My Personal, Personal Video Recorder

Months ago, from the scraps of old computers, I pieced together a Personal Video Recorder or Disk Video Recorder or Digital Video Recorder – I never know which name is right. Take your pick.

That it ran at all was a surprise!

Over time I added extra hard drive space and a new CPU/motherboard combo. Anything that could fit in, and was heavily discounted, flew its way to my house. I was happy to take out a Phillips head screwdriver and do battle. I know my way around the inside of a computer case.

I chose KnoppMyth as my software. Hmmm…. this is going to get a little geeky, but I’ll give it a try.

MythTV is a software package to ‘make’ a DVR. It runs on Linux – the operating system that talks to the hardware in your computer. Linux is an operating system, like Windows XP is an operating system.

Linux is free and freely modifiable. And, it’s free as in, “Here it is.” It’s not free as in, “Here’s a copy of Windows XP I downloaded off the net, along with this serial number.”

So far, so good.

I say Linux, there is really no specific software called Linux.

There is Ubuntu Linux and Fedora Core Linux and Red Hat Linux, etc. Each is slightly different for slightly different reasons. Remember, it’s free. If you wanted to form a group with friends or with your evil twin to make a Linux distribution, more power to you. It’s allowable and encouraged.

KnoppMyth, the DVR software I used, combines a Linux ‘flavor’ (Knoppix Linux) with MythTV. It’s downloaded and then burned onto a disk. It’s the computer equivalent of making a Betty Crocker cake.

I like KnoppMyth, but it has its shortcomings. It isn’t 100% up-to-date and there are a few nagging bugs. Any time I’ve attempted to update or fix something, I’ve broken then entire installation.

Since KnoppMyth doesn’t seem to be a perfect answer, I decided to try to roll my own MythTV installation – combining MythTV with a Linux operating system. That’s how I wasted a good part of Sunday!

My attempt was to add MythTV to Ubuntu&#185 Linux. Makes your head spin? I should have said the same thing and stopped right there.

“How tough could it be,” I said to myself?

All day Helaine reminded me, “Messing with the penguin,” the penguin being our euphemism for Linux, “never ends up being a good experience.”

Before bedtime Sunday night, I had given up on mating Ubuntu and MythTV… but I hadn’t given up on the quest.

Today, while I was at work, my PC was downloading Fedora Core 5 – another Linux flavor. It was a 3+ Gb download! Now, home and in pajamas, I’ve burning it onto five CDs.

There’s a website which describes the process of mating Fedora with the very latest MythTV version. It looks easy, though it’s 29 printed pages (honest).

I could have gone back to KnoppMyth, but that was too easy. I want the feeling of accomplishment that is only earned following feelings of frustration and angst.

I’ll report back after the installation is finished, or the penguin and I have settled our score for good.

&#185 – Ubuntu seems to be the Linux distribution garnering the most favor right now. Forgetting MythTV for a second, Ubuntu was easily installed and came fully stocked with the programs most folks need on a daily basis.

As opposed to earlier Linux distributions, Ubuntu found and installed drivers for my sound and video cards without asking. It found its IP address for web surfing. It worked right out of the box.

I would recommend Ubuntu for any non-gamer who uses their computer for web surfing, IM chatting, word processing, email and other ‘normal’ web pursuits.

Right now at least, Ubuntu and the other Linux distributions are virtually virus and spyware free and they nearly never crash!

Blogger’s note: I worked on this project until 4:00 AM. Tuesday morning, I picked it up for a while, but it’s not done yet. Amazingly, after all my original downloading, most of the install time has been spent downloading newer files to replace the ones I got yesterday.

When I was providing input, it was copying intensely dense computer code from a web page to a ‘terminal’ window. I’d hit enter and the screen would look like hieroglyphs were flashing by until I had to ‘feed the beast’ again.

Hopefully I can complete the task later tonight.

The New Era Of Communications

I got this email today:

We are in panama we just went thru the locks. all is well we are having a great time mom and dad

What do we have here? Well, certainly, for his next birthday I’m buying my dad punctuation marks and capital letters! More than that, a check of the originating IP address shows he sent this from on-board ship.

My mom and dad are cruising, but the Internet is there with them.

I remember when Helaine and I took a cruise many years ago. We stopped in Puerto Rico and rushed to a pay phone to check in with everyone back home. Same thing in St. Thomas (in fact, I can still picture the pay phones to the left of the main door of the St. Thomas Post Office).

It wasn’t that there weren’t phones on the ship, but it was ridiculously expensive.

Yesterday, my friend Peter left for three weeks on Maui. I spoke to him as he went to the airport. I spoke to him in San Francisco, waiting for a delayed flight. I spoke to him once he got to his Maui hotel. Each time I dialed the same South Jersey cellphone number.

Each of my calls were included in my cell plan with no additional charge… in fact, with no meter even clicking off the minutes.

Calling Hawaii, like making a call from a cruise ship, used to be expensive. No more.

I also played around a little, calling my friend Bob in Austin, TX using Skype. The quality was great, using my laptop on the sofa in the family room and a cheap headset. Of course the call was totally free.

This ability to communicate, whether by computer or phone or a combination of the two is amazing – something we in the 21st century share with no other moment in history. It is, unfortunately, limited to the wealthy.

A little clarification. In this case wealthy applies to the vast majority of people in the United States and many more around the world, who are included in a global middle class. They are only wealthy in contrast to those who are dirt poor – and there are many who fit that category.

Now, maybe there is hope for them to benefit from this communications and knowledge explosion, fueled by computing.

I saw Nicholas Negroponte with Charlie Rose on PBS. Negroponte heads MIT’s Media Lab, a communication and information think tank

In its first decade, much of the Laboratory’s activity centered around abstracting electronic content from its traditional physical representations, helping to create now-familiar areas such as digital video and multimedia. The success of this agenda is now leading to a growing focus on how electronic information overlaps with the everyday physical world. The Laboratory pioneered collaboration between academia and industry, and provides a unique environment to explore basic research and applications, without regard to traditional divisions among disciplines.

That’s some of the least explanatory prose ever written by otherwise educated people.

Negroponte was on to talk about a project I’ve been following for a while – a $100 laptop, to be produced in bulk and distributed for free to students around the world.

If this is the first you’re hearing about this project, please go to their site and read more. It’s really an amazing undertaking.

The One Surprising DVR Feature

I use my DVR (Digital Video Recorder) for all the usual things, especially time shifting. I knew it would have the capability to fast forward through commercials and that’s certainly valuable.

There is one capability… one tiny little feature… that’s a surprise: the ability to jump back a few seconds in time. On my Scientific Atlanta DVR it is a 10 second delay, but I almost always hit it twice.

I use this all the time, especially to go back over dialog that wasn’t well miked, or to rerun a point or fact that’s unclear or interesting enough to see twice. Since the DVR plays back off its hard drive even when you’re watching live TV this feature is always available.

If you would have asked me what I wanted in a DVR I never would have asked for this. I would have asked for picture-in-picture (a feature I seldom if ever use) or the ability to skip ads (I sometimes forget to do this) or other more obvious tools.

There’s a lesson to be learned here. You can’t research a product by asking people what they want in something they’ve never used.

Computer as a Video Workstation

One of the promises of PCs is that they can be used as video processing units. Shoot a videotape&#185 then dump the finished video into your computer where you can edit it and then burn it to a DVD or even stream it on the Internet.

This PC was actually built with all that in mind. It is a few years old – ancient in computer time, but still up to the job. The problem is, this is a job that is only performed grudgingly by a computer. I can safely say this right now, because I’m in the midst of taking a videotape and converting it into both web and DVD video.

What a royal pain.

Each program (and no one program does more than a small fraction of the full job) is slow and kludgey and requires arcane knowledge in esoteric subjects.

Do you know which codec to use and when? Do you even know what a codec is? I’m not asking to embarrass, but to point out the low level of sophistication in what should be a mature process.

My own confidence is so low that when I encoded some video to send to a colleague, I first called a friend to spot check it on his computer. It is easy to think you’re confirming what you did only to be playing back video from your hard drive and not a website. Been there, done that.

So far, I’ve been working over two hours. I’m not quite done. My finished product will be three – two minute clips on the web and a DVD with all three in a higher quality format. We’re talking less than six minutes of video total.

I consider myself a sophisticated user, knowledgeable in digital video and this is still a pain in the butt! How is someone with a new camcorder and no savvy going to do this the first time? The simple answer is, they won’t.

Video in your computer and on the Internet is an amazingly powerful tool. It should be well within the reach of anyone who uses a PC. It still isn’t and I see no sign that it will be any time soon. It’s a shame.

&#185 – An article in the NY Times last week reviewed two new home camcorders which record on microdrives or compact flash memory cards. Maybe tape’s days are numbered.

My DVR – It’s Not TiVo

I read an article about DVRs, Digital Video Recorders, in the New York Times this weekend. Like most of the New York radio and television stations and the major news networks, I get many of my best ideas from the Times. Unlike them, I admit it.

The article, like so many on this subject, talked about how DVRs are. I have one and I do enjoy it. Unfortunately, I am nowhere near the TV nirvana experienced by the writers I’ve read.

The concept behind TiVo, Replay TV and the others is pretty simple. Record everything on a hard drive instead of tape, and use computer technology to make it easier, yet more powerful than an old school VCR.

The problem is, all DVRs are not created equal. I think mine, A Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8000 that I rent from Comcast&#185, is somewhere near the bottom. This is not the device people are clamoring for, though it is marketed in the same way.

I often hear about how TiVo will ‘learn’ about what you watch and then record programs based on your likes. This SA box doesn’t do that. It is the featured I would most like to see.

The menu system within this DVR is disjointed, non-intuitive and difficult to learn. I have programmed recordings based on time, but I couldn’t tell you how… and would have to hit a bunch of dead ends before I did it again.

Recording scheduled programs is easier, but still not simple. The program guide is two clicks of two separate buttons away. Why? Isn’t this the most used feature? It should be directly accessible.

Working back ward through the guide is nearly impossible. Going backward in time through midnight just doesn’t work.

The guide itself is sorely lacking. Movies and programs on some channels don’t show. Channels that I don’t subscribe to do show, adding an extra layer I have to move through before setting the recorder. The text information describing the programs is sparse.

In using the video-on-demand features, the same function on different menus uses a different keystroke! That violates one of the most basic rules of user interface design.

Possibly the most frustrating problem is the propensity of the 8000 to accept a key press from the remote control, but do nothing for a few seconds. Most likely during that time you have decided the machine didn’t get the first press and have pressed again. Now you have screwed up whatever you were attempting.

If Comcast or Scientific Atlanta asked, I’d tell them. I did once send a note to SA, using a form on their website. I never received a reply.

&#185 – As part of my retirement account I have Comcast stock. So, I am not a disinterested party here. However, since I’m talking down their product, you can see that hasn’t affected me.

Liking My 8000 Explorer… Sort Of

It is nice to have the DVR (Digital Video Recorder) from Comcast. For the last week I’ve been playing with my Scientific Atlanta 8000 Explorer.

I have been recording like a drunken sailor. Last night I watched Hannah and Her Sisters (which had run at some inconvenient time). I’ve taken to seeing Letterman when I get home from work… even though the show is already in progress. Right now, I’m watching a documentary on water (please, I know how exciting that makes me sound)&#185.

I will have to learn that I’m under no obligation to watch what I record.

The user interface on the DVR to be kludgey at best. There are too many menus which are unreachable directly and must be reached by navigating through other, more general, menus. The listings of recorded or to be recorded show don’t show enough entries at once. As far as I can tell, there is no direct access to see the beginning of a show which is being recorded (In other words, if I walk in at midnight and want to watch Letterman from the beginning, though the recording continues in the background)

Digital TV is always slower in tuning than analog. So the click, click, click of a remote control doesn’t quite have the same speed or satisfaction. I have found this unit even slower than my non-DVR digital tuner. This might be because everything is actually being viewed after having been recorded – even live TV.

Some of the problems have been significant enough to force me to write Scientific Atlanta, who built the box.

Form Confirmation

Thank you for submitting the following information:

name: Geoff Fox

email: me@geofffox.com

submit: Submit

question

My 8000 has shown some strange behavior. Last night, during the playback of a movie (with no other recordings in progress) the playback stopped on three separate occasions. The video just froze – and then returned a few seconds later.

Also, this morning the unit is very slow to respond to channel changes. If, for instance, I enter a “1” on the keypad, it can be nearly 5 seconds before that shows on the LED readout. So, I have no idea whether the signal was even received by the unit.

Thank you, Geoff Fox

I’ll report back on their response… if any.

&#185 – A few seconds after I type that, I had had enough. It’s off and erased.