SageTV 2.0 Review – It’s not just GeekTV, it’s GeekVo…
May 24, 2004
I’ve been down sick with the creeping crud the last four days or so… Alright, it’s a summer cold, it just felt like the creeping crud.
This would ordinarily be a time for staying in bed and catching up on some TV watching… Unfortunately, the GeekTV in the bedroom decided to die last week.
As an aside, it sure seems like an inordinate number of the large hard drives I’ve had that died prematurely over the years were Maxtors. This was another one, and I’m resolved once again never to buy another one (but it seems like they’re always what’s on sale when I’m stuck and have to buy something locally in a hurry).
You take a PC with a TV capture card and TV out capability, and stick it between your TV and your program source… The (debatably meritorious) results are that you can not only watch DVDs, but Divx’s and other digital video that you’ve got archived about the place, and can tweak picture settings, play MP3s, etc. Not to mention being able to pop up a web browser and check IMDB to settle arguments, and other good stuff like that. The kind of things that mostly only geeks would think are cool… What can I say?
The last time I did much with this was 12 – 18 months ago… It’s just been happily running along since, and I’ve paid the state of the art very little attention. At that point, even though several packages were attempting to add PVR features, I found that they were all pretty crappy compared to the Tivo, and didn’t see much value in messing with that. From my experiences in the Digital Video biz back in the late 90s, I knew that the other tough problem to solve was creating a decent “10 foot experience”, so I found a package that did a credible (if not spectacular) job of handling that, and called it done.
So this time, stuck in bed, once I had the machine where it would boot again, I had plenty of time to install the current contenders and see what was new.
The hardware platform for this box is a Chaintech MiniATX motherboard running an NForce2 chipset, an AMD Athlon-XP 2500, 512 meg of ram, 160 gig hard drive and a Hauppauge PVR-250 capture card. The motherboard provides GForce4 MX functionality and s-video out, as well as two-channel audio out and 100 mbit Ethernet. The machine is running Windows XP Pro SP1 (except when trying the MythTV package).
MythTV has a gorgeous interface. It’s also open source, which makes it an attractive alternative from a pricing point of view. Unfortunately, its Linux-based operating environment kicked my butt when it came to actually getting the thing up and running. Even though the Knoppix-based installer (KnoppMyth) helped a lot, I was never able to successfully get the capture card running with it, and I had massive problems downloading guide data. Caught up in a bunch of make dependencies trying to get it all running, I decided to move on.
SnapStream has been around for awhile, but in all the trials I’ve installed over the past couple of years, I’ve never been happy with the quality of “live” video it provides. Beyond TV 3.5 ($60), however, uses a video overlay, and with a bit of tweaking, I was able to get a very nice quality picture. Unfortunately, I also ended up with a “stutter” every 20 seconds or so that became incredibly annoying. The interface was nicely thought out; even though support for media libraries is still “coming soon”, the web-based scheduler was a nice touch. Installation was smooth and trouble free. I never did get the stuttering problem solved, however.
Moving along, I tried SageTV 2.0 ($80). This thing ROCKS. Nice interface, media library support, gorgeous picture. Installation was smooth and simple, and I was up and watching TV within a few minutes. This was good enough that the PVR features began to intrigue me. Pause / reverse / fast forward live video worked smooth as silk. Recording took only around 10 – 15% cpu utilization, and best of all, the recorded video (in a fully default configuration) is a nice, solid MPEG2 data stream. I was able to open the recorded file on other machines on the network (PC and Mac), and play them just fine. Picture quality is excellent, and audio sync appears to be right on the money.
Watching the DirecTivo through one of these things is a little frustrating however, since the “pause live TV” feature means you are always at least a second or so behind real-time. Of course, it also makes the program guide and scheduled recording features meaningless.
So, the next step was hooking up a plain DirecTV receiver to the Sage box. This was also simple and straightforward. I used a low-end RCA receiver with s-video out and a “low speed data” interface. A little googling found the proper cabling diagram for a serial-to-low-speed-data-port cable, and I cobbled one together out of spare parts in a few minutes. Alternatively, you can order one from SnapStream for about $20. If you don’t want to go with direct cable control, or if you have a satellite or cable receiver that doesn’t support it, you can get a serial or USB Infrared Controller instead for $35 – $50.
Once the cable was together, it took about 10 minutes to get it all hooked up, proper guide data for DirecTV, and the channels configured. Support for the cable-control was built-in for my receiver, and apparently is for many or most direct cabled or IR-based cable and satellite controllers as well.
The picture quality directly off the satellite receiver was awesome. Scheduled recordings appear to work well, although the interface may be a bit less mature than the Tivo interface—or perhaps I’m just having trouble unlearning the other. In any event, it’s quite usable.
I’m convinced. The only feature I’d have liked to have had that isn’t here is the web based scheduling, but Sage offers an inexpensive ($30) client that can be run on other windows boxes (no Mac, unfortunately) on the local network that lets you browse the guide, schedule recordings and watch recorded or library programs just as if you were on the main box. For my purposes, this is even better.
The next step will be to add a second encoder, and put my old first-generation Tivo out of service (so I can swipe the DirecTV receiver it’s attached to—I’ll leave the DirecTivo run for the time being). This will let me record two programs at once. Several people on Frey Tech’s forums are running up to 8 encoders on the same box, so this isn’t likely to be a problem. The result will be a more-capable replacement for the old first-generation Tivo plus network availability, along with refurbishment of the bedroom TV situation—one less box sucking power, and more features.
Not bad for being out sick…
I’m not sure how long it will be before the “average user” wants to play with this kind of thing. Let’s face it, even with SageTV, if you’re looking for an “out-of-the-best-buy-box hook-it-up-and-run” experience, this isn’t it. If you don’t have other machines hanging on your network, a fair amount of encoded video and a PC attached to your TV already, this probably isn’t going to have much charm. But for the geekier among us, this stuff is starting to be ready for prime-time.