MythTV and TiVo Series 3 Comparison: Battle of Open Source and Proprietary DVRs

Introduction | Setup and Maintenance | Features | MythTV Only Options and Cost | Verdict

Does an open source solution like MythTV stand a chance against the marketing power and research behind the TiVo Series 3? We decided to pit these two completely different DVR solutions against each other and compare in a non-biased way.

What are MythTV and TiVo Series 3?
MythTV is an open source homebrew DVR software solution that works on a computer running Mac OS X or Linux. MythTV provides the usual functionality of a DVR including time-shifting and trick functionality while watching TV. In addition to storing TV shows on the computer’s hard drive, MythTV’s suite of applications allow you to build a “mythical home media convergence box”

TiVo DVRs are a marriage of TiVo hardware and TiVo service accessible via TiVo software. The TiVo service automatically finds and digitally records to a hard drive every episode of your favorite shows. In addition, TiVo software provides time-shifting and trick functionality for watching TV. TiVo’s Series 3 includes support for HD programming over a digital antenna or digital cable using 2 CableCARD decoders.

So basically, both MythTV and TiVo Series 3 accomplish the same task that basic DVRs perform, but that is where the similarities end.

Introduction | Setup and Maintenance | Features | MythTV Only Options and Cost | Verdict

Introduction | Setup and Maintenance | Features | MythTV Only Options and Cost | Verdict

Comparison of Initial Setup
The Tivo Series 3 appears and connects like any other component in your audio/video rack or stack. If dealing with a CableCARD installation you will need to call your cable provider to order the cards before completing the installation of the Series 3.

First you need to connect all the audio and video cables from the Series 3 DVR to your HDTV (if you don’t have HDTV, you really don’t need a Series 3!) using HDMI, Component or even DVI provided you have an HDMI to DVI cable. After attaching the audio and video cables, connect the Series 3 to either a phone line or network that connects to the Internet for the TiVo service. Next you plug in the power cord and turn on the TV and Series 3 making sure to select the correct source on the TV. Finally, if using a CableCARD you need to either have a cable installer perform the installation or you could try. While most of the issues with CableCARD installations seem to have been worked out, you might still run across some issues.

The setup can get much more difficult and intricate than this if you introduce a VCR or DVD recorder or provide audio and/or video switching through a receiver, but those setups are out of the realm of this article. Provided you have working CableCARDs, the average consumer should be able have their Series 3 working within an hour.

For more information on installing a Series 3, check out TiVo’s instructions on the TiVo site.

The MythTV installation starts much earlier because you need to build the component first. While this may seem fun and rewarding for some users, the process may be too daunting for most average consumers. With that said, since you can build your own device, you can create a DVR from an old machine lying around or a monster DVR with ten tuners and multiple terabytes of storage space!

The essential component that must be installed in the computer is a TV Tuner. TV Tuners can either be installed in the computer or via USB or firewire externally, could include hardware MPEG encoders and could either decode standard definition or high definition. Also, you will need a nice sound card to deliver sound.

In addition to these required components possibly not in the standard computer, the homebrew DVRer will want the largest hard drive affordable in the project’s budget for storage space of the digital content as well as a wireless keyboard, mouse and a PC remote control. If you need to control a cable or satellite receiver you will also need to get an IR blaster so you can change channels on the receiver via the MythTV box.

Once all the hardware is installed, you will need a base Linux or Mac OS X operating installed on the box. Again, the average consumer is not familiar with Linux so this task could prove to be too much for that class of user. With that said, there is a project called MythDora that not only installs MythTV but the underlying operating system as well. The install comes on a single DVD that installs Fedora Core (a Linux distro), MythTV and a few MythTV addons including MythArchive, MediaMVP and MythStreamTV. MythDora will walk you through the entire installation process, but if you decide to install your own Linux distro, there are plenty of instructions on the web that can literally walk you through the process screen by screen. The current hot Linux distro is Ubuntu and DVR Playground has a installation guide on how to install Ubuntu and MythTV.

If you are comfortable with building a computer or buying a computer and adding components as well as installing operating systems, MythTV will provide you some flexibility while building your own DVR that a TiVo or Cable/Satellite provider DVR simply cannot provide. The installation process for the homebrew builder depends on the skills of the builder and the speed of the computer. For installation and initial tweaking of the system, I would set aside an entire day.

Comparison of Maintenance
If you prefer a low maintenance setup where you initially setup the DVR and leave it alone, you will definitely lean towards a TiVo Series 3. TiVo automatically pushes out patches and upgrades through the phone line or network connection you use to connect to the TiVo service. MythTV will require you to not only patch and upgrade the MythTV software, but you will need to patch and upgrade the operating system MythTV was installed on… especially if the box is exposed to the Internet!

Introduction | Setup and Maintenance | Features | MythTV Only Options and Cost | Verdict

Introduction | Setup and Maintenance | Features | MythTV Only Options and Cost | Verdict

Comparison of the Features
The first feature that must be compared between the TiVo Series 3 and a MythTV box is operation. If no one in your family can operate or figure out the DVR, it’s useless! The TiVo remote is standard and well designed. For instance, anyone that has a TiVo can pick up the remote of another TiVo and instantly be able to use. Also, TiVo remotes are universal remotes and can easily be programmed using the TiVo software as help to determine the correct programming for other devices. MythTV obviously does not have a standard remote so you need to get a universal remote and program it. Since I use a Logitech Harmony remote and not a standard universal or even the TiVo remote, the debate over remote control operation does not matter to me; however, if you do not have such a remote, TiVo has an easy to use remote.

There are several times where more than one show is on at a time that I need to record. In rare instances I have wanted to record as many as three shows at one time. The TiVo Series 3 contains two CableCARD tuners and can record two shows at one time. The number of shows recorded at one time on a MythTV is limited only by the number of TV Tuners you can attach to the box. For instance, you could have a video server with multiple tuners that not only could record several shows at one time but multiple cameras around your house. MythTV’s flexibility wins this category; however, you cannot use a CableCARD with MythTV.

Since you are recording all these shows, you need somewhere to store them. TiVo Series 3 comes with 300 hours of SD or 32 hours of HD storage availability. TiVo uses a Western Digital 250GB Caviar drive. While there are upgrade kits to expand the drive space from third party vendors, you will end up paying a mark up of 40% for an increase to 500GB or 750GB. Since MythTV uses a standard computer, you can easily use standard components saving that 40% markup. You can string multiple drives together and expand the capacity as much as your budget will allow. Finally, you can easily backup your data with MythTV and use RAID functionality so if one hard drive fails you can still run without losing any of your data. Again, MythTV’s flexibility conquers the storage category.

As far as outputs for network and audio/video are concerned, MythTV’s flexibility once again shines brighter than Series 3. To start with, the Series 3 includes a 100MB/s network interface card while you can cheaply include a 1000MB/s network interface in a MythTV box. You can also purchase a Wireless network interface card (USB or internal) for the MythTV box around $10-$40 while a Series 3 requires the use of a TiVo Wireless G USB Adapter which costs $40-$60. Series 3 includes support for HDMI, Component Out and DVI through a HDMI to DVI conversion cable (purchased separately). Outputs for sound include the Digital Optical Audio jack and standard stereo RCA jacks. The MythTV depends on the motherboard of the computer or an expansion card or USB device but in addition to the Series 3 outputs, MythTV could easily support DVI without a conversion cable, VGA and S-Video.

Usability of live TV and playback of TV is another important feature to compare since that’s one of the main reasons for the device. The first annoying feature of the Series 3 is the inability to continue to watch TV while paging through the menus. I still do not understand why TiVo has not modified this. MythTV on the other hand allows you to continually watch TV while navigating the menus. Both platforms provide for slow motion and frame advance and back as well as being able to change tuners while watching live TV. Also, the live buffer, fast forward and rewind, jump forward and backwards and auto skipback from fast forward and rewind are available however these options are programmable on MythTV and fixed on a Series 3. In usability of live TV and playback of TV, MythTV wins by a narrow margin again due to MythTV’s flexibility.

Another important feature used on both the Series 3 (TiVo service) and MythTV platforms is the search capabilities and program guide listing. Since both platforms can conduct searches on words anywhere in the title, keywords in titles or descriptions, by people, by category, by channel and by time and both platforms provide program guides as well as custom records according to rules or wishlists, a clear winner cannot be chosen for this section.

Introduction | Setup and Maintenance | Features | MythTV Only Options and Cost | Verdict

Introduction | Setup and Maintenance | Features | MythTV Only Options and Cost | Verdict

MythTV only options
MythTV has a few options that are unavailable with a Series 3 including the ability to easily burn shows to CD or DVD. Granted you could purchase a DVD recorder and connect through the Series 3 but in the MythTV you can perform these functions provided you have a CD/DVD burner. You can also use the MythTV box as a DVD player converging yet another audio/video component.

Even more impressive, MythTV can easily support “frontend machines” for video connected to your network. A frontend machine could be a network-connected lightweight PC running Linux or Windows, a Mac Mini running OS X or even a slightly modded XBOX running Linux. These frontend machines are remotely served content from one or more backend servers.

Really, one of the few features a TiVo Series 3 has that MythTV does not are DRM restrictions. Due to this and the other MythTV only options, MythTV's flexibility again wins the category.

Comparison of Cost
The suggested retail price of a TiVo Series 3 is $799.99 but we’ve seen the price hovering around $650-$680. In addition to the hardware costs, the TiVo service is as much as $19.99/month unless you want to lock into a multi-year commitment at which point you can purchase 3yr service for $299 or $8.31/mo. Therefore, the absolute cheapest you could purchase a TiVo Series 3 with 3 year service is $949.99 or as much as $1519.63.

MythTV costs are much harder to determine. If you use an old existing machine the total costs could be as cheap as $30 for a TV Tuner. Most people will upgrade hard drives, add an IR Blaster, add a remote control and purchase a couple of HD TV Tuners resulting in costs up to $500. You could also purchase a new computer which would further increase the cost.

Introduction | Setup and Maintenance | Features | MythTV Only Options and Cost | Verdict

Introduction | Setup and Maintenance | Features | MythTV Only Options and Cost | Verdict

Looking at the various features and costs, MythTV looks to be the clear winner; however, the average consumer of electronics that wants to spend the least amount of time during setup and maintenance should not venture into the homebrew or MythTV market. If you’re a special consumer that feels like the norm is not good enough or a flexible enough solution for your needs, you are a perfect fit for the homebrew market and MythTV… head on over to the MythTV using Ubuntu Installation Guide and give MythTV a try.

Read the followup article - MythTV vs. TiVo Series 3 Part 2 - and continue the discussion.