First, I suppose I need to start with a disclaimer before discussing the relative merits of MythTV and Vista MCE as I've experienced them over the past month.
I'll be honest about my bias, I've been involved with Linux for about 14 years and love it! I held an officer position at a US LUG and have made my Linux machine my main home system (with a little OS X on my G5 for diversity). In addition, as are some Linux users, I'm usually a Microsoft-hater but am forced to use Windows and associated bloatware at work so I try to see the best in it- sigh.
Well, down to the meat. I FINALLY fixed the bad motherboard on the HTPC I've been building. It's a dual proc AMD 4600+ (Asus NForce4 board) with 2G of RAM, a nice full aluminum MStation HT-1100 case (including aluminum DVD ROM cover), iMon VFD LCD / IR receiver, DVD+/-RW, Hauppauge 500 dual tuner, and a HUMUNGOUS 160GB hard drive... which I fully intend to "enhance" with a nice 2.3 terabyte Infrant storage server soon.
I've temporarily held off on HDTV tuners as I'm on special assignment in Europe, with no access to signal.
My TV is a 40" LCD Sony blah blah blah HDTV with top of the line blah blah blah, 2 tinny little speakers, and only one stupid HDMI port and no VGA ports, a sin that I've learned the true gravity of after making my purchase.
FIRST UP: MYTHTV
Well, I went with the standard Ubuntu because it's Debian and I know my way around a Debian system. Plus, Ubuntu is shweet to install and get running (very easy), has nice package management, and a mostly-configured set of MythTV packages.
I had NEVER seen MythTV in action before and was really anxious to get it running. With media center software and games, you can look at all the screenshots you want and still never truly understand the software.
So I followed my own notes, cobbled from various websites, on how to get the various elements of my system online. From the MySQL database setup, to the interactive backend setup (no manual config file editing), to the configuration of the front end, everything went pretty smoothly. Well, there was ONE exception: channel setup. Since my local guide data did not have frequencies attached, I had to manually enter the frequencies for each of the stations I desired to watch and attach each to one of my xmltv guide sources. More to come about this later...
I now had a working system I could check out, with the exception of the VFD and infrared receiver, which I decided to put off until later. I can tell you that my first impression wasn't so great. The default theme (which I had seen in the interactive installer) was mostly composed of light and lighter gray, which to me was way too bright for a PVR interface. The first thing I did was focus on themes to save my eyeballs, finally finding one that I considered acceptable. The menu system was well organized and intuitive, with a nice comprehensive setup menu (which I quickly learned to lock due to the awesome powers over system hardware contained within
Watching TV on Myth was mostly-fun on my system.
MYTHTV POSITIVES WITH A FEW NEGATIVES THROWN IN:
Buffering on channel changes took a bit too long for my tastes, reminding me that I was using a computer. Picture was very nice on widescreen content, but when I tried the aspect adjustments on 4:3, was disappointed with the results. The basic choice were there: stretch, zoom, etc., but I soon remembered that I always feel slightly ashamed after using them so stopped.
Program guide and scheduling were nice, but maybe a few to many options were available under the recording menus. Yeah, I can see using any of them under special circumstances but they are a bit distracting for what I hope to use as a mindless consumer appliance (my mindlessness, not the machine's).
Finally, the extras were quite nice. DVD importer looks like it could work well, but it's illegal I think to backup DVDs even for personal use, right? The OTHER MythTV app with possible illegal applications, "Torrentocracy", is now no longer working with later versions of MythTV. Music, DVD, etc., were all as you would expect in a high quality app. Web browser was functional if not a little un-navigable, and the optional weather applet was also not working apparently due to recent changes in the source website's structure.
I enjoyed MythTV nicely for a couple of weeks until I decided that I wanted to fix my hastily setup and slightly crippled tuner / channel configuration. As a temporary hack, I had assigned all of my channels but one to 1 tuner, and CNBC to the other. This was because I couldn't find an XMLTV source that had my local lineup including CNBC, so I had to grab this one channel from the Norway guides (where American TV is apparently very popular).
The solution would have required me to learn the tv_cat tool well enough to concatenate the two sets of listings and set up a cron script to do this every night. A very simple technical challenge, by my standards but I gave up after my very first try. Despite the straightforward nature of any program with "cat" in it's name, I hit an error on my first try, put the keyboard down, and thought to myself... "Wow, I've done lots of configuration on this system and it's now feeling a bit like work. Maybe I should try MCE for a while- the pictures look nice!"
And I did...
SECOND TRY: VISTA HOME PREMIUM (WITH MEDIA CENTER)
Well, I truly knew nothing of guilt until I bought that Vista CD at Media Markt. "But I'm a technophile," I told myself, "...and NEED to see what Microsoft's doing in this space. After all, they do hire some smart and talented people, right?" So I paid them my 198 hard earned Euros (a ripoff I know, but where else could I go on a Friday night to buy some Windows?) and walked out.
I... hesitated for just a moment and... wiped my drive (backed up, of course!) and... installed Windows...
Vista install was pretty painless with some nice eyecandy and a generally more "serious" look than XP- that said, it did take a bit longer than I would have expected (mostly due to my having bought the upgrade addition, which means I had to install XP first!). My first problem came after the requisite "Windows Update" as one of the updates had crashed my system. I finally narrowed it down to the SATA drivers for the NForce4 (I think), disabled them, moved to a basemented IDE drive out of laziness, re-installed and was OK. As a Bonus, the IDE drive ran much quieter than the previous SATA!
Down to business finally. Media Center setup was a breeze (yes, better than MythTV for me). Program guide was flawless with more and more complete descriptions. I have no idea where the program data is coming from, but don't care because it's good data. Frequencies were of course there as well, as you should expect from any consumer-grade application sold in good conscience. Even remote setup was very simple, at least for my fairly popular iMon unit.
VISTA PLUSES AND MINUSES:
Menu system is what I would call "polarizing"- some will like it and others won't. It's nicely animated with satisfying sounds, subtlely thrown in throughout. The downsides are: (1) the unique horizontal setup of key menu items which wastes lots of screen real estate causing the interface to provide too little information at some key points and (2) the overabundance of intrusive (and difficult to turn off) 3rd party applets and information.
Despite concerns above, there is a feeling of "connectedness" in the software driven by some of these applets and connections to online content. This even includes a nice "Sports" area with special TV listings, upcoming game info, game in progress info, player info, etc., all courtesy of our friends at Fox News. Yes, MTV, VH1, and even XM Radio all make appearances throughout the big menu system. Some options, of course, will require a credit card number to use.
Watching TV is rock solid, as is the simple but very nice program guide. An additional "neato" is the transparent overlay (with "vignette" effect) of menus over live TV, which must be using at least 50 Commodore 64s worth of processing power and memory (and maybe much, much more)! Channel changing is quick and the OSD, while simple, is clear and nicely designed.
Overall, Vista Media Center has a big win in terms of look and "experience factor" of interface, but then that's unfortunately still to be expected when comparing Linux to Microsoft. Despite this, however, there are some weird counterintuitive behaviors in the Windows interface which I still haven't figured out. MythTV default menus were much simpler and took less getting used to.
Now, here's MY killer issue with this install... ready? Drivers. Yep, I said drivers as in: problem in Windows despite being rock solid in Linux. Surpirised? Well me too but I shouldn't be because it's conventional wisdom that Windows stays in beta until at least 2 years after major version launch. So anyway, my video cap card doesn't fully work! Only one of two tuners is recognized. I've tried all the standard tricks and latest driver releases, with no success yet. Even my long distance call to Hauppauge was fruitless and I suspect that I'll be waiting for some system update or new driver release before I can watch one show while recording another. Or maybe I will fix it before then, but certainly not without a little googling, FAQ searching, or phone queueing.
One more- I get good video with stock Microsoft GPU drivers, but when I try to use the latest from Nvidia, TV gets very stuttery so I'm sticking with what's likely a very sub-optimized video driver for now.
So I'm left with a pretty, working, but crippled setup on a system who's stability I have reason to question. Interface hasn't crashed yet, but uptimes have been relatively low due to recent purchase of Command & Conquer 3.
I realize that this first review of mine seems a bit wishy washy so far. I've identified strengths and weaknesses in my experience with MythTV and Vista MC but made no choices so here it is. In the end, though impressed with MythTV, I'm going to stick with Vista for a while. Like a magical Disney adventure, it's managed to capture my imagination with promises of easy, 24 hour connection to live sports information and internet radio. Yeah, it doesn't fully work and I still don't like Windows, but I do have Command and Conquer so the system should hold me over until... Well, until...
Steve Jobs gets his head out of his ostrich-hole and decides to reshape the marketplace with a truly good PVR/Media Center/Super-Evolved Life Device (tm).
Ok. I said it. The end.