Saturday, 7 May 2011

The Media PC - Past.

Part One.. where I discuss the insanity of trying to use your pc to record stuff ;-)

Started looking at this media pc thing quite a long while back, way back in the days of  133mhz Pentium CPU's, when PCI/ISA was the most common motherboard. Back then, I wondered how much space it would take if I recorded an episode of Star Trek Next Generation, using a WinTV PCI. Given that thing did basically no compression, the answer was "lots", and "lots" in a time when hard disks were only just pushing past the 1gb capacity.

Philips CDi
So, it kinda got ignored for a bit, while the tech caught up. A few years later I'd found myself a Philips CDi cheap at a car boot sale & started looking into how to create VCDs, which turned out to be quite tricky, if you wanted to do it right, and not that tricky if you stopped using a CDi and started using a cheap no-brand import DVD player with S/VCD support. If you've never heard of VCD's then you're lucky ;-) essentially mpeg1/2 on a Data CD. So 640mb or so to store an episode, or half a film. Takes a lot of time to figure out how best to encode stuff so they don't all end up looking like bad early RealMedia streams.

Then the XBOX came along (that's the XBOX original, not the 360), in all its moddable glory, with the most amazing XBMC, which for its time looked awesome, and really sold the concept of the network attached media player. This around the time that DSL took off in a big way, and eDonkey, etc became fantastic places for downloading educational copyright free knitting videos to watch with friends in the evening.

But all this was playback, I still wanted recording, on the pc, with an EPG. I tried Showshifter, a sort of early media center app, which did it's encoding using software. I couldnt really ever find the time to let the PC run it though, so the idea was parked up again for a few years.

Tivo Cachecard Network Adapter
In the interim, I'd bought a UK Tivo, and equipped it with a largish drive, and an ethernet card, so I could now record from Sky, and watch the recordings using the XBOX later. The Tivo recordings were BIG, around 1.6gb for an hour, (yes I know, but it was 'BIG' then!). Plus it'd take all night to pull the Tivo contents to a PC once a month, and more to convert them to a format that I could edit/archive. At first I burnt them out to cd's as svcds, but eventually I just burnt the original datastreams, and later just kept them on spare hdds, disconnected. It's still odd to connect a 120gb drive and find it has less than a screen or so full of recordings!

I heard a lot about MythTV, I tried building a box, feeding it dvb-t, dvb-s, and analog video in.. and discovered it took a lot of effort to run a Myth system which was 'complex', (in this case, combining programming from multiple timezones / input types). Plus it couldnt record more than one stream simultaneously from a multiplex, which seemed a bit odd. I struggled to get the MythTV box quiet enough that it would be allowed to run in the lounge, and failed. I tried using a diskless, fanless myth frontend (minimyth, on a mini-itx board), and gave up as the whole thing was becoming a 2nd job.

I tried VDR, a german DVB centric PVR, which had amazing quality video, and properly managed to integrate dvb-t and dvb-s, and showed good promise at coping with analog, it even handle the multi timezone epg, except it's front end looked like something from an early 80s video titler that had bred with a Linux console command. Plus the video output worked best with esoteric old 'full featured' large dvb-s cards, that were tricky to find, and rather easy to fry their video outputs.

Then I heard that Vista had added support for combining different tuner types, and even dvb-s (in the tv-pack version). So I built a box to try that, and was surprised, the menus looked awesome, and the functionality was adequate, ok, it also couldnt record 2 streams from the same multiplex, but this was the 1st real option that might replace the now very very aging Tivo.

So the day finally came, when I powered down the Tivo, after migrating all my season passes over to Vista Media Center, and had a 2 week 'trial' to see if we'd need to power the Tivo back on. We never had to, and that began the time when "the media pc" began to manage our viewing experience.

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