Playing With A DIY Multimedia Router

Playing With A DIY Multimedia Router

Using MythTV or XMBC for your HDTV viewing needs? Technology Editor Bill Wong moves to the ARTiGo A1200 for his latest do-it-yourself (DIY) project.

CBS suing Dish Networks over their AutoHop feature is old news to those who have been doing it for ages with platforms like MythTV and XMBC. I tend towards MythTV simply because I have been using it for years. It used to be running on a mini-tower but moved for a more compact VIA Technologies vm7700 (see Embedded PC Targets Digital Signage). The vm7700 has useful in digital signage applications and had the advantage of being conduction cooled.

I eventually moved to the VIA Technologies ARTiGO A1100 (see ARTiGO A1100 For Your Next HDMI PC) because it was more powerful. The ARTiGO A1100 (Fig. 1) is based around the Pico-ITX form factor and offered a more power processor and video system capable of delivering video via HDMI in addition to a VGA output. It runs a 64-bit VIA Nano processor but the on-board video controller handles the heavy lifting for streaming HDMI video. I run the MythTV client. The MythTV server runs on a large Supermicro server with terabytes of data but more on that later.

Figure 1. The ARTiGO A1100 is based on a Pico-ITX board running a 64-bit VIA Nano processor. It is shown here in a VESA mount for attachment to the rear of an HDTV.

I have now moved back to a conduction cooled system with the A1200 (Fig. 2). The A1200 has a 1 GHz, dual core VIA Eden X2 processor. I run it with a 4 Gybte Corsair DDR3 1066 SODIMM that I had also used on a hybrid RAID NAS Server project (see Building A Hybrid RAID NAS Server).

Figure 2. The ARTiGO A1200 (front) is more compact, faster and conduction cooled compared to the A1100 (back).

I have actually had to retire my original Silicon Dust HD HomeRun because Verizon has encrypted their data streams (see Hitting An HD HomeRun). I got a few years out of it before this but it has wound up in the dust bin along with my other TV and HDTV PCI cards.

The A1200 is only 3 cm high and, of course, silent and fanless. It also has a pair of gigabit Ethernet ports. This is important for two reasons. First, this is a great platform for a gateway system. I have configured a number of these for NAT gateways using ipFire. Of course, you can use your favorite gateway software as well since these platforms run Linux and Windows.

It also means they can be used for multimedia applications with a split network. A single gigabit network should handle most homes easily enough but if you pump around a lot of data like I do on occasion then running two networks can be useful. Essentially one is the video back end with the video servers and the other is the normal system network. This allows the MythTV client to be accessed remotely while moving video data on the back end.

Configuring the A1200 is a relatively easy task since it essentially comes assembled but does not include the memory had disk (Fig. 3). A nice feature of the A1200 is that it has a Compact Flash slot with a retainer. This allows a Compact Flash card to be used as the main disk. I actually wanted a bit more storage so I utilized a 240 Gbyte SanDisk Extreme MLC-based solid state disk (see The Fundamentals Of Flash Memory Storage) that I had plugged into an Apricorn SSD upgrade kit (see Fitting A Flash Drive Into A PCI Express Slot). Why put a hard drive into a silent, conduction cooled system? In any case, the combination is quite impressive. It is fast and silent.

Figure 3. Installing the Corsair memory and SanDisk solid state drive. Anyone notice the name on the screwdriver?

Normally I put Ubuntu or Fedora Linux or Windows 7 on the A1200. I guess it will be Windows 8 in the future. Linux is the choice for a MythTV client or XMBC platform since they are based on Linux.

The A1250 (Fig. 4)is out now and it sports a quad core E-series processor that has more compute power than the A1200. The A1250 is compact but it does have a fan on the heatsink. It is quiet but quiet is not silent so I'll be sticking with the A1200 for now.

Figure 4. The compact ARTiGO A1250 sports a quad core E-series processor.

The Dreaded CableCard

Now we get back to the server side of things. My MythTV server actually runs as a virtual machine on my SuperMicro server. It has the advantage of easy reconfiguration and a few terabytes of RAID hard disk storage.

There are no tuner cards in the server. Just lots of hard drives. Instead, the tuners can be found on the network in the Silicon Dust HDHomeRun PRIME (Fig. 5). It accepts a CableCard needed to decode the data streams Verizon is broadcasting. This is the same type of card embedded in most set top boxes (STB) and required by third party recorders like Tivo.

Figure 5. The Silicon Dust HDHomeRun PRIME accepts a single CableCard that supports three on-board tuners.

Cable cards have a montly service fee but less than an STB. Of course, the investment in hardware here is probably more than what DVR service might cost depending upon how long you amortize it.

Another cost is the TV schedule. I get this via Schedules Direct. They have actually contracted to distribute this information and platforms like MythTV work with it. There is a nominal yearly fee but well worth it in the long run. It provides searchable descriptions that I find more useful than some of the service provider's online schedule listings.

My set up now essentially consists of a couple of MythTV clients, a server and the HDHomeRun tuner. Expanding the number of tuners is a simple matter of adding another HDHomeRun box but it means getting another cable card. At this point I actually find the number of shows I record is not that high since I can save so much. There is actually a lot of repeated material on cable. In any case, it works well for me.

One advantage I do have over the cable service provider's STB DVRs is the ability to skip commercials (like Dish). In addition, I have access to the MPEG files the system generates. I can download them to a PC, tablet or smart phone and take them with me which I do on occasion using the GoFlex Satellite (see Slick Mobile Wireless NAS Targets Tablets). It now has many of my favorite movies and TV shows on it all without having to rip a DVD.

I also have Android apps that can control and view content from the MythTV server. They are not as polished as some but they work nicely for connected work. A variety of apps are suitable for playback from local files on streaming from the GoFlex Satellite.

These days, cable and satellite media providers have a pretty complete solution that is actually not too bad. It can get costly and I find the usual lack of upgradability frustrating but I understand the need to limit things such as hard drives to support and cost issues. Still, it is nice to have terabytes online and not have to worry about what content to keep around. I tend to delete things to get rid of clutter rather than needing to free up space.


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