The Audio Critic
Home Theater BIG Screen, 2000 watts
MP3's v.s CD's, DTS v.s Dolby and other Stuff
Macrovision and how you can avoid it
Read this article for some Sound Advice
Build your own set of biline speakers
Spherex 5.1 (Home Theater in a box) Speaker Review
Proview RX-326 32" LCD HDTV Review
LG LDA-371 DVD Player Review
A Computer for the Living Room, a look at HTPC's
ATSC: what is it and why should you care
Boxee Box Review
A Computer for the Living Room, a look at HTPC's
So what is a HTPC?
A Home Theater PC, or HTPC for short, is a personal computer connected to a television. The purpose of being connected to the Television can be numerous and It's often used as a digital photo, music, and video player, or as a gaming device. Some users even add a TV tuner card that will allow an HTPC to record television as well. Microsoft has even released a purpose specific OS to address these units known as Windows XP Media Center Edition and the MCE is included with Windows Vista Premium and Ultimate versions.
HTPC's need to overcome a few annoyances to gain a foothold in most peoples Living rooms and the three primary issues are:
Computers have hardware that needs cooling, so fans are usually involved and fans make noise and that's not including the noise from Hard-drives and optical readers!
- Large Ugly cases
Most computers are big ugly and beige, now throw in the thirty or forty wires you will also need to connect everything, well you get the general problem.
- Ease of use
Most of the population doesn't remember how to program a VCR so throw in the set-up and configuration of a computer along with the usual equipment required and I see a few hairs being pulled out.
Those are fairly large obstacles to overcome so why would anyone want a HTPC?
The question depends on what you currently use your entertainment system for, if you primarily watch DVD's from a rental store or from your own collection then I don't see a HTPC in your future. Many of you will have heard about or seen the DivX logo on your new DVD player. The simplest explanation I can give about DivX is it's the video equivalent of a Mp3, DivX allows for a very high quality file that is much smaller than the original source. In fact many users on the internet are recording Television programs and sharing them using DivX compression. Now this is where some of the issues arise because not everyone encodes the same way or at the same bitrate. DVD Players that play DivX files do have some limitations and won't play everything thrown at them and even if the file plays it may have other issues. In fact a special purpose CD has been complied called the DivX Test CD it can be found at divxtest.com, the videos have been encoded in a number of video and audio formats with files to test the most common types of pictures and subtitles.
Possible Audio/Video formats you may encounter:
- Audio/Video Containers
Let's clarify exactly "What an Audio/Video container is", to avoid any misunderstandings. A container It is NOT a video or audio compression format (video codec)
Containers are a virtual envelope for which there can be many audio, video and subtitles streams, allowing the user to store a complete movie with the audio streams and subtitles in a single file, you will encounter various containers and the most common ones are listed below:
- Audio/Video Codecs
A codec consists of an encoder to create the file and a decoder that allows us to view the file, originally only a handful of codec's existed but as CPU's gained speed the compression technology used grew much more advanced so now there are literally hundred's of codecs. In fact one of the issues is finding the correct decoders to play certain files. A common thing to see now are "Codec Packs" where all the commonly used codecs are collected and assembled into a package that can be installed one such package is the CCCP or the "Combined Community Codec Pack" which supports the following formats:
- Container formats:
AVI, OGM, MKV, MP4, FLV and TS
- Video codecs:
MPEG-2, DivX, XviD, H.264/MPEG-4 AVC, WMV9, FLV1, Theora, and Generic MPEG-4 ASP (3ivx, lavc, etc.)
- Audio codecs:
MP1, MP2, MP3, AC3, DTS, AAC, Vorbis, LPCM, FLAC, TTA and WavPack
I'm Confused what do I need to view my file?
Well you'll need the proper decoder for both the video portion and the audio portion, but wait how do you know which encoder was used you're asking. Well we can run the file through a program designed to determine which encoders were used and I use the "Codec Information Appliance" called "Gspot". If this all seems complicated it's not as bad as it seems, in fact the reason I'm giving you so much information is to make the point that even if your file says DivX or Xvid it may not work with your current DVD Player due to the numerous revisions of the codec's, and to illustrate that a file labeled as an .AVI may contain number of possible Audio/Video streams so assuming it will play simply due to the file extension is not a great plan.
Screen formats also complicate the playback chain
The world has two distinctly different broadcast standards NTSC or PAL/SECAM and along with these standards we are dealing with the HDTV standards of 480P, 720P, 1080i and recently 1080P this means files can have 20-30 Frames per second and the screen resolution can vary from 320×240 on the low end to a CPU crunching 1920×1080 at 1080P. Again not all DVD Players can play all the formats and when you factor in that not all Televisions support everything you can have a number of files that will not play period.
The Computer to the rescue
A computer can handle any file format regardless of the variables and output the video to whatever your television requires and that means through digital as well as analog interfaces. DVI to HDMI cables allow for digital direct playback form your computer and the computers superior filters and processing can modify the screen resolution to a smaller or larger format with a quality that will outperform almost every other solution at a fraction of the cost. The only caveat is a fairly fast processor is required to work with file above 1280x720 or 720P, in fact a 2.4 Ghz or higher will be required to play files at this resolution smoothly.
Watch and Record Television
The inclusion of a TV Tuner Card such as the ATI All-in-Wonder line or perhaps an external device such as the Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-USB2. These devices allow you to Watch, Pause and Record TV on your PC, in a window or full screen, record your TV shows and home movies to disk using hardware/software MPEG-2 compression with selectable formats from 2 Mbits/sec to 12 Mbits/sec, which is DVD quality. Also most devices allow you to pause your live TV shows and replay them at later time!
DVD, HD-DVD and Blu-ray Playback
A PC can also playback any of these formats providing certain conditions are met obviously you will require a minimum of a DVD optical reader for DVD's and since on my last check they were included by default with almost every PC this certainly isn't an issue. The actual playback software might be an issue depending on the OS in use and you may need to purchase something like Cyberlink's PowerDVD, note that you'll need the PowerDVD Ultra for the HD-DVD and Blu-Ray playback. To be able to playback HD-DVD disks you can purchase the Xbox 360's external HD-DVD drive for a mere $199 and it can be used with a PC. Blu-ray at the moment is a little harder to locate but with the recently announced drive from Pioneer the BDC-S02 which is a combined CD/DVD recorder and Blu-Ray reader for $299
Now the last issue is related to the use of remote controls, obviously the need to control the devices required for playback is usually a priority and using a PC throws a new curve into the mix. There are actually quite a few remote control possibilities if you decide to use the PC and the advent of the wireless keyboard and mouse may negate the need for any of the possible remotes you can purchase as long as the range of the wireless mouse and keyboard are within the viewing area. If you still need a remote you can often find ones that are supported by the Windows MCE edition and a more interesting solution is the Media kit and remote control offered with certain cases designed for use as HTPC's. One such case is produced by a company called SilverStone and I purchased the SilverStone GD01MX, and you can read my full review on this case by clicking Here.
The cost factor!
As I have mentioned the HTPC's are capable of performing multiple tasks and can virtually playback any format available today and whatever may be released in the future. The cost to convert an exiting PC or to built a HTPC from scratch should not cost you more than around $999 unless you include some rather extravagant hardware choices. The last time I checked the cost for the basic equipment required to try and equal what a HTPC can playback would cost several times more than the build price for your HTPC.
I'm convinced what parts should I be considering?
I have obviously considered building a HTPC and I recently gathered the parts required to build my HTPC and I promptly discarded the LG LDA-371 DVD Player that I was using as my main playback choice. I initially thought this might have been a mistake but after performing a few side by side comparisons of the same files played from the LG or the HTPC I quickly realized the advanced processing capabilities of the HTPC was rendering a much brighter detailed image with better colours than the LG in fact the differences were quite pronounced and the washed out dark images from the LG made me check my connections twice just to ensure the differences were not due to a bad cable or connection!
Sorry about that I was supposed to be describing some parts choices
I suggest you start with the following minimum requirements for running Windows XP and if you choose to run Windows Vista you should double the memory.
This suggestion may seem odd at first but try and use a motherboard that uses an intel chipset this also means you should use an Intel CPU and the new Dual-Core otherwise known as Core 2 Duo are a great starting point. Note I have no issue with AMD Cpu's but my logic is based on my experience with chipsets, many non-intel chipsets have little problems that creep up and can cause major issues with some devices such as optical drives. In fact I have had issues with SiS, ATI and VIA chipsets in the past. I have no evidence that the newest chips will have any issues but my logic is simple, Intel makes chipsets for the Intel Cpu's and they have the time to fully test the parts to ensure no issues creep out the door.
Hard-drive space is ultimately up to you but since the bottom end is now 160Gb it makes sense to start here but look for drives that have a 7,200 rpm and fairly large on-board cache, 8Mb or larger is good.
Memory is easy, for Windows XP you'll need 1 Gig of ram and other than ensuring the rated speeds match your CPU/Chipset purchase you should be aware that using two 512Mb modules is faster than using a single 1 Gig due to the way memory is accessed.
Video card, I suggest a card with a minimum 256Mb of memory and it should have at least one DVI port if you intend on using DVI or a DVI to HDMI cable with your television.
Optical Drives are a mixed bag and for a DVD reader almost any brand will work fine, I prefer Pioneer devices. For the HD-DVD and Blu-Ray it's still to early to make any clear recommendations other than look for a drive from a manufacturer you feel confident in.
PVR (Personal Video Recorder) features, either go for a ATI All-In-Wonder type of solution if you have no plans to record a Macrovision signal (read more Here) if you plan on adding a stand-alone device I suggest you look at any of the fine Hauppauge products which are available as internal and external USB formats.
The last part and perhaps the most difficult decision to make is the Case that will be holding the parts for your HTPC. I have no real specifications to offer just some advice. The case must be large enough to contain all the devices you'll want to use and it should contain a power supply rated for around 400 Watts (and it must support your CPU and Motherboard connector type). The look of the case it entirely a personal choice and there are many choices you can make I favored a case specifically designed for a HTPC system (as mentioned previously) I decided to purchase the SilverStone GD01MX, and you can read my full review on this case by clicking Here.
Obviously you can purchase the parts and built a custom HTPC or you can purchase packages that have been created using Windows
XP/Vista Media Center Edition these will include everything you need to get you started using your HTPC without worrying about making selections. Either way I predict that HTPC's will continue to make gains into our living rooms replacing the numerous devices we currently use to allow a true seamless interface between live, recorded and downloaded content that will be accessible at our fingertips. I of course failed to mention the many other practical uses for the HTPC such as showing your digital photos but I'll assume you know that anything you can do now with a PC can still be done with a HTPC. So what are you waiting for start building your HTPC!
The photo below is what my HTPC enabled living room looks like and if you are interested I have full reviews of each piece you see in the photo (see the list below). The monitor and keyboard are off to the side so that's why you don't see them in this photo, I basically purchased a 10 foot extension for the video cable for $29 and since the keyboard and mouse is wireless it really lets you be creative with the placement options in fact the little black device next to the answering machine on the shelf on the right side above the scanner is the receiver (click on the photo to enlarge it). I will also mention the image on the TV is the desktop wallpaper and the Television is set up as an extended desktop and is monitor '2'.
Most of the items in the above photo have been reviewed so here is a full list in case you wish to read further about any items of interest.