Need help navigating the HTPC hardware options
August 20, 2011 8:08 PM   Subscribe

I want to buy or build a home theater PC and I'm overwhelmed by the options for hardware. Mac or PC? Low-end or mid-range?

Here's what I want to do:
  • Pause and rewind live TV
  • Schedule shows to record
  • Watch YouTube, Hulu and other web video
  • Watch everything in High Definition
Here's what I don't need:
  • DVD or Blu-ray. I have a separate Blu-ray player.
  • A multiple-TV setup. I only have one TV.
  • Gaming. I don't game.
I'm thinking I'll have a setup with MythTV and an HDHomeRun tuner, but I'm open to reconsidering either of those choices. I have read that Intel Core 2 Duo machines are adequate for HD HTPC use. Here are two candidates using that processor:
  • A used Core 2 Duo desktop PC. There are lots of these on eBay for around $100.
  • A used Core 2 Duo Mac Mini. There are lots of these on eBay for around $350.
Why is the Mac so much more expensive? Is it worth it, for what I need?

Another option is to build a system myself using new parts. In general, how might my TV-watching experience be different using a brand new 2011 system compared to one of the systems mentioned above, from 2006 or 2007? And if I decide on building a new system, how might my TV-watching experience be different with a low-end system built with $400 worth of parts compared to a mid-range system built with $600 worth of parts?

My TV is a 46-inch Samsung 1080p HDTV. I don't have cable or satellite, just an antenna. I live in the U.S.
posted by Dec One to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You can't build a Mac. If you build your own, it'll be a PC.

The reason the Mac is more expensive is that part of the cost is for operating system development. Since there are 20 PCs sold for every Mac, the amortized cost of developing the OS is much greater for the Mac.

You might find this useful. And this.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:24 PM on August 20, 2011

Another reason the Mac is more expensive is that the volume of production is lower, so there's less economy of scale.

PC hardware is a commodity and cutthroat competition has reduced profit margins to a small sliver. Apple effectively has a monopoly on Mac sales, and they have the luxury of charging more because of it.

And, as I mentioned, there's a considerable "OS-X tax" bundled into the price, which is far greater than the Windows tax you pay to Dell or ASUS.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:33 PM on August 20, 2011

The easiest solution? Windows 7 Media Center. If you have enough RAM and a decent video card, it'll run great on a C2D. It is in every way end-user ready and takes very little configuration. Getting the HDHomerun set up is a little confusing, but doable if you follow the instructions. (My experience is with the regular HDHR, I don't have a Prime box yet)

The Mac Mini will be quieter, but have less room for expanding your hard drive space. I'm just now (literally in the process of extending my filesystem) going up to 5.5T in mine because the 3.5T I had before got filled up. Luckily, although my HTPC case (an Antec Fusion Remote, pretty nice as long as your SATA ports face up and not to the side) only has two real 3.5" bays, there's enough room to stash a couple extra drives without drama.

Whatever other hardware you go with, you want an NVIDIA video chip that works with VDPAU (if you're using Linux). With VDPAU, you hardly need the CPU to do anything. Mine works harder verifying downloads than anything else it does. Live TV needs no transcoding and playback is done with the GPU.

Software-wise, MythTV is pretty easy to get running on Ubuntu these days, but I still haven't found a skin I like. I pretty much use XBMC exclusively and just don't watch live TV. There is an experimental PVR branch of XBMC that uses a Myth backend, but I haven't had time to play with it enough to say how well it's working at this point.

tl;dr: Don't worry about the CPU, so long as it something new enough that it doesn't need a fan that sounds like a jet engine, just make sure you get an NVidia card or onboard video that supports VDPAU feature set C and/or D. B is acceptable, but not as good. I've got a 3GHz C2D and it's plenty fast for anything but transcoding HD. Playback is perfect. Once it's fast enough, it's fast enough.
posted by wierdo at 8:38 PM on August 20, 2011

Another reason the Mac is more expensive is that the volume of production is lower, so there's less economy of scale.

Not really. Apple has an about 11 percent market share. Not as much as Dell and HP, but lots more than many budget pc manufacturers, like Toshiba and Acer. Part of the higher price is that they use more expensive components, but its mostly that people are willing to pay a premium for Apple products. I'm not going to get into why that is, because it'll end up starting a flamewar no matter what I say.
posted by empath at 8:40 PM on August 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Darnit, I missed a link: VDPAU feature sets
posted by wierdo at 8:40 PM on August 20, 2011

Best answer: And, sorry for the scatterbrained-ness tonight, but one other thought. It's really nice to have a case with an LCD display and a built-in IR receiver. However, if you're trying to do things on the cheap, you can get a USB IR receiver dongle that will work fine.

You'll also want a wireless keyboard/mouse. It makes for much better web browsing. And you'll have to forget Hulu unless you want to use a web browser. I don't know for sure about MythTV's Hulu support, but the XBMC plugin is presently broken and has been for some time because Hulu hates it and wants it to die a horrible death.

Netflix works on the Boxee Box, but I haven't seen a plugin for do-it-yourselfers. That's OK, though. There's plenty of web video plugins that do work on XBMC, both legal and..grey.
posted by wierdo at 8:44 PM on August 20, 2011

You can get Hulu Desktop, Boxee, Netflix, Xbmc, Youtube, and live TV/timeshifting all done in Media Center for Windows 7. At home I have an Asus mini-pc dedicated to just these tasks (with the added bonus of transcoding dvd and bluray discs with an autorip'n'compress add-in).

So as long as you get a decent, quiet PC with Windows 7 (recommending Ultimate), you should be good to go for the streaming aspect. For Live TV, keep in mind the type of service you're going of the common methods for timeshifting is to connect to a set box (dish/cable) and use an IR blaster to enable channel changing. This can be a pain for certain just be prepared to work harder on this part.

Also MythTV is definitly worth checking out too if you're on a budget and enjoy tinkering. There's two distros I'd recommend in particular: MythDora and Mythbuntu. TitanTV should have xml feeds you can use for a channel guide, however be prepared to work a bit harder to get a Linux rig working like you want it.

A nice WMC remote is a good investment for a media center. A personal preference for me is to also have a wireless keyboard and gyroscope mouse on hand (can find these bundled).
posted by samsara at 1:38 AM on August 21, 2011

Re: timeshifting, just reread that you're going for FTA TV, so you won't need an IR blaster or any fancy workarounds for protected channels. A good DVB/ATSC digital tuner should work out of the box. As for system specs, most HD should work fine on a core duo with 2gb RAM, where a video card upgrade could help address stuttering. Seconding the nVidia suggestions above.
posted by samsara at 1:50 AM on August 21, 2011

Best answer: Always hit post too soon! The difference you'll see in PC systems is: the more you put into the speed of the hardware, the more responsiveness you'll feel when using it. Menu animations may become smoother, boot times decreased, transcoding/ripping speeds are faster, occasional pauses due to bottlenecks dissapear. YMMV
posted by samsara at 1:58 AM on August 21, 2011

Response by poster: @Chocolate Pickle: Higher production costs don't explain why people are willing to pay more for Macs. Prices are set by supply and demand, not just supply. If the reason is just that Mac people like Macs a lot, then I'll get a PC.

@wierdo: What I've read is that Intel dual-core systems don't need additional graphics cards. For example, there are no graphics cards included in the low-end Intel systems suggested in this awesome guide at AVS Forum. For example, see the "Intel/Intel" example in the September 2009 issue. The author says these systems can playback HD video just fine. What will an NVIDIA add to my TV-watching experience?

(2 answers marked best for explaining reasons to pay more for a more expensive system.)
posted by Dec One at 4:47 AM on August 21, 2011

Heck, an intel Atom will play HD video just fine---however it won't *capture* it, which is what you're wanting to do what with the "pause live tv" thing, which is why you'll need an add-on card.

I haven't done anything with capture in a LONG TIME, but the status-quo used to be on-chip encoding (meaning the capture card did the work so your graphics card didn't have to, because it couldn't), and multi-channel cards were tres-expensive. That was like...9 years ago though. Just a data point.
posted by TomMelee at 8:39 AM on August 21, 2011

I would recommend against the used Mac Mini. I have a 2010 Mac Mini hooked up as a HTPC and I wouldn't have purchased it if I had realized what a hard time it would have with especially taxing HD content (full-quality Blu-ray rips, for instance, won't play without occasional dropped frames, which is a dealbreaker for me). Ironically, I get slightly better performance running Windows on this machine via Boot Camp, so I spend most of my time in XP rather than taking advantage of OS X.

To be fair, for standard definition and most high-definition content, it's just fine.
posted by Joey Bagels at 11:43 AM on August 21, 2011

Response by poster: @TomMelee: My understanding is that a modern OTA digital transmission doesn't have to be encoded at all - it's already in the digital format the computer will use to store it. So less processing power is needed now than used to be needed when transmissions were analog.

I think what I'm going to do is get one of those cheap 2006-era Core 2 Duo PCs on eBay, hook it up to an HDHomeRun tuner, install some version of MythTV and see what happens. If it doesn't work out, I can just sell it back on eBay and try something else. I will post an update here in a few weeks, if I remember.
posted by Dec One at 4:35 PM on August 21, 2011

Best answer: The biggest gains from GPU-based decoding if you're really doing nothing but PVR is less heat production (so less fan noise) and no stuttering, even under high CPU load. My HTPC also works as my media server, downloader, and just all around useful always-on server, so everything I offload from the CPU is that much more I can do with it.

Hard numbers: Playing back a Blu-Ray with AC3 audio takes about 3% CPU (at 1600MHz) if I use VDPAU. Without VDPAU, 65% of one core (at 2800MHz) is dedicated solely to decoding video. With VDPAU, I get smooth playback even when a runaway process is using 100% of both cores. Without, well, that's what made me notice I had a runaway process using 100% of both cores. ;)

So it's not absolutely necessary or anything, but when you can get a video card for $30-40 new, I don't see much point in not doing it. Besides, if you need to do deinterlacing, which you will want to on 1080i content, you'll need all the CPU you can get. Good video deinterlacing algorithms are computationally expensive. (inverse telecine isn't, but that only works on telecined film sources)
posted by wierdo at 8:06 AM on August 22, 2011

Response by poster: I decided to go with a ASUS AT3IONT-I Deluxe motherboard/processor combo. It's the perfect product with everything I need and nothing I don't:
  • An Intel Atom processor that should be plenty capable of running the system
  • An NVIDIA ION graphics card with VDPAU support as wierdo recommended
  • An external power supply included, so I don't have to buy a power supply
  • Built-in wi-fi, which I need, and most desktops I had been considering above didn't have
  • It'll use a lot less power than a regular desktop computer would, which is important because the thing will be on all the time and electricity isn't free.
  • It even has a PS/2 keyboard port, which means I can use my 15-year-old PS/2 keyboard to set the system up and don't have to spend $10 on a USB keyboard. Who uses PS/2 anymore? Was this thing designed specifically for me?
All that for $105 after rebate. I also got an HDHomeRun, a 1 TB hard drive and 2 GB of RAM. I haven't found a case I like, but I have an old ATX tower I can use while I keep looking. The components should arrive next week.
posted by Dec One at 10:23 AM on August 31, 2011

Response by poster: To follow up on my reply to TomMelee: I confirmed that capturing OTA digital transmissions requires very little processing power. I hooked the HDHomeRun up to my 2007 Celeron-powered laptop and it captured the video using 5% CPU.
posted by Dec One at 10:29 AM on August 31, 2011

Response by poster: Update for anyone who finds this page via Google in the future: It took some work to set it up, but the hardware described above is perfectly adequate for my requirements. Two things that differentiate it from a 2006-era desktop PC are size and power consumption. I have it in a clear acrylic mini-ITX case, about 7" by 7" by 2.5". And using my Kill-A-Watt I measured power consumption - the PC and HDHomeRun combined fluctuate between 25 and 30 watts, or about $2 a month if it's on 24/7. I don't know how much power a 2006 desktop PC uses, but I bet it's a lot more.
posted by Dec One at 5:49 AM on September 17, 2011

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