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I test media center software for Linux

December 12, 2008

Some of the consistently most popular posts on this blog are the ones I started out with, about how I built an HTPC/Multimedia center PC for use with Linux. Those posts started out the blog, but then ended abruptly after the post on how to install Ubuntu. They stopped because I never became satisfied with the multimedia software configuration.

Configuring multimedia software on Ubuntu is complicated. There are many steps involved. You need to configure the software, you need to configure the remote control, you need to configure the remote control with the software, you might need to configure the TV card if you have one, and you need to fiddle around with all these settings until things work smoothly. It’s a lot of work.

But first you need to choose with media center to use. And here is my experience after testing many of them, often for quite long times.

MythTV

As I wanted to be able to watch TV with mt TV Card, I started out with the most popular media center that supports TV cards, MythTV. It’s full featured and immensely configurable. But it is also very hard to configure, and I never got it to work very well. It kept crashing, and the sound was never in sync with the video when watching TV. This was because I could never get MythTV to pick the sound from the TV card, but instead it picked the sound from the analog AUX in. And since MythTV doesn’t just connect to the card, instead it starts up a server which then transmits the video via the network to the client, even though they are the same machine, the video always arrived after the sound.

Well, I say always. At one point I reinstalled Ubuntu for reasons now lost to history. And after that reinstallation MythTV *did* pick the sound from the card. För a while at least. Then I needed to reinstall it, and I never got it back. This, the crashes, the complexity of configuring, the idea that it absolutely wants to install a TV schedule, which I have no ise for (I choose channels with the TV decoder, not the TV card, so the software can’t choose channels anyway) finally made me give up. MythTV is an over complex, unstable, unconfigurable heap of junk, IMO. Avoid.

Freevo

After finally giving up on MythTV I started looking around for other media centers. Several showed promise, but lacked TV support. I was especially impressed with Elisa, but not only didn’t it support TV, it was clearly at this point (early this year) not ready to be used. The only one that seemed to be ready and supported TV was Freevo. And compared to MythTV it was a joy in the beginning. It was stable, it had the features I needed, I could easily reconfigure it to not have any stupid TV-channels but just open the TV software, configuring was easy, and best of all it was written in Python.

But after a while the romance faded. The main problem is that Freevo is really just a menu system. All the other software is controlled via plugins that start software like mplayer for video, and tvtime for TV. Tvtime I already had reverted to using instead of MythTV, so it seemed ideal.

But since it’s a menu system, each software has it’s own key-bindings. So unless you have a very good memory, you need to set up the remote control. And not only did I have problems in configuring my remote (the default Unix drivers don’t support the navigation pad used instead of arrow buttons, requiring painful patching and recompiling everytime lirc was upgraded) you need to remap the remote control button for each part of MythTV. Video needs it’s mappings, audio another, TV a third, etc, etc.

Also, the DVD software never worked well. The best DVD player on Linux is probably VLC, but there are no VLC plugins for Freevo. It meant I used Freevo to play music and video files, but I kept opening VLC to play DVDs. And I never got around to really make sure the remote actually worked, making Freevo pretty complex to use with a large set of keyboard mappings to remember. Nothing my wife was happy with when I was away at a conference. Freevo was OK, but not good enough.

And then two things happened. Firstly, my TV decoder stopped working. I get my cable TV over ADSL, so the decoder actually gets it’s data from the ADSL-modem via Ethernet. But the ADSL-modem is in a different room, which I solved with running my Eithernet connection over the power cables. That worked fine, up until maybe 6 months ago, when some sort of disturbance now means this connection doesn’t work any more. I don’t watch TV much but my wife does from time to time, so this was very annoying. The second thing that happened was Zattoo. With it, you can watch the free TV channels in low quality over the internet. Since all we had was the free channels anyway, this solved the problem. But that meant that no longer was there a requirement for the media center to support TV!

Boxee

So, when I a month ago got my Boxee alpha tester invite, I started on a new quest for media center software. I installed Boxee, and gave up on that almost immediately. Boxee is an interesting software, basically it’s a media center with social networking, so you can see what other people are watching and they can see what you are watching. And if that isn’t creepy enough to to make you uninstall it, the user interface is also overly swooshily clever, and frankly crap. They think they are clever by having menues as fold outs from the sides, which makes the left button open menus. Aha. Yeah. That’s logical. NOT. And when you start it, it doesn’t start with a menu, but throws you into a overview of what others are watching. Well, maybe I’m just to individualistic, because honestly, I couldn’t give a shit about what other people are watching.

Boxee stayed on my computer for about 20 minutes. It’s idea is interesting, if you are a person who prefer having your taste guided by others, but the UI is still a giant unusable mistake.

Elisa

I had thought Elisa showed great promise earlier, so when I reinstalled it now I wasn’t disappointed. It’s easy to install, it’s easy to use, it’s very pretty, worked well and again, written in Python! It has a program for configuring the remote control, so you configure it by simply pressing the button on the remote that the program asks you to press. Thank you! No more multiple configuration steps and typing in case sensitive key codes in configuration files! But in the end, after a weeks testing, I scrapped it. It’s still not ready, lacks some features and isn’t very configurable. Although you can control it with very few buttons, it turns out you pretty much can NOT control it with more buttons. You more or less do everything with arrow buttons. That means that on the remote control, I need to map volume buttons to up and down so I can control the volume. But that means that if I’m not in the right mode, pressing the volume buttons will actually start navigating. That is the example of the little immature annoyances you’ll have to live with if you want to use it. So, Elisa still shows great promise. But it’s not there yet. But even though it’s open source, it has a commercial company behind it, so it’s quite likely that it will get there in the end.

XBMC

Lastly, I installed XBMC. XBMC’s unwieldy name comes from XBox Media Center, and is originally developed to run on an XBox, but has been ported to Linux. XBMC was also reasonbly easy to install and get running with. Although mapping the remote control meant editing text files again, I otherwise found configuration reasonably easy, and the #XBMC irc channel helpful. And best of all, it actually has the features you need (except TV card support), it’s reasonably easy to use, and since it’s an integrated software, keyboard mappings are consistent so you can remember them. The DVD software seems to work well (I’ve only watched one DVD yet, but that worked at least), it plays my Captain Beyond progrssive rock mp3s without big glitches between songs, it has support to play all the albums of one artist in one go…. yeah, it’s pretty much perfect so far. So, I’m stuck. XBMC seems to be it. Now all I want is for them to integrate a Zattoo client. ;-) Great job guys!

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6 Comments
  1. Oh that is nice to read. I have been considering switching my MediaPortal Windows XP based media center to a Linux based MythTV one. But the win box is working perfectly. So I guess that I will stay on the current platform.

  2. Yeah, at least test some of the Linux softwares before switching so you know that you can stand them. :-) But in genral it’s definitely not worth it.

  3. Eric permalink

    Been awhile since you wrote it. Have been through the very same painful process last year, with the extra painful constraint that it needs to work om a pc with an intel i865 chip. Heck, when I tried an xbmx distro, it wouldn even boot because it threw me outside the specs of the graph chips, so i got no video at all.

    The media pc is running winxp now with gb-pvr at the moment. It runs, but not flawlessly at all. So, since I am running a sort-alike pc in my office above, which now nice and smoothly runs on linux mint (really nice distro, really nice) I decided to see If I could find something working again.

    Am looking at moovida (formerly elisa) and xbmc at the moment. xbmc turns out to be a bit heavy, but movide runs pretty OK. If only I could ditch al those unnecessary menu stuff out of it.

    But was wondering… how are YOU doing by now?

  4. I’m using XBMC, and bought a real TV. All multimedia centers for Linux has ûber-crappy TV support.

  5. Hello everyone, this seems to be a very old post but either way I wanted to write down my experiences with media center software.
    Windows MCE works pretty fine and has all the thing most people need. The only problem is that you need more expensive hardware to get it to do all the things you want flawless.
    This pushed me over the edge a while ago to start using Linux. Since I also wanted live TV next to watching backed up DVD’s, music and picture albums from my file server, I ended up with Mythbuntu which holds the MythTV software for the TV part. For the DVD’s, music and pictures I use XBMC and I must say it was a hassle to get everything working perfectly, but it’s a revelation!
    It did’nt cost me as much as i would have used Microsoft and I can do all the things that are possible today with interactive televesion.

    As a TV card I have chosen DVB-S2 which is sattelite and where the S2 stands for HD quality reception. I bought a Technotrend S2-3200 card with common interface (http://www.dvbshop.net/product_info.php/language/en/info/p103_Technotrend-S2-3200-HDTV-S2—Budget-CI—TT-Viewer.html) which ables me to watch pay channels with the right smartcard. Mythbuntu recognized the card out of the box, so the configuration was relatively simple.
    XBMC wasn’t hard either to install, and very simple to configure.

    Here’s how the TV menu looks like:

    Last week I bought a AsRock ION 330 HT-BD for in our bedroom, I’ve installed mythbuntu on the device and set it up as a MythTV frontend, that way it’s possible to connect to the first built system which holds the TV card and watch TV over network. XBMC is installed to on the AsRock ION box so whe are able to watch backed up DVD’s to in our bedroom over the network.

    You can do similar things with MCE to, for instance you can set up an XBOX as media extender to be able to watch from another place, but it will cost you more in the end.

    Also it’s possible to set up a online TV-guide using MythTV on the box that holds the TV card. That way you can navigate to it using your laptop, i-phone, PC or the TV to have a look what will be on tonight. You can even set it up to reach the TV-guide from outside your home network to be able to plan recordings from your work.

    The only downside on all of this is that the whole process of setting it up requires a lot of time to get everything configured just the way you want it, certainly if you aren’t familiar to Linux in the first place, but it’s really all worth it!

    More information on Mythbuntu (Ubuntu with MythTV integrated, reqquires less configuration):

    Mythbuntu homepage
    Mythbuntu screenshots

    More info about XBMC:

    XBMC homepage
    XBMC schreenshots

    You can find all the help setting it up in the Ubuntu and on the XBMC forums!

    XBMC forums
    Ubuntu forums

    The only advise I can give you all if you go for a Linux based system is go for a Long term supported release, like MythBuntu 10.04 and stick with it when everything works. :-)

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