Choosing Frontend Hardware

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Revision as of 17:15, 17 February 2010 by Mpapet (talk | contribs) (The Options)

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Most of us have a combined frontend/backend system in the living room or a backend somewhere hidden. As we get more addicted to Mythtv, the desire for additional frontends in other rooms in the house is increasing.

This page compares frontends that either run myth natively or speak the myth protocol. Another possibility is to use a UPnP client communicating with the backend's UPnP server. A page about these devices is at UPnP Client Info

The goal of this page is to compare the options and make a choice for frontend hardware. This page currently only applies for SD boxes. HD boxes may require higher specs.

Potential choices are:

Ideally I think this page will have a nice "Consumer Reports'ish" comparison table... but that's beyond my wiki skills today...



An SD frontend shouldn't need a lot of hardware power. How cheap can you go and still play SD recordings from a backend?

Things to think about:

  • Does it need an optical drive?
  • MPEG-4 vs MPEG2 a factor?
  • Does it really need a hard drive? Network boot, bootable CD.


Possible Sources

  • Cooling Fan(s)
  • Hard drive(s)
  • Optical Drive(s)


  • Fanless designs
    • Some of the mini-itx systems are fanless.
  • Driveless designs
    • Boot from network
    • Use solid state media (i.e. Compact Flash) for storing front end software
    • No Optical Drive needed for front end


How much pain and suffering required to get things set up and running? How much 'fiddling around'? Will Mythdora, knoppmyth or another all-inclusive distro 'just work'? If network booting or other approaches used to reduce costs, how hard are they to configure?

I'm cheap, but I also value my time. If somethings going to save me $100 but take 20 extra hours to figure out it's not worth it to me...


Is there any trade-off in video or sound quality?


Is the system power borderline? Are menus slow? This attribute is mainly aimed at MediaMVP, which loses points since kids, spouse, etc will need to learn another UI.


Other nice side-benefits of a particular approach or system.

The Options

Apple TV

  • Pros
    • Small
    • Quiet
    • Low Power usage
    • Built for home theater environment. HDMI and Component outputs, digital audio output, integrated IR receiver. There is even a hack for composite
    • Capable of HD ( Picture playback, and Apple's H.264 (5Mbps, 24fps)). Not ATSC-HD Capable.
    • Mac OS X can now be installed after tweaking and binaries of MythFrontend easily available
    • Can run Linux or Mac OS X with Myth Frontend on either, even XBMC
    • May play 1080i videos per (using linux, XvMC and the built in nvidia 7300 GPU)
  • Cons
    • Limited CPU power (1GHz Merom, single core)
    • Limited Memory: 256MB
    • Early stages of OS X hacking
    • Comparatively low support for Mac OS version of Myth Frontend
    • Internal hard disk (notebook style) is slower than 3.5" drives
    • Hardware upgrades difficult (HDD) or impossible (CPU, RAM, expansion cards)

HP/Compaq DC7700

  • Pros
    • Quiet
    • HD capable even with the Intel graphics chip.
    • Can easily run both frontend and backend and serve other frontends
    • Uses Standard hardware components and has very good Linux driver support
    • Black and silver case fits in well in most home theater setups.
    • Hardware upgrades are very easy.
  • Cons
    • Basic Desktop form factor. Bigger than a MacMini and a typical mATX.
    • Specifications vary. For example, a DC7700 could come with an nVidia, ATI or Intel graphics, be a Pentium D or Core Duo.
    • Most likely source for these is as used, off-lease. They are sourced from resellers who are buying lots of these units out of very large companies.
    • Requires good ventilation.


  • Pros
    • Small
    • Quiet
    • Capable of HD (Intel version)
    • Mac OS X binaries of MythFrontend easily available
    • Can co-exist with Apple media apps & iTunes/iPod tools
    • Can run Linux or Mac OS X with Myth Frontend on either
  • Cons
    • Comparatively low support for Mac OS version of Myth Frontend
    • Internal hard disk (notebook style) is slower than 3.5" drives
    • Hardware upgrades difficult (RAM/CPU/HDD) or impossible (expansion cards)
    • Intel Minis Use integrated GPU rather than dedicated chip. But, this is probably more of a drawback for 3D performance than video. GPU has video acceleration capabilities, but no Linux support yet.
  • Comments
    • Note the latest mini also has mini-toslink (optical) digital i/o
    • Built in ir receiver and comes with a remote
    • Supports boot from firewire and usb to add higher speed drives
    • high WAF (at least in my house)


  • Pros
    • Small
    • All drivers in kernel
    • Hardware MPEG2 (~30% cpu usage on 1Ghz C3-2)
    • SPDIF output on most boards
    • Active 2d graphics driver [1]
    • Powerful enough to decode SD Xvid with AC3
    • Native SD resolutions for TV out (etc 720x576 for PAL)
  • Cons
    • Stagnant 3d driver
    • Commercial flagging slow (reports ~45fps on 1Ghz C3-2)
    • Majority of boards not powerful enough for HDTV
    • cpu frequency scale driver still buggy
    • Models with fans are still relatively loud
    • Very small on chip cache
    • Some users have been plagued by a DMA controller bug (had no problems myself) [2]
  • Comments

The Minimyth project provides a relativly simple route to getting a frontend up and running based on a Mini-ITX board


  • Pros
    • Smaller than most PCs
    • Relatively inexpensive ($129 used, as of May 18, 2006)
    • Preconfigured binary disk images available on the internet
    • Remote available and easy to install
    • If softmodded, can retain ability to play XBox games
    • Can be modified to run Linux without installing a modchip via a Softmod
  • Cons
    • Hardware is mostly unmodifiable
    • Low RAM (64 MB, upgradeable to 128, but the process is risky and virtually impossible without professional help!)
    • Boot time is about 2 minutes
    • Not the smallest machine around
    • Recovery from hardware failure is more difficult than with other systems
    • DVD-ROM drive is sensitive to most CD-Rs, and some brands of DVD±R(W)/DLs.
  • Comments

Given the cost of the XBox, it makes a pretty decent Standard-Def frontend. The CPU has enough power to perform all the usual MythTV bells and whistles (OSD, Time-stretch, haven't tested Picture-In-Picture) with MPEG-2 video (haven't tested those features with MPEG-4, but Linux can run MPEG-4 in MythVideo). The machine is quite stable, but depending on how you go about installing MythTV, your software might not (some prefab'd Myth disk images are slightly unstable). One useful side-benefit is that should you find MythVideo to be unsatisfactory for one reason or another, an alternative can be run as XBox homebrew (the most common is XBMC). For $129 (with the price sure to fall eventually, with the release of the XBox 360), the XBox gives you a machine capable of all the (standard definition) MythTV features, and a few extra features as well.

The machine is mostly quiet, the loudest part being the fan, which is easily overridden by either controlling the fan speed (0.9x and below delivers noticeable changes), by replacing it with a quieter fan (if you're prepared to void your warranty), or simply by putting something on (the fan is easily drown out by ANYTHING, and can usually only be heard when everything else is silent). While the XBox has been criticized as the largest game console known to man, it's only roughly the size of a VCR, and shouldn't be too outrageously large to install in a home media center. The DVD-ROM drive is quite functional for commercially pressed discs, but (depending on the brand of your DVD-ROM drive) is not compatible with most CD-Rs, and some brands of DVD±R(W)s, including Dual Layer media. The XBox is also phenomenally easy to set up. One cord for network, one for A/V, one for power. If the user feels it necessary, additional peripherals can be installed through the XBox's USB ports (though an adapter will be required).


  • Pros
    • Cheap!
    • Diskless, fanless, small and high WAF factor.
    • It becomes a MythTV front-end with the use of MediaMVP Media Center (mvpmc).
    • Because the firmware is loaded via TFTP after every cold reboot, you don't have to worry about destroying something.
    • Built-in hardware MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 decoder.
  • Cons
    • Different UI than other MythTV front-ends.
    • On the American model the best you can get is S-Video.
    • Transcoding PC needed for DivX and other formats. Playback of video formats other than MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 is accomplished by transcoding the files in real-time using VLC or the software supplied by Hauppauge on a PC.
    • You can watch and delete your recordings, as well as view the upcoming recording schedule. You can also watch live tv on any available tuner. Additional functionality, such as scheduling of recordings, commercial skip, etc are not supported at this time (13/06-06).
    • Sometimes lags behind MythTV protocol changes. See the project FAQ for the latest supported version.
    • Old MediaMVP hardware versions don't have optical sound without opening the box. The new MediaMVP has optical sound.
    • The mvpmc firmware is loaded by TFTP server. No security, but easy.

I think I read that this includes softsqueeze for tunes.

Playstation 3

  • Pros
    • You might already have one
    • Sony supports PS3 Linux development
    • Modern and powerful
    • Can upgrade SATA 2.5" hard drive without voiding warranty.
    • Ideal home theater connectivity (RCA/Component/HDMI/DVI, RCA/optical audio).
    • Cell SPEs may allow some encoding/decoding acceleration using SDK?
  • Cons
    • Expensive
    • Sony blocks access to Nvidia RSX GPU with hypervisor - Linux only has a framebuffer.
    • Found to be on the slow side for playback due to framebuffer
    • For use as a back-end, the only methods available are through USB.
  • Comments
    • Not well documented

HP t5720 / t5725 thin client


  • Pros
    • Cheap. Check your favorite online auction site.
    • Fanless / diskless silent frontend
    • Runs distro of your choice (Ubuntu installs simply)
    • Supports PXE boot
    • Can use USB 2.0 hard drive or flash stick for local storage / OS
    • Add a mouse/keyboard and it's a usable desktop workstation
    • Includes onboard IDE flash storage (size varies)
    • Easy install. The hardware isn't extraordinary so standard documentation applies
  • Cons
    • Needs the PCI expansion slot (~$30.00) and a PCI video card for S-Video out (nvidia & compiz work fine)
    • With the PCI expansion slot installed the unit must only be vertical (stand included) for thermal considerations. Looks like a PS2
    • Wireless? Working on it...
    • No built in optical drive. (external USB works fine)
    • Onboard video is weak (shares 16mb of system memory) so the PCI expansion and an add-on card are essential.

This box is available as the t5720 or the t5725. Hardware is identical. The t5720 ships with windows, the t5725 with a "Debian-based client". There are many CPU/Memory/Flash configurations. I've got the 1GHz/1gb/1gb version working without problems running a default Ubuntu 8.04 desktop installed to a 4GB USB stick. I paid $200 on eBay without the PCI expansion slot. I use the USB Keyspan Vista RF remote so the frontend can be hidden and does not require line of sight for remote control. My next steps include moving the log files to RAM [3] to preserve my solid state storage. The PCI expansion slot will accept a half-length, full-height PCI video card. I found a fanless PCI nvidia geforce 6200 card w/ s-video out for about $35.00. It handles mythtv easily and I can enable Compiz to get the nifty eye-candy. This is a stable frontend which I use in my living room daily. I've tried xboxes, macs and clunker PCs as frontends but the t5720 / t5725 has been the easiest to setup, quietest and most stable solution I've found.

Comparison Table

Device Price Fanless HD capable Size Latest version supported
Apple TV 300$ No YES Small ?
MacMini 600$ No YES Small .2
Mini-itx Varies Optional  ? Small .20
XBox $130 (used) No NO Large .20
MediaMVP $85 - $100 Yes NO Very Small See the project FAQ for the latest supported version
Playstation 3 $499 - $599 No YES Large .20
HP t5720 / t5725 thin client $139.99+ YES  ? Medium Latest

Sample systems

...Links off to specific system entries in the PVR Hardware Database.

Hardware Documented in this WikiCompaq_DC7700_Small_Form_Factor