The Otaku's Guide to Building a HTPCby Justin Sevakis, Oct 9th 2008
For as long as I can remember I've always prided myself on having, if not the coolest, at least the most solidly functional home entertainment system I can afford. This goes back to my childhood, whereupon I would improve my family's entertainment experiences in a sugar-induced rush of cables and diagrams. (For the record, I only broke one VCR. Unfortunately, it was a high-end $500 model.)
For the last five years, this need has been met with a single convergence box, my beloved modified XBox.
My XBox could do it all. It could play DVDs, video games (old and new), emulators, and with the help of the amazing open-source software XBox Media Center, even stream from the internet. Perhaps most importantly, it could play whatever video files I had on my hard drive, right over the network. And if you're like me, you have a LOT of video files on your computer.
This was awesome. As an anime consumer, it did everything I could possibly ask of it: all my DVDs, all my fansubs, and even all my home-made video files were compatible with one single piece of nerdiness. As you can see, I added a few bells and whistles to enhance the experience further.
But five years is a long time in the tech age, and much as I love my XBox, it's not as useful as it once was. For one thing, its useful life as a video game console is over. For another, it can't play every file I throw at it anymore -- the new h.264 format makes it struggle; hi-definition files make it pass out entirely.
As the rest of the media industry marches into a new era, I found my set-up was being left behind. I wanted to play Blu-Ray discs, and get the new digital TV signal (since I don't really watch enough live TV to bother paying for cable or satellite). I also wanted to do things like watch Netflix streams and iTunes downloads on my TV. But all of these things would require additional boxes, shelf space, and power supplies. And I live in a small New York apartment.
See this? It's my HDTV. I bought into the game way too early, and ended up with this 150 lb. behemoth. It's nice enough, but doesn't offer any of the bells and whistles of newer TVs, such as HDMI inputs, 1080p, or even a digital tuner. (I swear I'll upgrade, but I'm waiting for the new OLED TVs...) Worst of all, it only has a single (component) hi-def input. So that means I would have to buy a switch box, which meant more shelf space, another remote, and another power supply.
There was one other option: a home theater PC.
What is a home theater PC? It's literally a computer that's made to look and behave like a set-top box. It can play everything a normal computer can, from Blu-ray to streaming video. It can play all my fansubs, and stream from online sites like Anime Network, Netflix and Funimation. It can also record TV like a TiVo. And after a little bit of research, it became clear that this was my only option.
So, I set off on a small buying spree, stocking up on all the pieces I would need to put such a box together. And, over the course of the next four weeks, I slowly sank into the fiery furnaces of hell.
Layer 1: Buying the Stuff
HTPCs, like any other computer, mean a lot of choices. There are several major "platforms" for home theater PCs, and here are the ones I was considering:
I won't go into all the specifics here (that's what Wikipedia is for). Suffice it to say, I wanted BluRay, and that meant Windows was my only choice. As for software, I liked the home-grown extensibility of MediaPortal (itself based on Xbox Media Center originally). I was reluctant to use Windows Vista, as I had heard so many horror stories about it, so I opped to build the device from an extra XP install that a friend was able to supply me for cheap.
Now, being a Mac guy, I had never had a chance to put together an entire Windows machine from start to finish, but I'd spent plenty of time fixing and reassembling them, so I figured I was up to the challenge. Besides, I knew plenty of people dumber than me that had successfully built a Windows box. I spent an evening on Newegg.com ordering parts. With both a tight budget and full high definition compatibility in mind, here's what I ended up with:
TOTAL: $580.50 (plus another $50 shipping or so)
I was really happy I had ordered everything off NewEgg, since the site does a great job of walking you through selecting compatible components. Since most of it ships from just a few miles away from me, across the river in New Jersey, I could count on getting it next day. Sure enough, the UPS guy drove up bearing no less than five different boxes. It was like Christmas!
Layer 2: AssemblyBeing the sort of guy to geek out over tech stuff, I quickly ripped into all the packages and started assembling. Screw in the motherboard. Connect the power, the front panel, the USB ports. Plop in the CPU and clip on its heat sink. Slide in the hard drive and the optical drive. Plug them in. Click the RAM chips into place. This was fun. No wonder nerds around the world enjoy doing this, I thought.
Then I got to the TV tuner card. I had neglected to check that the card was "low profile" -- shorter, in order to fit inside a small PC case -- and in fact, the card didn't fit at all. Oops. I ordered a USB-based tuner instead, and filled out a return authorization form for the tuner card.
I also found that I was missing a handful of parts, namely a SATA cable for the BD drive and an adapter for the motherboard power plug. No big deal, I thought, I'll just go to Best Buy. Best Buy was out of pretty much everything, but pointed to me to a mom 'n' pop computer store in my area that charged me more for those little pieces than I spent on RAM. Grumbling, I walked home and finished my assembly.
Everything else hooked up more or less perfectly. My HDTV hooked up to the video card through an adapter, but eventually I'll have an HDMI connection to use. I don't have a 5.1 speaker system (in a living room as small as mine, there's no point), but my hardware supports pretty much every system, if I get one.
There it is. Quite a handsome little box, if I do say so myself.
Layer 3: Broken Windows
Next was installing Windows XP and drivers for all the hardware I just loaded in. I've done this a million times, and it never gets pleasant. Fortunately the computer I built is fairly simple, and the only device that gave me any real trouble was the video card. ATI's Catalyst Software just isn't designed all that well, and I had to jump through hoops to get it to display on my HDTV (including having to guess where the "apply" button was, as it was off the bottom edge of the screen at times). Eventually I got it working, added Cyberlink PowerDVD8 (for Blu-Ray!) and codecs for common video file formats.
I kept an old monitor hooked up throughout the process, as trying to read PC text on my tube HDTV was a challenge that would probably result in long-term retinal damage.
Then it was time for MediaPortal. MediaPortal is the integrated control center of the home theater PC, offering the main interface, taking care of TV navigation and recording (sort of like a TiVo), and plays video files. It also offers a front-end to do other nifty things, like burn a video DVD of the stuff you recorded, launch emulators, and more. This all sounded real exciting when I read about it. The act of actually using the software, on the other hand, is about as much fun as taking a buzzsaw to your genitals.
I love open-source software, but I usually prefer it to be somewhere close to finished before I take a crack at it. This program takes over a minute to launch, has a set-up window with over 20 different tabs (some of which truly require a degree in computer science to understand), and an interface only a mother could love. It also crashes constantly. Few of the available skins look like they're supposed to, and while the program supports plug-ins, I found less than three of those that worked at all. (Installing THOSE was a nightmare as well.)
This isn't to say I didn't give it a chance. Convinced that surely I must've been doing something wrong, I kept hammering away at the config program, pouring over the MediaPortal tech support forum, and even tweaking some of its internal settings by hand. The program is the antithesis of its roots in XBox Media Center: an example of programmers cobbling together a program with zero regard for stability and usability. (This was not a beta; the version I tried was considered a "release candidate." I can't even imagine what this program must have looked like in beta stages.) After about 3 days of this, I decided I'd be better off exploring other options.
I started looking at what else I could use. GB-PVR didn't look much better than MediaPortal. Windows XP Media Center Edition had been abandoned for Vista by most of the world, and it didn't support removable subtitles (which are becoming increasingly common in the fansub world). SageTV had similar issues. I started wondering why I was sticking with Windows XP... after all, without Media Center, Windows didn't even have the driver necessary to use my remote control. I decided I should try my luck on the other side of the fence -- in Linux -- with MythTV.
Layer 4: Linux (is not) For Dummies
I don't like to brag, but I consider myself to be pretty darn good at computers. Among my Mac friends I go by the tongue-in-cheek nickname of "The Mac Whisperer," and am tech support to no fewer than 8 people. I'm not bad at Windows either, having built all of the subtitling and master control infrastructure at ImaginAsianTV during my tenure there.
One thing I am not good at, however, is Linux. It makes my eyes cross. I can't deal with having to go into a command line in order to install drivers or other software. Tarballs, apt-get, package dependancies and other everyday usability issues for Linux users are the stuff my nightmares are made of. On the other hand, it has a reputation for being rock solid. MythTV also has a strong reputation in the geek community. Undaunted by my own limitations, I decided to download a special MythTV version of Ubuntu, a Linux distribution known for being easy to use.
Installation went fast, once I figured out a few less-than-obvious options. A few minutes later I sat in front of my monitor, trying to figure out how to configure everything. I could find only hacked-together drivers for my TV Tuner. Installing it involved a long string of text commands, and compiling it myself. Feeling like someone who doesn't understand English trying to do my own taxes, I scoured the internet for something, anything resembling a manual or a directory for installing drivers. Adjusting the resolution for my HDTV was also daunting.
Days later, I declared defeat. I'm sure MythTV is a great system, but I'm just not bright enough to figure it out. Apparently it also kinda sucks at viewing certain kinds of video files too. Dual booting back into Windows to watch Blu-Ray sounded like a pain, so maybe this was a bad idea from the get-go.
That left me with one option. One lonely, horrible option. Bite the bullet and buy Vista.
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