Rodrigo Moya

From lost to the river

From lost to the river

Linux Media Center HOWTO

Linux offers a lot of possibilities as a media center for your living room, so that you can watch and record movies, play music, browse the Internet, and anything you can imagine, all from your comfortable sofa.

This article tries to cover most of the stuff you might be wanting your Media Center for, but it's important to note that you can choose to use as many (or as few) features as you want. A Media Center system can be whatever you want it to be, so if hardware or other constraints apply, just use it for the other features you can.

Hardware

Any computer able to run a modern Linux distribution should work for this, but of course, for some operations, like video recording / playback, you might want to have a powerful as possible system. But again, if you are able to install and run normally a modern Linux distribution, the system should be enough for a Media Center. This includes all sort of systems, like the Playstation 3, being used by lots of people, because of its High Definition capabilities, as a Media Center, with Linux installed on it.

What is more important are the interfaces the computer has, since they would allow other hardware to be connected to the computer, which is important for some of the Media Center features that can be used. We will see them in the following sections.

Storage

Digital media files tend to get a lot of storage room, so you'd better plan in advance for having enough space. Ideally, the Media Center should have a disk as big as possible, to be able to store locally all recorded and downloaded videos as well as all the music and photos you have on your collection.

Another good solution, if you already have a server with lots of storage, would be to store digital media on the server and access it from the Media Center system, although for this, make sure the connection between the 2 computers is fast enough. For Ethernet networks, 100 is the minimum required, if not, you would end up having lots of performance problems because of the media center getting the huge media files from the server.

TV / Monitor

To be able to watch video, any TV or monitor with the appropriate connections (S/Video, VGA, HDMI) should work, but if you want to be able to see the normal desktop on the TV (any computer monitor should work), it would need to have a good resolution. If not, fonts will be hard to read, even though you would see the whole desktop.

The best technical solution would be a DVI to HDMI connection from the computer to a flat TV, although S/Video to a flat TV should work pretty well.

TV tuner

If you want to be able to watch and record live TV, you would need of course a TV tuner. These allow getting video and audio signals from Analog, Digital Terrestrial and Satellite TV, depending on the card.

There are 3 types of tuner cards:

  • Analog tuners, which act as video capturing devices, and which usually have analog input (composite video or S-Video). These usually are supported by Video4Linux.
  • Digital tuners allow to get digital TV signal, which is broadcasted as MPEG-2 streams, thus making encoding of the signal (for recording for instance) not necessary. These are the kind of cards you would need to watch digital (terrestrial or satellite) TV. As they are different from analog tuners, they use a different interface, which is called DVB (Digital Video Broadcasting).
  • Combo tuners, which provide 2 separate tuners, one for analog, and another one for digital. Having 2 tuners make it possible, for instance, to watch digital TV while recording analog TV, or vice versa.

Support on the Linux kernel for these TV cards vary a lot, so the best thing to do before running to buy one, is to have a good look at the LinuxTV site, where support for those cards is being developed, and where there is specific documentation for setting up the supported cards.

Audio

Some TV cards include audio output, so you just need to plug a set of speakers (or the TV, if it's got audio input) to the card, to get sound directly from the TV signal received by the card. If not, sound will sound off the normal computer speakers, so there are a few options in that case.

  • Any speaker.
  • A good speaker system (5.1 or similar would be great, to get surround sound).
  • If your sound card has composite audio output, just plug that to the TV composite audio input.

Mouse / keyboard

Of course, if you intend to be able to use the media center for normal computing tasks, like browsing the Internet or reading mail, you would need, at least, a keyboard attached to the computer, and, preferably, also a mouse. Of course, any mouse and keyboard would do the job if you want to have the living room full of cables lying around. If not, you might want to consider those wireless keyboard / cables, those can be hidden easily and just taken out when you need them.

Remote control

Software

For the best media center experience, even though most stuff can be done with normal applications, is to use a dedicated application to manage everything you need. There are several applications in this category, which are reviewed in the following sections.

MythTV

MythTV is a PVR (Personal Video Recorder) project, which provides, through plugins, access to most features you would need on a Media Center application. It provides many features, lots of them through plugins, included:

  • For the TV mode, it supports many tuner cards, pause / fast-forward / recording, electronic program guide. If you have more than 1 tuner card, it will allow you to record on one while you watch TV (or record also) on the other one.
  • A tool to create your own DVDs from the media files stored in the system.
  • A simple web browser, which can be very helpful if your TV shows the computer text fonts badly. The web browser in MythTV uses better fonts for TV display.
  • A tool to configure your remote control.
  • A Gallery-like application, to display your photos in nice slideshows.
  • A game-platforms emulator, using MAME.
  • A music player, which allows also riping.
  • A RSS news grabber.
  • A videoconference application.
  • A video player.
What makes it more interesting though is that it is designed in a way that backends (engine for recording scheduling, and tuner cards control) and frontends (clients just wanting to access the media features of MythTV), which makes it possible to have several backends as well as several clients. This makes it possible to, for instance, connect to the MythTV backends from a local client (ie, the standard MythTV frontend) as well as from a web page (MythWeb plugin), thus allowing lots of different setups, if you are on a network.

VDR

Freevo

Freevo is very similar to MythTV, or viceversa, since both are mostly based on what

Music

Video

High definition video

Radio