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Selecting Hardware for a MythTV PVR

Summary

This article describes the approach I used to select hardware to build a custom MythTV PVR.

Since we cut the cord on cable TV, our next goal was to replace the functionality we had with our Toshiba PVR with TVGOS (TV Guide On Screen listings). In the Spring of 2011 we built three identical Personal Video Recorders (for family and a friend). To help make this information relevant now and for the future, the logic for selecting each component is described.

Contents

Getting Started

Now that we had crisp clear HDTV signals feeding into our new HDTV, we were keen to replace our Toshiba PVR, which was not compatible with the new HDTV standard.

First we needed to find software to handle the job of a PVR. Being an avid fan of Free Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) and GNU/Linux, I was very happy to discover the MythTV Open Source DVR project. The project web site contains links to useful documentation to learn how to build, install, and operate your very own PVR. Though it can take a while to read through the MythTV-HOWTO I highly recommend spending the time. It will help greatly with understanding MythTV. This knowledge will also help you select compatible hardware.

For the operating system I chose Mythbuntu. This GNU/Linux distribution is focused on setting up a standalone MythTV based PVR system, and as such makes this task easier than some others. With the software chosen, it was time to pick out the hardware.

Selecting Hardware

When selecting the hardware, it is a good idea to have some goals to help guide decisions. For our PVR we desired the following features:

  • Must be quiet (PVR directly attached to TV)
  • Must be both MythTV Backend (record) and Frontend (play)
  • Must fit all components in a single case
  • Must support recording at least 2 shows at once
  • Must have TV show listings
  • Must be able to watch and burn DVDs
  • Must cost under $1000
  • Should keep options open for future upgades

When building a computer from scratch, it is important to select parts that will work together, and will work with the software. Since I am not an expert in building computers, I like to purchase my equipment from a store that has a physical presence. This permits me to ask lots of questions when selecting hardware, and also make it easier for me to return any defective hardware. This does; however, limit my selection of components to those offered through the store.

Following are the hardware components I chose and my reasoning for the choices.

TV Tuner/Video Capture

You have to start somewhere when building a computer so for the PVR I started with choosing a TV Tuner.

There are a variety of TV Tuners available (network connected, USB connected, motherboard connected). To find one compatible with MythTV, see MythTV Digital Tuner Cards. The LinuxTV hardware device information website is also helpful. This is an area where searching the Internet can provide more up-to-date information and personal experiences from others.

I eliminated the network and USB connected devices because I wanted the components inside the case. I also limited my search to Hauppauge products because these were available at my local computer store. Using my goal of recording at least two shows at once, while maintaining future expandability (2 TV tuners in a single card -- one less card), guided me toward my choice.

Hauppauge WinTV HVR-2250 MC Dual TV Tuner / Encoder (OEM - No Remote) - Cost $140

I chose the no remote control option because this feature was not listed as working with GNU/Linux. This card has the added benefit of being half-height and would permit me to select from a wider range of cases.

Since two of the three PVRs would also be used to record standard definition analog cable TV in addition to the Over-The-Air HDTV signals, I added a second HVR-2250 card. This would enable recording up to 4 channels simultaneously - two on OTA HTDV, and two on analog cable TV. Or in my case simultaneous recording of four TV shows on OTA HDTV.


CAUTION:   Hauppauge Shipping HVR-2255 in HVR-2250 Packaging.

On July 17, 2014, Hauppauge announced the new WinTV HVR-2255 dual tuner. Unfortunately the new HVR-2255 is not well supported by GNU/Linux, and is being shipped in the HVR-2250 packaging.

There are some reports of initial GNU/Linux support of the HVR-2255 (read the entire thread). See also Update on status of Hauppauge WinTV HVR-2255.

Update 2015-07-26: Hauppauge now has a web page that details how to configure the WinTV-HVR-2255 drivers on Ubuntu 14.04 (requires patching and recompiling Linux kernel). See: Support: Running WinTV TV tuners and HD PVR 2 under Linux.

If you choose a network tuner, such as the HDHomeRun CONNECT dual tuner, see Building MythTV PVR with HDHomeRun Network Tuner.

Case / Power Supply

Cases come in a variety of shapes and styles, such as Home Theater Personal Computer (HTPC), tower (tall), and desktop (wide). The one you choose will depend on the space available near your TV. Since I had lots of room in my old TV cabinet stand (more width than height), I eliminated the tower cases. I also eliminated the HTPC cases because the selection at my local store was limited.

This is a key component if you wish to keep noise levels low. Common sources of noise come from moving parts in the PC, such as fans and spinning disk drives, and sometimes from the power supply. To limit noise, large fans spinning at a lower rate are quieter than small fans spinning quickly. To further limit noise, it helps to isolate the hard drive from the case. This is often accomplished using rubber grommets. A good quality power supply can also help limit noise.

Due to my good experience with my desktop computer which uses an Antec Sonata III quiet mid-tower case, I chose another Antec case.

Antec New Solutions NSK2480 MicroATX 380W Desktop Case - Cost $130

This case has proven to be very quiet in operation, has rubber grommets to isolate spinning hard drives, and includes a quiet 380 Watt power supply.

Processor (CPU)

According to the MythtV hardware requirements:

Modern 64-bit processors from AMD and Intel are the preferred basis for a MythTV system. Older 32-bit AthlonXPs and Pentium 4s, low power VIA systems, and the increasingly common ARM systems, should be avoided.

Because in 2011 Intel included HD 3000 Graphics on some of their Core i5 and Core i7 chips, I decided to give one of these processors a try. If the included graphics worked out then I would not need to add a separate video card. Since I was configuring the system to handle recording 4 TV channels simultaneously, I figured it would not hurt to have a processor with 4 cores. This led me to my choice.

Intel Core i5-2500K Processor, 3.30GHz w/ 6MB Cache (Intel HD 3000 Graphics) - Cost $230

The stock fan on this processor has proven to be quiet so I did not need to opt for a larger fan CPU cooler. Also this CPU has been more than powerful enough to handle recording 2 cable TV and 2 OTA HDTV channels simultaneously, and watching a recorded program at the same time.

Note that when recording 4 OTA HTDV channels simultaneousy while watching a recorded show, I have experienced an occasional pause in playback. However at no time were the active show recordings adversely affected.

Motherboard (MB)

There are many motherboard manufacturers out there. When choosing a motherboard it is critical that it fit within the case you select. For myself I wanted future upgradability so I looked for the following:

  • 1 HDMI port (for Intel HD 3000 Graphics to TV)
  • 1 slot that could be used for a video card (if discrete video card needed)
  • 2+ slots for TV tuner cards
  • 3+ SATA connections for optical/hard drives
  • 4+ USB ports (for keyboard/mouse/remote control)
  • 2+ memory slots for RAM chips

Personally I've had good experiences with Gigabyte and ASUS so I limited my choice to these manufacturers. My requirement for an HDMI port helped guide me to my choice.

ASUS P8H61-M Rev 3.0 Motherboard - Cost $85

The BIOS on this motherboard works well with MythTV automatic startup and shutdown.

Memory (RAM)

The type of RAM to use is dictated by the motherboard. Since the Intel HD 3000 graphics would share memory with the CPU, I thought it best to get the largest size memory chip that fit into a single slot. That way I could increase the memory later without having to throw out the existing chip.

My local store said that I would get better performance if I filled both slots so that the dual channel feature would be enabled. In day-to-day usage I have not discovered any performance problems from using a single chip.

Back in 2011 the largest single chip that would work with the motherboard was 4 MB which guided me to my choice.

Kingston HyperX Blu 4 GB 1333MHz CL9 DIMM - Cost $50

Video Card

Historically with Linux and MythTV, some of the best supported video cards have been from NVidia. As such choosing an NVidia graphics card is generally a good choice (See MythTV VDPAU Supported Cards).

However, since support for video cards is constantly changing, I suggest researching each card you are considering to see how well it is supported in GNU/Linux and MythTV.

With the wide range of power and cooling requirements for video cards, this is an area to watch so that you have a strong enough power supply, and also that there is enough room for the video card. Enough room you say? Yes, that's right. In my previous desktop system I learned that my NVidia video card actually required one and a half slots of space for the passive cooler on the card. Hence I could not use the slot under the passive cooler. Note that cooling fans on a video card make some noise so this is a consideration if you want a quiet system.

Since Intel provides open source support for their integrated graphics, I wanted to try this out first. If this did not work, then I could always add an NVidia card later (I planned for one empty slot on the motherboard). As it turned out, I did not need to pursue this option.

Video purists will correctly point out that there are some limitations to the Intel HD 3000 Graphics on Sandy Bridge processors (like the one I selected). More detail on this limitation can be found in the following article: The Sandy Bridge Review: Intel Core i7-2600K, i5-2500K and Core i3-2100 Tested. A quote from the article:

What happens when you try to play 23.976 fps content on a display that refreshes itself 24.000 times per second? You get a repeated frame approximately every 40 seconds to synchronize the source frame rate with the display frame rate. That repeated frame appears to your eyes as judder in motion, particularly evident in scenes involving a panning camera.

How big of an issue this is depends on the user. Some can just ignore the judder, others will attempt to smooth it out by setting their display to 60Hz, while others will be driven absolutely insane by it.

Personally I have found this judder to be virtually imperceptible and I can easily live with it. However, if you are a video purist, then you might consider an ASUS NVidia GT 430 graphics card (passively cooled) - Cost $75.

Sound Card

Years ago I used SoundBlaster sound cards. Nowadays I find that the built-in sound on the motherboard to be more than sufficient. To save a slot on the motherboard I recommend staying with the onboard sound.

Since the motherboard I chose has an HDMI port, I planned to configure the system to pass sound through the HDMI connection to my television.

Network Card

Many motherboards now include a wired ethernet port. However, if you wish to use a wireless network, or if your motherboard does not have a wired ethernet port, then I suggest searching the Internet for network interface devices supported by GNU/Linux.

Personally I use a wired ethernet connection on my motherboard to connect the PVR to the Internet. If you need to connect to a wireless network, I've had good luck with an ASUS USB-N13 Network Adapter - Cost $30.

Disk Storage

The amount of storage for TV shows is a key factor for how many hours of recordings the PVR can hold. With this in mind, it is usually better to go for a larger hard disk drive. From my experience, one hour of 1080i HDTV video takes up to 9 GB of space.

Because a PVR will typically see much more read and write activity than a desktop computer, I suggest using a traditional spinning Hard Disk Drive (HDD) for storing TV shows instead of a Solid State Drive (SSD). Also the cost for HDDs is significantly less than for SSDs. I plan to include more information on PVR disk usage in a future article.

When I chose my hard drive, the 1 TB devices were near the sweet spot considering price per unit storage, which led to my choice.

Seagate Barracuda 1TB 7200RPM SATA 6 GB/S - Cost $55

This drive has proven fast enough to record 2 standard definition cable TV shows and 2 OTA HDTV shows simultaneously while also watching a pre-recorded show. Note that the price of this drive has gone up since 2011.

Optical Drive (DVD-RW)

With the DVD-RW optical drive, I simply chose an inexpensive one that would connect to a SATA port.

ASUS 24x DVDRW SATA DRW-24B1ST - Cost $25

This optical drive works well for watching and also burning DVDs.

Keyboard and Mouse

There are many choices for computer keyboards and mice. Some keyboards even combine the mouse or touchpad functionality into the keyboard. To avoid the clutter of cords, I chose a wireless keyboard and mouse.

Logitech Cordless Keyboard and Mouse LX310 Laser - Cost $30

Remote Control

MythTV supports many remote controls. See MythTV Remote Controls.

Due to the popularity of Media Center Edition (MCE) remote controls I chose one of these because I believe MCE remotes will be available for a long time.

MediaGate MG-IR01BK MCE Remote Control - Cost $30
See also Rosewill RRC-126 MCE Remote Control.

This remote control includes a USB infrared receiver which easily plugs into the front of the case, or into a USB extension cord if needed.

PVR as Built

Following are some pictures of the internals of the PVR.

PVR prior to TV capture card installation

MythTV PVR with no TV capture cards

PVR with one TV capture card installed

MythTV PVR with one TV capture card

2011 PVR Component List

Following is a list of components and their costs in May 2011.

Category Component Cost
TV Tuner/Video Capture Hauppauge WinTV HVR-2250 MC Dual TV Tuner / Encoder (OEM - No Remote)
Note: Two cards installed. Cost per card was $140.
280
Case Antec New Solutions NSK2480 MicroATX 380W Desktop Case 130
Power Supply Included with case (380 Watts) 0
Processor (CPU) Intel Core i5-2500K Processor, 3.30GHz w/ 6MB Cache (Intel HD 3000 Graphics) 230
Motherboard (MB) ASUS P8H61-M Rev 3.0 Motherboard 85
Memory (RAM) Kingston HyperX Blu 4 GB 1333MHz CL9 DIMM 50
Video Card Included with processor (Intel HD 3000 Graphics) 0
Sound Card Included with motherboard (onboard sound) 0
Network Card Included with motherboard (onboard ethernet) 0
Disk Storage Seagate Barracuda 1TB 7200RPM SATA 6 GB/S 55
Optical Drive (DVD-RW) ASUS 24x DVDRW SATA DRW-24B1ST 25
Keyboard and Mouse Logitech Cordless Keyboard and Mouse LX310 Laser 30
Remote Control MediaGate MG-IR01BK MCE Remote Control
See also Rosewill RRC-126 MCE Remote Control
30
Grand Total   $ 915

Because my local computer store has a price match guarantee, I was able to pick up all the components and have the local store assemble the PVR for $800. Considering that we are saving $50 a month since cutting out cable TV, I consider this PVR to have paid for itself in 16 months.

Now that it is two years since I built the PVR, several of the components are no longer available, such as the processor and motherboard. If I had to build another similar PVR today (May 2013), I might select the following processor and motherboard.

Intel Core i5-3570K Processor, 3.40GHz w/ 6MB Cache (Intel HD 4000 Graphics) - Cost $230

GigaByte GA-H61M-DS2H Motherboard - Cost $60

Hardware Wrap-Up

This concludes my selection of hardware for a MythTV PVR, and quite a powerful PVR at that. In practice we have found the ability to record up to 4 shows simultaneously very useful -- especially when competing TV networks seem to broadcast favourite shows at the same time.

Future Articles

In future articles, I plan to cover the following steps of our path:

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