Sep 11, 2008

How to build a MythTV for under $300

If you search for a media center PC online or in a store, they tend to be quite expensive, often in excess of a thousand dollars. But you don't need that much money to get a working media center that lets you pause live TV, record shows, rip DVDs onto the hard drive, and more. I did it for under $300, and with a little bargain hunting, you can too!

Here's what I have and how much I paid (rounded to the dollar):
$39 - ECS 761GX-M754 motherboard (eBay)
$10 - AMD64 3000+ CPU on sale at Fry's because the 754 socket is being discontinued. Great time to buy one!*
$33 - 1GB Corsair RAM (Fry's)
$25 - PowerSpec TX366 mATX Case (Microcenter)
$25 - XION 450W power supply (Microcenter)
$33 - Hauppauge PVR-150 NTSC TV tuner (eBay)
$38 - ATI X700 (eBay)
$21 - 50' CAT5 cable (Home Depot)
$20 - 1 year subscription to Schedules Direct (needed if you want to get channel schedules in North America)
$27 - Windows MCE remote (eBay)
Some additional parts that I already owned:
$0 - Two 80GB Western Digital IDE hard drives
$0 - DVD reader
= $271

* I actually got several since they were such a steal... if you wanna buy one, leave a comment!

Now, you're probably thinking, "Hey, that's not fair - you didn't include the price of the hard drives or the DVD reader!" Frankly, if you're not the kind of person who has a some spare computer parts lying around your house, you should probably quit reading now, because despite many advances in usability, MythTV is still quite a challenge to install and configure. However, for the sake of thoroughness: you can get a 160GB SATA drive for $50 and a DVD-ROM reader from $20 at Microcenter. Plus, in hindsight, I believe a 300W power supply would suffice, so instead of paying $50 for the case and power supply, Microcenter sells the case with a 300W power supply for $34. And on Craigslist, which I discovered late in the process of buying things, people are selling old desktops for as low as $50, which is as much as I paid for the case and power supply alone, but would potentially get you RAM, hard drives, an extra keyboard, maybe even the DVD drive if you're lucky. I got a 20" CRT monitor for $15 on Craigslist, so I'm sure that if you live near a big city you could get a better deal on a bare bones PC than I did building from scratch.

Be warned, installing MythTV is not for the faint of heart. It took the better part of two weeks to get it configured the way I like it, and I am already pretty well versed in Linux and Ubuntu. Most of the first week was spent trying to make the ATI tuner card, the ATI remote, and a cheap Trendnet TEW-424UB USB wireless dongle work with Linux. (The USB wireless adapter worked fine with ndiswrapper on my laptop, but refused to connect on my desktop.) After a week I gave up, and researched the best, most highly recommended hardware for MythTV and got a Hauppauge card, a Windows MCE remote, and traded wireless for a CAT5 cable, which all work great. I had to mess around with the LIRC config files until I got all the buttons on my remote programmed the way I like, but that really wasn't too hard once I figured out how. Also, MythTV's internal player had extremely poor DVD playback on my setup, so I had to configure MythTV to use Xine instead (the MythTV wiki explains how to do that very clearly).

All of the parts I used are a few years old - you don't need "modern" hardware to run MythTV. The AMD64 3000+ was released in 2003 according to Wikipedia. The 80GB hard drives are both from an old computer that got replaced years ago. Using the Hauppauge card with its hardware MPEG-2 encoder, standard definition analog TV takes up 2.2GB per hour; one drive is formatted with XFS and has 75GB of free space, the other is ext3 and has nearly 70GB free. That's over 65 hours of TV! (Mythbuntu itself appears to only take about 2GB. The formatted capacity of ext3 is less than XFS apparently.) As for the other hardware, I don't necessarily recommend the power supply I got - I find the fan rather loud and annoying. And I'm not sure where I stand on ATI vs Nvidia when it comes to Linux. But I definitely recommend the Hauppauge if you're recording analog. You might want a PVR-500, which has two tuners in it, if you want to be able to watch live TV while recording another show, or record two show at once. I figure the chances of two good shows being on at the same time, with no reruns that could be recorded later, are so slim all I need is one for now. Since I'm stuck with college cable, I doubt I'll get any digital or HDTV for a while, so I stuck with an analog tuner.

So if you've got a lot of free time and $300, go ahead - build yourself a MythTV! Record shows and skip through the commercials! Never worry about when your favorite show is on; MythTV can find and records your show on any channel at any time. Try programming a VCR to do that! MythTV also remembers which episodes it's previously recorded so it doesn't fill up your hard drive with reruns you've already seen. You can rip your DVDs to the hard drives. You can have multiple frontends, connected to a single MythTV backend by ethernet. The MythWeb plugin even lets you stream your recordings over the Internet so you can watch them on any computer. And all sorts of cool things. Useful resources definitely are the MythTV wiki, the Mythbuntu forums, the MythTV wiki, and did I mention the MythTV wiki? Really, the MythTV wiki is the most useful thing I encountered. FYI, I tried MythDora and KnoppMyth - MythDora seemed really nice - but stuck with Mythbuntu simply because I'm use to Debian/Ubuntu systems.

Here's some more pictures. I printed the MythTV sticker in the above picture by using the unused portion of inkjet DVD label paper.

The MythTV home screen with the "neon-wide" theme.

The MythTV program guide.

For fun, I re-branded the Windows Media Center Remote.
(You can guess what logo was there originally.)
So that's it.