Both here and on twitter, I’ve mentioned a few of the things I’ve done with my vdr-based media computer. In this post, I want to quickly take a step back and explain what made me go for this setup in the first place.
By way of quick background, we’ve now got an Asrock Ion 330 living under the TV as a set-top box, connected to the TV via an HDMI cable, and receiving a digital freeview signal over USB from the twin tuners in a Sony Play-TV. It’s quiet, has reasonably low power requirements, is small and pretty, can be controlled by a remote control using a small infra-red receiver plugged into a USB port, and has plenty of storage between it’s own hard-drive and the 500 GB on the Western Digital My Book attached over USB.
Instead, I wanted to explain why I went for setting up a Linux computer with a TV card instead of just buying another set-top box appliance when ours died last year. It’s not as simple (set-top boxes pretty much set themselves up nowadays) and certainly wasn’t cheaper (largely because I was starting from scratch – if I already had a server to use, that’d be different). So what was the incentive?
It gave me a chance to pull a few things together. I wanted a safe place to store digital photos, a server to run some personal code projects on that were getting too much for my Slug to handle, a media server for videos and mp3s, something to handle backups for the netbooks at home, and so on.
I could’ve gone for separate devices for each – e.g. something a little bigger than the slug (or another slug!) to run code on, a network-attached storage device for backups and media, etc. But I liked the idea of a single server that would pull all of this together. And including TV recording and watching with the whole thing seemed to fit well. It also made the cost a little easier to justify.
Remote access, including mobile
vdr live gives me a web-based interface to the TV – letting me do anything that you can do from the remote control. Most importantly, this lets me schedule recordings while I’m not at home, including from my mobile. This is something I use a lot, and couldn’t do with my old set-top box.
Radio as well as TV
As with most set-top boxes, it can use the freeview signal to get a bunch of radio stations. Unlike my old set-top box, once recorded it can export the radio programme to an mp3 file I can transfer to my phone, for listening to in the gym or car. (On the off-chance that this is illegal, I do promise that this is entirely for my own use, I don’t distribute the mp3s, and delete them after listening to them – honest!)
Web video as well as freeview
With the right plugin, the vdr front-end includes a remote-control-friendly interface for searching and watching videos from Google Video and YouTube. I quite like being able to get YouTube on the TV, and use it more than I thought I would.
I also watch programmes from iPlayer, too – although it must be said that the integration isn’t as nice. (I have to use get-iplayer at the command line to find and download programmes. Once downloaded, the vdr front-end does include a Media Player, so I can use the remote control to browse to the downloaded video file and play it).
I always used to watch web video on my laptop, but being able to do it on the TV is much nicer. If my laptop is off, it’s easier. If my laptop is on, it means I don’t need to stop what I’m doing to bring the video to the front.
Adding commands and tweaks
It’s hackable! It’s open-source, so if there is something that I don’t like about how it works, I can change it. If it doesn’t do something that I’d like it to do, I can add it.
Examples of the sorts of stuff that I’ve done include:
Setting up macros for spare keys on the remote control – for example, pressing the big green button at the top of the remote switches on the TV, sets the volume to a preset level and changes to CBeebies. It means that the kids can put the TV on without needing to navigate menus or remember channel numbers. And I’ve assigned other shortcuts and macros to keys for things that I do repeatedly.
Displaying my current location – pressing one of the buttons on the remote control flashes my current location up on screen. Based on the location of my mobile phone (taken from Google Latitude), it is a quick way for my family to check where I am without needing to switch on a computer.
Monitoring and visualising my TV watching – everything I watch is captured, and the resulting last.fm-style stats are displayed, showing me which channels I watch the most, how much recorded vs live television I watch, which programmes I spend the most time watching, what sort of TV I watch at different times of day, how long I tend to watch TV before channel-hopping, and much more.
Other neat features
There are several other features that are continually added to vdr. For example, I’ve put two digital tuners into the box so that I can record one channel while watching another.
But we can actually record/watch more than two channels at once, because vdr can cope with decoding multiple channels from a single multiplex per tuner.
For example, tuner one can record or watch both BBC ONE and BBC TWO (because those two channels are on the same multiplex), while tuner two records or watches Channel 4 and E4.
This means that I often get the benefit of a third tuner, without having had to pay for a third tuner.
That said, if I want more tuners, it’s trivial to add another one – I would just need to buy another USB DVB-T tuner to plug in next to the Sony Play-TV tuner I’ve already got.
Similarly, it’s easy to add more space if I run out of room. We record more than we watch. So with our old set-top box, we were regularly running out of space and having to go through and delete stuff. This is less of a problem with a system that came with a 320GB harddrive, but if we do run out of room, I can easily add extra hard-drive space.
Not as hard as it used to be
Finally, although not as simple as plugging in a set-top box appliance, it’s really not been that hard to get it working. Most of the software I’ve used comes in Ubuntu repositories, so installing can all be done using normal Ubuntu software management. (I did most of it using commands like
sudo aptitude install vdr).
Overall, I’m liking setting up our own TV. To be honest, it’s the open-ness and hackability of the platform that was the main draw (making it all the stranger how tempted I am by the iPad, which is the empitome of appliance compmuting rather than an open modifyable platform).