[mythtv-users] Hardware Suggestion for under $1,000

Steven Adeff adeffs.mythtv at gmail.com
Thu Dec 16 18:36:52 UTC 2010

On Wed, Dec 15, 2010 at 5:23 PM, Blake Perdue <bperdue at gmail.com> wrote:
> I am new to MythTV. I've been doing research to put together a hardware list. I have budgeted
> $1,000 for this project.
> While I'm new to MythTV, I've built other systems before, most recently a hackintosh
> machine.
> I am having trouble figuring out a good hardware setup for my needs. Details below. Any
> advice would be greatly appreciated.
> Thanks!
> -Blake

I just finished building hardware for a total house MythTV solution
for my parents. I've got such a setup personally as well.
here's my wiki on my system,
good reference IMHO
I don't have one set up for my parents yet as we're still in the
process of getting everything working.
Here are my thoughts...

> I live in New York City. I am a Time Warner Cable subscriber. I have a Scientific Atlanta
> cable box that outputs HD and SD channels to our HDTV.

My experience with TW with my parents leaves much to be desired, but
is only from my experience with my parents TW in L.A. you should
search this list and some of the Myth forums for TW users in NYC.

> What I need is a frontend and backend in one system that can:

Given your budget and ambitions I would not combine them. combination
systems have, in my opinion, one major downside. If the frontend, for
some reason, has an issue requiring you to reboot you are forced to
reboot the backend, interrupting recordings and all. Now, this is
rare, especially in recent history with the advances in Myth's code
and such, but still something to think about, especially since
frontend hardware can be had for very cheap with the advent of the
ION/ATOM platforms.

> - record a minimum of 2 HD or SD channels at one time; I would prefer to record 3 or 4 (2 HD
> plus 1-2 SD) channels at the same time

There are three ways to capture in the US, an SD PVR, an HDPVR, and a
tuner card/HDHomeRun. Your eventual methods will be determined on what
channels you watch, which ones most, and which ones least. Keep this
in mind in formulating what capture methods you will use.

A tuner card will capture channels in the open on your cable line.
There's plenty of "they're supposed to" and "in theory you should
get", but in the end, you need to see, with a digital tuner in your
TV, or via a PC digital tuner card what channels you get and if
dedicated tuner card is worth the money. You should get all the over
the air (OTA) HD channels on your cable line without the need for a
box, but from my experience with my parents TW in LA this is not
always the case. Of course, sometimes you get much more than that. If
you get a fair amount of channels, especially ones you watch a lot,
get a dual tuner HDHomeRun.

I get all my OTA channels this way, so I have two tuners and due to
how my cable company assigns the channels I get a few of them all on
the same frequency so am able to record multiple OTA channels on one
tuner. Thank you Devs!

The other methods will require cable boxen of the non-DVR variety. You
can only record one channel per cable box at a time. I have two cable
box, one I record the Copy Freely channels via firewire, the other I
use an HDPVR with. The company that makes the HDHomeRun, SiliconDust,
is releasing a similar device with CableCard support, so in theory
this could replace the need for a firewire connected cable box to
capture the Copy Freely channels. This will not help with copy
protected channels though, and for them an HDPVR will still be
required. Or a Windows based DVR...

You can see what channels you currently have that are copy freely via
firewire by connecting a non-dvr box to your PC's firewire port. There
is information on this in the Wiki. You will have one of four
outcomes, remember to keep in mind what channels you watch most...
1) No channels are copy freely, or the same as you would get with an HDHomeRun.
Result:HDPVR required
2) Some channels are copy freely, but not all.
Result: Firewire or HDPVR can be used in combination. If you will only
have one cable box then go with HDPVR, with multiple cable box, one
firewire connected, the other via HDPVR may make the most monetary
3) All channels are copy freely.
Result: your in luck, go with firewire.
4) Firewire works, but is sporadic. While this can have much to do
with the firewire chipset and even the implementation using the same
chipset, some cable boxes just don't play nice with firewire.

So as you can see this can be complicated, and depending on your cable
company, costly if you have to run multiple HDPVR's.

> - do commercial flagging


> - have lots of storage to build up a media library (I'm thinking a RAID array of two 2TB drives)
> - room to expand the RAID array (so I need a case and motherboard that can handle a RAID
> array of at least 4 to 8 disks)

I used to do RAID for both recordings and storage, I've since stopped,
and am glad I did. RAID has only one advantage, and that is of
redundancy. But, to be honest, it is not the best way of obtaining

My suggestion is to not go with RAID. Just use storage groups, and LVM
if you must (I'm not a huge fan of LVM either to be honest, but it
does have some neat features). I personally have separated my
recordings drives and my media storage drives.

Here's why... your recordings drives will see much more use. You will
record to them, playback from them, commercial flag from them. All at
the same time, all day, everyday. This requires some level of access
time speed. I went with six 500GB 16MB cache drives set up with
MythTV's storage group feature. I would suggest one drive per tuner if
you can afford it. Overkill? sure, but I've not had any issues with
drive speed, harddrives are cheap, and the extra space is nice when
you record a lot.

For my more permanent media, my music, dvd rips, transcoded
recordings, etc. I went with three 2TB drives, non RAID. Each drive
holds different types of media (music, movies, tv). These drive see
basic usage.

Then for backup I have two older drives in RAID for local redundancy
of things I "can't loose", my digitally purchased media (music
basically) and my personal documents. "off site" backup, external
drives connected via a different computer to the network for backup.

> - a good CPU to also do DVD ripping and other media operations

this is pretty much a non-issue anymore, CPU's are so cheap these days.

> - a bluray drive to play bluray discs

BluRay support is minimal at best right now. If you have a BluRay
collection, as I do, stick with a standalone player until the software
gets better. If this is a "for future movie purchases" thought, then
well, either don't get into BluRay yet, or make a dedicated player a
separate purchase.

> - decent video card for HDMI output to an HDTV

pretty much a non-issue anymore. VDPAU has made the list of options a
short and luckily, affordable list of choices.

> - have enough RAM and CPU power to last a few years and eventually be the backend for 2-3
> front-end systems

Also a non-issue really, and as I mentioned earlier, I would go with
dedicated backend from the beginning. Especially if you have a
basement or "closet" you can keep the backend and tuners and such out
of sight.

> Thoughts? Do I even need a cable box for this? What CPU/Motherboard and capture \
> card/video card combos do you recommend? Thanks so much!

More thoughts and recommendations,

Have a separate system drive on the backend from the recordings drive.
I've got an "old" 300GB drive, it's large enough to hold the OS (~4GB)
and the database. It keeps the I/O for the database separate which
helps immensely. You can go smaller if you can find, I used to use a
40GB drive that I ended up putting in my fileserver. Small drives can
be had for cheap.

Here's why I would suggest a separate backend: noise.
The backend inherently will be loud, lots of drives, a CPU that's
always working, etc. You just can't avoid it, you can attempt to
minimize it, but it will be there, and you can spend lots of money
trying to make it quieter. If you have a place to put the backend
where noise won't be an issue (basement, attic, etc) then you don't
have to spend money on noise mitigation.

If you have to have the backend in your TV room, then you'll either
want to find a good HTPC case that can hold the number of drives you
will have (Silverstone Tek, etc), or go with a NAS to hold your
drives, in another room where noise is not an issue. NAS can be
expensive, and generally don't have the best transfer speeds.

My backend and fileserver are in my basement. I went with a Norco case
that can hold six 3.5" drives in a "cage", plus space for three 5.25"
and a floppy (which can all be co-opted for more 3.5" drives). I
believe the case cost me $80. they also make a few cases which can
hold anywhere from 12 to 20 3.5" drives if that's your thing, these
are more costly though as they require SAS backplanes and more SATA
ports via PCI cards, etc. Supermicro has a PCI-X 8 port SATA card for
$100 that is popular for these cases. I'm using an old tower case for
my fileserver.

That said, for my parents I went with a combined system to start, if
things work well I can easily turn it into a dedicated backend. This
allowed my parents to come in under budget, mostly cause we used my
old Silverstone case from when I ran a combined frontend/backend. You
can do the same, convert a combined system into two at a later date.

None of this should be taken to mean combined systems should not be
considered, just to be aware of the pro/con's and such.

I'll give the rest of my advice with opinions for both methods.

You don't need much, my Allendale Dual Core Pentium in my backend has
served me well. I suggest at least two cores, but if you want to spend
more money on this up front go for it. With VDPAU you basically don't
need a CPU for video decoding, so combined system or not your CPU
won't be used for video decoding.

Pick your poison, Intel or AMD. I don't care what you go with.

I would suggest a good quality board for your backend. It will
basically be a server, running 24/7 constantly doing "work". Try and
find one with at least four SATA ports, more is nice. I happen to have
6 ports on my backend motherboard, handy. Built in firewire is great,
but make sure you get one with a TI or NEC chipset as these two seem
to have the best success rate, avoid VIA like the plague, I believe
they have one chipset that does ok with firewire in Myth, but I've had
great success with multiple TI and NEC firewire chipsets. You can
always get a PCI firewire card so don't fret.

IMNSHO, 4GB minimum. Is more needed? No. Can you get away with less,
most likely yes, but RAM is cheap, and better to not have to even
consider swapping an issue.

DO NOT SKIMP. More hardware failures are caused by bad power being
supplied than anything else. I've had great luck with Corsair and
Seasonic, they are well built and quiet. Antec's TruePower line has
also done me well, but their other lines not so much.
GO BIG, There are some great PSU calculators online. I've got a 650W
Corsair in my backend, a 750 in my fileserver (which to be honest is
backwards, but the backend has had no issues so 650W is obviously
enough for me).

ALL DRIVES FAIL. Mostly due to heat and power cycling. Some fail due
to bad firmware(ie. see recent Seagate drives). Once in a blue moon a
drive was manufactured with engineering flaws(I believe this was the
issue with the IBM "Deathstar").
How do you best avoid a drive failure? A good power supply(see above)
and good consistent airflow that keeps the drive cool under all other
environmental conditions (room temperature, etc). Remember, HOT AIR
RISES, HEAT RADIATES. Keep your drives cool.
Also, don't keep turning the drives on and off, would you rather spend
an extra few dollars in electricity a year keeping the drive spinning
or spend time and money replacing the drive and lost data?

The HDHomeRun is great. I don't have one but this is the general
consensus. If the number and "quality"(recording need) of channels you
can get in the clear with one is sufficient to make the purchase make
sense do it. I have two PCI tuners, I record a lot on the OTA
stations, so they get used a lot. Being able to record multiple
channels per frequency is also great, which can make the purchase of
an HDHomeRun even more of a no brainer. There are two versions, one is
a single tuner, the other a dual tuner, my advise would be, if your
going to buy one why bother with a single tuner version?

The HDPVR is great. I finally got one. It can record an HD from your
cable box Component output, and mux in the digital audio from the
optical s/pdif port. It even has a IR blaster to change channels
(which can also be done via firewire). Unless you manage to somehow be
lucky enough to be able to capture all your channels over firewire
you'll need one of these. I will also add that firewire is not a good
solution for more than two boxes, I ran this for a while, and it
worked, 95% of the time and required scripts to run in the background
to "prime"/etc the boxes, all of which brought me to that 95%  success
rate. I bought a HDPVR and now with only having to deal with firewire
capture on one box, has made that box go to 100% without hte need for
any special scripts. I will probably end up connecting another cable
box via firewire to one of my other systems to have 3 in total but
only 1 firewire recording box per computer.

Firewire. It works. It's somewhat convenient. It's annoying. The
number of variables behind Firewire working well is large: Firewire
chipset, the cable box itself, how your cable company has it enabled
specifically in regards to DRM, how responsive the box is to the
firewire connection, etc. It's something you have to play around with,
and in the end you may just end up buying a HDPVR or two.

The name of the game is VDPAU. If you decide to go with a combined
system you will need/want a PCI video card, buy an NVidia GT220 card.
Fanless is nice, but you can find ones with large slow spinning, quiet
fans for a little less money. The GT220 is the cheapest Version C card
that will decode everything the HDHomeRun, HDPVR and Firewire tuners
will throw at you AND will also perform the higher quality tranforms
(deinterlacing, scaling, etc). The 8400GS, GT210, and both ION GPU's
will not have the power to do the advanced deinterlacing required by
1080i recordings.

This can be purchased as part of the case, with an LCD display, but
make sure it works in linux, generally most do, but make sure. Also,
the Windows MCE remotes work quite well in linux, there's lots of
options out there. You can always use a universal remote too.

Nvidia ION systems work great. I've got two they play back everything
without skipping a beat. But, due to the fact that they have to use a
slightly inferior deinterlacer I only use them on smaller TV's. My 50"
runs on an older Athlon X2 system I had laying around with a GT220.
the CPU always ends up running at it's lowest speed state and the GPU
does all the decoding.

I buy most of my hardware through Newegg. I know there are people here
that don't like them that much, but I've had nothing buy good
experiences purchasing through them, I find their prices to always be
amongst the cheapest of the online stores, and they have good to great
sales every now and then. They have decently useful online reviews as
well, and the best is you can filter the reviews, put things like
"linux" or "mythtv" in the filter and you'll see a fair amount of
linux/mythtv comments. Of course, Amazon and others also have user
reviews, due diligence is your friend.
That said, if your not in a rush, try and buy parts when they are on
sale and save a few $, or find things like the HDHomeRun as a refurb.
fatwallet.com and slickdeals.net have great "hot deals" forums.

A general budget layout
$100 Motherboard(try to find built on video if you go with a dedicated
backend, GPU doens't matter for this purpose)
$100 CPU
$80 RAM
$40 system drive
$25 DVD drive
$40 GT220
$250 HTPC case for combined system (should include PSU)
$200 HDPVR
$120 HDHomeRun
$50 cables (firewire, HDMI, etc, use www.monoprice.com or
meritline.com when on sale)

if you want to do a separate backend, erase the HTPC case
$80 Norco or similar case
$100-120 PSU
$200 NVidia ION system like the Acer Aspire, Zotac MAG, Foxconn, etc.

I think that's a good first pass...

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