The saga of the television continues
Jun 29, 2008

A couple of weeks ago, Memorial Day Weekend actually, Jessi and I finally got a TV. I had been planning on a 42" Olevia 720p display with no tuner, because it was an incredibly good deal on Newegg, but then I found an even better deal at Best Buy, and was able to get a 42" Insignia 1080p display with a tuner for just about $100 more. So we've now got a 42" 1080p TV hooked up to some cheap rabbit ears I picked up at Radio Shack. It's pretty awesome just for the irony factor of that alone, but with those cheap rabbit ears we're able to pick up a good 20 digital stations, about half of which are in HD as well as a number of analog stations. So we'll be able to watch, for example, the Olympics in all their HD glory without the need for cable or satellite. As I've mentioned before, my intention has been to set up some sort of HTPC to manage the content for the TV. I went back and forth before deciding on ElGato's EyeTV on a Mac Mini over MythTV on a PC, but in the meantime I didn't really want to spend the $500+ on a mini, so I set up an old gaming PC I built a couple years ago and hooked it up to the VGA input on the TV. At first, just to try and get things going quickly I installed Ubuntu on it. This proved to not really work at all. Ubuntu could see, but not use the integrated sound card on my motherboard, and video without sound isn't very fun. I probably could have fixed that with a little tweaking, but there was a bigger problem: my 5-ish year old Athlon 64 3000+ just didn't appear to be up to the task of playing HD video. I decided to give it a real test: a 1080p rip of the BluRay version of The Fifth Element in a matroska container using H.264 encoding. Basically, it just didn't work at all. So I decided to scrap that idea and just set it up with MythTV for now so we can at least watch TV with basic PVR options. I threw an Gentoo on it, and got MythTV running (with sound!) and started planning out the new system to replace it. Then I figured, what the hell, my entirely system from the kernel to mplayer has been compiled from source and optimized for the Athlon 64 architecture, I might as well give the HD video another shot. Amazingly, mplayer opened the 1080p matroska video and played it. Success! It did have some issues with the audio going out of sync, but some command line flags fixed that ('-cache 8192 -autosync 1' is what ended up working). So, it appears, a 1.8 GHz single core Athlon 64 can decode 1080p H.264 in real time! This discovery vastly dropped the minimum hardware requirements, and thus the cost, of a MythTV based HTPC so I decided to give that option another look. A bit of research later, and I was able to spec out a full HTPC with HDMI output and all that good stuff for just about $200. It's hard to argue with those numbers, so it looks like I will be going with a MythTV solution after all. I'll be using a 2.2 GHz dual-core Athlon 64 X2, which my experiment suggests will be more than adequate for what I need and, of course, powering it all with a fully optimized Gentoo install. I'm going to keep the old gaming PC running as my backend for all the storage so I don't need to cram too much into the tiny little case I'm getting for the HTPC, and trying to figure out the final design for that system is proving to be an interesting problem in it's own right, but I'll write more about that later in what I'm sure will be a fascinating exposition on the relative merits of various advanced filesystems and the several different UNIX-like operating systems that love them.
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