11 Aug 2016

Cool thing: The "Tvheadend" project

About a decade ago, I spent a slightly-absurd amount of time building a MythTV system for my house. It was pretty awesome, for the time: basically a multi-player distributed DVR. It could record 3 programs off of cable TV simultaneously, while also letting up to 3 people play back recordings on different TVs in the house.

It lasted up until we moved, and I didn’t have the time to get everything hooked up and working again. By that point commercial streaming services had started to take off, digital cable had reduced the amount of programming that you could easily record with an inexpensive NTSC tuner card, and cable TV prices had crept up to the point where I was looking for a way to watch less cable TV rather than more. We made the switch to an all-IP TV system (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime) a while later, and never really looked back.

But recently, spurred mostly by a desire to watch the Olympics live – a desire left largely unfulfilled by NBC; thanks, guys – we got an antenna and hit the ‘auto scan’ button. The number of free over-the-air (OTA) ATSC TV stations we could receive was a pleasant surprise, especially someone who grew up in a rural area and still thought of ‘broadcast TV’ as a haze of static on a good day.

Knowing that there were 30+ free OTA channels (when you count digital subchannels) available in my house, for the cost of only an antenna, got me looking back at the state of Linux-based PVR and timeshifting software.

MythTV, of course, is still around. But if my past experience is any guide, it’s not something you just casually set up. Also, it still seems to be designed with the idea of a dedicated HTPC in mind: basically, to use it, you’ll want a Linux PC running MythTV connected directly to your TV. The MythTV clients for STBs like the Roku or Amazon Prime stick seem pretty immature, as does the Plex plugin. Although I may end up coming back to it, I really didn’t feel like going back down the MythTV road if there were lighter-weight options for recording OTA TV and serving it up.

Enter Tvheadend, which seems to be a more streamlined approach. Rather than offering an entire client/server solution for DVRing, content management, and HTPC viewing, it’s just the DVR and, to a lesser extent, content management. The idea is that you set up and schedule recordings via a web interface to your server, and then the server makes those recordings available via DLNA to streaming devices on the network.

It’s in no way a complete replacement for MythTV, but it seemed to talk to my HDHomeRun (the original two-tuner ATSC/QAM model, not one of the newer ones with built-in DLNA) with very little configuration at all. So far, I’ve got it working to the point where I can watch live TV using VLC on a client machine in the house, and I’m just now starting to work on getting an Electronic Program Guide (EPG) set up, a bit tricky in the US due to the different format used for OTA metadata vs. in Europe, where most of the project’s developers seem to be located.

Anyway, I’m glad to see that MythTV is still apparently going strong, and if I had more time I’d definitely love to cobble together a DIY all-IP home video distribution and centralized PVR system again. But given limited time for side projects these days, Tvheadend seems to fit the bill for a lighter-weight OTA network recorder.

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