Help me cut the cord with no regrets
February 6, 2010 9:50 AM   Subscribe

Having been humbled by a growing cable bill, and emboldened by articles like this and this, I've decided to return my cable box and buy a HTPC to serve up TV, movies and other content... Help me avoid some common pitfalls and make this an enjoyable and money-saving endeavor!

My current setup:

- HD cable box w/ movie channels and DVR
- Xbox 360 with Netflix subscription
- 50" plasma TV, Harman Kardon receiver, 5.1 surround sound
- Hava Titanium HD for placeshifting (I use this a lot when I travel)

My basic plan is to replace the cable box with an HTPC, saving money over the long term while retaining as much functionality and content as possible. Biggest concern is spending a bunch of money up front, only to find myself regretting the decision and sheepishly going back to cable.

What I need/want in from this new setup:

-OTA HDTV recording/playback capability. I have great reception where I live (can eyeball the Empire State Bldg. transmitters from my window), and an antenna that works. Would be great if I could record two shows simultaneously in the background while playing back other recorded content (or streaming video from the internet), just like a cable DVR, but not a dealbreaker if I could only record one show at a time.

-Similarly, I'd like to be able to run my PVR in the background, while enjoying movies or TV shows that I've torrented earlier. I haven't really gotten into rss feeds for torrents, but imagine that this is something that I could pretty easily handle.

-I'd like to connect an eSATA hard drive to the HTPC for recording OTA HDTV as well as collecting torrents and acting as a general media server for music, etc.

-I'd like to have access to all of this content from the road using my Hava Titanium HD (unless there's a cleaner option out there).

-Netflix integration isn't really necessary here, as I already have an Xbox 360 that handles that very well. I thought about just using the Xbox 360, but it can't record OTA HDTV, and that's a problem for me. I've also heard that Netflix prioritizes Xbox streaming over general computer streaming. I love the quality of my Netflix now, and am content to switch to Xbox for that... but if Boxee can do HD streaming on Netflix, I'll watch it there.

-Content: News, sports, movies, TV shows.

For news, I love Morning Joe on MSNBC, and sometimes watch Hardball in the evenings, but could see myself listening to NPR in the morning and watching the Newshour in the evening, so giving up live MSNBC isn't a dealbreaker for me. I know MSNBC has video podcasts now, but those are delayed. So I think my news junkie side will be covered under the new setup.

A bigger concern is sports. I love ESPN shows like "The Sports Reporters" on Sundays, and watch boxing whenever it's on (but I often timeshift that and watch on Saturday or Sunday mornings). The problem is that boxing is mainly on ESPN/HBO/Showtime. I suppose I can torrent the bigger fights and can also access ESPN 360, so I'm covered on some of that.

For movies, I have Netflix, and my cup runneth over.

For TV shows, between bittorrent and OTA HDTV, I feel pretty good.

My proposed setup is this:
HTPC: Acer Revo 3610
USB Tuner: Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-950Q TV Tuner Stick

1 TB eSata Hard Drive (not sure which one yet)
+IR receiver for remote control (although I'm considering using my iPod Touch as a remote control using Logitech's software)

Budget is $500, give or take...

My software plan is to run Windows Media Center for its PVR functionality. Ideal situation is for WMC to run in the background, recording one (or two?) shows at a time while I'm using Boxee to watch TV or movies.

Also, would be great to have the Hava Titanium HD connected to the computer (via VGA to S-Video connection / headphone jack) so I can stream content when I'm not in the living room or away from the house. That is, unless there is another, cleaner solution out there that I'm unaware of......

Main concerns/questions:
- is the Acer Revo 3610 powerful enough to handle all this?
- can Windows Media Center run/record in the background while using Boxee in the foreground?
- can the Hava Titanium be used for placeshifting under this scenario? is there a better option?
- what's the best way to control this system? an ipod touch? a windows media center remote control? using a mouse/keyboard from the couch is not an option...
- more generally, if you've tried something similar, what would you advise a newbie to look out for?

So there you have it. I need to cut the cord and make a leap of faith, capture as much content (as possible) as I had with cable, and not regret the decision...
posted by BobbyVan to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I dont think you need any help lol .

Since you have a 360 already i would say windows 7 as the operating system. Makes it easy to stream what you have recorded to the 360 .

Windows 7 also has video streaming available to computers of the homegroup .So if you have a laptop and its running windows 7 and so is your htpc you can stream video to your laptop as long as the laptop is connected to the internet. Does not have to be in the same house .

Also if you use windows 7 you can use any media center remote that you have. I have an old one from windows xp media center that works without no instalation needed.

I dont know about media center in the background on an atom / nvida 9400 box. IF your only using an usb tuner then the tuner might be using the gpu to record.

I know you can use media center software to record things and playback things while its recording. I am just not sure with two different software packages running at the same time.

I did use windows media center to record things in my bedroom before i got a dvr . I just like the convenience and cleanliness of a dedicated dvr.
posted by majortom1981 at 10:14 AM on February 6, 2010

What i mean is i dont know about recording something in the background while playing something in the foreground because of the specs of the machine.
posted by majortom1981 at 10:15 AM on February 6, 2010

Media Center will happily record even when it's not presenting it's user interface. So running it with boxee should not be a problem - although I've not tried.

Check out for loads of useful tricks and tips including what services to turn off, how to set up commercial skipping, adding links to Boxee on the main menu, adding codec support and good media library applications which look and act very much like xbmc and much more.
posted by mr_silver at 10:17 AM on February 6, 2010

Boxee cannot stream HD netflix, nor can any PC. HD Netflix is only supported on set top devices (360, ps3, tivo, roku, bluray players, etc)
posted by CharlesV42 at 10:31 AM on February 6, 2010

Just as to the HD tuner, consider the OnAir HDTV GT tuner, although it seems to be unavailable on Amazon. I use one w/ my laptop, and have great results, and my Dad picked one up after me, and has liked it as well. When I was looking for a tuner about a year ago, this was, at the time, one of the best reviewed options. Here's a link to a review:
posted by seventyfour at 11:27 AM on February 6, 2010

I know you said using a keyboard/mouse from the couch isn't an option, but what about a keyboard/touchpad? I personally find the remote control interface frustratingly limited even just for normal use, and you're still going to need a real keyboard on a regular basis for any "under the hood" work.

The Logitech diNovo Mini and Edge were designed specifically with HTPC users in mind, and are pretty schnazy looking, if a bit on the pricey side. Me, I went for the cheaper Adesso Slimtouch and am perfectly happy with it.
posted by patnasty at 1:21 PM on February 6, 2010

I user my computer as my primary TV with a cable box, though. I recommend against Windows Media Centre, though my reasons may not apply if you're not using cable: Windows Media Centre which I used at first would sometimes begin recording a show and then abruptly stop. I would get 7 minutes into a program and then have nothing more to watch.

After spending some time with tech support I was told that TV stations can send some sort of do not record signal with the show and windows media centre will stop recording. Basically it's DRM on a dishonour system.

I know use BeyondTV and it records everything regardless of what signals are coming through with the TV show. I have no idea if this is an issue if you're not using cable.

Also, I don't remember for sure, but you should look into whether media centre has restrictions on what you can burn to DVD if you should choose to do that.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 2:53 PM on February 6, 2010

A dumb question -- why isn't an HD TIVO with lifetime service an option? Connect that to your network and it can record 2 OTAs in HD with a simple antenna, plus do Netflix, Amazon video, and anything your torrent through pytivo. Only thing it can't do is send your tv to you on the road (depending on what your Hava titanium does).

It looks like you could get a refurbished one with lifetime service for 600.
posted by garlic at 9:50 PM on February 6, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the input.

Garlic: You did make me think twice about the HD Tivo. I would like being able to record two OTA channels, but don't think ESPN 360 or other internet streaming video would work on it... And while the Tivo GUI is pretty sweet, I like the flexibility of having an HTPC. But I'll continue to look at HD Tivo as an option.

Patnasty: thanks for the Logitech suggestions. I've got an iPod Touch, and think this might be cool also.

For others googling this, I can't recommend Paul J. Roberts' blog enough. I'm thinking of following his lead step-by-step.

At this point, my main concern is this: is the Acer Revo 3610 powerful enough to juggle PVR background recording (presumably through WMC) and Boxee HD playback at the same time?
posted by BobbyVan at 12:26 PM on February 7, 2010

Internet streaming (beyond amazon and netflix) may not work on the Tivo.

The reason I haven't moved beyond an HD Tivo yet is because every time I look into HTPCs, it's not clear what works and what doesn't, and if in the end I'd spend more time getting something hobbled together that works barely better than a settop box. If putting it together is half the fun for you though, than this can be an advantage instead of a disadvantage.
posted by garlic at 8:26 PM on February 7, 2010

This review might be useful to you, it covers using the Revo as a media centrer with dual tuners. However it isn't really clear on using Boxee at the same time. I'd also like to know if this is a vialbel solution.
posted by laukf at 2:34 AM on February 10, 2010

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