tivo is for suckers

Tue September 21 2010 by Christopher Aedo

OK, that title is unfair. TiVo is pretty great, I bought a series 1 in 2000, and within the first year added a giant hard drive (120gb WAS pretty big in 2001!) and a network card. A year later I got DirecTV and the Philips TiVo that worked with DirecTV. That was when I started experimenting with archiving and offloading content. None of the experiments went really well.

My goal was to keep my own archive of recorded shows, for as long as I wanted, and be able to play them on any TV or computer in the house. I also wanted to convert all our DVDs to mp4 and be able to scroll through the movies and play them, like a pay-per-view system at a hotel. That meant I would need a "back end" to store and deliver the content, and a "front end" to browse and play the content.

The first pass was marginally successful: I started ripping all my DVDs to mp4, and storing them on a file server at home (the adventures in file serving will be the subject of another nerdtastic post...) To browse and play the content, I hacked an XBox and installed Xbox Media Center. It worked reasonably well, but since the XBox had limited memory and horsepower, it couldn't handle decoding movies encoded with some of the better codecs (like h.264 which was at the time gaining popularity, and improving rapidly.)

The TiVo was a pretty poor primary source for capturing shows since it encoded everything in MPEG2, so for long term storage and reasonable tranfer rates you had to transcode everything, which just took too long. It was also a bad choice for the front-end because you couldn't use it to play media from an external source (like the file server that had all my movies) unless it was mpeg2 (AND you had to transfer it to the tivo, it wouldn't stream directly from the source.)

I played around with MythTV for a while, but I think the "myth" part of the name refers to the myth that it actually works. (I know I know, it DOES work, just not reliably or easily.) In theory it would have been a pretty great system, as they used the backend/frontend model from the beginning, and they offered players on multiple platforms, so it should have been relatively easy to build up a PC for however many TV's I wanted to play the content on. As I started working on it though, things just got too complicated. Ideally I would have three DirecTV tuners connected to it, and be able to capture three shows or movies at the same time. I got it working well enough with one, but the whole thing seemed to flaky and fragile, and I needed something that would always just work, and that my wife and friends could use with little or no training. MythTV was not the answer.

Ironically, the approach that answered all my questions was prompted by me taking the first steps towards getting rid of TV altogether. I convinced my wife to go along with me on canceling our DirecTV subscription by promising we would still be able to get the handful of shows that we wanted to watch, and she would not have to sit in front of a computer to watch them.

While learning about MythTV and the community of people working diligently (and without pay) to improve it, I discovered that a great many of them were sharing the shows they captured via bittorrent. Though an argument can be made that it's stealing, if you're just talking about watching over-the-air shows it's no different than watching it after capture on your tivo, and using the 30-second-skip trick to jump past commecials. (If you're talking about pay-tv stuff, like HBO shows, etc., well, then you are stealing... But maybe it's OK if you ultimately buy the DVD's when they're available?)

So the shows were out there, but was there an easy way to grab them as they became available? Absolutely! The bittorrent client Vuze is the best one out there, and there are hundreds of plugins written to extend it's usability. One plugin, RSS Feed Scanner, specifically addressed my needs, and worked beautifully. Then you just have to find your RSS feeds, though you can probably find everything you need from EZTV. [EDIT: I withdraw my support of Vuze after a forced upgrade wiped out all my RSS settings! I replaced it with utorrent and found it's far better, faster, and has RSS support built right in!]

With the content side sorted out, what was the best way to watch it? The XBox worked for some stuff, but not always. It was also occasionally crashy, and would sometimes lock up right in the middle of a show. Thats no bueno...

The answer turned out to be AppleTV! It required a slight modification since Apple would rather you watch things you get from the iTunes store, but there's really nothing to it. There are a ton of things you can do to the AppleTV and there's lots of information out there on the subject. All you really need to do is enable SSH (for easy remote access), then install the divx and xvid codecs and a file browser. Engadget had a good article about it, and I found other sites/guides as well (email me if you have any questions, I'll be happy to help!)

We've been using this setup for almost two years now, and it's worked almost without incident. You can get AppleTV's on ebay pretty cheap, so there's no big barrier to adding players to multiple TV's throughout your house. As long as you don't mind waiting a few hours until after it airs to catch a show, your only ongoing cost is the bandwidth. There might be problems down the road (ISP's don't like bittorrent because they promised you more bandwidth than they have, and bittorrent has a habit of using up the bandwidth available...)