Sunday, May 03, 2009

HTPC

As an off and on project for the last three years or so, I have been building a home theater PC.  I have had very many ups and downs with this projects, false starts and missteps, and I have spent much more money than I intended.  But I have been quite happily using the final product for about three months now, and am ready to tell anyone who might be interested the full story for your entertainment and education.

When I first moved back into my tiny Auburn apartment, I decided to hook my desktop computer up to my HDTV.  I would game and watch downloaded videos on that setup while using my laptop for web browsing and school work.  I stuck with it for about six months, but eventually decided that using a mouse and keyboard for gaming while sitting on the couch wasn’t very fun.  I also missed having a full-sized monitor while sitting at my desk.  So I moved my desktop back to my desk. 

But I did miss being able to watch downloaded videos and ripped DVD’s on my big TV.  So I bought a PC enclosure that matched my home theater components and stuck some old PC parts into it.  Now I officially had an HTPC.  Since it was older hardware, I stuck Windows XP on it and used a program called Media Portal as my HTPC software, a nice open source package that can handle just about any video format you can throw at it.

It was about this time that I discovered the dirty little secret that your cable company doesn’t want you to know about.  They want you to believe that to get HD channels you have to buy their very expensive digital HD package.  Throw in their DVR service and you’re paying $100 or more a month for cable.  However in most cases you can pick up most non-premium HD channels with even basic cable, as long as your television has the right kind of tuner (called QAM).  Most modern HDTVs have these QAM tuners, but I had been an early adopter and mine didn’t have one.  But you can buy a QAM tuner for your computer, and as I just happened to have a computer to put one in. I thought that sounded like a fantastic idea.

So I quickly downgraded my cable package and ordered the Hauppauge 1600.  This card is a dual tuner, with one tuner that can pick up QAM or ATSC (over the air HD) signals, and another that picks up normal SD cable.  (As an aside, you had to be careful when you bought this particular card because there were actually two different product numbers with the same name, one which was ATSC-only and the other which was ATSC/QAM.  This isn’t an issue any more because there are better cards available, which I’ll get to in a moment.)  After installing it in my computer, I quickly ran into a problem.  While it performed well tuning regular cable TV, the old processor just wasn’t powerful enough to handle the HD.  At first I tried just upgrading the processor, but even the fastest one that my motherboard could handle wouldn’t cut it (I didn’t have high hopes that it would, but I found one for 15 bucks on eBay and figured it was worth a shot).  So I decided to upgrade the whole computer.

I decided that pretty much any modern hardware would be good enough, so my target was for everything to be cool and quiet.  I went with an AMD Phenom 9150e processor, which was is a low power quad-core, which I figured would be good for encoding while ripping DVDs.  I plugged it into an nForce 750A motherboard, which has a built-in Nvidia 8300 video card with HDMI-out, which I though would be fantastic for a HTPC.  This allowed me to go without a discreet video card which would keep things cooler and quieter.  I finished it off with RAM and a 1TB hard drive.  After all of these pieces came it, I assembled them and plugged in my TV tuner.  For an operating system, I went with Vista Ultimate because I wanted to use Vista’s Media Center, which I knew would tie in well with my X-Box 360.  Media Center will record TV, as well as play media from your video and music libraries.  I had to install several video codecs to get it to play all of my media files (which Media Portal hadn’t had a problem with), but I’m geeky enough that it didn’t take long to sort things out.

There was still a problem, however.  Media Center didn’t get along well with my Hauppauge tuner.  It wouldn’t accept the fact that it was an ATSC/QAM combo tuner, only recognizing the ATSC part.  While I could pick up CBS and NBC in HD over-the-air, I knew that I would be missing FOX, ABC, and the 2 ESPNs.  Through research, I learned that there was an update for Vista Media Center that would fix my problems.  There was only one problem.  The update, codenamed Fiji, would not be released to the general public.  It was only made available to companies that manufactured pre-built HTPCs.  I thought this was a ridiculous policy.  So, being a person of many resources, I managed to track down a copy of this update.  After installing Fiji, Media Center recognized my tuner, detected the channels, and everything was great.  Except for one other problem.  Vista would not recognize the remote control that had come with my Hauppauge tuner.  Having to use a mouse or keyboard was extremely frustrating.  However, as I mentioned above, the reason I had chosen Media Center was because of its tight integration with my X-Box 360, which I did have a remote control for (a Logitech Harmony 360, which I love).  So, for the next several months I watched TV through my 360.  This kind of defeated the purpose of the motherboard that I had chosen, but it was a working solution.

Using my 360 as a Media Center extender became frustrating after a while, however.  This was chiefly due to its very long boot-up time.  It took nearly a minute from sitting down on the couch before I could actually watch television.  So I began looking for a new remote which would work with Vista (actually, all I needed was a remote receiver, because I would program it to work with my Harmony).  Because I didn’t care about the remote itself, I wanted to go as cheaply as possible.  I just didn’t find a lot of good solutions, though.  What I did come across, however, was that Hauppauge had a new line of tuner out to replace the 1600.  And the new 1800 came with a remote that was designed to work with Vista Media Center.  This would also allow me to have a 2nd HD tuner, which would let me watch one HD channel while recording on another (previously, if I was recording in HD, I had to watch another channel in SD).  This sounded great to me, so I ordered one.  I enjoyed the dual tuners (actually 2 HD and 2 SD), but there was one little hiccup with the remote.

After I started using the HTPC primarily, I started noticing some weird things happening with my X-Box 360.  It would randomly turn on, and when I switched my video input over, it would buried deep in some menu.  And sometimes it would randomly schedule recording. After putting aside the notion that it was haunted and angry at me for ignoring it, I came to realize that the Media Center remote used some of the same IR signals as the X-Box 360.  This actually made me really angry, since they are both Microsoft products.  The only way around it was for me to put electrical tape over the IR port on my 360.  This meant I could no longer use my Harmony with my 360, but since I wouldn’t be watching videos or TV on it anymore, that would be OK.

But I had been using my 360 as a DVD player as well. Since I didn’t want to have to use my X-Box controller for watching DVDs, I decided to move my DVD watching to my HTPC as well.  But, not content just to put in a DVD drive and be done with it, I thought it would be a great opportunity to jump on the Blu-Ray bandwagon.  So I bought a Blu-Ray drive and installed it in the system.  For Blu-ray playing software I decided to go with Arcsoft’s TotalMedia Theatre because it works as a plug-in for Media Center, unlike every other player which you must run stand-alone.  But, of course, there was a problem.

The built-in video card that I had been so excited about when I bought it turned out to be slightly insufficient for playing Blu-ray.  The video was watchable, but noticeably choppy.  So I decided to break down and buy a discreet video card that would handle it.  I went with a bottom of the line Nvidia 8400GS.  This was almost the same card that was built in to my motherboard, but being discreet meant it had its own processor and memory instead of having to share with the rest of the system.  It was just enough to push me over the top of the Blu-ray hill.

This presented me with a conundrum, though.  Installing a discreet video card defeated the purpose of the motherboard I had selected.  And, although it was low-power, the processor I had selected was still better than the aging one in my normal desktop.  So I decided to make the swap.  Even with the older motherboard and processor, Blu-ray and HDTV still played fine with the new video card.

So that’s where I stand.  I have an HTPC that plays HDTV, SDTV, Blu-ray and regular DVD, as well as all of my downloaded video and ripped DVDs.  It took longer and cost more than I expected.  I also missed my mark of cool and quiet, and wound up with a desktop that has components in it that I probably wouldn’t have bought if I hadn’t intended them for an HTPC.  But, still, all in all, I’m quite happy and satisfied with how it turned out.

Now if I could only get it to play Hulu….

1 Comments:

Blogger Steve said...

I'm redoing my HTPC setup with Windows 7 RC which is fantastic at handling the newer hybrid Hauppauage video tuners beautifully. Windows Media Center in 7 just plain rocks. What would be incredibly helpful would be a posting of the clear QAM stations for charter in the area. I used to pull them up using the silicondust website, but apparently now it only wants to show QAM thru digital cable packages which I refuse to pay for.

-Steve

5/24/2009 03:27:00 AM  

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