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SageTV Not Ready for Prime Time
March 2, 2006
As much as we may love and support the open source Linux community, it's nice to see commercial vendors moving into the Linux platform space, especially when it's a consumer-facing product. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to see that SageTV, known for their Windows-based personal video recorder software, had announced a Linux version at the Consumer Electronics Show.
As a former user of SageTV under Windows, and a current MythTV user on Linux, I was interested in seeing how SageTV would compare. The Windows-based product has always been one of the more featureful offerings, in my opinion, and I was curious how it would survive its port to such a different environment.
The first hint that things might be a tad dicey was how Sage has chosen to brand the product, SageTV OEM Edition. OEM, as in companies that wish to embed SageTV into Linux-based appliances. Sage is selling this to end users on their web site, but as I discovered, this is by no means a shrink-wrapped, load and run product.
For one thing, forget about loading SageTV onto an existing Linux distribution you may already have installed. As packaged, the OEM edition is an ISO file that you burn to product a Gentoo install disk. From there, you boot the CD and run a couple of install scripts to partition, format and install the custom Gentoo disto onto your hard drive. Clearly, Sage wanted to make sure that the right versions of drivers and libraries were available for the software to use.
The install scripts are pretty finicky about the system configuration, particularly for hard drives. I was installing onto a system with SATA rather than IDE drives, and the scripts and kernel didn't want to deal with them at all. After some help and some new patches from Sage, I was able to get the distribution installed and booting.
The installation gives you three options. You can install a version of the product that will operate as a system service with no front end, as a system service with a gui front end but no video playback capability, or as a service with video playback. Essentially, the first option is intended for systems that will only be accessed through devices such as the Hauppauge MediaMVP appliance or client SageTV systems. The last option allows the systems to operate as a DVR with playback through the monitor.
Unfortunately, SageTV seems to be much less forgiving of graphics capabilities than MythTV. I tested on a system that works fine for full-screen video playback under MythTV, but running the SageTV software, the video was extremely jerky. The web site recommends only using the playback option with a recent nVidia based graphics card.
SageTV OEM Edition is fairly named. For a company that has the time and motivation to tune a set of hardware components to work well with SageTV, or to tweak the SageTV distribution to work well with their hardware, it is probably a reasonable option for designing a set-top appliance. But for end-users looking for a turn-key Linux DVR solution, packages such as MythTV currently offer more flexibility in terms of platform, can be placed on existing Linux installations, and won't set you back $79.95 for a license.
Perhaps somewhere down the road, SageTV will produce a more consumer-friendly version of the Linux product. For now, it appears they're merely going to let brave pioneers try out the version they intend for OEM partners.