EFF's HDTV-PVR Cookbook

Note: This guide is broken into two pages, the Introduction (which you are looking at now), and the Requirements and Step by Step Instructions page.

Introduction

Welcome to the EFF guide to assembling your own personal video recorder (PVR) with KnoppMyth r5a10 and pcHDTV. Creating your own HDTV PVR with free/open source software can be a fun and rewarding experience. Hollywood has tried to take that experience away from us, and nearly succeeded with the FCC's broadcast flag. Though we've beaten the flag, for now, we expect the MPAA will be back, asking Congress for similar "protection" (read, control). You can help us demonstrate the value of open hardware and software.

Below, we describe what this all this is about so you can decide whether this project and this guide is right for you. Before embarking on this task, please look this guide over and consider whether you have the relevant items and skills (see requirements), and whether you're interested in the functionality that the PVR will offer you in the end (see what this will and won't get you).

Why would you do this?

As EFF describes on our Digital Television Liberation page, we narrowly averted a broadcast flag mandate that would have banned the manufacture of DTV-receiving hardware described here after July 1, 2005. While we've stopped the clock for now, who knows when it will start up again. The equipment you get today may well be more functional than what's available in the future.

Many people have described a "convergence" between personal computers (PCs) and consumer electronics devices, suggesting that a single device will take on more and more of the functions that were traditionally separate. Unfortunately, the convergence process many entertainment companies have in mind tends to remove some of the openness and user control that has made the PC valuable. Entertainment companies want the power to dictate which features may be included in future entertainment devices and, in many cases, the right to choose who will be allowed to write the software for them. MythTV's developer Isaac Richards decided to create "the mythical convergence box" -- a computer -- -- software application that would bring many entertainment and media functions, including the personal video recorder (PVR) functionality made famous by TiVo, into the PC while preserving the end user's choice and control. MythTV is a multifunction entertainment center application that teaches your computer to act like a PVR, CD jukebox, photo show, weather station, and much more.

Now, more than ever, hobbyists have a chance to build useful, enjoyable "convergence boxes" that show the contrast between the restrictive technological world entertainment companies have in mind and the freedom and creativity that the programmable PC can unleash.

What this will get you and what it won't get you

KnoppMyth installation is a quick way to get a basic Linux distribution installed and configured with MythTV. Even if you want to run later versions of the MythTV software, KnoppMyth provides a Debian platform (and collects the required dependencies) for later upgrade. It is also possible to install MythTV onto an existing Linux system; if you are proficient with some particular Linux distribution, and especially if you already have one installed on a machine to which you'd like to add MythTV, you might want to use that instead of installing with KnoppMyth. Keep in mind that if you want to make full use of the PVR's scheduled recording features, you should have this machine on and connected to its antenna around the clock. If you prefer to start from a pre-existing Linux installation, you might want to refer to the documents mentioned in our list of other resources below rather than following the directions here.

The equipment we discuss here receives terrestrial broadcast (free over-the-air) digital television using an antenna. You will be able to use it for this purpose only in ATSC countries, namely the United States, Mexico, Canada, South Korea, Taiwan, and Argentina. There is also commonly available equipment that works with the software we discuss here to receive free over-the-air analog television, and basic-tier analog cable.

For various reasons, this equipment does not receive satellite television of any kind, nor does it receive encrypted digital cable. There is a good chance that there will never be equipment to receive most digital cable or satellite television directly with MythTV, especially since laws and regulations may allow entertainment companies from to stop such equipment from coming to market. If you follow the instructions here, you should assume that, for at least the time being, the PVR you build will have no access to encrypted satellite or digital cable programming. (However, certain conditional access systems that require set-top boxes can be made, with some loss of quality, to work with MythTV by connecting a video digitizer card to the analog outputs of a provider-supplied set-top box. This process is not described in this document. You can read more about interfacing MythTV with external set-top boxes at the MythTV IR Blaster HOWTO page; some people have, for example, been able to make MythTV work with DirecTV and DISH Network set-top boxes using an analog interface. When it is possible at all, this process will require additional hardware and configuration work that is not described in the present document. Other MythTV users have reported building systems that receive unencrypted digital cable.)

The KnoppMyth software we describe here is still in early stages of development, and you might encounter difficulties or unexpected behavior. (Even if you don't use KnoppMyth, support for ATSC capture in the Linux kernel and in MythTV is also relatively recent, and may also behave erratically or unpredictably.) We encourage experienced hobbyists or groups to undertake this project and to report their experiences to the developers of the software they use to help improve it in the future. Less experienced computer users may find the process confusing at this stage. We believe that the online communities that have formed around PC-based PVRs are making extremely rapid progress and that the quality and usability of this technology will continue to improve.

We, along with other KnoppMyth r5a10 users, have been submitting bug reports and comments to the KnoppMyth project. We anticipate that subsequent versions of KnoppMyth will include enhancements to the installation process, as well as updated versions of MythTV and related software, and we anticipate that EFF will produce an updated version of this document to reflect changes in the installation process. If you encounter a bug in the KnoppMyth software, or have a feature enhancement request, please submit it to the KnoppMyth project; if you encounter a discrepancy or error in the information provided here, please submit it to EFF.

In general, if you try to assemble a personal video recorder using this document, we encourage you to share your experiences and suggestions, including updates based on newer versions of the software involved. Features and installation procedures applicable to KnoppMyth R5a10 might be somewhat different in subsequent versions.

This guide is aimed at experienced hobbyists who would like to set up a Linux-based personal video recorder on a PC platform. For those who would like to use Microsoft Windows or Mac OS X, there are alternatives available that provide generally comparable functionality at somewhat greater cost (and that use non-free/open source software components). Those alternatives are not described in this document, but you can read about them on EFF's DTV Liberation page. For those who are most interested in ease and speed of setup, the fastest option is probably El Gato's EyeTV 500 product, which is an external FireWire-based tuner currently only supported on Mac OS X.

Next: Requirements & Step by Step Instructions

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