What's the best option these days for building a home theater PC (HTPC)?
October 2, 2008 10:09 AM   Subscribe

HD-capable HTPC advice / help? I'm overwhelmed here... XBMC, Boxee, MythTV, Windows Media Center, CableCARDS, Popcorn Hour, Apple TV -- too many options! What should I build to fit my needs within a reasonable cost?

I should start by saying I'm plenty tech savvy. I'm not overwhelmed by the terminology. However, I've been putting off building an HTPC for a long time now and the longer I do, the more crazy software/boxes show up that muddy my idea of what I should do!

So, in my ideal world, here's my needs:
- Absolutely HAS to decode 1080p video without dropping frames -- from what I've heard a Mac Mini can't handle 1080p. I'm guessing then that a hacked AppleTV (which I see you can now install XBMC or Boxee on) is also not an option?
- I'd like it to serve as a DVR - I have Comcast Digital Cable, so I may need CableCARDS for this, right? I do have a Comcast DVR, and could live with using that instead, but I can't "copy off" my programming and archive it which sucks.
- I'd like it to also serve as a great media player -- I use XBMC on an original Xbox and I love that...
- Assuming I build something myself - I have no idea what a good video card is that has HDMI output and is reasonably priced. I don't really have much interest in playing games on it, so I don't need the craziest card out there...
- While looks aren't super important (it'll be in a cabinet behind frosted glass), it should at least have a case that will keep it running quietly (unlike Xboxes, which are loud as crap!)
- Future expandability is a big plus, but not 100% necessary as long as it fits today's needs. I love that XBMC is continually updated, has cool plugins, etc, but I'm not 100% married to it.
- I have a Logitech Harmony 890 remote that I love. I've got to at least be able to hack something together to control it with that.

Basically, a machine that runs XBMC and can decode 1080p, combined with a DVR, would be perfect. I just don't know what the ideal way is to build that for a reasonable price.

Then the HTPC world gets more confusing -- there are boxes out there like Popcorn Hour, AppleTV, etc that look like they either do a lot of this, or are hackable to do this stuff.. am I better off going with one of these? I see Popcorn Hour will even act as a NAS and a BitTorrent downloader, which is fantastic, but it doesn't seem to have any recording capabilities.

Any help would be sincerely appreciated - the vast array of options has become too much for even the finest google-fu given my lack of available free time.
posted by twiggy to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Tivo Series 3 fits your bill.
posted by unixrat at 10:13 AM on October 2, 2008

Response by poster: I don't think a Tivo will do all of my other media center stuff (like play my music, etc) -- will it?
posted by twiggy at 10:37 AM on October 2, 2008

Windows Media Center - Vista is your best bet. You may run into some trouble with DVR functionality and cable cards. You may want to check out the MCE forums (thegreenbutton.com). I personally record OTA HD.

You don't necessarily need a card with HDMI out. Any HDCP card with DVI can be used with an adapter.

Will easily play 1080p content, you can install a plugin like Media Control that lets you choose audio tracks, subtitles. Install CoreAVC if you want to play 1080p mkv files. If you want IR, buy the Microsoft MCE USB IR dongle, works great.
posted by wongcorgi at 10:46 AM on October 2, 2008

TiVo does play music though its interface isn't great for large collections. My TiVo is old, so I don't know if the new ones play 1080p video, though I suspect that they do not.

I use Vista Media Center for everything but TV recording and it works great. Be aware that you cannot buy PC-based CableCard tuners separately. You have to buy them from an OEM with a new PC. Ed Bott recently wrote a great series of posts on buying and setting up a CableCard compatible Vista Media Center PC. I don't know what the process for video extraction is on a Vista MC, though I imagine it will be DRM-crippled video if you can get it off at all. That may be good enough, depending on your needs.
posted by cnc at 10:50 AM on October 2, 2008

If you're tech savvy (as you say you are), I'd recommend going with the MythTV setup. It's got a large online community, plenty of plugins, and, most importantly, documentation. Personally, I'd give the edge to a customizable PC/software combo than a prepackaged solution like AppleTV or Popcorn Hour (though I don't know much about this last one). There are plenty of ways to customize a MythTV setup, and it won't quickly become "outdated" just because some company launches a new model of DVR XYZ.

Grain of salt: I don't personally use a DVR, though I did some research into building one a couple years ago (but I didn't really consider HD options).
posted by antonymous at 11:08 AM on October 2, 2008

The AppleTV hardware and software is ridiculously slick and stupidly cheap... but it doesn't do any DVR-type recording at all and is a massive pain to get working with torrent-downloaded television (if you swing that way) so I don't think it should be in your list of considereds.

I'm scraping by now with an old XP MCE box, a hodgepodge of download/convert/organize tools and scripts, and a non-1080 tv connection with an old-fashioned S-Video cable. It's okay, but if I was really starting from scratch and had all the time in the world to tinker, I'd build a box for MythTV, since it has so much interoperable code out there that you can hack together yourself.

At least, until and unless Apple makes a DVR-ing AppleTV that will play the common codecs. Then I'd happily save $1000 and 1000 hours.
posted by rokusan at 11:24 AM on October 2, 2008

appletv is really great.

i get a dvd, rip it (using handbrake's appletv preset, which works like magic most of the time), and add it to itunes. it shows up on my appletv all ready to watch. quality is great, and my movies are now backed up.

their rental system works really well in a pinch. podcast viewing on a tv is great, listening to music is awesome, and you can even use the appletv as an airtunes remote speaker (if you play music on your pc/mac in itunes you can have it play on your home theater speakers.

nowadays you can install xbox media center on it and boxee too. its not perfect, but its really great.

i have a coworker who loves his popcorn hour as well.
posted by kneelconqueso at 11:50 AM on October 2, 2008

I just did this. I too, was confused the abundance of options. Decided on Vista Media Center, and am more than pleased. I will describe my setup, point out its pros and cons, and you can see if you might like something like this.


Anything cheap will do. I bought a mobo with integrated sound/video/lan/etc, and it works. I threw the cheapest core 2 duo CPU I could find into it, and it decodes anything and everything just fine. You will want a LOT of hard drive space. And I recommend 2 gigs of RAM (cheap enough these days).


Vista. I used x64, but regretted it. No benefits, but additional headaches finding drivers, especially codecs. I would go with x32. When you get it installed, disable all the fancy graphics, indexing/searching, etc. You won't need any of that since all you will do is run media center.


The mobo I got came with a digital audio output header, but no dongle. So I hacked something together and ran the digital audio thru SPDIF to my receiver, which handles the ACS/DTS/Dolby decoding. You want this, if you have 5.1 or better. There is a problem though - you can no longer control the volume from media center for anything that is decoded in this way (more on this later).


Strive for digital connections everywhere. HDMI is good. Be aware that HDMI is the same as DVI, just with audio and some other stuff. I run VGA to my plasma TV (its a short run so the advantage of digital video over VGA is negligable). Be sure to set the resolution of your computer to your TV's native resolution.


I bought a Hauppauge HVR-1600, which can handle all forms of tuning (digital OTA, digital cable, analog cable/OTA). Be aware that you may run into issues with protected digital cable. This is a big problem. Read more in the above posts or on thegreenbutton. The only thing I use it for is digital OTA, and it looks fantastic, and covers most everything I want to watch. The HD is glorious, smooth, fast, etc.


I also have a harmony remote. It works perfectly with the microsoft media center IR receiver. I also got the blaster that came with it to work with my reciever, and now use that for volume control. It was a long and treacherous path to get that to work, send mail me if you want more details.


If you have divx/xvid etc videos that you want to play back, they will not work natively. I use FFDshow, which is awesome. It Just Works, and plays back anything you can throw at it.

There was recently a TV Pack released for Vista Media Center that adds a bunch of stuff. I haevn't intalled it yet, but you can find more info about that by googling. It adds some important features.

I think you will like VMC cuz it's close to what you are already used to with the XBOX. The DVR functionality, in particular, is AWESOME. I have done a ton of research with this stuff, so again feel free to message me with questions and I'll try to point you in the right direction.
posted by lohmannn at 11:54 AM on October 2, 2008

Also, check out the mediacenter tag. Lots of good info there.
posted by lohmannn at 12:12 PM on October 2, 2008

With cable, you have 3 options:
1. You can get a consumer box, such as the Tivo Series 3, which needs a multi-stream (2 tuner) cable card decoder. Comcast will tell you it doesn't exist, or that they don't have one available just now -- they do, but they are trying to discourage non-Comcast DVRs. So you have to persevere until they give you one. You can get some good deals on factory refurbished TIVO HD and Series 3 boxes (which are the same generation of TIVO) from the TIVO website. TIVO permit you to stream recorded programs to a PC (with an optional addon). Then you can play them using my favorite method, which is to place them on a USB external hard drive and play them back through a Philips DVP5982 1080p Upscaling DVD Player (this does play DIVX MPEG 4 videos, but I am not sure what format you would have to convert them to, to have them play in native 1080p, as I don't currently have a 1080p TV).
2. You can get a home PC and run a PVR on that, then stream to your TV. Dell are doing some nice hybrid PCs with integrated HDMI output. Unfortunately, their neatest design (the Studio Hybrid) requires a USB TV tuner (not good performance-wise - you tend to get dropped frames). The slim desktop hybrid only seems to have a TV tuner option if you select up to 4MB memory version (the up to 8MB option does not show a tuner selection, so I guess they are blocking the PCI slot that you'd need for this with the additional memory?). Their website design does not actually point you to any of their media center products without a lot of messing around, so see this page ... :-) You will then either need an IR blaster to set the channel on your cable box, or trust to Comcast's "timer record programming," which seems to automatically delete all of your settings every two weeks in my experience. A nice option seems to be the Hauppauge 1199 WinTV-HVR-1600 which includes dual TV tuners and an IR blaster trasmitter (to set the cable box channel) and receiver (to use a remote). It comes with a nice-looking remote, so this might be an option.
3. You can buy a PC with a cablecard reader, but it will cost you ($$). The cable industry protection racket certification group has set very costly barriers to entry which means it costs a lot of money for manufacturers to get their systems certified and up to the required spec. The only one I could find in my own search is the Dell XPS 420. See the links and explanation on this page. There is a good online forum discussion of how to get cablecards working with Vista.
Finally, be careful as to which tuner card you get. The Hauppage 1600 and 1250 both look like a good bet, but the 850 (the one I currently have) can only receive over-the-air signals and not cable.
posted by sgmax at 12:39 PM on October 2, 2008

What you want is not available. As detailed above, CableCards are not a reality due to the crazy requirements cable companies have for something to be "CableCard Ready," which basically translates to the one Dell machine that does it. Even Sony has a few HTPCs that are within the same price range but for whatever reason (probably demand) does not have CableCard integration. You can get non-premium channels in SD just fine though. In any case if you can scratch off DVR/capture from the list, things get a whole lot easier. I guess you can use the cable companies box to record it, and then intercept it and record that transmission, but it gets all very complicated very fast. I would recommend skipping your DVR requirement at all costs and accept you will have to always have a cable box / sat box for those types of broadcasts. I spent a lot of time on this and have other posts about my setup. Do not be fooled, this is still very much DIY, so you're going to be doing a lot of work doing simple things (like getting the HTPC to work with your monitor of choice, etc.) ... keep that in mind. Anyway here's my setup:

- Mac Mini 1080p will only work if you throw in 1-2GB. If you stream it helps to have a 1gbit network.

- PlexApp, aka OSXMBC, is my media player of choice. It is the only that supports 1080p of the XBMC variants that I know of. In any case, it works great for me because there's a single guy that pushes it along and any annoyances are quickly fixed.

- I'm a Windows guy so my acquisition and storage server are all Win2k3 and stream to my Mac box. I chose the Mac Mini because it was (1) pretty to have in the middle of my living room, (2) quiet, (3) did everything I needed it to. Similar form factor machines were either ugly or much more expensive. I didn't need it for storage or anything like that, and it is fairly easy for me to VNC in and do web stuff if I need to. 99% I don't leave the PlexApp interface.

- I have friends who have a Vista HTPC and while it works it is sort of "funky" and not as customizable as the PlexApp. To put it bluntly, PlexApp assumes its users are using media downloaded from the Internet and supports every format under the sun, works just like VLC in that regard. I even have VIDEO_TS sloppy DVD dumps and in the user interface it is the same clickable icon as a MKV file. I don't know how it exists physically on the file system and I don't want / need to know. Vista is a little more tricky, and it doesn't scrape the Internet for metadata.

- Dedicate at least 2 weekends to get this done and make sure you have all your parts and not a nagging girlfriend / boyfriend or friend event to attend to. It makes it both satisfying and easier if you can get the overscan problems, NFS access and all the other quirks that will pop up taken care of. The idea is when you come home you select "HTPC" on your remote and it comes up with all your movies / television shows you downloaded. Plus you get to throw a HTPC party at the end to show everyone all your obscure stuff.
posted by geoff. at 12:58 PM on October 2, 2008

Ditto geoff.'s recommendation of having a LOT of spare time to do this. You will encounter the most absurd problems and spend a ton of time troubleshooting and researching to hunt down the solutions. If time is limited, maybe that Dell box is for you.

The quality of videos/DVDs you playback from a media center (assuming all else equal) will meet or exceed any upscaling DVD player, FYI.

As a clarification on one of geoff.'s points about Vista not scraping data from the internet, it DOES scrape data for guide info, movies currently playing (on tv), and tons of extra internet video and radio content. It does not however, pull down info for stuff other than live TV (such as DVDs, or downloaded vidoes, etc).
posted by lohmannn at 1:25 PM on October 2, 2008

Response by poster: So it sounds like I just shouldn't bother trying to combine a PVR and a media center -- it just isn't done well ...

Also sounds like I'm on the right track as far as sticking with XBMC (or a variant thereof) for my media center bits... and I should just live with my Comcast DVR for DVR stuff...

Is that a fair assessment?

Thanks a million for the very detailed help thus far.. I really appreciate it..
posted by twiggy at 3:02 PM on October 2, 2008

For hardware, I would recommend a motherboard with AMD's 780G chipset. They can be had for ~$70-80. The onboard video processing will decode 1080i and I'm pretty sure all of the boards built with this chipset have built-in HDMI, so there's no need for a separate video card, which is great from the standpoint of size, heat, noise, and power consumption.

Pair it with one of the low-power (45W TDP) CPUs from AMD, like the Athlon X2 4450 and you'll have all the video and processing power you need.

You'll get less raw performance from an AMD CPU than from an Intel Core 2 but Intel boards do not have a chipset that compares for HD playback that I know of.
posted by camcgee at 3:49 PM on October 2, 2008

I've never used a Comcast DVR, but I've heard many, many horror stories. I love my TiVo and refuse to give it up. It may be worthwhile to you to upgrade to the TiVo in spite of the extra cost.
posted by cnc at 3:50 PM on October 2, 2008

You can certainly combine a PVR and media center, just not easily with digital protected cable. Do not overlook OTA HD. It really is impresive, and free. All the main channels (NBC, CBS, FOX, PBS, etc) if you're near a city.

If you're dead-set on digital cable, look into HDHomeRun, which lets you do it, but you have to buy the box.
posted by lohmannn at 4:34 PM on October 2, 2008

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