My home-made DVR system

I mentioned before about the ars hardware guide for a home DVR system. I am going to talk about my actual setup, this isn’t the only setup, but it works very well and I’ll try to give extra details as we go.

First, as a reminder, there are two different setups. The all-in-one and the backend-frontend system. The latter is more complex and requires two machines, which in turn costs more money. The point of building my own DVR was to save money, so I went for the all-in-one option. Doing two different systems has some benefits, one is being able to put a lower-end quieter machine in the living room. I admit that my setup adds a little bit of noise to the living room, but I did take some specific steps to avoid needless noise.

My machine is an old Dell. It came with Windows 2000, and I would guess that it is 7-8 years old, I picked it up for $25 (yes that is the right number). Since I was installing Linux I didn’t care about the OS. DVRs need at least a Pentium 4 or better CPU, which this machine had, and my machine rarely uses over 30% of the CPU. If you are building a new machine I wouldn’t spend extra on a processor, and if you find a used one anything better than a P4 will suffice. The machine has 1 GB of ram, which works 90% of the time. If you were building your own machine I would recommend 2 (especially given the cheap price of RAM these days), but I get by quite well on 1 GB. It is key to use SATA hard drives as apposed to IDE/PATA drives. If you are using an old machine make sure it has SATA drives. I have two hard drives. My machine serves multiple purposes so I purchased 500GB, but only use 200GB for my DVR. I have room to grow, but with my setup I don’t often use up the space, unless I get way behind. You can get up to 1TB drives, and Linux has a very powerful software raid that you could setup if you want to chain multiple hard drives together. 200-500GB is a fine place to start (I partition using LVM which allows me to expand the partition on a live system, so I started off small with room to expand).

The most important piece that you will purchase is the TV tuner card. Ars recommended two Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-1800 tuners for HD content. I haven’t reached that phase in my life, so I am using WinTV-PVR-250. If you are spending money this is where you want to take extra time and money to purchase the right thing. You’ll need to check your motherboard to make you know what expansion slots it has (don’t get a PCI Express card if your board only supports PCI). If you get the right card it will do all of the encoding work for your computer and limit the hardware needs of your computer. If you purchase the wrong type of card you could quickly become frustrated with skipping video or out-of-sync audio. You purchase two so you can record two programs at the same time.

Final piece to purchase is a video card that can export s-video (if you are doing HD than you want one that does HDMI). Again you don’t need anything too fancy, but even a casual look at Newegg.com shows that a 256 MB Nvidia card is around $30-50. That should work. Just make sure that it has either RCA or s-video out ports (s-video is more common, but my tv didn’t have an s-video port. I have a special cable that changes s-video to RCA). Since I am setting up MythTV on Linux I stuck with Nvidia They have a native Linux driver, and they are a well trusted brand. ATI makes good cards that are often a little cheaper, but their Linux support is suspect. Modern video cards often come with fans. This is one area that you can save on some sound noise. Look for a video card with no fan.

That should do it. In the next few weeks I’ll write up how to setup the software side of things (MythTV). Stay tuned.

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