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May 02, 2005

Linux In Your Living Room?



Courtesy of Linux Pipeline

Could personal video recorder (PVR) software be the "killer app" that launches Linux into millions of living rooms? A growing number of Linux-based PVR products are giving couch potatoes new choices--and new freedom--even as proprietary PVR vendors continue to impose rules limiting where, when, and how viewers use their products.

Less Is More
The Linux operating system is, in many respects, an excellent platform for building PVR applications, which record and store TV programs on a hard drive and allow users, among other things, to pause live programs and to fast-forward through commercials. Developers, for example, point out that "code bloat" doesn't burden Linux with excessive memory, CPU, or storage requirements--a fact which makes the OS ideal for small set-top boxes that use less powerful components than the ones found in new desktop PCs.

"Windows itself is a huge OS which needs too much CPU power and RAM. Compare Windows Media Player with MPlayer [running] on a low-power machine to see what I mean," said Dirk Meyer, lead developer for the open-source Freevo DVR. As a result, even users who prefer Windows on the desktop might choose Linux in the living room.

Along with Freevo, Linux users today have two other actively developed, open-source PVR choices: MythTVand < http://www.cadsoft.de/vdr/>Video Disk Recorder (VDR). All three applications are suitable for use on small-form factor PCs that can serve as a set-top box, offering feature-rich alternatives to proprietary, subscription-based PVR services such as Tivo.

Frey Likes Linux
A commercial software maker, Frey Technologies, LLC, has also entered the Linux PVR market. In early April, the Illinois-based company launched a Linux version of SageTV, which the company bills as a "Tivo-like product." Like most PVR software, when coupled with a TV tuner card, SageTV can record and pause live TV broadcasts, and users can schedule recordings of programs up to two weeks in advance. The product, which also functions as a media jukebox serving audio and image files, is currently available to OEMs and will be sold direct to consumers later this year,

Although SageTV was previously available only for Windows PCs, according to spokesperson Elizabeth Ash, the company developed a Linux version after concluding that the OS offered "higher reliability and lower cost for our users." While Linux users with technical backgrounds are often content to spend more time and effort to use an open-source PVR, Ash said Frey will market SageTV to customers who are willing to pay for product that is much easier to install and comes with technical support.

Don't Touch That Dial--Or Else
Putting together a Linux-based PVR is a project with obvious geek appeal, but there's another, increasingly popular reason to go the Linux and open-source route: The steady diet of restrictions and compromises that proprietary PVR makers are force-feeding to their customers.

In recent years, TV networks and entertainment industry groups have attacked PVR systems and other new technologies as potential threats to their legal and financial interests. As a result, the groups have pressured PVR makers to combat film piracy by eliminating or at least limiting a viewer's ability to transfer recordings from a PVR to another device. In addition, Tivo, one of the leading set-top PVR vendors, now uses banner advertisements that appear prominently on the screen when viewers fast-forward through regular TV commercials.

"The general problem is that you are at the mercy of the manufacturers," said Klaus Schmidinger, the creator of VDR, which is especially popular among European Linux users who record DVB-S satellite programming. "If they decide that skipping commercials is bad, they won't allow you to do it. If they decide that your machine should record a certain show, they can make it do so--even without your consent."

Wanted: Drivers
Installing and properly configuring free, open-source PVR programs has always been a challenge, especially for non-technical users. According to the developers involved with these projects, usability remains the biggest obstacle to consumer acceptance. "You always have to be careful when it comes to statements like 'ready for the average user,'" says Schmidinger, describing the current state of the open-source Linux PVR programs.

The primary source of pain for PVR users is a familiar one among Linux veterans: spotty driver support. Many of the TV tuner and video capture cards on the market today still lack reliable Linux drivers; this problem, in turn, hinders developers' efforts to improve the installation process. "Very popular cards have drivers that had to be reverse engineered with almost no support from the manufacturer, and [they] still have issues after quite a long development time," says Isaac Richards, the creator of MythTV.

Some developers say work on other open-source projects could enable tighter integration with open-source PVRs and a better experience for users. Says Freevo's lead developer Dirk Meyer: "Sure, better drivers are always a good thing. What we need is better support for Freevo in MPlayer and xine [open-source video players], because both are written to be started and controlled by the user and not by a different program. We want to change the look and feel of both programs to be like Freevo. The goal is that the user doesn't notice if xine or MPlayer is used."

Quiet Please
As more viewers purchase TVs and receivers that support high-definition (HDTV) broadcast technologies, HD support is now an essential feature for open-source PVR software. This is mostly a matter of creating reliable Linux drivers for DVB receiver cards that use on-board processors to decode and play MPEG-encoded HD signals.

Without such hardware-based support, decoding a high-definition signal is a job that can burden even a current, multi-gigahertz CPU. It will also, as a result, create more heat, more noise from cooling fans, and inevitably more complains from users. "A living room [PVR] machine has to be quiet--if not silent," Schmidinger said.

Finally, even though freeware PRV products use open-source licenses, they rely upon codecs and third-party code that raise potential licensing issues. In particular, MPlayer and xine, the two applications Freevo uses for media playback, rely on codecs that a commercial product could not legally use without paying licensing fees.

Many open-source developers see software patents as a mortal threat, especially given a proposed European Union policy that would expand the legal rights of patent holders. The MPlayer home page currently includes a message urging European visitors to oppose the EU patent proposal and warning that patent-related lawsuits could stop the MPlayer, xine, and a number of similar open-source projects.

Set-Top Surprise
Such uncertainties aside, open-source PVR developers continue to work on making their products easier to install as well as to use: Versions of Freevo, MythTV and VDR all ship pre-configured with Linux distributions and as bootable CD-ROMs that make the installation process easier for less advanced users.

Looking ahead, Frey Technologies is exploring the possibility of working with manufacturers to sell Linux-based PVR set-top boxes running SageTV. The company is also in the early stages of talks with cable and satellite TV providers who want to offer set-top decoder boxes with built-in PVR capabilities. According to Frey representatives, the goal in both cases is to develop set-top PVR devices that are competitive in both price and features with Tivo.

Plextor Corp. also recently announced that its PVR peripheral devices, currently available for the PC and Mac, would also support Linux. The California-based company released a free Linux SDK to assist developers who design media applications for the company's PVR product line.

As open-source developers continue to develop PVR products free from proprietary restrictions, and commercial ventures such as Frey Technologies focus on providing superior usability and better technical support, more consumers may find that Linux offers them the same pleasant surprises that, according to Ash, impressed the Frey Technologies staff: "The reliability of Linux in our development and testing was even better than we expected, especially compared to Windows."

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