Can you help me decide how to build my home theater?
November 13, 2010 12:08 AM   Subscribe

Yet another Can you help me decide how to build my home theater question

I'm looking to finally put together a "real" living room home theater setup and would appreciate some recommendations on equipment, configurations, setup, etc. I have read all the previous askmefi questions regarding home theater posted in the last 12 months, but Im hoping to accomplish what I want with the equipment I have.

Here are my requirements:
  • R1 - Ability to watch Blu-ray movies
  • R2 - Ability to watch DVD movies
  • R3 - Ability to watch videos (movies, tv episodes, etc) ripped from DVD to file system (i.e. in VIDEO_TS and AUDIO_TS folders; NOT converted to AVI/MP4/WMV, etc)
  • R4 - Ability to watch videos in AVI/WMV/MP4 containers
  • R5 - Ability to watch videos in MKV containers
  • R6 - Ability to watch streaming Netflix, Hulu, etc
  • R7 - Reuse what equipment is decent but willing to spend up to $1000 total if it will make a big difference
  • N1 - No need to record TV shows/movies (a la Tivo)
  • N2 - No need to watch HD TV from over the air (not available in my city)
Here is all the equipment I currently own:
  • E1 - Vizio VO420E 1080p HDTV
  • E2 - Sony Playstation 3 (60GB non-slim 2006 Launch model - wireless G only)
  • E3 - LG 5.1 Surround Sound System (cheap crappy one; sorry, dont know the model #)
  • E4 - Windows 7 PC on 5 year old hardware (referred to henceforth at Win7PC)
    • AMD Athlon64 X2 3800 2.0GhZ
    • Asus A8N-SLI Premium Motherboard
    • ATI Radeon 9250 (I think) No HDMI out
    • 4x 1GB Memory sticks (unstable though; more stable with 2x 1GB sticks)
    • Gigabyte Wireless G network adapter
    • 1x 200GB Boot drive (SATA)
    • 2x 1.5TB Data Drives (SATA) (movies, tv shows, backups, etc)
  • E5 - MacBookPro (Early 2008 non-unibody) (referred to henceforth at MBP)
    • 2.4 GhZ CPU
    • 2x 2GB Memory sticks
    • 128GB Boot SSD
    • 1x 1TB external USB drive (movies, tv shows, etc)
  • E6 - Various hard drives:
    • 1x 500GB 2.5"
    • 1x 200GB 2.5"
  • E7 - Prolink Hurricane 6300G DSL Modem/Wireless G Router (provided from ISP)
  • E8 - VPN Subscription terminating in the US
Current Setup:
  • PS3 connected to Vizio TV via HDMI
  • PS3 connected to LG 5.1 Surround Sound System via optical audio cable
  • Win7PC in bedroom connected to LAN via wireless G
  • MBP in bedroom connected to LAN via wireless G (but capable of wireless N)
  • C1 - I live outside the US, thus the need for the VPN (E8) to get to Netflix, Hulu, etc
  • C2 - The PS3 doesnt play MKV files natively. What are ways I can view MKVs on my TV?
  • C3 - No SAN to function as central repository for media. Dont know if I really NEED one, but it would be nice. Currently, my media is scattered between the Win7PC and 1TB drive that goes with my MBP
  • C4 - Wireless LAN is G only and dont want to run any wires
  • C5 - Prefer devices that are 220v but can support 110v if theyre not TOO power hungry
Here is what I THINK I need to do to achieve the above listed Requirements and overcome/eliminate the Complications:
  • D1 - Buy new wireless router that supports wireless N and PPTP VPN
    • Configure existing dsl modem/router to bridge mode and disable the wireless G.
    • Connect new wireless router to dsl modem and config new router for G and N (eliminating C4)
    • Configure wireless router to route PS3 traffic over the VPN (eliminating C1 above and accomplishing R6)
  • D2 - Buy Media center PC (MCPC) and/or Streaming Device (Roku, WD TV Live, Google TV, etc)
  • D3 - Buy SAN and install the 2x 1.5TB drives currently in Win7PC into the SAN (eliminating C3)
  • D4 - Install software on PC to transcode MKV files to be played by PS3 (eliminating C2)
Other Questions:
  • Q1 - How can I make the most of my PS3? It plays Blurays, DVDs and most media file containers, so it appears to satisfy R1, R2 and R4. Ive read recently that it now support Neflix, Hulu, Pandora, etc. so it appears to satisfy R6, OR DOES IT? Is a Roku/Google TV/Apple TV better?
  • Q2 - Do I want to make the PS3 the centerpiece of my Home Theater or am I better off getting a HTPC? I dont play games on the PS3, only Blu-rays and AVIs on USB sticks, so thats why Im favoring using it for as much as I can, but I'm not married to it, so if an HTPC with Win7 will give me more flexibility and isnt too expensive, I'll definitely consider it. (See Q3 below) Also, the PS3 is 4 years old, so a hardware failure wouldnt be unexpected.
  • Q3 - Should I replace the current Win7PC? Its in a mid-tower ATX case and I installed Windows 7 Home Premium on it last year. I tried installing PS3 Media Server on it, but playback of files to the PS3 is VERY choppy with lots of pausing to buffer. Dont know if this is due to the CPU (which I have read is NOT good at transcoding on the fly) or due to streaming over Wireless G instead of Wireless N. The PS3 does only have Wireless G though.
  • Q4 - Any recommendations on wireless routers that support VPN? DD-WRT Forums seem to recommend Netgear WNDR3700 and Asus RT-N16. Im thinking of installing DD-WRT so I can do policy based routing of only PS3 traffic over the VPN so I can access Netflix, etc
  • Q5 - Is it worth replacing the crappy LG surround sound system? It only has like 3 inputs (optical, coax and analog red/white). It does do a decent job when Im watching Blu-rays and the audio is piped to it through the optical cable, though. Audio recommendations welcome!
Sorry if this is a little disjointed and for including all the details but I'm trying to be as complete as possible.
Feel free to ask any questions or point out any complications/problems Ive missed.

posted by Fiat124 to Technology (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I love my Roku box. It's small and has a very clean and fast interface. I use it mainly for Netflix, Amazon VOD and Pandora (a Hulu channel is coming). If you didn't have the PS3 I'd suggest the Roku XD ($80). I also have a WD TV HD Live (newer "Plus" version here). It plays 1080p MKVs flawlessly.

Regarding the PS3 vs. and HTPC, I'd definitely recommend a dedicated device (either the PS3 or the Roku, etc). The problem with using a computer is that the interface never quite works, which means you need to keep a keyboard around. You either need to leave it off and put it up with minute long boot times or keep it on all the time. Even hibernation is typically not something a remote can operate, which means you need to physically turn on the device anytime you want to do something. The HTPC needs to be kept up to date, which is a nuisance. You might get weird popup windows on top of your video, because the non-HTPC part of the device thinks it's a computer. Also, a dedicated device will be much cheaper. A video card that can play 1080p content will probably cost you more than either a Roku or WD HD Live box. I made the mistake of trying to build and manage an HTPC a year or so ago, and it was not a good decision.

I also have moved away from storing tons of media myself. Previously I'd invested in a NAS, but managing it became too much of a hassle and I lost a lot of data due to localized issues (RAID doesn't help with overheating in two neighboring drives). Now I just have one 500gb hard drive connected to the WD Live. Most content on that moves in and out relatively quickly and everything else is streamed. It has been very nice to not have to worry about data loss or worried about backups, etc. Also, most media is so large that any reasonable (multi-site) backup system is out of the question. Of course you may have different priorities, but I've definitely enjoyed a much lower maintenance entertainment center and one that doesn't constantly stress me out.

The best investment I've made is the Harmony 550 remote (it's expensive, but I found a refurbished one for ~$30). These remotes allow actions to be programmed in and will synchronize your media center. For example, my remote literally has the text "Watch Netflix" next to one button which, when clicked, turns on the correct devices and sets all of the appropriate inputs. This is crucial if you want the media center to be used by people who are less technical or have no interest in fooling around with six remotes.

Good luck!
posted by null terminated at 1:12 AM on November 13, 2010

I missed your wireless requirements, so I'd recommend a Roku XDS if you decide to go the Roku route.
posted by null terminated at 1:17 AM on November 13, 2010

I would upgrade your wireless to 802.11n, so that you can do streaming video without too many issues (Hulu, Netflix, etc.).

At least given what you have described, I suspect you can run all your media jukebox needs (including MKV) off the MacBook Pro, using the Perian codec pack, and QuickTime Player, iTunes and VLC players. You're probably already doing something like this, anyway.

The nice thing about Macs is that the laptops and Mac minis do not make much noise, which is perfect for home theatre.

PC fans are really noisy — even the so-called "silent PC" fans are noisy — so if you get a dedicated Windows machine, look into sound dampening material for a home theatre setup.

Keep the PS3 for the odd Blu-ray. Perhaps center your HTPC on a Mac or Windows PC with noise dampening, as more and more media comes over the Internet anyway.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:02 AM on November 13, 2010

D4 - Install software on PC to transcode MKV files to be played by PS3 (eliminating C2)

mkv2vob. Mostly mkvs don't need to be transcoded, just have their streams unpacked and repackaged. Takes maybe ten minutes for a ~10GB hd movie. It used to be that more things would be weird somehow and actually require transcoding (which then takes hours), but nowadays about the only time I see it transcode is when I ask it to hard-code subtitles.

Another thing to think about: coax networking. We have fios, which already uses it internally, so all we needed to do was buy a second fios router and configure it, and it's made an enormous difference in the stability and non-flakiness of the PS3. And it means we can stream 1080p directly the machine that downloads with No. Problems. Ever. There are lots of turnkey products available, or look on ebay for two fios routers.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:09 AM on November 13, 2010

You can run PS3 media server on your PC, which will transcode just about anything you throw at it and serve it up over the network to the PS3. I run it on my desktop in my office and use it as a fileserver for the PS3 in my living room and it works like a charm.
posted by topher74 at 10:49 AM on November 13, 2010

@null terminated - my dad has a Roku and likes it a lot. Does it play 1080p MKVs?

@Blazecock Pileon - I think I'm going to upgrade to wireless N regardless of whatever else I get. Both the Netgear WNDR3700 and Asus RT-N16 look good. Any recommendations?

@ROU_Xenophobe - I was kind of hoping to avoid having to convert stuff but I dont think Ive tried converting an MKV before. What do you use? Handbrake? What do you convert to?

@topher74 - I tried PS3 media server before and it was VERY slow and choppy, but I think that may have been because the PC I was using above has (from what Ive read) a CPU that is very poor at transcoding which is why Im considering upgrading the PC.

I did some further research on Anadtech and a few other sites and read some reviews of the Zotac ZBox and the ASRock Vision 3D, neither really struck a cord with me. Maybe its because Ive built every non-laptop system Ive owned for the last 15 years, but Im thinking more and more of trying a combination of the Roku and WD Live and see how they perform.

Thanks for the replies; keep em coming!
posted by Fiat124 at 5:41 AM on November 15, 2010

No, the Roku cannot currently play any MKVs.
posted by null terminated at 8:42 AM on November 15, 2010

Looking at your list of requirements, it seems to me that an HTPC would be the best option for you, so long as you can make the interface work for you. Personally, I would probably go with a Mac Mini and some combination of Plex, Front Row with Perian installed, and the countless number of remote options available for iOS (though you don't mention access to an iPhone or an iPod touch in your post). I've heard good things about Win7 Media Center too, and you can probably build a Win7 HTPC for a couple hundred less than a Mac Mini would run.

This would take streaming totally out of the equation, as you could connect your drives directly to the media center. You will be able to play AVI/WMV/MP4/MKV/VIDEO_TS/Hulu via native app/Netflix at any resolution (within reason) without having to futz with hacking some underpowered dedicated box or dealing with transcoding on the fly. In my experience, PS3 Media Server works intermittently at best (choppy, audio sync issues even when transcoded on powerful hardware) and is completely worthless for streaming DVD backups.

You'll get some extra utility out of this setup, as the dedicated media box will be able to rip backups of your dvds, handle any downloads, etc.

The only downsides are the money (though it will still come in under your $1000 budget), and the interface if you can't find something you like.
posted by crosbyh at 12:13 PM on November 15, 2010

@crosbyh - yeah, I specd out a nice HTPC setup (plus new wireless router) at Newegg and it comes in right at $1000.

I guess my next question is, how powerful an HTPC do I need? Here is what I've priced:

Gigabyte GA-H55N-USB3
Intel i3-530
2x 2GB Corsair RAM sticks
Gigabyte GV-R557OC-1GI Radeon HD 5570
Sony BC-5640H-01 Slim BluRay Drive
Silverstone Sugo SG05-B Mini-ITX case
Asus RT-N16 Wireless Router

And Ill reuse the above E6 500GB hard drive in the HTPC

Is this overkill or just futureproofing?
posted by Fiat124 at 6:13 PM on November 15, 2010

I'm not very up to date on the state of current PC hardware, so I can't give you too much input there. You can probably get a pretty good feel for it by spending some time in the HTPC section of the AVS Forum and checking out some of the specs that people post there.
posted by crosbyh at 3:54 PM on November 16, 2010

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