MyCheapPVR (part 1)

I want a PVR: you know, a “personal video recorder,” one of those machines like TiVo or ReplayTV. But, here’s the catch: I’m cheap. Cheap, and slightly geeky. And lazy. So I’m building my own, as cheaply as possible, with as little fuss as possible. This first posting will lay out the plan, and then I’ll talk about how it went.


A year or two ago, TechBargains listed a 800 MHz mini-ATX motherboard/CPU with onboard ethernet, video, and audio (the Syntax S635MP) that was only $15 after rebate. Later that day, they had a 256 Mb stick of PC2700 memory that was $5 after rebate. I saw this as a sign, and despite the fact that I had no need for another computer, found a little case at New Egg for $15 and built a computer. Threw an old 10 Gb hard drive into the thing, installed Red Hat, and… well, nothing. It’s relatively quiet, and sleek-looking, but it’s just kind of sitting there like it has for the last year or two. So, now it’s going to be my PVR. Hopefully.

But first, more little bits and pieces are needed. Pictured is all the bits I ordered, except for the HD which is in a box somewhere around here.

Video card. Depending on your level of techiness, you have quickly ascertained that a 800 MHz machine is too slow to do any kind of realtime video. Too true. Which meant that I had to go for a more expensive hardware encoding system. I seriously considered a Plexor external USB system that did DivX hardware encoding. Unfortunately, that gets me video in but not back out. So, I turned to the seemingly ubiquitous PVR-350, whcih does MPEG-2 both in and out.

Hard drive. Yes, the MPEG-2 chews up more HD space. The cost of 200 Gb drives is dropping every day, but is still way too high. I figured 80 would do fine for now, and picked the Samsung 80Gb SpinPoint drive, in part because it is supposed to be relatively quiet, and has a caching system optomized for audio/video.

IR Thingy. I’m on digital cable, so the computer needs to be able to switch channels on the cable box. Thus, this little USB doohickey, called an IR Blaster, which gives your computer the ability to fire off IR remote commands.

Wireless card. Not about to plumb 50 feet of cat-5 down the chimney into our fireplace (where we keep the TV — you know the “electronic hearth”), I got a wireless card for this machine. I spent the extra $5 for “g”, despite the fact that my wireless router is “b” (used mostly for email, light web-surfing). Figure I’ll upgrade this summer or when I see a really good deal for a “g” router. Also the Xterasys is packaged with a little antenna on a couple of feet of cable. Don’t know if that will allow better positioning, but I hope so.


Cheap pretty much means I need free PVR software. Really only two systems seem to be totally free and relatively advanced: MythTV on Linux and GB-PVR on Windows. (Media Portal looks to be a very nice alternative, but requies XP, and I don’t want to spend $100 for an OS.) I was (go ahead and throw things) leaning toward Windows because I don’t want to spend the rest of my life finding drivers and editing configuration files, only to end up going back to Windows in frustration. I’m not a computer dummy, but I’m not well-doused in Linux, and I’ve yet found a reason to become so. It’s great when it works, but when it doesn’t — ack!

But wait, what’s that? MythTV is available as a Knoppix distribution? That changes things.

Knoppix is Linux on a single self-contained CD. Pop it in and go. This distribution comes with a auto-install of everything. Which would be great. I’m a little worried about some comments on the Forum that suggest it may not play will with my PVR-350, but it’s certainly worth a first shot. Besides, I have 10 minutes to spare. I’ll let you know how it goes in part 2.

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  1. By Alex Halavais » MyCheapPVR (part 2) on 2/7/2005 at 2:39 pm

    […] MyCheapPVR (part 2)
    When last I posted (part 1), I was ready to throw everything into that little case and get it up and running using the […]

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