July 15th, 2005
This article was first published on :Newsforge.com
Personal Video Recorders are in the news these days, and for good reason. Whether its commercial projects like Windows Media Centre Edition, dedicated devices like TiVo, or OpenSource PVR projects like the excellent MythTV, PVR’s have stormed into the the home viewing market. The reasons are not hard to find. PVR’s free you from the constraints of TV schedules, let you skip advertising, pause live TV, and much more.
MythTV is widely hailed as the best free PVR solution, and it has features that even commercial competitors lack. The downside is the complex setup. You need to install a Linux distro, then MythTV. This can be a daunting prospect for a non-technical user. The MythTV documentationagrees, as can be seen from the following quote: “Initially, installation of MythTV seems like a huge task. There are lots of dependencies, and various distributions seem to do the same thing different ways.” The average TV viewing consumer will probably have trouble finding out about dependencies, leave alone resolving them.
This situation was a problem begging to be solved. And in 2003, someone had the bright idea of combining the Knoppix Project, which aims at simplifying Linux installations, among other things, with MythTV to create a product that was as easy to use as Knoppix, but gave users the power of MythTV. The developers named this hybrid appropriately enough: KnoppMyth.
I asked Cecil Watson, the co-author of KnoppMyth, to explain the motivation behind KnoppMyth, and here’s what he said. “I initially used MythTV on Mandrake, which was a pain to install due to dependencies. I always wanted to try Debian because of apt-get. About that same time, I started playing with Knoppix which is Debian based. I installed it and found install MythTV via Matt’s excellent Debian packages was a snap. It was a little while later that I tried my hand at remastering and thought it successful, it would be my way of giving something back to the community.”
The essence of KnoppMyth and Open Source in general is contained right there in that statement. Someone noticed a problem, and decided to do something about it. Is is any good? I decided to find out.
I tested KnoppMyth on a Athlon XP 2400+, with 256 MB of DDR-RAM and an 80 GB hardrive. You can use an older machine as well. The authors recommend at least an 800 MHz Duron with 256 MB of RAM. The TV Tuner card can be any one that is supported by the video4linux drivers. Again, you’ll get the best results if you use the recommended TV tuner card. I used an older TV Tuner based on the Conexant 878A chipset. This was supported, so it worked reasonably well. For TV output I used an Nvidia Geforce FX 5700 with TV output.
Documentation and Installation
I downloaded version 5 Alpha 15.1. The name suggested an Alpha release, so I was expecting to find many rough edges, and bugs. While the 517 MB ISO was downloading, I looked for the documentation on the website.
The KnoppMyth website has some documentation available, called the Pamphlet of KnoppMyth.It’s a eclectic mixture of a FAQ, a Howto and a manual rolled into one. It’s not very detailed, and has a bit of a rushed look about it. It does have important information, so it’s a good idea to read through it before you start. Specifically, it has instructions on upgrading your drivers if you use an Nvidia card, and also instructions to install KnoppMyth on a SATA HDD. It’s much a work in progress, and is updated fairly quickly.
The Installation routine starts out with the standard Linux boot screen. The help screen has not been modified, since it refers to Knoppix, and the options listed don’t work. I just pressed enter. After a few seconds, the main installation routine started. There are three installation options. I’ll deal with each one separately.
- Frontend: This lets you use the Knoppmyth machine as a pure frontend which connects to a MythTV server you have running. This is useful if you have a couple of Tv’s, or are already using MythTV. After setting the date and time, you have to enter the Database settings. After entering these parameters, Knoppmyth starts up as a pure frontend to your MythTv server. This is the quickest way to get going, but it does require a previously configured server. You don’t need to do any partioning, and you won’t lose any data on your hard drive. It’s basically just a Live CD frontend.
- Auto Install: As the name suggests, this installs KnoppMyth on your hard drive with a minimum of user prompting. All you have to do is set the date and time, enter user information, the admnistrator password, and the hostname. After this, Knoppmyth shows you the partition scheme it’s chosen, and warns you of the impending format of your hard drive. Just to be sure, it warns you twice, so that you don’t accidently end up losing all your data. After you say yes, it proceeds to partition, format and install KnoppMyth. It took five minutes, and one reboot, and it was up and running.
- Auto Upgrade: This is a simple way to upgrade your existing KnoppMyth installation. Before you do this, make sure you backup your KnoppMyth setup. There is an option avialable on the menu for this. Once you run the upgrade, it’ll restore your settings, and restart once.
- Manual Install: This is the final installation option. You have complete control over the installation. You can partition the hard drive the way you want, install the bootloader according to your partitions, load a previous configuration, or save the current configuration for future installations. This option gives you a little more control, while still being fairly simple. This is the only way to install on a SATA hard drive, or a partition other than /dev/hda
Post-Installation and Conclusion
I used the auto install option. It took about 5 minutes to copy the files. After removing the CD and rebooting, KnoppMyth started up. I was asked for the root password. The next question was “Choose a Module Action”. This required a quick trip to the documentation.After choosing the correct option for my hardware, a lot of text messages scrolled by. A few seconds later, the MythTV configuration window started up. I left that alone, and used Ctrl-Alt-F1 to start a console window. Here, following instructions, I installed the Nvidia drivers. It’s easy to do, simply a mattter of typing one command and watching some text scroll by. After 10 seconds of this, the X server restarted, and I was back to the MythTV configuration screen.
The rest of the configuration is the standard MythTV setup. This is where the Knoppix part of KnoppMyth comes to an end, and MythTV takes over. You can read the MythTV documentation, and set it up to your liking. There really isn’t much to write about KnoppMyth, except for the simple fact that it works, and works well. The list of supported hardware is growing daily, and as of this writing, there’s a new version out, which runs kernel 126.96.36.199-chw-2. You can read the complete list of changes on the Changelog. As long as you build a machine using standard hardware, you should be fine. In case you are forced to use poorly supported hardware, you might run into trouble.
Once I had MythTV configured, I was able to use all the features. KnoppMyth automatically partitions your HDD appropriately, so you don’t have to bother about directory permissions or anything like that. My 80 GB HDD was partitioned into a 2.8 GB system partition, 6 GB cache partition, and a 68 GB Myth partition. The filesystem layout is listed in the documentation so you can easily see what goes where.
I tried Auto Upgrading as well. Before doing this, you have to make a backup of your current configuration. This is done by selecting the option from the main MythTV screen. Once backed up, the auto install process is initiated by booting from the CD. The basically wipes the system partition, installs the new version, and sets up MythTV by reading the backup file. You don’t lose any of your recordings, pictures or channel information. It’s a quick and easy way to upgrade.
So does KnoppMyth work as promised? The answer is yes. It does what it sets out to do, which is provide a simple, fast and effective method of getting MythTV running on your system. As anyone who has tried to install MythTV from the source can testify, simply getting it running can be quite a task. You need to be an adept user of Linux, and be able to take care of dependencies, file and directory permissions, compiler options and other such complex tasks. Pre-compiled packages are available, but even these require some knowledge of Linux, and might entail some tinkering with file and directory permissions, user setup and the like.
I was surprised to find KnoppMyth so functional. The Alpha tag doesn’t seem to fit, since it seems like a Beta version at the very least. However, the very fact that the Alpha version is so functional makes me wonder what the KnoppMyth team have in store for the stable release of Version 5!
KnoppMyth makes it possible for people to just run MythTV, without being forced to learn too much about Linux. Yes, you will need a bit of a DIY mentality to install KnoppMyth, but it’s orders of magnitude easier than installing MythTV from the source tarballs.
The popularity of KnoppMyth is growing, and the developers confess to being rather surprised at the success of the program. The future of KnoppMyth seems secure as well, with the authors saying that they are continuing to develop KnoppMyth. In fact, KnoppMyth is now based on Debian Sid, but still uses the Knoppix scripts. Adding software to KnoppMyth post install is simple, with apt-get working as expected.
What’s next for KnoppMyth? The authors are focusing on increasing ease of use, and adding a graphical installer. The user forums at http://mysettopbox.tv/phpBB2/ are active, with over three thousand registered members. It’s a good place to hang out to learn more about KnoppMyth, ask for new features to be included in the next version of KnoppMyth, or just learn more. You can also help the team out, by contributing documentation, beta testing, or simply writing a few words of appreciation.
KnoppMyth is a promising application. It needs a bit of work to make it more appealing to the absolute beginner, but it’s made a great start. The authors need to improve the installer to make it more visually exciting, as well as give some more information about the installation choices so that absolute novices can use it easily. I also found the default wallpaper a little over the top. These are minor gripes, and can easily be solved with a little time and help. I hope KnoppMyth lives up to it’s potential with the stable release.