Do-It-Yourself DVR

Working on computers is a lot simpler than it sounds. Cards only plug in where they’re supposed to plug in. I’ve yet to fry one!

You know the guys who used to have cars up on blocks customizing and tweaking them until they performed exactly as the tinkerer wished? I’m that tinkerer, except with computers. That probably explains why last night when Helaine went to bed I went to work on an old PC–my DVR.

A few months ago I started recording my shows on the Comcast DVR we rent. The homebrew DVR was powered down. What I discovered was viewing video on the laptop while I’m doing other things is much more satisfying. That’s what brought this rebuild.

First an admission. Working on computers is a lot simpler than it sounds. Cards only plug in where they’re supposed to plug in. I’ve yet to fry one!

This computer was state-of-the-art years ago. It’s a P4 with 512mb RAM and a 150 gb hard drive. Even if you don’t recognize the stats, just think slow.

Luckily as a DVR it’s just fine. The secret here is the video capture cards which themselves contain a small computer specifically made to manipulate video. They do most of the heavy lifting. My two PVR-150s are the only pieces bought especially for a DVR. Together they cost around $100.

The standard program for this type of thing is MythTV. It’s an free open source program which runs on Linux. I chose to install Mythbuntu which combines MythTV and Ubuntu Linux in one distribution. I downloaded an iso file and burned it to a CD.

Surprisingly the installation went very slowly–over two hours. Then came the real tough part, configuring.

MythTV is meant to run on many different types of hardware so it needs to be custom configured. Unfortunately, as a free project put together by volunteers the documentation is a little lacking and the program’s interface non-intuitive. It took a while to understand exactly what was needed.

By 4:00 AM the box was built and everything was working. I downloaded the next fourteen days of TV listings into a MySQL database and selected a few shows to record.

This version of MythTV has some rudimentary streaming, but mostly I watch the video on my other computers using MythTV Player, another freeware program. Perfect!

What is tantalizing now is the thought of streaming my DVR to my iPhone. There are a few ways written but they all seem too complex. I’ll keep looking.

I’m also thinking of buying one more TV tuner card. This would be an ATSC, QAM card for recording HDTV digital cable (only the few unscrambled channels, unfortunately).

Like the guys with the cars on blocks this job will never be done.

2 thoughts on “Do-It-Yourself DVR”

  1. I too have been a long time tinkerer. Had mythTV for years and swear by it. Even the wife enjoys using it and finds it easy to use. Will be waiting to hear your success with HD cards.. I hear the HD Homerun is also a good device. It’s too bad we can’t get better access to the content we pay for though..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *