Wednesday, June 20, 2012

MythTV versus Media Center

I'm still getting the hang of MythTV, but I think I have enough experience to make a reasonably informed comparison to Windows Media Center (WMC), which I used for years. A quick but important disclaimer is that, while I used the same hardware with both systems (other than an upgraded tuner that plays no role in the comparison), MythTV runs on the latest version of Mythbuntu whereas WMC ran on Windows Vista. I would expect the latest WMC, running on Windows 7, to be more stable and possibly have an improved feature set.

Where WMC has the edge


  • Setup is much easier than with MythTV. I've documented some of my experiences setting up MythTV in other posts (click "MythTV" in the tag cloud, lower right, to find them). Familiarity with Linux (preferably Ubuntu), good skills using Google and nerves of steel are pretty much requirements (as might be the patience of Job). In contrast, with WMC you tell Windows whether you're using an antenna, cable or whatever, identify your signal provider, and you're off to the races.
  • Data for the television guide seemed to download and install more rapidly (although this is a rather subject perception measure, and the guide source was different).
  • The guide is free (or prepaid, if you prefer to look at it as bundled into the cost of the software). With MythTV, I pay a modest annual fee for guide data.  (This is actually not an issue for me, since I was buying that data even when I used WMC, for reasons I'll articulate below.)
  • The automatic download of guide data may be a bit more reliable than with MythTV (where I've already seen one instance in which the scheduled replenishment of guide data failed silently).

Where MythTV has the edge

  • MythTV records shows in a reasonably standard format (MPEG-4, or something quite close to it). That means the recordings can be played by other software and can be transcoded. WMC, on the other hand, uses a rather nonstandard format (DVR-MS). Web searches suggest that it is possible to transcode them, but my first two tries ended in failure. Since VideoLAN's VLC player can play them, and since I have no interest in retaining the recordings once I've watched them, I gave up trying to transcode my accumulated DVR-MS files.
  • MythTV can wake the PC from a  G3 powered off state to record programs (assuming, of course, that the PC remains plugged into a live outlet). WMC, to the best of my knowledge, could only wake the PC from an S3 standby (sleep) state. I use the PC in question solely for recording and viewing television. Not having to leave it in sleep mode saves power, but perhaps more importantly it insulates me against power failures while I'm away on a trip. With WMC, if power happened to fail while I was away, the PC remained off once power was restored, and WMC could not wake it to record shows.
  • I can schedule recordings by looking up the name of the show or by jumping to a date and time in the guide. WMC required me to open the guide (to the current date/time) and then scroll to the date and time of the show I wanted to recorded. I found it surpassingly strange that it had no option (or at least none I could find) to jump to a specific date/time.
  • I can control how many days the guide contains. WMC downloaded however much data it wanted to download. In a few instances, when planning for a trip, I had to wait until the last minute to program recordings because dates late in the trip had not yet materialized in the guide. Although it never happened to me (that I recall), presumably on a long enough trip one would be barred from scheduling some recordings. (This "feature" is why I was already subscribed to the guide data that I ended up using in MythTV.)
  • I have yet to see an analog to the Black Screen of Obfuscation (BSoO).

Regarding the last point, the BSoO was apparently a relative of the Blue Screen of Death (BSoD). This may be a Vista-specific "feature". Occasionally, when I opened WMC, I would encounter an utterly featureless black screen (maximized). Blindly clicking in the upper right corner would kill WMC, so the screen was actually alive and populated; it was just not painting. "Flipping" also worked (that's alt-tab task switching, not flipping the bird -- although I certainly tried the latter more than once). The truly annoying part, though, was that if you killed WMC during a BSoO and then restarted it, you were guaranteed to get another BSoO. This was also true if you killed it using the task manager. Once you saw a BSoO, your only remedy was to reboot the PC -- which could be rather inconvenient if you were trying to record live TV (particularly as Vista set no speed records for rebooting).

I think it was the BSoO that finally convinced me to brave MythTV. So far, so good with that change.

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