A few years back my friend and I built our own Tivo like boxes with Ubuntu and MythTV. The process was less than simple and involved a lot of tweaking and experimentation, but the end result was actually quite nice. Today this process has been simplified a great deal and users can grab one of many pre-built MythTV Linux distributions such as Mythbuntu. I ran my MythTV box for a few months before I ran into a hardware issue. I swapped out a few parts with no luck and without much time to troubleshoot it the box sat idle for over a year.
Since that time I’ve experimented with a number of services to get my digital content; DirectTV, Tivo, the Galleon Tivo Media Server, Amazon Video On Demand, BitTorrent, Usenet, iTunes, Hulu, Joost, Schmooze.TV, Netflix, etc. Each of these methods has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Some are fairly nerdy and unfriendly to the average user. Others have a cost component that may or may not be within ones budget. One component that has always been required in my setup was digital cable (i.e.) Comcast and/or DirectTV. These services have worked without issue, but are very costly and come overloaded with commercial advertisements. We have used Tivo for over 6 years now to morph digital cable into tolerable on demand and commercial free content. I do not mind advertising in the free content found on sites like Hulu, ABC, CBS, etc, but when I spend as much money as I do with my digital cable service I don’t appreciate the additional marketing. In recent years digital cable companies have started to create their own on demand services and Tivo like interfaces. I’ve not been impressed with a single one thus far though.
With the amount of digital content available on the Internet these days I decided it was time to have a go at eliminating digital cable from my list of services. The current economic crisis has made this even more appealing since who wouldn’t be up for dropping a costly monthly bill or two. There are various methods of retrieving TV shows, movies, and music on the Internet in an illegal manner, but I am focused legal methods and as I stated earlier I am ok with advertisements in otherwise free content. So I started by laying out what my ultimate setup would feel like. I want on demand access to TV shows (past and present), a collection of Movies (past and present), my own library of digital content (music, dvds, pictures, etc), and a streaming music service. I want all that in an single interface that I can interact with via my remote control over my broadband Internet connection. Lastly, I’d prefer it be something based around open source technology.
MythTV and Tivo are great products, but they piggyback on the requirement of having digital cable and so for this effort those services are out. I’ve selected a new product called Boxee to handle my requirements, “boxee gives you a true entertainment experience to enjoy your movies, TV shows, music and photos, as well as streaming content from websites like Hulu, Netflix, ABC, CBS, Comedy Central, Last.fm, and Flickr.” Boxee is still in an alpha state, but in reality I’ve found the product to be quite stable. They offer downloads for the Mac OS X Leopard or Tiger (Intel only) and the Ubuntu 8.04 or 8.10 (32bit) platforms. I setup an account, downloaded Boxee to my Apple Mac Mini, went through the simple installation process, and tied it into my various services. I challenged the family to spend the weekend without using the DirectTV box. We consumed all our digital content via Boxee running on our Mac Mini plugged into our big screen TV. We’ve actually found ourselves watching more content and even exposing the kids to quite a few shows we had as children like Bewitched, I Dream of Genie, Perfect Stangers, etc. We’ve looked through our photo albums and those of our friends hosted on flickr. We’ve watched a number of movies streaming from Hulu and Netflix, and listened to music streaming from Last.fm as we did some chores around the house. We took a family poll and Boxee is a winner.
I’ll be canceling my digital cable and Tivo subscriptions today. I have two Tivo boxes and one is a lifetime subscription so I can always bring it back online as needed. It is pretty simple to manage the other via Tivo online as well. I have already scaled back my Netflix service from 4 dvds at a time to 1. This is an effort again to save money and because after 5 years we just aren’t using the service as heavily as we once did. I am keeping Netflix mostly because I want access to their streaming service, but also because I am a big fan and want to support their efforts. I’m a huge fan of Tivo as well, but without digital cable there just isn’t a reason to keep it right now. In addition to recording TV I also used it to access my digital library and rent movies from Amazon, but these functions will be replaced by Boxee. It is worth noting that Netflix and Tivo have partnered to deliver streaming movies as well, but this service is only available for TiVo® HD, TiVo® HD XL and TiVo® Series3™ DVRs. I have two older series 2 models that work just fine outside of being able to access the Netflix service and I’d rather not purchases new ones at this point. Another interesting option for Netflix fans is the Netflix Player by Roku. I’ve heard good things about this one too, but again I’m not looking to purchase any new devices and I really want just one interface for everything like what Boxee provides. Overall, I think we’ll probably save about $100 a month which I am quite pleased with.
After a successful weekend with Boxee I decided to tear apart that old MythTV machine and try to setup a Boxee Media Center for the bedroom with Ubuntu as well. I’ll keep that for another blog post since it is less about why I’ve selected Boxee and more about how to setup Boxee with Ubuntu. I hope you found this helpful and that you decide to give Boxee a shot in your home as well. Enjoy!