Why Home Theatre PCs rock

htpc media centre technology windows 7

About 18 months ago I built a Windows 7 based home theatre PC to drive my big shiny new plasma TV. I haven’t look back and I love the functionality it provides.

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What is a home theatre PC?
My definition is that it’s a computer with the ability to *record *and playback all types of media and is usually the main driver of content on a TV. For me that record functionality is the critical difference between a media player and a home theatre PC.

The basic hardware is:

  • a TV
  • a PC with a TV tuner and an infra red receiver
  • a universal remote control to drive it
  • optionally a wireless keyboard and mouse

That is my setup, I don’t actually have any fancy surround sound speakers or amplifier or any of that audiophile stuff. I have a 127cm (50”) Panasonic plasma TV and the PC that drives it I built from scratch from components I bought on the internet. This was the first PC I’ve built and it was intimidating at first but a good experience to have under my belt.

I run Windows 7 and think that the Media Centre software included with it is tops. I just use the free to air TV guide that is broadcast in the digital TV signal. I use Media Centre that to run everything – it’s the interface to:

  • live TV
  • recorded TV
  • movies – DVDs and Blu Rays that have been transferred to the hard drive
  • music
  • radio (rarely used admittedly)
  • YouTube, TED, other video on demand services
  • live weather observations

My main motivation when deciding on the HTPC approach was to replace a Topfield PVR (personal video recorder) that I had been using for about 18 months. It had started to play up – and by play up I mean it would randomly delete ALL recordings. It was also only standard definition capable and like a fool I thought there’d be a wealth of HD content I would want to watch and record on free to air TV in Australia.

The main advantages of a HTPC over a PVR is the additional things I can do with it – I have an extensive movie library on the local hard disk that lets me browse titles via the remote and simply play the movies without having to load the actual DVD or Blu Ray disk.

I have a Wi Fi connection on-board which lets me access the internet (driven by the wireless keyboard and mouse).

Using Windows Media Centre I can easily record TV shows – but not just individual shows, I can record a series of shows. So regardless of the time it is scheduled for, I can browse to ‘Masterchef’ in the TV guide and hit the record button twice and Media Centre keeps track of future scheduled shows and records them.

I can easily entertain my son who is toddler age with all his favourite shows – he’s not going to believe me when I tell him how there was no way to instantly pull up your favourite show when I was his age. You just had to watch whatever was on TV at the time, ridiculous I know!



What about Smart TVs?

Since I’ve adopted this there has been a push from TV manufacturers to ‘Smart TVs’ which are internet enabled. I think this is interesting for your non-technical users, but you’re locked into the content that the TV manufacturer is able to license or partner with in some cases. I’m also not sure how upgradeable the logic in these TVs is – imagine what the internet will look like in 10 years time, is the TV of today still going to be useful for that kind of content and interaction? With the HTPC approach you keep the TV simple – a big screen with speakers, and can then replace the ‘brains’ or upgrade them on a more regular basis if needed.



Is it cost effective?
I’ve probably spent more on this than a PVR that would ‘just work’ as appliances do. But I get more functionality so that makes it worth it to me.



Have there been technical problems?
Of course. It had to be stable enough that it was usable not just for me but my family. My wife reminds me that there are problems from time to time, but to be fair the previous PVR solution also had it’s fair share of problems.

The universal remote I have has two main profiles programmed – ‘Watch TV’ (using the HTPC) and ‘Pure TV’ which is just the TV itself with it’s built-in tuner. This second profile is a fall-back in case the HTPC crashed or had some kind of BSOD. It’s rarely used, but has proven useful when recording two shows and wanting to watch a third. The TV Tuner I have is capable of recording two different channels, but you cannot watch a third while that is happening.

Blu Rays have been a major frustration. I love the improved quality of the video, I don’t notice the audio so much. But getting them to reliably play in a Windows machine can shit you to tears. There’s too much anti-piracy DRM and encryption shenanigans going on there to make it a smooth experience. I’m not sure how people with Blu Ray appliances fare in this regard.



What would I do differently?

I only use the on-board graphics capabilities of an Intel i3 CPU and that copes fine so I wouldn’t change that.

I installed 4GB of RAM when 2GB would have sufficed.

I wish I had a better infra red receiver for the remote. The remote works fine controlling the TV from any angle, but for the HTPC I have to point it right at the I/R receiver and hold my tongue right for it to work.



Recommendations

If you’re inclined to have a go at this kind of setup I recommend it. Just research the components you want to buy. I went for a high quality Hauppauge TV tuner as I had read some bad reviews about cheaper alternatives and their slowness to change channels. I have had no problems with mine and glad I paid a bit extra.As always, reviews on amazon.com are pretty helpful.

Windows 7 Media Centre is fantastic, but supplement it with the Media Browser add-on if you’re going to store and playback movies or TV shows.

You probably won’t use the internet as much as you might think initially – you’ll quickly find it doesn’t look so good from 2 to 3 metres away in 1080p resolution (1920 x 1080). Over time though as more video on demand services are available this will probably change.

On board graphics are fine.