Contrary to popular (Windows users) belief, Linux is not the greatest when it comes to handling multimedia. Some Windows users are even under the delusion that the Linux is not geared for HTPC purposes. With Windows 7, Windows OS has boldly gone where no Windows has gone before. But you would be surprised to know that Windows still has a bit of catching up to do if it wants to beat Linux at the HTPC game. Linux offers some of the most amazing HTPC solutions which would leave any Windows user drooling, and as usual you get it all for free. These packages are available pre-compiled for almost all major Linux distros, Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSuSE, you name it! Remember HTPC has two aspects to it: PVR (Personal Video Recorder) or DVR (Digital Video Recorder) and then Media Player capability, so I am going to cover both bases here.
1. MythTV  (Available pre-compiled for *nix as well as Mac, Windows support is shaky)
My foray into HTPC world obviously started with Windows 7 Media Center software, which was very easy to setup with all typical features like PVR, Media library for movies, music etc. You could spice it up a bit with some third party plugins. But it didn’t have what I was looking for.
I have only one TV Tuner card but I have multiple computers in my house, two desktops and 4 laptops. I wanted live TV to be available on each one of them on demand. Solution was MythTV. It really made the myth of live TV over LAN a reality. So MythTV offers this premium feature which now all the cable and satellite providers are offering for a premium price. Now, I have been using MythTV for last 5-6 months and I am more than satisfied with it.
Lets list out the key features of MythTV (taken from their website), I am including my comment against each point in italics:
- Watch and record analog and/or digital TV, including HDTV: Exceptional performance there!
- Pause, skip, and rewind live TV shows: Sure, but thats so big deal, every PVR does that.
- Completely automatic commercial detection/skipping, with manual correction via an intuitive cutlist editor: This is super awesome, with minimal human intervention it gets close to perfection.
- With a little tweaking you can even have your recordings converted / encoded to a format of your choice to save you tons of space by allowing you to delete the huge HDTV files.
- Intelligently schedules recordings to avoid conflicts: Ok.
- Parental controls to keep your kids out of the good shows: Useful for families with kids.
- Watch and archive DVDs: Quite a useful feature especially if you own lots of DVDs or have a DVD rental service 😉
- Listen to your digital music collection: Ok this is something which didn’t impress me much, the out of box music player leaves a lot to desired, but then I didn’t care for it much.
- Schedule and administer many functions remotely via a web browser: This is super useful, via MythWeb you can not only schedule recordings but also stream your recordings or even download it to your computer.
- Flexible client/server architecture allows multiple frontend client machines to access content served by one or more backend servers (although the most common installation consists of a single computer running both the client and server together): This sets it apart from many many HTPC softwares out there. It works like a charm. You just setup a backend and then you can have multiple frontends connecting to it. You can watch live HDTV wirelessly over your LAN, even on a tiny netbook PC.
- Can’t beat it as a PVR.
- Backing of a huge MythTV community, which translates in to great support. If you are stuck, just google and you would find someone who had faced that issue earlier and has solved it.
- Plenty of themes and plugins to spice things up even further, for example support for Hulu, I think there is support for netflix too, I haven’t tried it though.
- Setup is actually quite easy and not as intensive as some people make it to be. All you need is a linux compatible TV Tuner card with working drivers.
- Enormous possibilities, it can do more than you imagine.
- Pre-configured Mythbuntu and Mythdora distros for easy setup and configuration.
- Media player capabilities and UPnP support is not the best in business.
- Might involve a bit of learning and familiarity with Linux system is essential.
Need help with installation or configuration of MythTV? See these .
2. XBMC (Windows, Linux, Mac)
XBMC is truely platform independent HTPC software. Remember it is not a PVR software. If all you need is a media player to manage your media collection. XBMC is all you need. XBMC fills the gap left over by MythTV. It fits the universal media player bill perfectly. It supports possibly all media formats out there. It was originally developed for XBOX, but now it spawns all available platforms. It is available with some awesome HD themes, great set of plugins and scripts. Checkout some screenshots below for shear awesomeness. If you have MythTV installed, consider installing XBMC as well.
- Great media playback support for videos as well as audio.
- Great themes and looks and smoooooth operation.
- In-built UPnP server as well as client, facilitates media sharing between all XBMCs running on your LAN.
- Works very well as a MythTV frontend. So if you have to stick with Windows on one of your machines, you can still watch your Live TV.
- Tons of scripts (plugins) and add on for Internet TV support (Hulu, Netflix, podcasts and what not)
- Not a PVR, well it was never intended to be so, it doesn’t really count.
- Ubuntu 64-bit version is buggy for UPnP, neither the server nor the client works on 64-bit Ubuntu 10.04.
Need help with installation or configuration of XBMC? See these .
3. Freevo 
The name is certainly inspired by TiVo, the paid DVR. Freevo is regarded as the closest MythTV rival or alternative, with similar server-client like setup. I haven’t used it yet, but I hear that it is equally good. I want to test it myself, but haven’t got a chance to do so yet. But it is on cards. So if you have experienced it, share your views with us. For the time being I would have to leave you with what the Freevo website has to say about itself
Freevo is an open source HTPC media centre software integrating PVR / DVR funtionality along with music, video, gaming, home automation and more. It is written in python and uses existing popular software such as mplayer, xine and vlc. Primarily aimed at the Linux platform it is also possible to run on OSX and for the determined on Windows. It is the main mythtv alternative.
OK! My attempts of testing Freevo on an Ubuntu Lucid Lynx hit major road blocks and I learnt that installing Freevo on Ubuntu is far more intensive than setting up MythTV. Here are my observations in this regard:
- No GUI based backend setup like MythTV, hence the setup involves a lot of terminal hacking and dealing with config_files.
- No convenience of pre configured distributions for Ubuntu or Fedora, however live distributions are available for Debian and Mandriva.
I would give these live distros a try, but if Ubuntu or Fedora (possibly) are your favored distros for general usage. I would suggest you to stick to MythTV which is super easy to setup via nice GUI.
Conclusion: MythTV + XBMC or MythTV + Freevo? I have been using MythTV + XBMC and have been more than satisfied. If you are a Ubuntu user stick with MythTV + XBMC, its a dream combination!