hardware home theater Mac personal Windows

Home Theater Part 2: HTPC

I think I should start off with a note. I’m not writing this for any other reason than to geek out over stuff in writing. I’m not bragging or showing off or anything like that. I like to obsess over details, configurations and componants before I actually buy anything. Writing what I want to do helps me plan things out and make better decisions later on. It also keeps me from driving everyone around me crazy from taking about it nonstop until I finally take the plunge. Also, the choice of componants should clearly indicate that this is a budget system.

The interesting thing is that I wrote an HTPC post maybe eight months ago, but deleted it because it ended up being a hardware wish list and me bitching that the thing still wouldn’t do everything that I wanted, after spending close to a thousand (pretend) dollars. It was too hypothetical. Now, on the other hand, its a serious consideration. The landscape is different enough now that I get to completely revisit the subject. First thing is to decide what exactly this thing is supposed to do. Second is to look at my hardware and software options, including and out of box solutions versus building my own system.


Most of the HTPC setup that I’ve seen are heavily geared towards watching and time-shifting television shows. I’ve thought about this for some time and came to an interesting conclusion. I just don’t watch that much TV. Which is to say that I don’t watch that many TV shows that I would care to record or time shift. Even when I miss a show that I wanted to catch, I either have an iTunes subscription or can easily find a hi-def torrent somewhere. However, that’s not to say that things won’t ever change, so I’d like to keep this option open. TV tuners are available both as PCI cards and as USB dongles, so adding one later shouldn’t be an issue. I just have to make sure that it’ll play nice with the Harmony and with Comcast, preferably before I buy!


For me, this is the biggie. I like movies. A lot. I’m a huge Netflix fan, getting as much as I can out of my disk plan, and recently out of the Instant View as I can. I’m also a Boxee fan, and eagerly await fixes to some of the bugs that’s holding it down. I’m also in the process of rebuilding my old Quicksilver into a multi-terabyte media serving monster. The plan is to rip my DVD collection with handbrake stick them into my central iTunes library so I can access them over the LAN without having to hunt disks down. Since these are my own rips, anything that plays nice with iTunes shouldn’t have any issues playing them back.

The other consideration is Blu-ray. If I so choose, I can add a Blu-ray drive to a Windows-based HTPC. There are some ramifications to this. A Blu-ray drive currently requires Windows, as neither Linux nor OS X support the AACS DRM needed to decode the disks. Which sucks. However, the alternative is to rip the disk and perform some voodoo in Ubuntu, or run Boot Camp from a Mac. Neither solution is as elegant or smooth as just having WMC just running. I hate DRM, since it limits the things I can do and my options. That’s why I’m still keeping the PS3 in mind, since I can keep the DRM stupidity limited to the black box that way. In any case, I’ll want an HDMI port for the best picture and to complete the ACDP-compliant chain for BR playback.

Since I mentioned the PS3 and DRM, I’ll just point out that I have no intention of buying or renting any movies from the Playstation Network. Ever. Their DRM is positively draconian. I don’t care at all for Fairplay, but at least I’m allowed to back stuff up and restore for if (when) a hard disk fails. I should also point out that I don’t buy movies from iTunes, either, and I usually only rent the $0.99 rentals.


Since this machine will be connected to my central iTunes library, it’ll also have full access to all my music. This is fortuitous, since it will also be connected to my stereo! There’s not much else to say about my music, since its fairly mature. I’ll probably want to re-rip some of my earlier rips at a higher bitrate, since they were originally done at 128kbps and I now favor 320kbps. Having my music streaming from the HTPC means that it’ll be piped through the stereo, which is always a plus.

The other issue is movie and TV sound. If I don’t connect the HTPC to the reciever, I’ll want to pipe the sound there. I’ll want an optical port to connect to the receiver.

Other Stuff

There are lots of other nifty things than an HTPC can do conected to an HDTV. There’s MAME, huge web browsing, Netflix, Hulu, etc. I’ve been playing with Boxee, but its still in alpha, and it shows. On the other hand, its getting better and more stable with every release, so I imagine I’ll find it becomes a part of my permanent entertainment system in no time.


The Apple Setup

I’m primarily a Mac user and default to Apple products first. My temporary HTPC is my first-gen Macbook Pro, which has given me a lot of experience about what I really want and can accomplish with a dedicated HTPC. The problem is that Apple doesn’t make a dedicated HTPC (yet). The two obvious choices are an TV or a Mac Mini. I considered the TV first, simply because its cheaper and is supposed to be a dedicated set-top box. It has an HDMI port and is highly hackable, most notably via Boxee. However, its nowhere near as versatile as a full computer. Boxee can run Netflix instant viewing quite comfortably on a Mini, but not at all on the TV, because the smaller device doesn’t have the raw horsepower to decode the stream. The TV can decode HD iTunes downloads because of h.264 hardware accelerators for which no public APIs exist.

What I’m hoping for is an updated Mini that combines the HTPC features of the TV with the full computer-ness of the Mini (but with modern components like the nVidia 9400M graphics card).

The Dell Solution

I like the Dell Studio Hybrid. Its in the same price range as the Mac Mini, but has a few advantages. It was clearly meant to be used as an HTPC with an HDMI port and an optional Blu-ray player (which adds over $200, but you can’t get a slim Blu-ray player for any cheaper. If at all). It also comes with Vista, which is only useful because WMC is damned good. Plus, just about every peripheral I could get will work with it. On the downside, it still ships with the Intel graphics. Plus, it runs Windows, which, WMC aside, sucks and will eventually fuck up and piss me off. Boxee doesn’t yet work on Windows, but should this month.

The DIY Solution

The benefits of building your own HTPC are, of course, the same as building any PC. You can select exactly the components you want, and not have to deal with crap you don’t. This usually comes at the cost of integration and size. Those are dealt with by thorough research and artful cable management and by careful choice of case. I’m not going to go too in-depth about my reasoning behind the following list of parts, since it should be fairly obvious. The case isn’t the most powerful or extendable, but its quiet, smallish and it looks like a piece of home theater equipment, rather than a PC. The same goes for the processor. AMD gets its ass kicked by Intel on the high end, but I’m not looking for a octo-core gaming monster. I want a processor that won’t immediately kick the fans in, but can still handle HD content without trouble. In that, AMD excels. The X2 BE-2300 is a 64 bit, 1.9GHz dual-core processor that consumes 45 watts! That’s damn impressive. Low power means lower energy costs, but more importantly, less heat, which means less fan noise. The Antec case has some good air flow management and three 120mm fans, which spin slowly, generating less noise.

Proc: AMD Althon X2 BE-2300 $34.99

Mobo: As
us M2N68-VM
with HDMI $66.99

RAM: Corsair 4GB (2x2GB) $69

HDD: WD Caviar 1TB with 5-year warranty $119.99

Optical: Lite-On 4x Blu-ray $89.99

Case: Antec Fusion HTPC Case $174.99

Video: On-board

Sound: On-board

Of course, there are other miscellaneous parts, but these are the biggies. This configuration leaves both PCI slots on the motherboard open, so I can add something like a tuner card or eSATA later. The case also has room for a second hard drive. 1.5TB drives are coming down in price, so I might splurge for one of those. It might also be interesting to boot Windows from a flash drive, and leave the hard disks open for more media.

Clearly, a DIY HTPC is the most fun and quickly becomes the most powerful. If I was to build this machine today, I’d probably test install it with the Windows 7 beta, and see how well that works. Depending on how stable the configuration is, I’d probably just leave 7 on there until I can get a retail copy. Otherwise, I’d just load Vista and wait until I can upgrade to Win7 final.

The interesting thing is that this configuration costs 573.91, which is ~$20 cheaper than the Mini and ~$130 more than the base Hybrid, but is significantly more capable than each (adding a Blu-ray drive to the Hybrid adds $200). That ignores shipping and tax, but prices change often enough that doing exact comparisons is a waste of time.

The reason why I’m only considering Macs or Windows is because Linux won’t easily work with iTunes or Blu-ray. There are a couple of really cool Linux media centers, but they all require more work than I’m really willing to put into this. Windows will work with a minimum of effort on my part. This machine needs to be rock-solid and need as little post-setup configuration as possible, almost appliance-like. I don’t think I can pull that off with Linux right now.

So, I’ll have a much better idea of where I stand after the Philnote on Tuesday. In any case, I have a really good idea of what I’m going to be spending my tax return on!

hardware home theater personal

The Future of my Home Theater

So after my last post, here’s where things stand now. The Olevia is still standing tall and proud. The cheapo upscale DVD player is holding up admirably, and the PS3’s gone. That’s OK, it was always going away, and that just makes it easier to hook up my Macbook Pro without having to juggle too many cables (and that DVi-HDMI adaptor). Plus, my Logitech Harmony 880 rules over the whole system like Sauron and his One Ring. While this setup is great for watching TV and Netflix, both DVD and streaming, there is a noticeable lack of HD content. Right now, my most reliable sources of HD content are the local OTA stations which broadcast in HD, and the latest season of Supernatural, which I’ve been downloading in HD .mkv format from the Pirate Bay. (I buy the DVD set and don’t feel the need to buy episodes from iTunes and pay again for the DVDs.) Oh, and various HD video podcasts from Revision 3, the Hubblecast HD and the Hidden Universe HD. Those last two are really great and if you’re at all into space science and astronomy are must-sees. Clearly, there’s lots of HD content that I’m not getting, so there’s more work to be done. So here’s my post-Christmas, but pre-Macworld plans of where I want to go with my setup.

What I’m NOT going to do

I’m not going to get Comcast HD. They charge way too much and their HD looks like shit. When you compare Comcast with OTA HD, OTA is by far superior. I’d rather not pay much more and lose what I already have, or have to do some cable-splitting hack where the Comcast box goes to the composite, while the unencrypted cable or antenna go right into the TV’s tuner. That’s too much work, too much hassle, and too much money. Fuck Comcast. If there was some way to get Discovery, Animal Planet, History, etc without poking my eyes out, that would be awesome, but they look good enough right now, and if I really want them in HD, there’s the DVD, Netflix or TPB.


The speakers on the Olevia aren’t bad. In fact, they’re much better than the speakers in the old TV. But, the fact remains that a 5.1 system is just that much better. I’m not an audiophile, and so just like the fact that I can’t tell the difference between 720 and 1080 on a screen that’s smaller than 50″, I can’t hear the difference between systems that are “good enough.” To that end, I’m looking at three low-ish to mid-range 5.1 audio systems. The power output on all three systems is similar and the only real differences between them, at least from my perspective, is the array of ports. I suppose I could always go the route of buying my audio componants seperately, but I have my doubts that I could build a comperable system for less money that sounds that much better than a system in a box.

The Sony HTDDWG700 is the least expensive and has the fewest ports of the bunch. It has no HDMI, and only a single optical and single coaxial audio in, as well as an AM/FM tuner and dedicated iPod dock port (proprietary, not USB) and RCA audio. It sounds good, but I’m clearly limited in what I can attach to it and there’s no room for expansion. Again, not bad, but I don’t want to spend $199 on something that I’ll likely want to replace if I add a few more content sources. I could route everything into the Olevia, and use its optical out to connect to the reciever, but that still limits my options.

I’ll probably buy it if it drops to $150 or less.

The Pioneer HTP-2920 is better than the Sony, with more audio inputs, but no HDMI. It is more powerful, but slightly. Its slightly more expensive than the Sony, but not too much at $220.

The Yamaha YHT-390BL is clearly the best of the bunch, even though its almost twice as much as the Sony. It has two HDMI in, two optical and coaxial audio in and a bunch of composite and RCA in. I can also buy the reciever itself for $199. This is the one I want, bar none. It retails for $349 at Amazon and $369 at Best Buy. There’s probably a price point that’ll make me jump, but I can’t say for sure what that might be. In the end, this will probably be the system I buy, simply because its that much more capable and more future-proof than the other systems. It makes more sense to me to wait and buy the better system that I’ll be more happy with for a longer period of time.

We’ll see though.

HD Video

Here’s the meat of the issue. Quality surround sound really brings the experience home, but that doesn’t count for too much without the video. There are three methods of getting HD content onto the TV that I’m looking into: OTA, Blu-ray, and the Internet. The local stations here in San Francisco all broadcast in SD and HD. For example, Fox SD is channel 2 and Fox HD is channel 2-1. Not every station is that simple, like the CW, which is channel 12 on cable, but is TV 44, so the HD channel (even on cable) is 44-1. Not the most intuative setup, but easy enough to figure out. Plus, the remote allows me to program channels, so its just a single button away now.

The other two HD sources, Blu-ray and Internet are more complicated mainly because of the componants involved. Since there’s not really an all in one solution, the setup that will give the features and flexibility that I want basically require some sort of home theater PC.

The Blu-ray issue is easier to deal with on its own. A stand-alone player is out of the question for two reasons. First, they’re too expensive. There’s no good reason why disc players should start at $299 and go up from there. Ignoring audio/videophile equipment, which is always overpriced, I just can’t justify that price to myself, let alone Nicky. I think if I do go the stand-alone route, the obvious and only answer is a PS3.

The other solution, an HTPC, is so complex itself that I’m just going to stop here and finish tomorrow, since this is already long enough.