Building A Boxee TV Station June 1, 2009
With the mandated DTV date soon approaching, I got a digital converter box along with an amplified antenna and hooked it all up to my existing analog TV only to discover how terrible DTV really is. Given the soon-to-be obsolescence of my analog TVs and the deplorable state of DTV, I started looking around for alternatives (besides spending an extra $50/month on cable, of course). I ended up essentially building my own Boxee-based cable channel that I can watch on every TV in the house using an old laptop and VCR.
This is actually a very simple project; you likely have everything you need already:
- A computer; I used an old laptop that I had laying around.
- A VCR with an audio / video input.
- A video converter to convert from your computer’s S-Video / VGA output to composite.
- Coax to connect your VCR to your TV.
VCRs basically contain small transmitters that modulate audio and video NTSC signals, usually on VHF channels 3 or 4; this is why you can simply plug the VCR output into the antenna input of your TV. We’ll use the VCR to modulate the audio and video coming from the computer into a signal that the TV understands. You can also use a video card with TV out, but the VCR had three distinct advantages for me:
- I had a spare VCR laying around.
- Using the VCR lets me watch Hulu and my old VHS tapes.
- Using a VCR lets me easily hook up other composite video sources to my system.
If you don’t already have a VCR laying around, chances are you can take one off your friend’s hands, or pick one up from a thrift store for a few bucks. You can also buy a TV modulator if you want, but for a quarter of the price you can get a used VCR that does the same thing.
Before we look at hooking up the hardware, it’s easier if you install the software first. I used Xubuntu 8.10 as my OS; I first tried the more recent 9.04 version, but Boxee kept crashing. Everything works fine in 8.10 though. To get Boxee, you’ll first have to go sign up at Boxee’s Web site (it’s free), then login and follow the download instructions. They have instructions on editing your /etc/apt/sources.list file for Ubuntu distros, so just follow the right one for your release version and run:
$ sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get install boxee
Once that is finished, you will also want to install the proprietary drivers for your video card (if needed). In Xubuntu this can be done by navigating to Applications -> System -> Hardware Drivers:
With your software installed, make sure Boxee is running properly by starting it from Applications -> Multimedia -> Boxee, or by executing it from the command line:
The Boxee interface is pretty intuitive, but if you want help with Boxee-specific configuration options, visit the Boxee forums. Since my PC was going to be dedicated to running Boxee, I wanted Boxee to start automatically on boot up. For this I first enabled automatic login for my user account; if you didn’t check this option during the Xubuntu installation, you can set it by navigating to Applications -> Settings -> Login Window -> Security.
Next, I configured XFCE to start Boxee on login by creating a ~/.config/autostart/Boxee.Desktop file with the following contents:
Now that you have Boxee up and running, you have to get the video output from your PC to the VCR. If you have an S-Video output on your PC, you can build an S-Video to composite adapter. A friend of mine had given me an S-Video / composite switch box a while back, so I just used that (if you don’t have S-Video, you can get a VGA to S-Video/composite/VGA converter for less than $30 from monoprice):
You’ll need some adapters to connect your 1/4″ audio out line on the computer to the single RCA jack on the VCR. I found some adapters at a local thrift store for a few cents each:
Now hook up your computer’s audio output to the VCR’s audio input, the computer’s S-Video output to the VCR’s video input, and the “to TV” coax connector on the VCR to the “from antenna” coax connector on the TV:
Since my house was already wired for cable, I connected the coax out from VCR to one of the cable splitters outside the house so I could get my own Boxee cable channel that I can watch on any TV that’s hooked up to a cable outlet:
Most VCRs will have channel selection buttons on the front panel that controls the signal input channel; make sure this is set to the correct channel for your external input signal (usually this will be channel “AUX1″ or “AUX2″). Select your TV output channel on both the VCR (usually via a switch on the back) and your TV and you’re ready to go: