Family PVR quest – Plex or Tvheadend?

My family absolutely loves free to air TV. I dunno why, but they are constantly recording stuff on thier PVRs and filling up the internal drives. Probably because 1 – they don’t know how to download pirated gear off the net, 2 – are afraid of malware if they did and 3 – their internet connection is ratshit anyways.

I thought I’d be a good son and set up a TV server for them. A box that records everything the entire household wants so they don’t have to keep on buying HDDs to plug into their PVR and wonder which HDD has which show. By using a central TV server, there’s some nice advantages over a PVR on each TV:

Redundancy and backups. My mum was shattered when her PVR died and all the stuff she had on it was gone. With a Plex box, I can install a few HDDs, chuck em in a RAID so at least, if a drive dies again, the recorded shows are safe. Could even take it a step further, get a cheap ARM NAS box and rsync backups to it if they’re really keen to make sure nothing is lost.

Easy sharing of recordings. Let’s say something is recorded on the living room PVR, but you wanna watch it in the bedroom. With most PVRs, stiff shit, the content is stuck there, but with Plex PVR, you can view the entire library on any Plex client. My family will love it.

Quad tuner capability. Yeah there’s quad tuner PVRs out there, but they haven’t got one and to get a quad tuner with a decent sized HDD for each TV would be exxy (like $600 each), so having the single quad tuner is fine. Shit, could even get a quad tuner and dual tuner and they can watch/record all 6 FTA channels at once.

There’s three PVR servers I’m aware of – Plex, Tvheadend and Channels.

Channels is an Apple TV app that acts as a front end for the HD Homerun network tuner. It also has a DVR functionality that runs on Mac/Linux/Windows and even Synology/QNAP NAS units. It looks amazing:

It would be my first choice, but, there’s currently no Australian DVR/EPG support. The developer said he is working on it, but the data supplier has pushed back the features he needs until 2Q 2018, meaning Channels in AU is still a while off. Because of that, this article will focus on Plex DVR and Tvheadend.

For the server, I picked up a HP EliteDesk 800 G1 with 8GB of RAM, i5-4670k CPU and 500GB HDD for $200 from a bloke in Footscray. Needed a slightly beefy CPU for Plex if all 3 users decide to watch something that needs transcoding all at once. Replaced the 500GB HDD with a 10TB HDD for $350 from these guys on eBay and got a 120GB SSD ($75) from MSY to act as the boot drive. All up the server cost me just under $800 including the Hauppauge WinTV-quadHD tuner ($161.50 from Kogan), which is the only quad tuner supported by Plex.

First, let’s look at Plex. Here’s a good demo vid of it:

Install of Plex server is easy. I’m just running Plex with normal Ubuntu 16.04 (that’s the most recent version the Hauppauge WinTV-quadHD tuner is supported under, even though they say 17.04 is supported, it isn’t), with good old journaled EXT4 as the file system. Install the Hauppauge drivers via the repo, then install Plex via their Ubuntu package, follow the Plex wizard and you’re on your way.

Now here’s the bad bit about Plex DVR – it doesn’t goddamn work. I can get the channels to scan fine, and the guide loads okay using IceTV, but there’s no video when I want to watch a stream. Audio works, but no video. A few others have had this same problem. It worked fine when I first installed Plex with this tuner about 3 weeks ago, so I’m guessing there’s an error in recent versions of Plex (1.9.3.4290-9798172d4 and 1.9.2.4285-9f65b88ae) that I’ll just have to wait to be fixed.

Even with that pretty fundamental issue, there’s still glaring omissions that make Plex not suitable for my family’s use.

Plex DVR tries too hard to make TV content feel like an extension of the Plex library. Instead of viewing things as channels (e.g: what’s on 9 or 7), programs appear as if they’re TV shows that have series and episodes. Not everything does! (e.g: sports). This is what the program list looks like on Apple TV. That’s all you get. That’s how you view what’s on and what’s coming up. I’m not a fan.

There’s also no way to view the EPG just as a regular list of channels with what’s coming up next. Like “what’s on channel 9 today”. There’s also no way to simply set a timer (e.g: record channel 7 between 9:30pm and 10:30pm with a 5 min top & tail buffer) which confused the hell out of my parents, as they’ve been burned by dodgy EPG data in the past and mostly like to set their own timers.

Plex DVR also looks ugly as most of the programs have no cover art, so there’s just a random assortment of rectangles. Almost all the Australian content has no metadata, even when using IceTV – which is just a guide, it doesn’t do cover art or metadata. Here’s some pics of it on an iPad, as my family does have one and would probably use it as a “remote” to send stuff to a Chromecast instead of the Apple TV if it had an easier to use interface.

The good news is, Plex are planning on implenting a grid view for DVR, sweet! Apparently “grid view was covered by many patents and initially was shelved due to legal concerns. Thanks to feedback from users (and even employees), the point came where we had to figure a way to do this” – wow, fucken patents.

So as you can see, Plex DVR is still pretty much a beta. I wouldn’t put this in the hands of tech noobs and expect them not to crack the shits with it.

What about Tvheadend then? That’s been around for yonks and is much more mature! The Apple TV doesn’t run Kodi, so I picked up a three Raspberry Pis to run LibreELEC. At least if they don’t get used by my family as a Kodi frontend, I can use em for other projects.

TV Headend isn’t the easiest to configure if you’ve never seen it before, so make sure to read the documentation if you decide to give it a crack. The good thing about TV Headend is that it’s quite low on system resources as it doesn’t do any transcoding, so you can get any old box to run the TV Headend server. The beefy quad core i5 isn’t really needed Here’s some screens of the Tvheadend web interface all set up with the WinTV-Quad tuner and the duplicate SD channels (why in God’s name would you watch the SD version of the HD channel?!) filtered out.

Kodi itself is also easy to set up, just install the TV Headend add-on (it’s in the Libre/OpenELEC addon repo), pop in the server details and off ya go. It looks much more like what I’d expect from a PVR. Much more traditional and not pretending to be a media library like Plex.

A nice thing about the Pi and Kodi is that HDMI CEC is supported, so the remote that comes with the TV can pass through commands to Kodi. Unfortunately, on the TVs my family has, not all the buttons pass through properly. Like on an LG TV, there’s no fast forward button. On a Soniq unit, the back button doesn’t actually go back. Little stuff like this was really annoying for my family, so I gave them cheap wireless USB keyboards ($12 at Officeworks) to use instead as that way, everything works properly. Some family members loved it (faster than the remote) some didn’t (wtf a keyboard?!).

They liked Kodi overall though, no complaints. The Tvheadend server worked valiantly, recording random stuff and supporting multiple users at once. But after a week or so of Kodi in the house, they still keep using their PVRs instead goddamn it. I think it’s because the UI is still a little weird for them and they aren’t a fan of the keyboard.

For now, I think I’m just gonna let my family wallow in multiple PVR and external HDD hell. Cruel, I know, but they don’t seem too concerned, it’s me who’s concerned and I don’t know why to be honest. If anything, this blog post has lead me to what alcoholics call, a moment of clarity. The realisation that most people, rightfully, do not give a shit about sort of stuff and it’s only a handful of nerds like me and probably you reading this who want a “solution”. Having a networked PVR and a single location for recordings is so low down on my family’s list of priorities, it’s embarrassing I’m even giving this endeavour time in my life.

But when Channels gets AU DVR support, I will try again and report back because I am a masochist.

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