Just ignore the old computers screaming in pain.

An experiment in HTPC

I’m a bit of a computer nerd, but most of my experience is with older hardware(hey, nothing wrong with a 386…). I’ve built more recent PC’s from parts, but it’s not one of my strong points. I blame CompUSA for this whole thing. If that 500GB SATA drive hadn’t been on sale, I wouldn’t have ended up buying all the parts to use that drive. But it was so cheap, I couldn’t resist. So here I sit with a nice little 500GB drive. I MUST have something to put it in! So begins one of my more annoying adventures.

I ended up with a Gigabyte GA-G33M-S2H motherboard. It’s a nice little micro-ATX unit with some PCI-Express slots and HDMI and DVI video output, as well as S/PDIF optical sound output. Those little details are always important. I nearly went insane looking for a proper case. When I built a budget gaming rig about 4 years ago, I found some nice case with clear sides, which of course meant lots of lights had to go inside. What I ended up with was a computer that lit up the room and sounded like a jet engine. And that 2.6GHz Pentium 4 certainly gave some competition to the oil furnace. Enough of that, I need something quiet, unobtrusive, and if possible not terribly ugly. Well, most of the cases they sell now are pretty damn ugly if you ask me. I finally settled on a Cooler Master Elite 340. Newegg happened to have the Corsair VX450 power supply which had decent reviews for a low-noise PS(strangely they don’t seem to have it anymore). For the CPU I went with the Core 2 Duo E4500 at 2.2GHz. It certainly isn’t going to break any records, but it will make keeping the system cool a little easier. I put a Scythe Ninja Mini cooler on top, that thing is just amazing. And HUGE. The mini barely fits the case, as you can see in the photo below. I’m not sure what kind of case the full size version goes into! You can also see the oversized 130mm Thermaltake fan. Very quiet, and moves a decent amount of air. But it IS oversized in certain areas. I had to take a hacksaw to the outer edge of the frame to make it fit the case. Toss in 4GB of RAM and a DVD-R that was laying around, and we’re just about ready to roll.

The Innards

Since this is going to be an HTPC/Tivo-wannabe, I needed a TV tuner card. This turned out to be quite a challenge, since I had no idea what I was doing. After a week of reading everything I could find, I finally decided to take a risk on the Hauppauge HVR-1800. I needed something that would do HD, and while this card isn’t quite fully supported under Linux, I figured I would probably end up running Windows anyhow. So I fire it all up and start installing…

As usual, Windows is quite a headache for me. Yeah, I’m a hardcore Mac fan. After installing WinXP, I found out that most of the TV software doesn’t really work too well. I knew Hauppauge’s software was questionable from earlier experiments with a USB tuner on my laptop. I’m not even sure what I was using anymore, but I think SageTV was the only one that really worked under Windows XP. Since I was doing some crazy stuff to this poor computer and reinstalling the OS about every 6 hours, I finally got ahold of a copy of Windows MCE to try, since everyone said it was the best Windows solution. LOL. It NEVER worked. Never even got it to recognize that there was a tuner card installed. Go figure.

Onward to MythTV. I’ve never done well with *nix on a PC. In fact, I had never been able to get more than halfway through the install process with either NetBSD or FreeBSD on my older PC’s. But a few years of MacOS X had me feeling a little more brave about wandering over to Linux. I’ll spare the details of a week of switching back and forth, but I finally decided to stick to Mythbuntu. A lot of things aren’t entirely supported, or supported at all, but I finally got the TV part working. If you are having trouble with this part, here’s the process that works for me – Install Mythbuntu. Once you get to the backend config, just skip it all and restart the computer. Once you are running on your new install, use apt-get to install linux-headers-somethingorother, build-essential, and mercurial. Once you finish that, use mercurial to download the v4l-dvb source from linuxtv.org (they have some nice directions there on doing that). Compile and install V4L, then you can continue with the backend configuration where you should be able to select the TV tuner that it otherwise doesn’t think exists. The rest of it is a bit of a pain and probably more dependent on your own setup. One thing that does NOT appear to work at all is sound via HDMI. For that I finally gave in and used the optical output to an external receiver, which is also handling the sound from my DVD player and TV.

So finally the thing appears to be working, and just in time. I set it to record, and it seems to work. It does. I sit back and watch a replay of the Superbowl. Hooray!
And then something else happens. Oh yeah, these lovely little settings that no one tells you about.
Yep. The damn live TV recording auto-expire was set to 1 damn day…

Sometimes you just can’t win against a computer.

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February 2008
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