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What is MythTV?

MythTV is Free Software which runs under the Linux operating system, and provides the functions commonly known as a PVR/DVR (Personal/Digital Video Recorder). Essentially, it's a computerized, intelligent VCR, which uses hard disk instead of tape, and knows when shows are on so it can record them automatically. TiVo and ReplayTV are two commercial DVR products. Since it's open source software, if you don't like the way it does something, you can always change it that's how much of its current functionality came about in the first place.

MythTV includes all the basic PVR functions, like recording and playing back scheduled programs, allowing you to schedule recordings automatically in advance, and pausing and rewinding live TV. MythTV also has a plug-in system which permits it to be extended by other programmers. Plug-ins currently exist for playing external video, viewing photos, listening to music files, using your TV and a web camera as a video-telephone over the Internet, browsing the web, retrieving current local weather, and many other functions. Note also that MythTV uses a client-server design, which allows for multiple backends (recording systems) and multiple frontends (playback systems) to operate seamlessly with one another. To use MythTV, you need at least one backend and one frontend, and they can either be on the same system or on separate systems.

There is a Gallery of MythTV setups if you want to see what it can look like.

MythTV Operations

The MythTV system downloads it's Electronic Program Guide (EPG) data from, via an XML export feature. Zap2It requires free registration for this. Zap2It's motivation is apparently to avoid tons of screen scrapers hammering their web servers. Zap2It is operated by Tribune (incidentally, TiVo uses the same company for their EPG data). EPG is available 12 days ahead of air date.

If you have multiple MythTV boxes, you must make sure they all run the same version of MythTV. Compatibility between different versions of MythTV is not supported.

To show "live TV", MythTV records the live feed and then "immediately" plays it back again, in near-real-time. However, there is some lag introduced. Direct "pass-through" (without the record-and-play method) is not currently supported. This is being worked on, and/or can be implemented with special work-arounds to use an external TV viewing program for live TV.

Another feature being worked on is to separate music-playback into its own program. That will let one play music while browsing the web, viewing a photo gallery, etc. This is expected to be available Real Soon Now.

The MythTV wiki includes information relating to the operating system. This is of interest mainly because it has links to projects like KnoppMyth -- a "Live CD" which includes a canned installation of MythTV. Just put the CD in the computer and turn it on.

Broadcast technologies


  • Standard Definition (SD): The TV picture we've been watching for decades. 480i (480 interlaced lines). 720x480 resolution. Can be distributed via analog or digital means.
  • High Definition (HD): The new TV picture. Various better displays, including 720p (1280x720 progressive, non-interlaced lines) and 1080i (1920x1080). Surround sound capable. Digital only.
  • Interlaced: TV draws odd lines, then even lines, alternating every frame.
  • Progressive: TV draws all lines every frame. Yields a better picture, particularly for high-motion scenes, such as sporting events.
  • OTA: Over-the-air. TV signals broadcast from transmission towers. Think rabbit ears and roof-mount Yagi antennas.
  • Analog: The traditional over-the-air or cable TV systems we've been using for decades. Limited to Standard Definition.
  • Digital: New over-the-air broadcast and cable systems are digital. All High Def TV is digital, but not all digital is High Def.
  • NTSC: National Television Systems Committee. The TV system we've used for decades. Analog.
  • ATSC: Advanced Television Systems Committee. The new digital TV standard.

Over The Air (OTA)

OTA still exists and can work fine, even in this era of cable and satellite. If your house is conveniently placed to receive the signal, digital OTA can be of very high quality. Much of it (especially newer programming) is in high definition. And you can't beat the price.

OTA exists as two major types. Both are unencrypted and can be recorded by MythTV. Analog OTA (NTSC) is the classic analog TV system that's been around for decades. Analog TV is SD programming only. There are lots of tuners for NTSC.

Digital TV (ATSC) is the new standard. It enables HD (High Definition) programming, but allows for SD as well. You need a digital tuner to receive ATSC, but they exist. In fact all new TVs appearing on the market will have to support ATSC.

In a short time (a couple of years) the Analog OTA stations will cease to transmit and only Digital OTA stations will exist. This is for a variety of reasons both technical and commercial.

In southern NH, the big OTA stations are TV 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, and 25.

Cable TV

First, a definition: "Basic cable" designates all the flat-rate channels you receive with a basic cable package, like History, Discovery, CNN, ESPN, TBS, etc. Basic cable does not include "premium" cable, like HBO, Cinemax, etc.

Cable TV also exists in analog and digital flavors. As with OTA, analog cable is limited to SD. In this area, analog basic cable is generally transmitted unscrambled, so you don't need a decoder box. That means it can work well with MythTV. Premium analog cable needs a cable decoder box. It is unknown to this author if such a decoder box can be hooked up to, and controlled by, a MythTV system.

Digital cable is a tricker beast. MythTV is not going to work for most digital cable programming. Most digital cable channels -- even basic cable -- are encrypted on the cable wire ("DRM"). Consumers are not permitted to decrypt it. You need a digital cable box to tune and decode the signal. That cable box will likely only output a digital High Def signal over an encrypted link to the TV. No consumer capture possible. HD component video from the cable box is not encrypted, but it is not feasible to capture a High Def signal from component video.

However, you may still be able to capture local TV stations via digital cable. Cable TV providers redistribute the high def, digital feeds from the local stations. The signals are generally re-modulated, as digital OTA broadcast uses 8-VSB, while digital cable prefers 256-QAM. However, the local broadcast programming is often not encrypted -- so called "QAM in the clear". If that's the case, you can make use of it with MythTV. You generally don't even need to subscribe to "digital cable" -- the unencrypted feed comes down all the cable wires, regardless of subscribed services. If you already subscribe to basic analog cable, this can be an easy way to get a few HD channels, without messing around with antennas or paying extra for digital channels.

Per FCC rule, any modern (within the past few years) digital cable box must have a FireWire port, which can provide the digital video bit stream. Thus, if you have such a cable box and a FireWire port on your PC, you don't need a tuner/capture card. However, the bit stream will still be encrypted for most channels, so it doesn't solve that problem.

Compatibility matrix

Read from left to right. "Scrambled" indicates deliberate action is taken to make it hard for anything (MythTV included) to capture the content.

Delivery Signal Picture Programming Scrambled? MythTV
Over-the-air Analog Std Def Local Stations Never Works great
Digital Std Def Local Stations Never Works great
High Def Local Stations Never Works great
Cable Analog Std Def Local Stations Rarely Works great
Basic Cable Rarely Works great
Premium Cable Usually Possibly, if MythTV can control the cable box via "IR blaster"
Digital Std Def Local Stations Sometimes Only if not scrambled
Basic Cable Sometimes Unlikely
Premium Cable Usually Unlikely
High Def Local Stations Sometimes Only if not scrambled
Basic Cable Usually Unlikely
Premium Cable Usually Unlikely
Satellite Any Std Def Any Either Possibly, if MythTV can control the satellite box via "IR blaster" or serial cable. Video capture is limited to analog Std Def.


Tuner/Capture Hardware

PVR Hardware database has a list of configurations known to work, notes, etc.

Any card needs to be Video4Linux (V4L) compatible. There are dozens of compatible cards. Check the MythTV website for information on what works and what does not.

The pcHDTV HD-5500 card is a good one. It supports both OTA and Cable, SD and HD, in both analog and digital formats. While it may be a bit more expensive than other cards, pcHDTV specializes in Linux drivers and Linux support.

The Hauppauge WinTV PVR line is popular. Some notes on models:

  • PVR-250 is a good start. The IR receiver (for remote control) is not the best.
  • The hardware decoder on the PVR-350 is of limited use.
  • The PVR-500 is a dual-tuner card, and functions just like having two PVR-250 cards.

One bit of hardware that Jarod recommended was the HD Home Run, from SiliconDust. It is basically an Ethernet-to-TV bridge. You plug coax into one side, Ethernet into the other, and you're in business. It contains everything you need to tune, capture, encode, and stream a TV signal over the 'net. It can be used with MythTV and other software as a capture device. This lets you put your TV input hardware in a different location than your MythTV back end storage hardware.

Remember that none of these devices will decrypt encrypted signals, so most digital cable channels will not be accessible without going through a cable box, and then only in Standard Def.

Other Hardware

Jarod recommended nVidia video display hardware, with the binary-only, closed-source driver. He also recommended the use of a configuration tweak in the X server configuration file: Set UseEvents to be True. He said the ATI cards can sometimes be made to work, but sometimes not, and all require too much effort.

Lots and lots of disk storage. The more, the better. Standard definition recordings consume about 2.5 gigabytes/hour. High definition recordings consume from 6 to 12 gigabytes/hour.

MythTV has an archiving plug-in for archiving to DVD.

Any LIRC device (IR remote control) will work.

For playback, a 600 MHz PIII is minimum for std def. High def needs a lot more, perhaps a 2 to 3 GHz P4 or similar. There are a lot of things you can do in the area of performance tuning.

Network streaming (i.e., a recording stored on one box, playing on a different box, over the network) is possible. MythTV uses its own protocol, or you can use NFS/etc. Std def needs about 3 megabits/second. High def can use up to 17 megabits/second. Avoid wireless (802.11) -- even if nominal throughput is there, contention and packet loss will kill you.

Hardware Vendors

Some places to get hardware:

Other resources

History of the GNHLUG MythTV Events

On Thursday, 18 Jan 2007, MerriLUG was proud to host Jarod Wilson, who presented on MythTV. Sixty-one attendees made it to Martha's Exchange that night, making it the largest dinner ever, and one of the largest meetings, ranking up with Ted T'so and Linus. Jarod ran the meeting as a straight Q&A after a brief introduction, and finished with some striking demonstrations of the difference in quality between SD and HD captured video.

Jarod Wilson works for Red Hat in Westford, MA. He is one of the authors of Hacking MythTV (Wiley). Sample chapter online: MythTV Performance Hacks. Jarod's web site includes a section on Fedora Myth(TV)ology, which includes a detailed HOWTO guide.

Jarod Wilson at 2007-01 MythTV Meeting

About this document

Provided AS IS. Use information here strictly AT YOUR OWN RISK.

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