Friday, December 30, 2011

Asus AT5IonT-I, MythTV, HDMI, Debian squeeze = no sound

Grumpy, my MythTV computer, is getting a hardware upgrade. I wanted a fanless motherboard with onboard graphics, which severely limited the choices. Eventually I settled on the Asus AT5IonT-I which comes with a dual-core Atom processor, NVidia ION2 graphics, Gigabit Ethernet, all digital video (DVI and HDMI), one PCI-E expansion slot.

I later found out that the Deluxe version of this motherboard has a DC 19V input, so could be powered with a common laptop power supply, and run completely fan-less. Oh well ... instead I found that this is the first motherboard in the house that has a 24pin ATX12V power socket. While the socket accepts the traditional 20pin ATX plug, I opted for a new power supply with a temperature controlled fan (Antec Basiq 350W). The setup runs *very* quietly, especially compared to the previous setup.

Since one of the Seagate replacement drives showed up recently, I could build the new system without having to take apart the existing system. The install with Debian Squeeze worked reasonably well, with the only hiccup being my indecision on what I wanted the file system layout to be, and the need for building the RAID array with a missing drive. The AT5IonT-I comes with a RealTek GigE network adapter, which needs non-free firmware. One needs to jump through a few hoops to get the firmware file in place during the network-based install.

Migrating MythTV was surprisingly easy. I mostly followed the instructions from the MythTV site, and eventually moved one drive from the old system to the new system. After a few hours of copying, the files were on the new disk, and I could add the old disk to the RAID on the new system.

So far, so good.

Then the trouble began. The usual dance debian-style to add the non-free NVidia drivers quickly produced a decent desktop picture. I adjusted the resolution to 1360x768 instead of the default 1280x720 reported by my Sharp TV. Oh, did I mention that this motherboard has a HDMI connector? Sounds great. Though, there wasn't any sound. An extended excursion into the depths of ALSA, HDA, and HDMI sounds on Linux followed. What a mess.

aplay -l consistently did not show the NVidia sound card with HDMI. alsamixer always told me that "This card has no controls", so there was no SPDIF output to unmute.  Debian Squeeze comes with alsa 1.0.23, and a NVidia 195.x driver for kernel 2.6.34. Combine this with the setup of the AT5IonT-I  which has both an Intel HDA sound, and NVidia HDA HDMI sound built-in, and I could not get HDMI sound working, no matter what probe settings I chose, manually loading kernel modules, etc.

Eventually, I relented and upgraded the machine to Debian Wheezy (i.e. testing). It comes with alsa 1.0.24, NVidia 290.x and kernel 3.1.0. The usual apt-get dist-upgrade dance took place, which included a fun Perl dependency during the uninstall of libwmf0.2-7 failing on File::Copy (hence aborting the dist-upgrade leaving the packages in an inconsistent state) because we got a partially updated Perl 5.14 module set.

However, once that was all set and done, setting NVidia HDA HDMI as the default sound card in the Gnome Audio Settings, and adjusting the MythTV settings, I got crystal-clear sound. I also set MythTV to use VDPAU for hardware-accelerated video-playback, which substantially improved the video quality of 720p and higher recordings.

All of this would have been A LOT easier had I trusted my gut and installed Wheezy from the start.

A side-note on GNOME3:
What have they done to this previously really usable window manager? It's not quite as annoying as Ubuntu's Unity, but the default GNOME3 is merely pretty and looks good. Once one tries to use it, workflows that used to take one mouse click and a drag, now require at least 3-5 mouse clicks on different parts of the screen.
I can SEARCH for an app by TYPING its name in a search box. How brain-dead is that for a desktop environment?
It appears that the developers took all the ideas of MacOS and Windows (the ones that make you move the mouse a lot), picked the worst of both worlds and combined them into GNOME3.

Regular GNOME3 also interacts badly with the menues in MythTV frontend.

GNOME3 Classic with the regular menu structure is usable, and works fine with MythTV frontend, though if I encounter any more issues, I'm switching to another window manager.

If it weren't for MythVideo, I'd run MythTV frontend without any window manager...


After all this trouble Grumpy really deserves its name now. While this whole exercise took almost 3 days of elapsed time, it was a learning experience, so at least I got something out of it.

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