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).

Anyway, GeekTV…

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.

My previous go-round was with ShowShifter.  Since it appears to have changed little, I decided to look at MythTV, SnapStream’s BeyondTV, and Frey Technologies’ SageTV.

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.

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8 Responses to “SageTV 2.0 Review – It’s not just GeekTV, it’s GeekVo…”

  1. Larry M. on June 3rd, 2004 12:08 am

    I’d just like to add an amen to this review. I have been a big TiVo advocate since 2000, and was excited to see Series2 and the Home Media Option come along. But then I got DirecTV, and discovered that all the “cool” dual tuner, optical audio out systems were all manufactured by or specified by Hughes and didn’t provide the HMO option… not to mention that it’s a “black box” (no pun intended) that doesn’t allow you direct access to the MPEG-2 files. So I have 3 TiVos, only two of which can share shows, and even then they transfer at 10Mbps and shift shows between boxes vs. streaming over the network, and have to be managed separately.

    (Oh, and of course, the music streaming is just about as basic and boring as it can get – no album art, no visualizations, just a very basic screen saver and limited ID3v2 support)

    And then along came SageTV 2.0, the first viable alternative that helps me take advantage of all the Cat5e and coax cabling I just retro’d into my house, as well as the overkill Gigabit ethernet switches I’ve bought. Finally I can hide all the damn DirecTV boxes, record and manage programs all in one library from one multi-tuner box, and view other types of media at my discretion, wherever I want in my household.

    Efficiency at last! I give a preliminary 3 thumbs-up to SageTV 2.0 and the Hauppage PVR-250.

  2. Tim on August 26th, 2004 7:34 am

    Interesting stuff. But what I want to know is this: is the video image quality on a TV fed from, say, the Hauppauge PVR350 with SageTV equal to that of the TiVo, and if so at what TiVo quality setting?  As a side note, it’s my impression from SageTV’s site that they cannot feed a signal to a TV without the PVR 350, which I assume is because it has a hardware MPEG2 decoder. True?

  3. Chuck Lawson on August 28th, 2004 11:20 am

    Hi Tim;

    I can’t speak to the PVR350—I use a 250, myself. In answer to your question though, yes—the PVR350 has onboard MPEG2 decoding (as opposed to just encoding on the PVR250), and a TV-out. 

    In order to use SageTV without such, you have to have a video card with TV Out, and decode in software. 

    Which is not that bad a deal—the PVR350 is very limited in what it can do; it apparently can’t, for instance, display the Windows desktop, or output from other programs that aren’t designed to dump an MPEG2 stream to it.  Which means that you need to have another monitor available for the inevitable system stuff (Windows Update, anyone?), and can’t use your favorite DVD Player (I like Sonic Cineplayer) and slideshow software.

    Further, you’re stuck with the hardware MPEG2 decoder. To me, there is a lot of difference in look between MPEG2 decoders, and using a software decoder lets me choose the one that matches my taste in image handling.

    The downsides are that you use up additional CPU for hardware decoding (but CPU horsepower is cheap these days,) and you have to use a video card with TV Out. 

    As far as quality goes, my opinion is purely subjective, of course.

    I use a low-end RCA DirecTV receiver (not sure of the model offhand; it was about the cheapest that had serial control), fed into a PVR250, with TV-Out from an NVidia MX-440 video card.  I’m currently using the Sonic MPEG2 codec (I’ve tried various, but subjectively I like the “look” of this the best).  This is connected via SVideo to a 32” non-HD tv.  I’ve yet to try it on my HDTV (due to some combination of time, logistics, lazyness and inertia.) I’m using a 3GB/hr encoding rate.

    Comparing this to my DirecTivo (which I spent about 2 years watching), I like the SageTV output better.  Which is rather puzzling, because there’s an extra transcoding pass involved with the Sage (The DirecTivo records the already encoded stream, and decodes a single time on output). The SageTV output looks “crisper” to me, which is probably a difference in the MPEG2 decoders. This is again, pretty subjective—some folks might like an entirely different look (which can be achieved by varying the codec and settings). I suspect that looking at the output of both side-by-side in this setup, though, most people would find them fairly comparable.

    As a contrast, compared to my 1st Generation Standalone Tivo, connected to the same receiver, and using the “best” quality setting on the Tivo, the SageTV has hands-down the better picture.  This didn’t surprise me much, because I felt the same way about the DirecTivo compared to the Standalone Tivo.  I suspect the difference is largely in encoding rates, the speed limitations of the five-year-old Tivo platform, and the ongoing evolution and tweaking of MPEG2 decoders.

    Anyway, I hope that helps somewhat.

  4. Tobin on February 4th, 2005 9:05 pm

    Thaks for the literal and enjoyable review.  I would like to get my wife a DVR with a program guide to drive it.  Instead of the ancient VCR

    I have a number of PC’s but she won’t get near them.

    Assuming a PC was left online on the floor behind the TV without a dedicated monitor, do you think she could “point and shoot” a remote, cursor or whatever to select a program to record and then play back?  No fancy live pause etc, just emulate a VCR for now…

    Basically, is a home-brewed DVR feasible for folks with techno-phobia?

    Is there any “you only need this” diagram availabe to illustrate all this?

    Thanks in advance

  5. Mike on February 9th, 2005 9:45 pm

    Hello all,

    I just built up a PVR out of SageTV software and a Hauppauge PVR 350 and wrote up a blog entry about my adventure—along with a summary “cookbook” at the end.  Here’s a link to the article.  Hope you find it useful.

  6. Peter Morcombe on September 2nd, 2005 12:34 pm

    Thanks for a great review. I have SageTV and am currently trying the 3.0 beta version with three TV tuners. Right now I have occasional problems with unexpected reboots when more than one tuner is active. However, given your comments about the many virtues of SageTV I will stick with it rather than try one of the alternatives.

    My PVR system (Hauppauge/Sage) has issues with security software, so at present my Zone Alarm has been uninstalled and the Windows firewall is OFF. Operating my home network with minimal security is making me a little uncomfortable so I will nag the folks at Frey Technologies in the hope that they have some quick answers! If you want I can keep you posted.

    Peter Morcombe
    September 2, 2005

  7. Chuck Lawson on September 2nd, 2005 12:35 pm

    Hi Peter;

    I’ve never had much luck with the various Windows firewalls — my recommendation is if you can scare up an old box that will still run (even an old original Pentium will work, as long as it has a CD drive, a couple megs of hard drive space, and can mount two or more network cards) to look at re-purposing it as a firewall with one of the great “plug-and-play” Linux firewall distributions. I’ve been quite happy with IPCop; it’s free, works well, and no more Windows annoyances…

    – Chuck

  8. Mike Davies on January 13th, 2006 12:36 pm

    I bought Sage TV and a Hauppage Tuner card as a package last Feb.
    After much hairpulling and forum searching I got everything working.
    The perfromance is fine, recording never misses, playback is good.
    The program glitches a lot and locks up after switching from 1 channel to another or 1 recording to another multiple times. Part of this problem is due to the version of the Hauppage card I bought, according to the forum. However it was advertised and sold as “works”.
    There were too many problems with setup and delivery of drivers and other files from Sage and Hauppauge to recomend buying this product. If you are like me you have seen many a poorly developed and supported piece of software/hardware on the market. This is one. Buy a Tivo

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