March 6th, 2005:
Need for Speed
Part III

About this time every year, my thoughts turn to internal combustion and the joy it brings to the world… or at least my world. In previous articles, I’ve rambled on about “car cool” and “common sense.” This time around I would like to address some things that I’ve realized about my personal experience with cars. I am an opinionated person. I base my opinion on my experience. Since I have yet to experience everything, I can’t pretend to know all. With this realization, I’ve decided to open up to components of the car world that I previously avoided or sometimes outright criticized.

Many people have shared their preferences with me. Though I accepted their opinions, part of me would not let go of preconceptions that will ultimately hinder my ability to see everything out there for what it’s worth. One person in particular has shared a lot of his experience with me, and some of it I’ve taken for granted… until now.

Brad is a character that I met at work. He shares a passion for cars that I respect. His opinions on performance and aesthetic are often in contrast to my own. His current ride, a late model Mercury Cougar, started out stock with a body kit. Then custom wheels and window tint. I’ve always prefered performance to appearance, so I was not quick to recognize the improvements he made to his car. His passion went beyond the external modifications to his car. He organized a local Cougar club that later spawned an annual gathering for owners, Cougarfest. Brad took it upon himself to contact corporate sponsors, choose a location, and organize a professional event. His Cougar-owning peers look up to him. I realize now that I do too.

I don’t have the where with all to coordinate such an effort. Autosport is something I prefer to appreciate in a more solitary way. It’s kind of a zen thing. Alone with some tools and a car, elbow deep under the hood, I sometimes find a peace that I don’t associate with any of my other interests. Brad is interested in the community aspect. In addition to Cougarfest, he participates in several car shows per year. He has taken several awards for his Cougar, and I believe that he earned every one.

A few years ago, Brad went beyond aesthetic improvements and installed a major performance upgrade: a Vortec centrifugal supercharger. This is no small task and Brad had few peers to guide him. He did the work (with a few extra hands) and the results are stunning. This upgrade got my attention. However, it was more than a single step… it was yet another step in an ongoing process to realize his vision.

Shortly after the supercharger upgrade, Brad started to compete in SCCA Solo events. At this time I was pretty hooked with drag racing (at a local strip, of course) as well as turning a wrench or two for a SCCA road racing team. Though I was curious about Solo II, I didn’t venture out on my own and try it. Maybe I was scared to try something without anyone guiding me… maybe my longterm goal (road racing) blinded me from this short term satisfaction. In any event, Brad continued to gain experience while I sat by and watched.

Eventually I accompanied Brad to a Solo II event. It was a blast. Over the past few years, I learned a lot about the sport… I also learned a lot about motorsport physics. Though I have no immediate plans to continue with autocross, I learned a lot about it, thanks to Brad.

Brad is quiet. He doesn’t make a show of his interest… apart fromt he decals on his car (wink). When he wants to work on his car, he simply walks out to his garage and starts working. I, on the other hand, require a lot of prep to start working. I research my projects online, block out a day on a weekend several weeks in advance, and focus intensely on the task at hand. Brad is happy to work a few hours, clean up, and jump thorough a sprinkler on the lawn if the moment strikes him.

This I respect above all. He doesn’t stress over his hobby, though he is undeniably passionate about it. It’s a seamless part of his being. I wish to be like this. I want to just do… not plan, process, and participate. There’s a zen to Brad’s way that I hope to find… maybe it’s something I’ll discover this year. Maybe it’s something that I’ll never quite get. In any event, I’ll continue with this example as an inspiration and another experience to add to my personal “files.” Everyone’s experience is unique, but I can’t deny that other’s experience affects my own.

Further information and related links:
Brad’s Website
Milan Dragway
Waterford Hills Road Racing

- Duane

January 31st, 2005:
Adventures In Home Media Solutions
Part 4

Tivo set the standard by which all other PVRs are compared. It’s intuitive and elegant interface (including remote control), responsiveness, and reliability are difficult to beat. It offers some basic home media center/server features such as mp3 playback, photo viewing, and recorded video sharing. Tivo has become more than a company, more than a solution… It has become a verb. Apparently Tivo doesn’t like that. Recent actions taken against web sites and promotions that encourage users to “Tivo that show” prove that Tivo is working to seperate itself from other DVR solutions.

My goal was to find a PC-based solution utilizing some existing hardware resources that offered a similar experience to Tivo without limiting future upgrades (multiple tuners, high-definition output) and extending the media center experience beyond DVR and media playback (gaming, internet access, multi-format video viewing, file server access, home automation). I also hoped for a reliable and mature solution.

The hardware I selected was:

TV Tuner:

Hauppauge WinTV PVR 250. A solid, full featured tuner with onboard mpeg encoder and decoder. Compared to the 150, there is a negligable difference in picture quality, but more importantly, the 250 is compatible with non-Windows solutions (including MythTV). The MCE version ships without a remote (since Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 has one of it’s own), reducing cost. OEM versions of the card can be found for a significant savings over thheir retail counterparts. The OEM cards ship in a simple white box with a 4-page installation guide. No media ships with the card, as the drivers are covered by the operating system. Expect to pay $100 to $120 for an OEM card from suppliers such as PC Alchemy and approximately $150 for the retail version.

Video Card:

NVidia GeForceFX 5200. Windows XP MCE 2005 requires a DirectX 9-compatible display adapter. MythTV (and Linux in general), gets along better with NVidia cards than their ATI counterparts. (In the past, I’ve preferred ATI’s offerings, but NVidia has made a believer out of me…) The 5200 is a cost-effective solution. It meets all of the requirements, and offers surprising performance for the price. Additionally, the DVD Decoder Codecs/Software sold by NVidia for use with their products is excellent. PC Alchemy offers several bundled packages that include a Hauppauge tuner, Windows XP MCE, DVD Decoder software, and video card. If you keep an eye on ony of the popular deal sites online (Deals On The Web, XP Bargains) you may be able to find one of these cards for $20 (or less, after rebates). Legends are still shared of those who have found these cards for free after enough rebates are mailed.


I had hoped that I would be able to pull this caper off with a 1.1 gHz Athlon processor, but XP MCE requires a minimum 1.6 gHz powerplant. A faster front-side bus helps with the DVD decoding as well. I went with a Soyo Dragon KT600+ v2 motherboard with an Athlon 2600+ (snicker) CPU. It does the job. If you’re planning on compressing video files while you record television or recording multiple sources at the same time, a few more mHz will help.


I am using a multiple-drive configuration. One drive (~30g) hosts the operating system and software while the other (~200g) is used for recording. A lesson learned from computer based audio recording: don’t record to your system drive. Recording anything in realtime uses a cache, most often in the same location as your operating system and/or recording software. Allowing your system to record to one drive, while crunching away on another will extend hardware life, reduce system stress, and limit complications that could lead to system failure. More storage is better, as recorded programs at high quality consume a great deal of disk space. Reduced quality recordings, of course, conserve space, but animated shows (cough, Adult Swim, cough) suffer greatly from increased compression by showing obvious and distracting artifacts.

Sound Card:

While most will find their onboard audio solutions sufficient, I wanted digitial audio support… my Soyo MB did not support this, so I re-used my aging PCI Sound Blaster (w/ SPDIF-out). Numerous low-cost options are available from a number of brands.

Pre-assembeled Offerings:

HP, Gateway, and Dell offer complete Media Center Machines starting at $800. However, as the features and specs grow, so does the cost. Expect to pay about $1500 for a flagship system. If you want a warranty, customer support, and a cool logo, these are viable options… if it fits your budget.

Windows MCE XP 2005 cost round-up:

In trying to research the cost of a custom media center computer, I found that there are innumerable component choices and endless iterations of hardware combinations. Expect to pay $400 for a basic system meeting minimum system requirements to $800 for a competitive solution to the pre-built options from major brands.

Other options:

If you like to tinker with software and hardware and don’t have strict requirements for dependability or features, seriously consider KnopMyth. Just because I didn’t have to patience to get every aspect of KnoppMyth working doesn’t mean that other can’t either. The hardware requirements are less strict (though I still highly recommend a video solution from NVidia.. their Linux support is great). and the OS and software are free.


With the release of the Mac Mini Apple is offering a low cost option for a brand-new computer in an attractive and tiny form-factor (6.5″ square, 2″ tall). With an eyeTV from ElGato and an external hard drive, you can build a Mac-based solution for about $800… without a unified interface. (Though these folks want to change that.)


Forget all of the complication of a PC and go with a simple set-top solution. Tivo offers tons of features for a low initial cost ($99 – $199, depending on configuration). My biggest gripe was the $12 monthly service charge. Of course you can pay $299 for lifetime Tivo service.

My decision to use XP MCE was based on these factors:

  • Existing hardware… sorta
  • Ability to share recorded content with other computers
  • Ability to watch existing mpg, avi, quicktime, and divx content
  • Some gaming use.. mostly MAME… (KnoppMyth has a plug-in for MAME support)
  • No recurring cost/limited initial cost

Everyone will have different requirements and goal in choosing their home media center solution. I hope that these articles have proven to be useful.

Read Part 3…

Further information and related links:
Microsoft Media Center
PC Alchemy, Home Theater PC equipment reseller

- Duane

December 12th, 2004:
Adventures In Home Media Solutions, Part 3

Television viewing and recording was (initally) my top priority. It is a bit ironic that I have not successfully tested this feature for either platform. However, this was about to change. I decided that my BT878 based card just wasn’t going to cut it. Hauppauge has always been the big name in consumer computer-based television and video-in. The selection of PCI pvr (WinTV-PVR) products has grown recently, ranging from the PVR-150 to the massive PVR-500 MCE. There are some important things to understand about the PVR product line. The PVR-250 and PVR-350 have been around for a while. They use an established series of mpeg hardware encoders for realtime compression during recording. The PVR-150 and PVR-500 are newer products. They share the same chipset with each other. The PVR-150, however, does not have a hardware MPEG video decoder. All models have radio tuner capability, except the PVR-500 (because it’s dual-tuner inputs don’t leave enough room for the radio antennae input). The 150, 250, and 350 are available as non-mce versions. This means that they come with a remote… a remote that is not compatible with Windows Media Center Edition. So the MCE-versions all come without remotes, since Windows MCE already has one. The PVR-500 is only available in the MCE version.


Hauppauge makes some nice gear,
including the PVR 250.

The two most tempting models are the PVR-150 and PVR-500. The former for it’s low price point, and the later for it’s drool-worthy dual tuner capability (record 2 shows at once, or watch a channel while recording another). However, these are currently completely incompatible with MythTV and more specifically, Video 4 Linux. They use a new single-chip hardware configuration. This may change in the future as the PVR-500 becomes more widely used. However support for the PVR-150 may never exist as it lacks a hardware MPEG decoder of any sort. If you want to keep your options open, enabling yourself to switch between Linux and Windows solutions, stay away from the PVR-150 and PVR-500… at least for now. The PVR-350 is not offered as a MCE version, increasing it’s price. Additionally, I could find no inherent performance or feature benefits over the PVR-250. My decision was made, WinTV-PVR-250MCE. (Yeah… that deserves a Type-R as well…)

A few days later and the Tuner was installed. Rather than replace my MCE installation with MythTV, I opted to swap out my hard drive with a spare 20 gb unit. By know, you may be wondering why I didn’t just dual-boot my system. My answer? My final solution would not be in a dual-boot environment. Additionally, I only have a 40 gb drive. There’s no way I could do much with both environments installed on the same drive. Back to my MythTV install. The only major changes I made to the default KnoppMyth install were to my /etc/fstab file (to automount my video and music shares) and to the /etc/X11/XF86Config file (for X resolution, overscan, color depth, etc.). I backed them up to a network drive and was able to re-use them for this re-install. Once again, I tried to view network videos… still no luck. Perhaps I could have solved this with a few mplayer command line tweaks. I didn’t have the patience or concentration to deal with that at the moment. On to the TV. I was able to download the latest tv listings and flip through a few stations. The interface is quite nice; a little more interesting than MCE, but a little more dated at the same time. Responsiveness is good, but there is a slight lag when flipping channels, something that I did not notice in MCE. All of the other features are on par with their MCE counterparts. In short, TV viewing and recording are excellent using MythTV. The guide and viewer are mature and bug-free. So far this is the most developed feature in this environment. I am officially impressed.

Back to Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 (Type-R Sti J-Spec Turbo GT). The tuner setup process is a breeze, it detects your tv signal type and uses your locale and zip code to locate the correct tv listings for your area. The signal types are: Antennae, Cable, and Set Top Box (Satellite, Digital Cable)… that last one caught my attention. Currently, I’ve connected my Media PC directly to the cable line with a simple 2-way splitter (the other end connects to my digital cable box). After checking out the connections on the back of my cable box, I noticed an unused “Out to TV” coaxial connection (I’m using s-video out for my cable box to tv connection). So, I removed the splitter, hooked the cable line directly to my cable box, and my Hauppauge card directly to the “Out to TV” connection on the cable box. I re-ran the tuner configuration wizard in MCE and it detected the set top box signal! However, it informed me that the IR hardware required to control the set top box was not installed, and could not continue. My remote arrived a few days later. I simply plugged it in, and it worked. The Media Center controlled my cable box using 1 of the 2 “IR blasters” attached the the ir receiver. This enabled full Media Center interaction with all of my available cable channels, digital included. While there is a split-second lag between button press and channel change (due to this man-in-the-middle kind of interface), it is mostly transparent.

MythTV's GuideMCE Guide

MythTV’s guide (left) is slightly more attractive than XP Media Center Edition (right)… at least in my opinion, but both are feature rich and responsive.

Compared side-by-side MythTV and MCE’s television playback and recording features are very similar. Both offer an intuitive interface that allows on-the-fly and scheduled recording with a few keypresses. Both interfaces are snappy, though the set top box control that I decided to use with MCE does have a barely noticable delay. I did not find a similar way to integrate my cable box with MythTV. According to their respective websites, both solutions offer dual-tuner support. This would allow one to record one channel and watch another, or record 2 different channels simultaneously. Now that I am using my cable box as a tuner source, I can see the need for such a feature.

In the final installment of this article, I will summarize my findings, list the components I investigated and selected (with the reasons for said decisions), and deliver my opinion on which solutions fit which users. I never got around to trying out the solutions offered by SnapStream, but I may still do so at some time in the future. Stay tuned…

Concluded in Part 4…

Read Part 2…

- Duane

December 7th, 2004:
Adventures In Home Media Solutions, Part 2

EyeTV for Mac OS X

EyeTV by El Gato provides flexible
TV recording and viewing options.

I like Macs. A lot. My first Mac was the result of a direct need to use the computer that graphics professionals were using the real world. Within a week of my first startup chime I was hooked. It was intuitive, reliable, and dare I say… fun?! I would have loved to build a Mac-based solution, but the current offerings are expensive. The only consumer-ready integrated media solution is eyehome (once again from El Gato Systems). This appliance uses your existing Mac and an EyeTV interface via a network connection to view recorded telivision, listen to music, watch videos and photo slideshows, and browse the web. My main complaint is not resolved by this solution, the only TV listing solutions available are web-based… and you can’t access the tv recording features directly from eyehome… you still have to run to your Mac to start or schedule a recording. Since this solution still uses my main computer, requires an EyeTV in addition to the eyehome appliance, it’s simply too complicated and expensive to consider… and I really want an onscreen guide to browse tv shows and schedule recordings!

The options I would consider were:

Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005

Windows XP Media
Center Edition 2005

Microsoft’s new “Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005“. Personally, I would have like to see a Type-R tacked onto that bloated handle. (What the hell? They couldn’t decide which naming standard to go with? Make up your mind Bill… stick to editions (ME, NT, XP), versions (3.11), or years (95, 98, 2004). Don’t try to cram them all onto the box!)

SnapStream’s Beyond TV for Windows, an application for recording and viewing television that can be controlled via remote.

MythTV or more accurately KnoppMyth which offers a “simplified” Linux installation and hardware detection process… more on that later.

I began to investigate these options on my existing “theater” PC. An aging Windows XP machine connected to my home theater system. It consists of a 1.1 ghz Athlon, 256 megs of RAM, ATI 7500 video card, the aforementioned BT878 tuner card, and a lowly 40 gb hard drive. I admit, I was being incredibly optimistic. But, I figured I would try to get this working with as little investment as possible.

GeForce FX Board

NVidia’s GeForce FX

I first tried to install XPMCE2005(Type-R) on top of my existing XP Pro environment despite dozens of online rants against such a folly. After 2 tries, I decided that this would indeed call for a reload. But, rather than try XPMCE2005(Type-R STi) from the get-go, I went with my gut instinct and installed KnoppMyth… sort of. The instructions offered were simple and straight-forward. The actual process, was, unsurprisingly, not. Ideally, the live cd (once burned) should boot up, detect all of my hardware, prompt me for a few simple settings, and install itself. Easy enough… but, don’t let the system go to sleep while installing. It locks up. Hardcore. Keep tapping a control key to avoid sleep at all costs.

Once that obstacle was overcome, the installation completed and prompted me for a reboot. It successfully restarted, went through the usual Linux initialization scripts and started X… technically. I was greeted with an obviously out-of-sync television display. I know there must have been something really cool to see, but damned if I could. I immediately Control-Alt-F1’ed to the console, logged in, and began poking through the XF86Config file (which controls many settings for the behavior of the X sessions display including vertical and horizontal sync, color depth, resolution, ad nauseam). An our later and I resorted to the MythTV web forums for support. Plain and simple, ATI’s Linux support was mediocre at best. God help you if you wanted to use the TV-out functionality of the video card. Strike 1… and I have a feeling there’s going to me more than 3 strikes total in this game.

Since that attempt was now null and void, why not try XPMCE2005(Type-R STi J-Spec)? This is the first Windows installation that requires 2 CDs. (Why not just use a single DVD, Bill?) This installation was as straightforward as Windows gets. Browsing the License Agreement(s) took more mouse clicks than the rest of the installation, but about 40 minutes later, XPMCE2005(Type-R STi J-Spec Turbo) was installed. My first reaction was indifference. It looked like regular old XP with a slightly updated (simplified) theme. I clicked into the start menu to find an unfamiliar icon for the Media Center. That’s when it happened. I would have been no less surprised if the sound of an Autobot transforming erupted from my speakers. I was no longer looking at a keyboard-and-mouse-navigated desktop, but a simplified, appliance-like interface that was both feature-rich, and incredibly simple. Even my parents would more likely be confused by a DVD menu than this! Immediately I headed for the settings. (The TV option wasn’t available to my chagrin.) Here’s where things started to go awry. A message appears notifying me… nay… taunting me with the fact that my video card was not compatible with Media Center. I was a little surprised by this, but after a quick visit microsoft.com, I confirmed that a DirectX 9-compatible card was required. It was official, my first required upgrade is a video card. While researching this, I also discovered that my 1.1 ghz Athlon was not up to par, either. While this hardware may still work with MythTV, there was a good chance that it would not be beefy enough to handle recording live tv.

Even though my video card was shunned by the Media Center, I was allowed to click around. I continued to the tv settings and found that my tuner card was also incompatible. Bah. Time to stop and evaluate my options.

Both MythTV and MCE would require a new video card. MythTV was more friendly with the Nvidia offerings than those from ATI. MythTV appeared to recognize my tuner during the boot sequence, but I was unable to test this without getting all of the way into the interface. There was a good chance that I would need to power-up in the hardware department. 1 ghz just wasn’t going to cut it.

After some research, I decided that Nvidia’s budget-minded GeForceFX 5200 was the route to take. I could replace my motherboard and processor inexpensively. After a few hardware swaps with friends and a delivery from my hero, the UPS guy, I was ready to try again. The updated specs? Athlon 2600+, 266 fsb, 726 megs of RAM. Would you like fries with that?

Back to MythTV. I was becoming an old pro at this installation stuff. I got the installation down to about 20 minutes. I booted into X (yay!), hopped out of the gui, made changes via the console to the XF86Config file, and I was in business. Kinda. The instructions stated that I should run a command-line installer to get the Nvidia drivers installed and the processor-specific apps installed. A few days had passed since my last swing at this, so I had forgotten about this completely. Fast forward a bit, I had had righted my wrongs. (BTW – the folks on the discussion boards weren’t kidding about the advanced Nvidia support. From overscan to refresh rate and video acceleration, you can tweak it in the XF86Config file.)

MythTV's Refined User Interface

MythTV’s Refined User Interface

My vigilance was rewarded with the most polished Linux interface I have yet encountered. Smooth screen transitions and easy-to-use navigation ooze from the MythTV GUI. Heading straight for the TV settings, I was once again informed that my card was incompatible. (Actually, it said that it was already in use and recording a program. Which universe this was occurring in was unknown to me. So, let’s assume it meant to say that my card was just plain crap.) Fine, I could probably fudge with the config files and get it to work. A few years ago, I had proven that I could use this tuner with Video 4 Linux… I also remember what a horrendous pain the arse it was. Not yet ready to dive into such an endeavor, I decided to mount my shared video directory from my home control server. Easy enough. The video all appeared in the user interface. A double click later and all I get for my effort was a 1/2 second loading screen, then nothing. Nice. Undeterred, I then mounted my music and played a few MP3s. Finally, success! I checked out a few of the additional features offered by MythTV which included an impressive weather plug-in and a (very) simple RSS aggregator. The GUI occasionally locked, but could be restarted with some command line magic. It should be noted that MythTV is controlled exclusively via keyboard/remote. There is no mouse support at all. Personally, I didn’t like this, especially when it came time to make my mp3 playlists. However, others may be indifferent to this “feature” Time to see what Chairman Bill could do for me.

I admit I felt a little dirty when I began re-installing Windows. MythTV was so close to what I wanted… I reminded myself to remain neutral until I had evaluated my options fully. Once again Windows was installed and I was back into the Media Center. This time there was no warning regarding my video card. However, there was still no TV tuner goodness. (I noted that even though I had doubled the processor mhz and tripled the RAM, the Media Center interface was no more responsive than before.) Mounting my network shares, and viewing pre-existing mpegs was an exercise in simplicity. However, viewing DVDs and non “standard” mpeg files was a little more convoluted. Codecs are the magic ingredient here.

Without the right collection of codecs, forget watching DVDs. Forget watching mpeg4 videos (I require this to watch my collection of Computer Chronicles episodes, many of which are only available in this format.) and forget watching anything Quicktime (at least from within Media Center proper). Luckily, the CD that came with my Nvidia card contained a DVD decoder. Next, I visited 3ivx and Divx websites to download their free codec offerings. Quicktime was downloaded and installed as a stand-alone (no MCE-integrated) app. Media Center and Windows Media Player still pause for nearly a minute while trying to download the “right” codec for mp4 files, but eventually plays them. DVD playback is nice, but the picture quality is noticeably lower than that of my dedicated DVD player (partially due to the s-video connection on my video card vs. the component video available on my DVD player). The MCE interface generates thumbnails of each video in my library, which is nice, but mostly useless (since just about every Adult Swim series starts with the same first frame).

Media Center Music Interface

Media Center Music Interface

Music playback is very nice. MCE retreives the cover art and album information for both CDs and MP3s from the internet. The playlist interface is a bit clunky and non-intuitive, but functional. (The playlist functionality for the video player is notably absent.) Visualizations are the standard Windows Media Player fare.

I came across some simple add-ons for MCE. One allowed me to view my NetFlix queue, new relases, and most popular rentals. Another offered a simple weather display (nothing nearly as elegant and useful as the one featured in MythTV). I added QuickTime to my list of “Other Programs” so I could access the application from within Media Center. It operates independantly, minimizing Media Center during playback.

At this point, I was starting to lean towards MCE as my solution. I haven’t even tried Beyond TV. I wanted a solution that worked without unneccesary complication. MythTV was nice, but not yet a complete, consumer-ready solution. But, I haven’t even tried the TV functions for either solution yet. Would I change my mind or would I just loose it?

Continued in Part 3…

Read Part 1…

- Duane

November 27th, 2004:
Adventures In Home Media Solutions, Part 1

Poised to become the next big thing, home media solutions have finaly matured

Poised to become the next big
thing, home media solutions
have finaly matured.

PVRs (Personal Video Recorders) are all the rage. Most offer features beyond digital VCR-like functions and live broadcast viewing. Media (DVD/CD/VCD) and MP3 playback are pretty standard. Some even offer electronic photo slideshows so you can lull guests into a coma with the latest pictures from your summer vacation. Digital media integration is big, and promises to be even bigger in the next 18 months. Commercial offerings from Microsoft, Tivo, and ReplayTV are easily found on the shelves of every electronics mega store from here to kingdom come and there are dozens of do-it-yourself and computer hobbyist options available.

I’ve experimented with home automation and computer-based broadcast recording for several years now. I’ve tried solutions for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux. While a home media center can be the centerpiece of a successful home automation scheme, it is becoming more likely to be implemented by consumers independently. In these articles I will summarize the experiences I have had as well as outline hardware choices and software solutions that I am currently using.

My First PowerMac

My trusty old PowerMac.

My first attempt at this sort of thing was around 1996. ATI offered a hardware expansion to their Xclaim series of video cards that provided for simple television viewing, and if storage and hardware speed allowed, some recording. I installed this solution in my Power Macintosh 7500 so I could watch television while working from my dungeon (more accurately, my basement “office”). While limited, it was possible to record video with audio and even search several channels’ closed captioning for keywords. A primitive solution at best, but it yielded good results for its time.

Guide screen from WebTV for Windows

Guide screen from Microsoft’s Web TV
for Windows. It was arguable 5 years
ahead of it’s time.

A couple of years later, Microsoft began their WebTV initiative. An often overlooked feature of Windows 95 allowed users to download the latest TV listing using the WebTV service. If you were fortunate enough to have a compatible television tuner, you could use the listing service to tune to a program and even search for a show by title. This was pretty advanced for the time… and, unfortunately, quite buggy. A convoluted installation and configuration process guaranteed that only the most tech-savvy Windows users… or at least those with too much time on their hands… would be able to find the correct WDM drivers and configure the WebTV application. I was one of them (most likely the latter). Another memorable bug caused the entire OS to crash if one scrolled through the TV listings too quickly. But, this was a start.

At this time I had TV tuning on both a Mac and a PC working side-by-side. I was becoming more involved with Linux and started experimenting with V4L (Video 4 Linux) on my now dual-booting PC. The tuner I had chosen happened to use the BT878 chipset, which was compatible with V4L. Complete luck, but planning such compatibility is key of you hope to dabble in both environments these days. While Video 4 Linux lacked much of the polish found on the other platforms, it was fully functional. By 1998 I had successfully installed and evaluated computer-based tv solutions for Windows, Mac, and Linux. I had no idea that these well-organized experiments in wasted time and geekiness would evolve into a real industry.

EyeTV (now called EyeTV USB) from El Gato Systems. Simplicity and reliability. No interactive guide.

EyeTV (now called EyeTV
USB) from El Gato Systems.
Simplicity and reliability.
No interactive guide.

Fast forward to 2002. The tuner card has been removed from my media PC and I am still using the ATI Xclaim card as the second video card in my Mac (now a more modern G4). When OS X arrived, the TV viewing app no longer worked and I was forced into a TV-less computer work environment. Eventually, I discovered the EyeTV by El Gato Systems. A small usb-based tv tuner that offered reliable, good-quality television recordings. I was back in business. A single cable to my Mac and I could watch and record shows. With the handy Watson software from Karelia I could browse listings just as I had with WebTV as well as schedule recordings with a single click. A few months ago, Karelia sold their technology to Sun (who will most likely squander it as they have with all of their other initiatives) and suddenly, Watson was no longer being developed. To add insult to injury, TVGuide.com, the source for the Watson TV listings, changed their listing format to Flash. Watson could not parse this, and I was left with the clunky, unreliable listings from Titan TV. This would not do.

Tivo - Merely inspiration for something better.

Tivo, the most popular consumer
digital video recorder.

About a month ago, I started seriously considering Tivo. Several friends (George and Keith) had great success with Tivo. They sang songs of praise about it daily. I was jealous… a little. Then Tivo started to make some questionable decisions. It was announced that graphic ads (sort of like pop-ups) would appear while users fast-forwarded through commercials. That, in addition to the monthly fee/lifetime service cost, convinced me that Tivo was most likely not the route to take. (A few other things such as the current inability to share recorded shows with computers and requiring a landline for initial setup were factors as well.) I forged ahead determined to find a computer-based solution…

Continued in Part 2…

- Duane