Posted by: patdavila | August 10, 2009

Zotac Ion build and configuration as a MythTV frontend

The case for the Zotac Ion box finally arrived late Friday and I was happily surprised at the quality of it. I was expecting a cheap plastic case similiar to an external drive case you see at swap meets. In fact the case was all metal except for a face plate covering the front usb ports and power switch. On Saturday evening I decided to put it all together. The build was fairly straightforward. I put a pair of 2 gig sticks of RAM in the memory slots. 4 gig of RAM might sound like overkill but it was only $10 more expensive if I had simply went with 2 gig or RAM. I also mounted the cooling fan that came with the motherboard onto the heat sink covering the CPU and GPU. The case had only one screw holding the lid in place so it was pretty easy to get the top off. There was a top bracket I could of removed with a very small screwdriver. I just left the bracket in place and slid the motherboard in at a slight angle and it went in pretty easily. Four screws anchor the motherboard to the bottom of the case. Overall the case is pretty damn small. Smaller than my Motorola DCX3200 cable box. It’s narrower than the Popcorn Hour A110 but thicker. I’m very happy with the form factor. I then went about installing Mythbuntu 9.04 onto the thumb drive. I used an external DVD drive connected via USB to get the installer going. I selected a frontend only install and inputed the information for my main Mythbox (IP address, database name, password). The installation was pretty straightforward. I rebooted the system and went about applying all the package updates via ‘apt-get’. Drive speed using only a usb thumb drive is definitely slower than a real hard drive. All the package updates took slightly longer but general performance is very good once the system is up and running. The menus are very responsive and all of the functionality of my main Mythbox are available. My biggest complaint of using a Popcorn Hour box as a MythTV frontend is that you could only play the files with no real integration. Using the Zotac box as a Mythfrontend definitely does it for me. This is my first “real” frontend only MythTV install (sans the mvpmc on the MediaMVP I’ve done). The new box can basically do everything that my main Mythbox can do. If you didn’t know all the media was living on another system you would think it’s completely local. Commercial skipping, program scheduling and all the great Myth plug-ins are available and fully functioning. There were a couple of items to take note of during the setup. Mythbuntu has a really nice configuration utility where you can configure all sorts of services (VNC, SSH, Samba, mythweb) that you might want to run on your Myth box. There’s a proprietary driver utility that will usually notice you have an Nvidia graphics card and prompt you to install the closed Nvidia driver. For some reason that utility did not flag the integrated Nvidia graphics card. Not a big deal. I simply fired up the package manager and installed the Nvidia driver package from the Ubuntu repos along with the Nvidia configuration utility. The driver was working after I rebooted. For some strange reason I could only get low resolution with the Nvidia driver. Initially I had the box hooked up to my kvm switch using the VGA video to my monitor. I tried using the DMI connection directly to my monitor. The system automatically noticed this and I was subsequently in 1920×1080 resolution. I then went about setting up VDPAU using the Avenard repo which has everything in very up to date packages. I restarted the system and I was then able to watch 1080p h264 videos! Using top (via ssh) I saw that my CPU usage was around 5% when watching HD content. Most impressive! Next I connected the box to my 52″ Hitachi HDTV via HDMI. Similar to my monitor the picture looked absolutely great. Initially the audio wasn’t working via HDMI. I had to add the following lines to ‘/etc/asound.conf’:
pcm.!default {
type hw
card 0
device 3
}
ctl.!default {
type hw
card 0
}

I hear with the release of Karmic Koala that this won’t be necessary any longer. It will just work out of the box.

I highly recommend doing a frontend only Myth setup with these Zotac Ion boxes. So far I love it. From what I hear they’re also very popular with the XBMC and Boxee crowds. I now understand why.

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