Zero to HTPC in 700?
August 10, 2009 5:59 AM   Subscribe

Going crazy trying to figure out my HTPC/media server options from scratch. Yes, I've been reading other threads but I'm a unique snowflake so there's

My husband and I are a couple of nomads with a handful of computers (desktops and laptops, 3 Win and 1 Mac) who will be getting our first real TV/stereo/etc when we move into a new apartment late next month.

I want to...
- Stream Netflix to our TV
- Watch other internet video on the TV (and stream Pandora?)
- Play locally stored video / music on the TV/stereo
- Have all our music (~200 gigs) in one place, plus long-term expandability
- Keep important files in one location for frequent backing up to/from multiple computers
- I don't care to watch network or cable tv

My budget is somewhat flexible, but I'm aiming for solutions around $700 for the media-serving part of the set up.

After several hours considering my options (though I admit I'm not experienced at this, plus it's way past my bedtime), I think my current best bet is: xbox360 + XBMC on an XP system* + (Free)NAS. Would 3 machines be overkill?

* I like the iphone remote! and for a few other reasons

Or ditch the NAS and put a bunch of HDs in the XBMC system?
Or ditch the XBMC and stream directly from NAS to 360?
Or replace the XBMC with a MacMini+Plex?
posted by itesser to Technology (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
What is the XBox360 for? Seems like it would duplicate the XBMC system.
posted by smackfu at 6:08 AM on August 10, 2009

Best site to get info - Avsforum. They have the best htpc forum out there.

Have you looked at any of the newer standalone devices such as the popcorn hour? We switched to a popcorn hour + dlink 313 when the popcornhour first launched. Previously I had a dedicated xp mce and vista mce box for htpc stuff.

I find the standalone devices to be a lot easier, but to be fair, that was 2-3 years ago..
posted by Lord_Pall at 6:24 AM on August 10, 2009

Mac Mini + Plex + Front Row + iTunes does everything you're asking for. If you watch the refurb store, you can find a refurbished Mini for $420.
posted by cdmwebs at 6:40 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: 360 is for Netflix + gaming. I may be over-reaching in assuming it has a good interface for Netflix.
posted by itesser at 7:25 AM on August 10, 2009

Be aware that you can only watch, rate, and remove what's already in your Netflix queue from the 360. You cannot add or browse things not already in your queue. This isn't a problem in my household, but it may be for yours?
posted by owtytrof at 7:46 AM on August 10, 2009

We use a single PC ($380) for our HTPC. Fairly small, expandable like any other PC, and has a HDMI out for the TV
posted by ConstantineXVI at 7:47 AM on August 10, 2009

Or ditch the NAS and put a bunch of HDs in the XBMC system?

I have a separate file server because the drives are a bit noisy, and I keep the system on all the time so I can access it from the desktop and such. Also, I use external drives, so it's not the cleanest looking setup. It lives happily in the closet and my HTPC stays in standby when I'm not watching TV.

I would strongly suggest looking into Windows Home Server. The backup support is excellent (for PCs). It natively does the media serving that the Xbox360 wants. And it looks like pre-built systems have finally come down in price. For instance, 640 GB for $299. The OS alone is $95, so that's pretty decent.

Or replace the XBMC with a MacMini+Plex?

Can the Mac Mini handle 1080p files? That would be my only concern in future-proofing a system like this. My HTPC has an E5200 which has no problem with 1080p.
posted by smackfu at 7:48 AM on August 10, 2009

MacMini now has an NVidia GPU, which should be able to do hardware assisted decode of 1080p video, assuming the right software support is in place. I'd guess that QuickTime takes care of that, but XBMC doesn't use quicktime, and only has GPU assisted decode for HD video on Linux at the moment.

I'd suggest ditching the NAS. If noise is a concern, look for ways to tuck it away using long video and USB cables. If you build your own PC, look at something with decent integrated video, rather than a separate video card as idle power consumption and heat generation is typically much better with integrated graphics.

I haven't been too happy with HTPC software options. But that may be because right now I'm looking for free software that I can install on an existing copy of XP. XBMC and Boxee both have their strengths but I'm not happy with options for Netflix or Hulu at this point.

One thing I will say, the iPhone or iPod Touch makes for a slick remote control with the right apps. There is an XMBC remote app that lets you navigate the menus on your phone. Also, I'm using HippoRemote, which takes advantage of the VNC protocol to provide a remote trackpad and keyboard. It also has "profiles" that provide handy shortcut keys to launch and control a range of apps, including XBMC, Hulu Desktop, and others. I've also been looking at one called Mobile Air Mouse that seems to offer tighter integration with the apps it supports.
posted by Good Brain at 9:42 AM on August 10, 2009

Can the Mac Mini handle 1080p files?

Yes, mine does just fine.

Regarding the mouse and keyboard, I just bought Air Mouse [iTunes link] for my iPhone. Works great!
posted by cdmwebs at 10:28 AM on August 10, 2009

I have a similar design brief and I'm currently running a windows 7 based htpc in a large (but quiet) tower chassis. I've been using most of the hardware for years, but just recently installed windows 7 (for netflix). I don't have an HDTV, nor do I have surround sound. I have no interest in cable/satellite PVR functions.

Pros: WMCE has a 3rd party plugin for netflix streaming, and supposedly official netflix support is on it's way. XBMC and Boxee work well (I favor XBMC), and streaming video from Hulu or other online sources works out of hte box.

Cons: It's windows, it probably sucks up a lot of power compared with made for HTPC options. The netflix integration options aren't seamless yet. network file sharing seems much slower compared with Linux (video served to my laptop now stutters when it played fine under linux), remote admin is a PITA, but that's likely due to my own personal failing not the OS.

Previous incarnations of my media box relied on Linux (ubuntu running xbmc) and it worked perfectly (after some fiddling) for years EXCEPT for netflix and hulu. Lack of streaming video support drove me back to windows after a long hiatus. If linux/ubuntu ever gets netflix working, I'd jump back in a heartbeat. However, if I were to start over from scratch, I'd probably go with a mac mini and external drives due to OS X (my preferred OS), footprint, noise, and 'seamlessness'
posted by gofargogo at 12:56 PM on August 10, 2009

Another option could be:

Have a simple external hard drive shared off of a router (such as an Airport Extreme) for music to always be ready for whatever computer may need it. Backups may be a bit more of a challenge because you won't have the speed a true server or NAS would provide, but if they're happening in the middle of the night, no biggie.

Build a HTPC to perform all other functions: hulu, netflix, downloading & watching video, XBMC. I downloaded XBMC and used it a tiny bit. The key is having a good remote and the resources to run it.
I find that a simple file browser and GOM player work just fine and use less resources. However, I have the dreaded corded mouse & keyboard floating around my couch at all times :(

Let the 360 just play games... I haven't found much of a use for mine besides that. I can find and play media much quicker from the PC.
posted by ijoyner at 6:34 PM on August 10, 2009

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