sTeVo Mythtv: total cost of ownership

Back in the beginning of 2006, I constructed my own Mythtv-based digital personal video recorder, or PVR, which Jodi nicknamed “sTeVo”. Many people found this amusing, and some people found it down right cool. Everybody asked me the same question: how much did it cost?

It was a $500 up-front investment in the hardware, about $150 of which was supplied by my parents in the form of a TV tuner card for the system. The rest was dominated by the memory and the hard drive, which totaled to 250Gb of disk space (SATA). At about 2Gb per 1 hour of TV, that gives me 125 hours of TV recording. I can backup the video to my laptop and compress it, taking my TV with me on long trips. I can access all of my music library over an NFS-mounted drive. I can even access photos and have automated photo slideshows running on the system. I can stream podcasts and vodcasts, and using Firefox I can watch Hulu. The value of the investment has grown over time, as mythtv has gone through several updates and added new features every time at no cost to me. The Ubuntu-based “Mythbuntu” installation is my current choice for the base system, offering superior setup capability and, of course, the Hardy Heron base system as my long-term Ubuntu flavor.

But what’s the total cost of ownership? By investing $500 in this project, have I saved money in the long term, as is the promise of home-brew linux-based PVR construction? The answer is an unassailable YES.

Let’s compare to TiVo, the obvious competitor for this project. As of right now [1], the TiVo service plans are ranked by the following cost per unit time:

  • monthly: $12.95/month
  • yearly: $129/year
  • 3-year: $299/(3 years)
  • lifetime: $399 for life

where “life” means “as long as TiVo survives”. The hardware from the company closest to my original system is the base model, offering 80 hours of TV in analog format (no HD). That system costs $149.99.

In the first three years, I spent $500 up front on the system. I have to pay a very modest fee for access to TV listings, which comes to less than $50 over three years (that’s actually a generous over-estimate). So let’s call the 3-year total cost of sTeVo $550 [2].

In that same 3-year period, TiVo costs $616.19 (monthly plan), $536.99 (yearly plan), $448.99 (3-year plan), and $548.99 (lifetime plan). At the present time, I have beaten half of the TiVo plans.

Now, to be fair, I’ve actually done better. My machine can hold nearly 50% more TV than the base TiVo. The value of my system is much greater, even if all you care about is having a ton of TV on disk. The user interface for TiVo is certainly superior, but the sheer breadth and functionality of Mythtv-based sTeVo is, in my opinion, unrivaled. And I totally, absolutely own it. It’s mine. I built it, and nobody can take that away from me.

What about in a few more years? In fact, let’s look at the total cost 6 years out, or in 2012. Just today, I added 1.5Tb of disk space to sTeVo for about $0.10/Gb. That’s incredible. I can now store more than 800 hours of TV on sTeVo, more than enough space to hold our favorite movies, TV, audio, etc. That drove the total cost of ownership of sTeVo up to $700. I also expect to pay for the listings between now and 2012, so let’s call the total cost of ownership $750 in 2012.

In 2012, TiVo (if it still exists) will have cost $1082.39 (monthly plan), $923.99 (yearly plan), $747.99 (3-year plan), and $548.99 (lifetime plan). That, of course, is just the cost of the base model. If somebody wants to upgrade, that will be another upfront cost on top of the original hardware purchase, costing approximately $200-$300 dollars. That drives the range of total cost for TiVo up between $900-$1200, and I think I’m being conservative on this estimate in favor of TiVo.

No matter how you look at it, I win. I save money. I own this baby, I built it with my own two hands. Ubuntu makes it simple to keep up with the latest trends. Even with the transition to digital cable or TV, a few free filters fixes that stupid problem. I have my music, I have my videos, I have my TV, I have my podcasts and vodcasts, all in one living room appliance. And I saved a lot of money doing it this way.

I encourage everybody to find a project and go for it. Try building a computer, or a solar power station; try building a PVR, or a music player, or kitchen cookbook computer. Innovate a little. You get to consume, but you also get to create something greater than the sum of its parts. That, inevitably, will be what heals this economy.

[1] https://www3.tivo.com/store/plans.do

[2] The cost of the video device – TV, monitor – is excluded from this cost. Of course, you have to own a TV to watch TiVo, and that’s no different for Mythtv, so this is a fair comparison. I did even better than a TV 3 years ago – I plugged in (recycled!) an old hi-res computer monitor, yielding something about the size of our old TV but with superior resolution.

By steve

I am a husband, son, and a Professor of Physics at Southern Methodist University. Physics may be my favorite thing to do, but I like to do a little bit of everything: writing, running, biking, hiking, drumming, gardening, carpentry, computer programming, painting, drawing, eating and sleeping. I earned a Ph.D. in Physics in 2004 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I teach courses in physics and the scientific method at SMU, and I love to spend time with my family. All things written in here are my own, unless otherwise attributed; don't you go blaming my employer or my family for me.