Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Mini-Review: mythtv for non-TV viewers

Several months ago, I set up a low-powered box to act as a fileserver and media center. I don't get cable TV and I have no interest in doing so, so I don't need a PVR. However, I do have a rather large music collection (and new speakers to play it on); I want to be able to put Internet radio on in the background (since we can't get NPR over the air), and a quick-and-dirty slideshow program for my digital camera photos could be nice too. So, I decided to try out the free media center, mythtv. I've summarized the notes I took here for the benefit of other people who don't watch TV.

Setup was fairly straightforward -- I installed the packages from and configured them. I had a bit of trouble getting myth to actually start, but looking over the documentation apparently resolved it (my notes contain no details).

Mythtv has some very well-thought-out aspects. By all accounts, it makes an excellent PVR; since I don't watch TV, this is the last time I'll mention PVRs in this post. :) The interface looks exactly the way you want a TV-based system to look, with bright colors, big fonts and big interface elements. There's even a cute OpenGL mode with fancy screen transitions (I left them disabled because my video driver is unstable even without 3d effects running -- thank Via).

However, it became painfully obvious after a bit of use that MythTV is really meant as a TV program, with everything else being an afterthought. Here are just a few of the problems I noted:

  • MythTV can't play internet radio; the functionality simply doesn't exist.
  • You can do only one thing at once. Perhaps this is fine for TV, but given that it is not uncommon that I want to, say, play music while reading the news, or while ripping another CD, this is a gaping hole in functionality for me.
  • MythTV can display news (RSS) feeds. However, the news feeds aren't in alphabetical order in either the viewer or the setup screen (where you pick what to see). This makes it rather painful to pick the feeds you want out of the dozens of presets.
  • The built-in browser crashes with SIGABRT on startup, making the news feeds useless anyway.
  • The built-in support for ripping flac files is confusing to activate (you have to pretend you're making an Ogg and choose "Perfect" quality!) and doesn't give you control over the process (for instance, replaygain can't be added to the ripped files).

That's just a small sampling of the problems I ran into. I ended up just setting up a normal desktop system with a wireless keyboard/mouse, and I'd recommend the same thing for anyone else who doesn't need a PVR. The non-TV features in Myth have a strong smell of being extras for people who occasionally switch away from the TV, rather than a well-integrated media system in their own right.