DesktopReview Guide to HTPCs – Part I

by Reads (5,149)

by Dustin Sklavos

While high definition televisions are proliferating like crazy, the hi-def format war has yielded its own casualties. HD-DVD lost the battle, putting the discs on fire sale. Blu-ray’s Trojan horse, the PlayStation 3, still hasn’t come down to a more accessible price, and standalone players are virtually without exception inferior to it due to the difficulty in upgrading their Blu-ray spec. And then there’s the digital broadcast changeover scheduled to occur in February of next year.

I don’t know about you, but no matter how much I love my HDTV (and I do love my HDTV), I’m disappointed in the ways available to actually take advantage of it. ClearQAM broadcasts are still hit and miss. Upscaled DVDs look nice, but they don’t compete with natively 720p/1080p video, no matter how much we want them to. And the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3? They share largely the same library of titles, but even at their best often have trouble pushing beyond 720p, much less 1080p. Couple that with how noisy and prone to failure the 360 is, how Sony patently refuses to drop the price of the PS3 below $399, and how expensive games are, and you find your shiny new HDTV without a whole lot to take advantage of it.

This would be where I come in.

The Media Center Custom

Media Center PCs have been on the market for a couple years now and with varying degrees of success – that is, completely unsuccessful to hopelessly niche. It’s not like the software isn’t there. The hardware’s there, too. No, what’s really held the Media Center PC back has been, again, price. Inaccessibility. And the idea of having a computer tower standing next to your television in your living room isn’t the most appealing thing in the world, unless you’re like my buddy’s family, whose juggernaut of an HDTV (I think it’s at least 60″) just dwarfs the tower to the point where you really don’t care.

Yet I want to make it clear here: a media center PC is absolutely the answer. You just have to build it yourself. And you know what else? What if I told you that you could build one for $500 (not including software)?

Let’s put the value proposition in order here: a PlayStation 3, at its cheapest, will run you $399. So for your $399 you get a Blu-ray player and a gaming console that’s had its backwards compatibility stripped out, leaving you with a fairly unexciting array of games.

For $500, you can have a player that plays both HD-DVD and Blu-ray, and is also, oh, I don’t know, a computer. It’s upgradeable.

Now I know the first question you’re going to ask: how the heck do I assemble this thing? Truth be told it’s gotten simpler and simpler these days to build your own computer and in fact, this three part series is going to show you what to buy, why you buy it, how to assemble it, and how to get it running. More than that, I’ll share my experiences experimenting and playing with it.

But I gotta be honest with you: we can do it for $500, but it’s really easy for that number to skyrocket. That’s the nature of the beast when it comes to custom computers, so it’s going to take some discipline. However, if you don’t mind spending up, there are some really nice perks that can come with it.

What Parts Do I Need?

To start off, any computer is going to need the following:

  • A processor, or CPU.
  • A motherboard. You can choose to get a motherboard that has video built in, or purchase a separate video card.
  • Memory, or RAM.
  • A hard disk.
  • An optical drive, like a CD-ROM, DVD burner, or Blu-ray drive.
  • A case.

It’s all actually pretty simple, you see? But you’ve got options. Additionally, you can get:

  • A dedicated video card.
  • A wireless networking card.
  • A TV tuner.

I’m omitting the dedicated sound card because we’re going to use HDMI as our connector of choice, and HDMI – provided you buy the right hardware for the computer – can carry the audio signal itself.

Recommended Brands

First and foremost, if we’re going to keep this cheap, we’re buying AMD and ATI. In a media center PC (hereafter also called HTPC or home theatre PC), we’re looking for efficiency, reasonable power consumption, and reasonable price, but we DON’T need a top of the line processor – that means Intel. AMD, which owns ATI, has been pushing for a “balanced” platform, and what this really means is that AMD’s integrated graphics pound the tar out of Intel’s solutions. Even if you don’t game, this point is important. In my experience, ATI graphics provide hands down the most complete HTPC solution. They’re more feature rich than their competitors, and in the case of integrated graphics, they’re faster.

Oh, and AMD’s processors are dirt cheap.

So this series is going to move forward with a strong bias towards AMD and ATI hardware. While I use Intel in my desktop, I’m not interested in it for a cost effective, well-rounded HTPC solution.

So you’ll probably ask: what about NVIDIA? Simply put, again, NVIDIA’s graphics hardware doesn’t compete with ATI’s in terms of the features offered and unfortunately for them, these are the features we need. ATI has had sound over HDMI on ALL of their video hardware for three generations now. ATI can do 1080p over HDMI. ATI offers superior picture quality and high definition decoding acceleration. ATI has better and more consistent driver support. And ATI has the best integrated graphics part on the market as of this writing.

This is a corner of the market they’ve been sneaking into, and it’s one of those few points where one brand is simply better than the other. NVIDIA’s forays here have just been playing catch up, and they’ve been half-hearted.

And as for AMD? I don’t need a fast processor, I need a processor that’s fast enough. AMD’s processors are incredibly inexpensive, and they have the benefit of being the only processors supported by ATI’s modern integrated graphics. AMD has put together a very compelling value proposition here, and as someone who’s built a system on it, I can tell you it’s the real deal.

The rest of the parts in the build, I’ll make brand recommendations on and leave you to it. Branding on these will be largely incidental, although if you choose to go with a brand I didn’t recommend, you’re venturing into the wild on your own. I’ve been an enthusiast for a long time, and there are brands that have earned my confidence. These are tried and true for me, and I keep going back and they never disappoint. In fairness, though, an HTPC shouldn’t be your primary system, and because you’re going to build this machine (don’t worry, it’s actually really easy), you MAY be able to fudge things a little bit, as you’ll see in this next section.

Parts You May Already Have

Upgraded a hard disk recently? Got memory laying around? You may be able to use it. Building this HTPC may also be a great opportunity for you to upgrade some of your existing hardware. When I built mine, for example, I had a spare 2GB of cheap DDR2 memory laying around and the old hard drive from when I upgraded my laptop.

Fun fact, since I know at least a couple of you may have wandered over here from our fantastic sister site NotebookReview.com: modern laptops almost universally use Serial ATA, or SATA, hard disks. Unlike older drives, SATA laptop drives use the exact same connectors as their desktop counterparts. So my old 160GB drive that came with my laptop has found a new lease on life in my HTPC.

While most of this series is going to be about building from scratch, if you have spare DDR2 desktop memory laying around, you can use it! If you have an extra hard drive collecting dust somewhere, this is a great place to get some more mileage out of it and save yourself some scratch.

I upgrade my desktop PC all the time because I’m insane and have no willpower, but the parts in it can happily trickle down into my HTPC.

One Big Hang-Up Before We Go On (And A Tiny One)

There is, of course, one major catch right now. While it’s true that an HTPC equipped with a TV tuner card can be used as a DVR, or digital video recorder (you know, a TiVo), and can pause, rewind, record, etc. live television, the impending digital changeover in February does kind of screw us a little. Microsoft’s lack of foresight with their otherwise stellar Media Center included in Windows Vista probably didn’t help either.

The major problem is that Vista doesn’t natively support ClearQAM, the broadcast standard used in the United States to run digital content over standard cable. This means that you’ll likely have to use the potentially shoddily coded, user-hateful, Engrish-riddled software that comes with your card. Vista’s Media Center will happily show you standard analog NTSC broadcasts, but ClearQAM is out. Given the changeover, it’s probably safe to assume this is going to change over the next couple months, and I expect this to be a part of the rumored bonus pack Microsoft is working on for their Media Center.

The tiny hang-up that I suspect won’t be a problem for most of you is HDCP, or High Definition Content Protection. The media conglomerates, coupled with an all too congenial Microsoft, basically dreamed up this technology that requires an HDCP ready monitor/television to play any high definition content flagged to require an HDCP connection. It’s my understanding that the majority of HD-DVDs didn’t have this flag enabled, but Blu-ray I’m not so sure about. Software exists to circumvent it but for obvious reasons I can’t recommend it here. HDCP isn’t going to be a problem on the HTPC’s end: everything I recommend will be HDCP compliant. If you bought your HDTV in the last couple years, it’s probably HDCP compliant as well. I’m throwing this flag up here more as a heads up that this fly in the ointment may decide to land on you, but odds are it won’t surface.

Video On Demand

I know this whole thing is turning into a great big advert for this service or that service, but I have to point this out: one of the nicest things about running a Media Center is being able to use Netflix’s Instant Watch service on my TV. While their movie library is somewhat questionable, their TV series library is actually pretty respectable, and both of these are getting better every day. There’s even a plugin available (albeit in beta) that integrates Netflix with Windows Media Center, and in my experience it works VERY well.

Streamed video from the internet doesn’t just have to come from Netflix either; video on demand services the world over, from Amazon Unbox to YouTube can now run happily on your television as opposed to your computer monitor, and you can watch it as it was meant to be seen.

Conclusion

A little crazy, isn’t it? Feels like a sales pitch, huh? Part of the reason for that is because this can turn out to be a stellar solution for HDTV owners, and it’s a way of assimilating all of these services on your own terms. I won’t lie: if you’d prefer to keep everything as dedicated hardware – a dedicated Blu-ray player, a dedicated DVR, a dedicated game console – that’s your prerogative and I support and understand it. But if you want an inexpensive swiss army knife, an HTPC could easily be the way to go.

In my next entry in this series, I’ll take you through a rundown of what specific parts you’ll want to pick up on your way to your shiny new HTPC.


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