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My DIY Linux PVR
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
  Test OS Installation Complete
The best way to ensure that all hardware was successfully manufactured, shipped and installed was to load the evil OS, Windows XP onto the newly assembled PVR and check all major levels of functionality. The installation went well after I figured out that Windows will always install itself in the SATA mass storage device with the lowest channel number, regardless of a C:\ or D:\ drive label assigned during partition creation. I set the video card to clone a single desktop to the VGA/DVI and S-Video connections, with resolution set to 800x600 for correct TV display. It took me a while to find the LCD panel-like adjustments for the S-Video connection that would keep the taskbar and start button from being cropped out of the picture. I took the advice of a few found reviews and installed a trial copy of SageTV to get PVR functionality up and running quickly. I was pretty happy with the ease of installation and use, though SageTV also required uncovering a hidden config option of screen XY adjustment to get menu positioning down pat.

Everything fit smoothly in the standard stereo enclosure, a minimum of only 5 wires to connect the whole thing made installation a breeze. All was well until I heard all 6 fans at full speed during a recording session. The two OATES fans, smallest in the case and standard on the Abit AN8 were raising hell at all times. All fan noise was exacerbated by the closed-back enclosure that reverberated sound back toward the listener. Soon I discovered the other cause of fan noise. Temperature sensors on the motherboard put CPU temp at 70 degrees Celsius during encoding and only slightly less than idle. I knew that this was far over the 50 degree average experienced by most Venice core owners and immediately shut-down and pulled the PVR from the enclosure before hardware damage was done.

Operating under the same conditions on top of the test bench (my subwoofer), showed a full tilt CPU temperature of only 51 degrees (Celsius), this proved that the fans were doing their job, but that the tight confines of my stereo enclosure were to blame for the low air flow and high temps.

And so the DIY Linux PVR sits on top of my subwoofer, happily recording with the help of SageTV and Windows XP. Some day in the near future I'll find an used, open enclosure on Craig's List and some day in the less near future I'll suck up the motivation to put my nose to the grindstone and begin the work of duplicating hardware and software functionality using Linux and MythTV. Until then, I've got a growing queue of Battlestar Galactica episodes to watch and a dwindling queue of Netflix movies saved to disk awaiting a quiet sunday after noon of full attention and popcorn.


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Friday, August 26, 2005
  Assembly Complete

Assembly
Originally uploaded by Billy The Kid.
A time-lapse photo of the case being filled with components. OS Installation will commence this weekend and I hope to have my first recording before Monday.
 
Thursday, August 25, 2005
  Christmas in August
Most of the parts arrived throughout the week. There was pretty quick turnaround because most of the vendors I choose happened to have warehouses in California. There was also hefty sales tax because most of the venders were in California


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Sunday, August 21, 2005
  The Keyboard
I hope to be able to eventually configure a LIRC remote control for most of my PVR functions, but I know that a keyboard will be necessary at some point. I really do not want to have to keep track of both a wireless keyboard and wireless mouse when wishing to change channels, so an integrated mouse/keyboard combo makes the most sense. For a while I thought the only wireless keyboard/mouse combo was the BTC RF Wireless USB Keyboard 9019URF, this seems to work well enough, but it's damned expensive, starting at $136 or so. Then, during my search for other items, I came across a new item from Belkin. The Wireless Media Pilot is a DIY PVR builder's dream. It is small, light, contains an integrated mouse and looks way less funky than the BTC model. At $69 from Buy.com it's way cheaper too. Now I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I can get the keyboard and all multi-media keys to work in Linux, but this keyboard is worth a little X configuration to get right.


Belkin MediaPilot - Wireless - Rechargeable 2.4GHz Multimedia ...
$69.99 - Buy.com: 3.5 / 5  Add to list
Belkin presents our newest innovation in this wireless, rechargeable keyboard. MediaPilot provides true wireless freedom of up to
...

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  The Tuner Card
This was probably the easiest choice to make. There is really only one card that others have been able to successfully write Linux drivers for. WinTV PVR cards. Kind of ironic that the only Linux friendly, standard cable, time-shifting tuner card has the omnipresent Win prefix. The PVR250 and PVR350 are near identical except for the PVR350's ability to offload MPEG2 decompression duties onto it's on-board chip. Though as an astute reviewer points out, the hardware assist only occurs when the S-Video output from the PVR350 is used. This would be fine, but that same output won't allow on screen display of other OS video. So if you wan to be able to navigate through MythTV menus and watch the video on the same screen, you're not going to use the S-Vido on the PVR350. A a personal protest to this limitation, I'm choosing the PVR250 rather than the 350 as my tuner card.

Hauppauge WinTV-PVR 250 MCE for Media Center PCI TV Tuner w/MPEG2 ...
$124.84 - Mwave.com: 4.3 / 5
HAUPPAUGE WINTV-PVR 250 MCE FOR MEDIA CENTER PCI TV TUNER W/MPEG2 & FM RADIO

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  The DVD Drive
In the Master Plan, I mentioned that I would not purchase a DVD recorder and that a DVD reader would suffice. That was based on the assumption that the price differential between readers and writers was on the order of $300 or so. Now that DVD recorder prices have come down to around $100, it makes sense to spend the few extra dollars to give this PVR the ability to store content on removable media. It only makes sense to buy a recorder that supports the -R, +R, -RW and +RW formats. I opted out of dual-layer burning because the technology is relatively knew and probably not supported in Linux. I first consulted the HCL for an SATA DVD-+RW drive that had been previously confirmed compatible. Although NEC has some great drives, fully sported, they are IDE only. Plextor seems to be the only manufacturer with an SATA +-RW entry in the HCL. I chose that one and am crossing my fingers that the #define, recompile kernel hack discussed, works as advertised.

Plextor Black SATA DVD Burner Model PX-712SA/SW-BL
$89.99 - Newegg.com: 4.6 / 5  Add to list
Brand
PLEXTOR Type DVD Burner Model PX-712SA DVD-ROM Access ... CD-ROM 48X Form Factor 5" Panel Color Black Load Type Tray Interface SATA Operating Systems ...

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  The Hard Disk(s)
There are a lot of choices for SATA hard drives, so I wanted to choose one that was best suited for duties in a PVR. Silent PC Review is the authoritative source for methodical scientific review of quite components. Their best recommendation for a 3.5" SATA drive are the Samsung SP series drives. Although they only tested the 160GB model, Samsung now includes a 250GB model in their Spin Point series of high performance drives. Silent PC Review recommends additional sound dampening for any 3.5" drive, but I will await installation and noise testing before I invest in extra precautions. Because the drive writing and reading recorded content will undergo a lot of use, more that most workstations, I want this drive to be separate from the one containing the Operating System. This will allow an early failure to only wipe-out video data and not the carefully crafted and configured OS. For a second drive, I've selected the smallest Samsung Spin Point drive, the 80GB model

Samsung (Serial ATA) 250GB 7200RPM SATA 3.0 8MB Cache Hard Drive
$115.00 - GoGoCity: Reviews  Add to list
SpinPoint P120 Series provides spacious storage capacity of up to 250GB - suitable for the handling of massive multimedia content such as movies and MP3 songs
...
 
Samsung SpinPoint P Series SP0812C 80GB 7200 RPM Serial ATA150 ...
$54.00 - Newegg.com: 4.6 / 5  Add to list
Brand SAMSUNG Series SpinPoint P Series Model
SP0812C Capacity 80GB Cache 8MB RPM 7200 RPM Average Seek Time 8.9ms Average Latency 4.17ms Interface Serial ...


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  The Graphics Card
This card will not be used for gaming or high-resolution video, but because I chose a motherboard with PCI Express, the card does have to be modern and an subsequently capable of more work than it will be utilized for. My immediate choice for a card chip manufacturer is NVIDIA. They have far better Linux support than ATI and a few mainstream cards that support this interface. There is a choice to be made between the Quadro FX chip series and the newer GeForce chip. The GeForce is used in more of NVIDIA's high-performance cards, but there are one or two from the 5 series and 6 series that have a reasonable price. The only card in the 5 series that supports PCI-e is the PCX 5300. It's a nice enough card, but too much of an odd-ball in it's series and class. I'm worried that the lack of similar cards will mean a lack of Linux support. The LinuxQuestions.org Hardware Compatibility List contains a few entries for PCI-e cards in the GeForce 6 series. Because I don't need anything more than the baseline performance, I will settle on the NVIDIA® GeForce™ 6200 for a GPU. A quick Froogling reveals that there are 5-6 manufacturers that build cards around the GeForce GPU's and two variants of the card. The price differential between the 128MB and 256MB versions is small, so the 256MB version is a better value. I imagine that the cards are all similar, but an informal search of reviews shows that XFX has a good reputation for reliability. The video card for my Linux PVR will be: the XFX Geforce 6200 With Turbo Cache - 256MB - PVT44PQA

XFX GeForce 6200 with Turbo Cache - 256MB - PVT44PQA
$62.99 - Buy.com: 3.5 / 5  Add to list

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Saturday, August 20, 2005
  The Motherboard
Now that a Socket 939 AMD 64 CPU has been chosen, deciding on a motherboard is the next logical step. Motherboards should be the most future-proof component of any home-built system. Because every other component depends on what the motherboard supports, you don't want to grab hold of an aging technology and be stuck scrounging for old components on eBay when new parts have completely converted. Also driving the decision to invest in the most up-to-date mobo technology is the range of prices. Even the most expensive, technologically advanced motherboard on the market is less than $100 dollars more expensive than the cheapest of the cheap. This contrasts from components like CPU and ATX enclosure which can exhibit an enormous variance.

Conflicting with my desire for a future-proof (or at least future-compatible) board, is the Linux kernel's sometimes slow adoption time of new technologies. A casual browsing of issues encountered by system builders at LinuxQuestions.org reveals more than a few people struggling with Fedora Core 3 and SATA and PCI-e. Both of these technologies are going to eventually replace parallel ATA and AGP respectively, so leaving them out of my PVR is not an option. Adopting Windows Media Center is the last thing I want to do. More browsing of the discussions reveal that recent updates in X.org and Fedora Core 4, support both SATA and PCI-e. Just in time.

Most of the top motherboard manufacturers (Asus, Abit, Gigabyte) offer similar features and pricing, so I am going to choose any one and focus my research efforts on the product line of that particular manufacturer. A coin flip nominates Abit as the motherboard manufacture choice. Their current top of the line model is the Fatal1ty AN8 SLI. This is really geared toward hardcore gamers and over-clockers. With items such as dual PCI-e graphics ports, on-screen and real-time over-clocking control and monitoring, more heat dissipation mechanisms than a Las Vegas showgirl in the summer. The general computing specs list is impressive though, Gig-E, SATA Raid, PCI-e, 7.1 digital sound. A look at the rest of their line reveals that an AN8 SLI is available that drops some of the superfluous gaming features, but I really don't need that much graphics bandwidth. Luckily Abit also makes a standard AN8 with all of the meat and very little of the fluff left over from the Fatal1ty. PCI-Express, SATA Raid, Gb Ethernet, IEEE 1394, OTES passive cooling, perfect.

Abit AN8 nVidia nFORCE4 Chipset Serial ATA150 ATX Form Factor ...
$100.25 - Mwave.com: 4.3 / 5
ABIT AN8 nVIDIA nFORCE4 CHIPSET SERIAL ATA150 ATX FORM FACTOR 1xPCI-E(X16)/2xPCI-E(X1)/3xPCI/4xDDR W/SATARAIDLAN(Gb)1394USB 2.0 & AUDIO (CPU TYPE:AMD ATHLON 64 ...

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Thursday, August 18, 2005
  The CPU
The CPU is an important choice in any PVR. It's not difficult to find a CPU that is up to the task of encoding, decoding and tons of I/O, but the way in which that power is obtained can make all the difference in your budget, power and heat dissipation requirements. In the master plan, I stated that I wanted a dual-core or SMT (Symmetric Multi-Threaded) chip to allow for decoding and streaming display activities to be performed in parallel. The new AMD Dual-Core chips are great performers and fit this spec well, but at $371, the cost of this chip would blow more than 1/3 of the budget allocated. Nice thought, but maybe I'll get an upgrade in a few years when the cost is lower.

So now that we have decided on an AMD 64, there are a few obvious options that make the selection process easier. 64 bit extensions are an in-expensive way to boost performance a bit and prepare for any software considerations for these extensions in the future. The 64 bit extensions don't add much to the cost of the CPU either. The next obvious choice is Socket 939. Most future desktop level AMD chips will be based on this socket interface for the foreseeable future. The 939 replaces 754 socket interface.

Now, I head over to the AMD Athlon Chip Reference guide to pick up the part numbers for the frequencies and power consumption I'm looking for. I have not purchased CPU's for some time (6-7) years, and I don't want to do it again any time soon, so I start looking at the fastest clockspeed and smallest fab tech I can find. Hmmm... a 90nm San Diego chip includes a 1Ghz frontside bus, that'll be great for massive disk, memory and TV card I/O. $1100! Maybe not. Ok, that was a harsh introduction into the world of CPUs in 2005. Ok, I'm willing to sacrifice the blazingly fast FSB for a discount, but I want a high clock-rate to enable the PVR to keep up with all the encoding and decoding. Here is a San Deigo chip with twice the L1 cache as the Venice chips and the full 2.4Ghz available in the standard Athlon 64. $500! Still half of my total budget and way too much. Let's try to cut that in 1/2 again. A quick comparison of the San Diego and Venice chips reveal that there is not much real-world advantage to the extra on-chip cache. Venice is it. Let's try the 3500+... $218. Perfect!

AMD Athlon 64 3500+ 2.2GHz Venice Core, 512KB L2 Cache, 90nm ...
$218.49 - xPCgear.com: 4.1 / 5
AMD Athlon 64 3500+ 2.2GHz Venice Core, 512KB L2 Cache, 90nm, Socket 939 CPU Processor, ADA3500BPBOX/ ADA3500BWBOX (Retail with Fan and Heatsink, 3-Year AMD .


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Sunday, August 14, 2005
  The PSU
I don't really know much about power supply units (PSUs), so I followed the advice of as many reviews as I could. For anyone looking to learn a ton about PSUs and how they work, check out Silent PC Review's Power Supply Fundamentals and Reccommendations. I first looked to the excellent collection of reviews at HTPC News. I don't need anything super powerful support over-clocking. I wanted a PSU with a fan to ensure that when things got heated, the unit would be able to sacrifice a little noise to save my components. This left me with a few options in the $150 range, and a couple in the $50 range. Rather than going with the $50 range item in Silent PC Review's recommendations, I went with a tried and trusted brand Zalman and their ZM300A-APF 300W PSU.

Zalman ZM300A-APF 300W P4 Noiseless Power Supply
$49.00 - Best Byte Computers: Reviews  Add to list
With the goal of enhancing the computing environment, all
Zalman Tech products are noise-free. This product is a noise-free 300W ATX (version 2.03) / ATX12V ...

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Saturday, August 13, 2005
  The Case
As stated in the Master Plan, I want the case to be a full ATX case. The trend these days seems to be sliding toward mini-ATX and Small Form Factor (SFF), but I don' want to be limited to what I can stuff in there later on. Also detracting from the value of these smaller cases are some horror stories about each form factor and the cooling problems, fit issues and restrictions of each. Aside from the "it won't fit on my shelf" argument, I have yet to hear a bad thing about ATX cases.

The HTPC market is large enough now to encourage more than a few manufacturers to begin developing full product lines of cases which look like home entertainment devices, but conform to all the PC case standards. This is lucky for me, because I want to be able to drop the case in my current HT setup and not have it look like a sore thumb. There have been some recent entries in to the market such as the and a few from SilverStone, Antec and UNeed International but I am resisting the other recent trend of stuffing too much into the front of the case. Many cases these days include LCD readout panels, IR receivers, USB, FireWire and Audio connectors and a bunch of other stuff that either limits your choice of MoBo or sticks you with some items that are not Linux compatible.

After reading many disappointing reviews. I finally stumbled across some an old review of a full ATX case made by SilverStone in 2004. To me, the LC03 embodies the peak of functional, effective case design. It does not include anything you don't want, does not force a fanless PSU, has an elegant and component-like front face, and was enjoyed by all who reviewed it.

So my first purchasing decision will be a SilverStone LC03 case for around $125.

Silverstone LC03-S (Silver) ATX Desktop No Power Supply 2x5.25 2x3 ...
$118.00- Mwave.com:4.3 / 5
SILVERSTONE LC03-S (SILVER) ATX DESKTOP NO POWER SUPPLY 2x5.25 2x3.5 2x3.5(hidden) W/ FRONT USB CONNECTOR & 60mm CASE FAN x 1

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Friday, August 12, 2005
  The Master Plan
Most PVR's have a similar general purpose in mind. They also have a narrow focus of functionality, cost and character that reflects the environment they will be placed in, temperament of the builder and many other factors

My PVR is meant to be expandable. I don't want to be locked into any limitations with this iteration of the project. HDTV is on the horizon and I'm not ready yet, but I want the upgrade to support HDTV to be fairly painless. The system should be a drop-in addition to my existing 7.1 home theatre system and CRT TV. Can the same thing be said about Tivo's or HP/Sony HTPCs?

I don't really want to spend more than $1000 on this project. $600 is more economicaly reasonable, but because I am not starting with any existing parts common to most PC's, I can expect to spend a little more than the base line.

Here are the general features, component characteristics and hardware specs I'm looking for. For some of the video and audio pieces, Linux compatibility is paramount to anything else.

Similarly, these are the software requirements I am putting forth:


I plan to take 2-3 weeks to research all the parts, gather a buy plan and then no less than a week to put it all together. Stay tuned, it's going to be a fun adventure.
 
  The Free PVR Plog
This plog will share the joy of putting together a fully-featured Personal Video Recorder (PVR) a.k.a. Home Theatre Personal Computer (HTPC), from the latest in hardware, Linux and other free software. This PVR is guarunteed to be free of any DRM, free of any liciencing restrictions, free of all subscription costs and nowhere near free in hardware costs.

I'll maintain a list of bookmarks in the sidebar once things get rolling and create entries as parts get decided upon, arrive and are assembled.
 
A project log (Plog) documenting the planning and assembly of a Linux PVR.

HARDWARE
PROJECT LINKS
Gentoo
HTPC News
BYO PVR
O'Reilly's MythTV PVR Project
PVR Hardware Database
PVR Plog Listing
PVR Review Listing
Linux Hardware Compatibility List

RECENT
MythWeb Rocks
Simple Solutions
TODO
MythTV on my TV
wlan0 Success with Broadcom
Linksys Bait and Switch
Xorg and the nVidia Driver
LVM2
Booting Gentoo 2005.1 (2.6.12)
Real OS Installation Begins

ARCHIVES
August 2005 / September 2005 / November 2005 /


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