are no Linux-based PVR solutions that support them. I think the only non-TiVo-type solution that supports cable cards would be a Windows Media Center, and I'm not willing to go that route. I want more freedom, not less. I've read completely disparate reports of what is and isn't encrypted on FiOS, so I think I may get an eyeTV for my Mac Mini and just see what I do and don't get. Both my big LCD TVs are monitors (meaning no coax input or tuner), so I can't plug coax into them and see what I get without the cable box. If everything's encrypted then this whole project is for naught and I'll have to get a Moxi or TiVo again. I have Motorola boxes from Verizon. I've read mixed things about these as well--some people claim the FCC mandates that if you want the firewire output to be enabled they have to oblige, but other stuff I've read said they don't, and even if it was enabled I'm not even sure I understand what the firewire would do. Just audio/video stream and you still use the cable box as the tuner? Seems kind of worthless if that's all it does. I even tried going the antenna route and getting rid of cable altogether, but I have WAY too many trees to get anything off an antenna, even an external one. I got a Terk HDTVo antenna and even holding it on my roof I get no reception on any channels. I suppose if I called in the big guns and got an antenna installer out here they could make a huge antenna work, but then I have a huge antenna on top of my house, and I think I'd rather pay for cable. So yeah, lots of ins and outs on this. I'll definitely post back and let you know what happens. Step one is seeing if anything's unencrypted because if not, then I'm wasting my time going any further.
Anonymous said…
Ahhhh...I wasn't aware of the cable card limitation on Linux (or I might have been aware, but either forgot, or assumed that it was an obstacle that had been overcome by now.) Now I see where you are going. Sorry about that.While I am a windows user, that tidbit may affect my thinking as well as I had in the back of my mind to use a Linux server to cover both my HTPC and media server duties, and cable cards are going to be in the mix with that, at least I would expect. Since there are tuner cards out there with cable card capabilities, it would seem that the drivers to run them on other platforms would be developed in time. Of course, who knows how much time???I will be awaiting your next post with bated breath! =)
Anonymous said…
A couple of comments, from my experience. You mention MythTV and XBMC. I tried those, and Boxee. None of them would work for me because I have an ATI video card. From my research, none of these work very well with ATI cards, so you should lean towards Nvidia, unless you see something specifically mentioned about an ATI card you like.Secondly, you mentioned Netflix streaming. Keep in mind that Netflix uses Silverlight, and I wasn't able to get it to work with my HTPC. But you might figure it out. Or you could use a different device, as you mentioned.Thirdly, there are some pretty nifty HTPC cases out there. I got this one: thing to keep in mind when getting a case, is space inside. The one I got looks really nice in my entertainment center, but a DVD drive wouldn't fit in it without sticking out the front about 1/2 inch. There might be smaller drives out there, not sure. I didn't really need a DVD drive in there full time, so I just removed it after installing Linux.
Matthew Woodward said…
Thanks Jake--I definitely wasn't thinking of Netflix streaming to the OS/browser on the PC itself, since from an ease of use perspective that would be a nightmare. I consider myself a gearhead where computer stuff is concerned but for my TV stuff I just want it to work. :-)Thanks for the case link--definitely some cool ones out there, and that one looks nice for the money.Can't wait to see if I get any channels with a clear QAM receiver!
Kurt Wiersma said…
I have a Shuttle M2000 that I have been using with BeyondTV for a few years and it has worked great. It runs Windows unfortunately but works great with its dual analog TV cards and a single HD TV card. I considered getting a Mac Mini with EyeTV but at the time that seemed pretty limited and I don't think it had an HD option. I think the AppleTV would have been aawesome if Apple had made it a PVR but it is clear now that will never being doing that and it is so limited I cannot see how you could use it for much other then maybe watching video hosted on another server.I found that here in MN on Comcast I can record from any basic cable channel but cannot record any of the HD or HBO type channels that come through my cable box. I just use a simple TV antenna with my HD TV tuner card to record local HD broadcasts. This was probably the most frustrating part when I did my research. There seems to be few good options for being able to record premium cable channels. Luckily I don't have any so it isn't much of an issue. I figure most of those shows I could get via Netflix if I really wanted to watch them.
Jeff Self said…
I'm running Plex on a Mac mini. I haven't actually hooked it up to my HDTV yet, but the software is incredibly slick. Hooks up to many online sites as well as Netflix. It would be connected to my HDTV now if the Mac mini wasn't the kids computer.
Matthew Woodward said…
Very slick--I hadn't seen Plex. I'll have to check that out too! Way too many things to experiment with.

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