MythTV + Front Row + Mac Mini = HD happiness

I’ve been using MythTV which is the open source DVR and home theater system for Linux for years. I originally set it up because I wanted a TiVo but disliked the concept of a monthly fee to use something that I paid for. Of course, I’m a geek, so it’s reasonable for me to put together a new box, install Linux, and install and configure a fairly complex product that was, at the time, early in development.

The box has been tweaked and modified over the years, but the setup up until recently has been the following:

  • ASUS Pundit-R
  • Celeron 2.4 GHz CPu
  • 512M RAM
  • Western Digital 250G IDE
  • DVD-R
  • Hauppauge WinTV PVR 150 tuner
  • Fedora Core (FC6, currently)

The Pundit is a nice small box that has both S-VIDEO and DVI output. I originally had it connected to our old TV via S-VIDEO which was quite reasonable. Our current display is a Sony KDF-50WE655 which I used the DVI output to the TV’s HDMI input (using a DVI to HDMI adapter). I’ve been generally pleased and it was certainly better than using a VCR. One problem was that the on-board video of the Pundit (a SIS chipset) under Linux was O.K. (I had it outputting 720p which is 1280×720) but the color settings weren’t optimal and as the chipset isn’t well supported under X11/Xorg I had to go through various amounts of effort to get things running every time I upgraded Linux (RH9->FC3->FC5->FC6).

In the hopes of being able to record and watch HD content, I purchased a HDHomeRun which is a very interesting little box that simply has two ATSC (digital) tuners and an ethernet jack. The device is being developed as an open project so the support for the software is good and is also improving. The device is controlled over the network via a simple command-line or GUI program and the video output is then streamed to whatever network address you specify. MythTV supports it directly with it appearing to the system as just another tuner (well, two actually).

HDHomeRun Front
HDHomeRun Front

HDHomeRun back
HDHomeRun Back

I originally got the device a few months ago but was delayed not only by time (e.g., family, work, and the holidays), but also by the fact that the digital/HD channels it finds are different than the logical channel numbers assigned by my cable company. This is the same problem I have with the ATSC tuner in the TV itself. It finds all sorts of channels (digital versions of the analog stations, HD channels, and even dozens of the MusicChoice music stations) but they’re at the actual channels of 93.501 (CBS HD), 105.911 (Music Choice Rock), or 94.506 (KCET PBS HD), but my cable company, Time Warner, lists those same three channels as 402, 911, and 412, respectively. If you use a CableCARD on your TV or their set-top box, it translates them for you. Since I’m not using those, I have to figure it all out.

I had some inspiration a few weeks ago. If I got a Mac Mini, I could use it to act as the front end to MythTV which would play back HD video properly (the Pundit couldn’t do 1080i sufficiently) and also provide a media hub for all of our music (iTunes) and photos (iPhoto) and wrap it all up in a nice presentation via Apple’s Front Row.

I talked it over with my love and decided to go ahead with it. I dropped a note to my old friend who works at Apple to, yet again, take advantage of his employee discount (man, that is fortunate). About a week later, a little box shows up and I get it set up in no time flat.

After an evening of tweaking, we now have things set up as good as I hoped. The video quality is very good, it plays back Myth content perfectly, and it has also replaced our DVD player since the Mac Mini can output digital optical audio to our tuner which the DVD player supports (thanks to my friend who is responsible for OS X DVD playback).

It all is controlled by the nice Apple remote, but I did pick up a Keyspan Express Remote which has several more buttons than Apple’s remote to enable some better functionality so I don’t have to use a keyboard or mouse.

The first real test was last weekend for the 24 premiere. We watched it in all its 1080i goodness and was able to pause whenever we wanted.

Now, if I can only find Animal Planet (now digital only and I can’t find it) and Food Network (my analog tuner isn’t working for it and 4 other channels 52-56) I’ll be quite pleased.

If you have any questions about the setup or suggestions on the channel numbering problem, please let me know. I’m thinking about trying to find tech in Time Warner to provide a channel listing but that may be quite challenging.

8 thoughts on “MythTV + Front Row + Mac Mini = HD happiness

  1. That is true to an extent. A series 3 HD 300 hour is $799 (list) plus the monthly fees are $12.95-19.95/month and the reality is when I started this whole thing I would have purchased a different unit back then. Ballpark, two units, plus three years of service would run between $1500-2000 and I should be around that if not less.

    The additional benefit of this setup is having all of our media (music, videos, pictures) on one system which is not limited to disk space (as is the laptop which was the previous home for content) and is attached to the nicest screen and audio in the house.

    Lastly, this is also a geek project that allows for fun and professional development which allows for a tax advantage that a straight Tivo would not.

    I heartily admit that most people shouldn’t go this route. While the setup procedure has improved significantly over the years, it is far from a “set it and forget it” process.

  2. What are you using for the frontend software, mythtv software on the mac-mini? If so which build? Also is this an Intel mac-mini? Post some screenshots if you can. good job in my book. I use a 2.8 p4 with both front/backend and have the pchdtv5500. works well, but would like a super quiet, super small mac-mini instead.

  3. Kevin-
    I’m sorry I left the info out. I’m using MythFrontend (Universal build 0.20 fixes) on a Core 2 Duo Mac mini with 1G of RAM. I can do screenshots but they don’t look any different than what you see on any MythFrontend.

    I’m hoping that they get the backend ported to OS X as that would ultimately let me get rid of the Linux PC and have it all running on the mini.

  4. Mike, it looks like several people (including me) have gotten MythBackEnd to compile on OSX. Alas, my 1GHz G4 is waaaaaay too slow to record HD content, but you might check it out, you may have better luck. Compiling it takes a bit of work, but it’s not really that difficult.

    Also, this thread has a link to an amazing little app that will let you control your HDHR and watch TV live without going through your Myth box, if you want.

  5. Do these mac minis handle 1080p? Am thinking about getting one of the MB138LL/A for a front end. Do they PXE boot?

    • I can’t tell you about 1080p as my set is really only a 720p native and the Mac is set for 720p display. I play back 1080i content which gets scaled without drops. I imagine one of the latest models can pump out 1080p via HDMI to a suitable set. While Macs are capable for net booting I don’t believe that PXE is possible even with excessive hacking.

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