all-purpose home media center.
April 2, 2008 11:33 PM   Subscribe

Is this home media center set up possible and if so how much would it cost to set up?

I'd like to set up an all-purpose home media center, but am not sure if its even possible. I would like to connect my HDTV to my computer/home server and be able to surf the web from the couch and be able to switch between the computer screen and television screen seamlessly. I'd like to use the PC as a PVR and play the recorded shows on my television, access ripped dvds, music and photo stored on the server, play divx and .iso files at a high quality on the television, and play download SNES emulations stored on my hard drive. Is this set up possible?
posted by nyu2 to Technology (13 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Absolutely possible. I think I have the exact setup you are describing in my living room.

Try this AVSForum thread.
posted by jabberjaw at 11:38 PM on April 2, 2008

Yes you can. How powerful you want the HTPC to be is up to you. I'd recommend you get a Vista Home Premium/Ultimate computer with a TV Tuner (Hauppauge makes great ones).

What you'd need for this:

Computer (Core 2 Duo/Quad, 2-3GB RAM, ATI/NVIDIA graphics card w/ DVI or HDMI)
Hauppauge TV Tuner (you can choose a dual tuner/ATSC/etc)
Wireless Keyboard/Mouse
Remote Control/IR Receiver
Wireless (if you can't run a network cable)

If you want to get really fancy, you can get this new palm keyboard/mouse from Logitech designed for the home theater environment:,en

Will it do what you want? Much if this is all in the configuration. With the tuner and Vista, you have a DVR that can support two simultaneous recordings and have an EPG. Inside of Media Center, you can access all your media via remote control. This includes photos/videos located locally or on a network drive. With any standard codec pack, you can play DIVX, XVID, X264 and other kinds of video that you have ripped your DVDs into. As for ISO files, you can mount that image from across the network via Daemon Tools or through your preferred image tool.

Once you leave 'Media Center', it's just a regular Vista computer so you can use the keyboard/mouse or diNivo mini to access the internet via Firefox, play your emulators or even the latest games depending on the video card you choose to use.

You'd connect this HTPC to your television or receiver via HDMI if equipped on the video card or DVI. You can switch between the PC and any other video sources you have like you would any other component.

Now, if I completely misread this question and you're actually looking for just a device to access media, you might be looking at the Linksys Media Center Extender ( I'd really go with a networked HTPC though. It's not that expensive, storage and RAM prices have dropped so quickly and you can snag some great deals on computers if you check out
posted by cgomez at 11:57 PM on April 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

For about a fifth of the cost of a DIY Windows PC hardware and license, you could hack an Apple TV to do everything you have listed (remote control, SNES emulation, H.263/DIVX/ISO playback, MP3/AAC/AIFF music playback, JPEG/TIFF/PNG/GIF playback), except for the DVR function (for now).
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:10 AM on April 3, 2008

Oh - cost-wise, it varies. The PC, built from scratch, can cost as low as $400, but closer to $700 for solid hardware.

I use a Windows XP setup with a bunch of free software to play movies, rip dvds, etc. An even free-er Linux-based solution is doable. I don't actually PVR very much, as all of my favorite network shows are on the network sites streaming in 720p.

And forget the SNES emulator, go MAME; Mario Kart is sweet on a huge HD screen, but arcade-grade Street Fighter vs. Capcom is much more impressive.
posted by jabberjaw at 12:19 AM on April 3, 2008

Oh - cost-wise, it varies. The PC, built from scratch, can cost as low as $400, but closer to $700 for solid hardware.

Okay, for half to a third of the cost of a PC without Windows XP, you get a hackable box with HDMI and digital audio outputs. Not too shabby.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:09 AM on April 3, 2008

Great answer, cgomez. If only for my own convenience though, I'd like to put your links in here too.

The palm keyboard / mouse.

And the LinkSys Media Centre Extender.
posted by GeckoDundee at 2:45 AM on April 3, 2008

I personally think media center sucks. You can do everything much better with a little bit more dexterity, and with a HD tv connected to your PC you should have no worries about resolution (so reading your music selection from iTunes for instance won't be an eye strain).

By a computer with bluetooth (99% of them have it nowadays anyway) an s-video out, and an optical audio out (my Toshiba satellite laptop P100-346 has a wonderful digital out, sound quality is perfect and by using software such as AC3Filter Config you can 'upgrade' the audio from DivX and Xvid files to near Dolby surround 5.0 quality). You can then plug your laptop into your tv and audio and get top top notch visuals and sound.

Next buy yourself a Wii remote (or a Wii console if you want to go the whole hog). By using a variety of software (AutoHotKey, GlovePIE) you can sync your bluetooth Wii remote with your bluetooth laptop, essentially using it like a remote control cum interactive mouse pointer. With the remote you can simply allocate iTunes controls or set it up so that you can point it at your big TV and control the mouse pointer directly (for this you'll need the Wii's IR sensor, or you can build your own quite easily if you don't fancy buying a Wii console). The benefits of a Wii remote is that you can also use it directly as a wireless controller for your SNES games. Buy a classic controller to plug into it and you'll be in gaming heaven (no Wii console required!!!) See more on Wii hacks here and here...

An alternative is using your mobile phone or touch screen PDA to control your setup. Get the free software Salling Clicker and use it to control almost ANY software you can think from the palm of your hand.

I use my laptop for everything these days, although mine is situated close enough to my TV so that I don't need to remotely control it. I do beam all my music around my house, simply using itunes built in share capabilities, and I do watch movies and play games from my laptop on my television/through my digital/coaxial enabled stereo.
posted by 0bvious at 3:52 AM on April 3, 2008

Mythtv will do all of the above, albeit with a bit of Linux geekery - and obviously not MS Windows if that's an important part of the equation...
posted by Chunder at 4:14 AM on April 3, 2008

MythTV allows/requires substantially more twiddling to get a suitable solution. I've got an always-on server in the basement that's running the TV-tuner card (pchdtv 5000 IIRC) and doing the actual PVRing and a (now elderly) Shuttle box HDMI'd to a projector and a USB remote control (StreamZap).

I'm a linux geek to begin with so it was a no-brainer for me (and I used gentoo which isn't exactly newbie-friendly) and it took about two weekends worth of tweaking to get the remote working, mplayer and xine working with DVDs, the network shares working right, etc. When it was done it was quite nice to use (it's half packed up for a move right now).

MythBuntu would probably be better for a linux newbie, you can run it from a CD without having to dedicate a whole box to playing with it.
posted by Skorgu at 5:58 AM on April 3, 2008

cgomez has it nailed. I also have a very similar setup: an always-on box running Media Center on top of vista (used windows xp media center edition before that). It's connected via VGA to my panasonic plasma tv, and via coaxial digital audio to my onkyo reciever, which handles the digital (dolby, dds) decoding. I also have a Hauppauge tv tuner card.

Works awesome for all the functions you list above. Occasional (1/week) problems with media center crashing that I still haven't figured out.

It's really a fun adventure getting it all hooked up and configured how you like it. Best part is, there is no better upscaler than a computer, so DVDs and xvid/divx stuff looks great even though it isn't HD. Make sure you install ffdshow to handle the video decoding and enable postprocessing.

Getting HD recording working is...tricky. If you have cable (not OTA) HD, you can't just plug the feed into an HD tv tuner card because of how THE MAN has things set up. You can find out much more on the AVSforums linked above.
posted by lohmannn at 6:12 AM on April 3, 2008

I'm a fan of BeyondTV for the computer based PVR functions you describe. But I do find that using the HDTV as a monitor for regular computing is a pain. It's BIG, but the resolution (in dots per inch) isn't nearly as good as having a notebook pc sitting on my lap.

As for PVRing HDTV programming on a PC, it's not quite ready for primetime. You'll need a tuner that supports CableCard, and those (I'm told) don't quite work flawlessly yet.

For my setup, I have a hack that uses the firewire output from my cable box to capture HDTV, but it only works with certain cable boxes and only with non-encrypted channels. That's fine for me as I only subscribe to the basic service.
posted by gjc at 8:11 AM on April 3, 2008

Some cable companies (RCN in NYC anyway) just put their normal lineup out unencrypted in QAM right next to their SD channels. If you can beg/borrow/steal a newish HDTV and have it auto-program across all 999 channels (or whatever) you'll get a good idea of what you'll be able to DVR without getting clever with the aforementioned firewire or cablecard doohickies.
posted by Skorgu at 8:38 AM on April 3, 2008

Couple points.

You can easily build an HTPC for around $300-$350 if you shop around. Fry's often has Core 2 Duo procs + Mobo for $90. The onboard video is good enough. Just add Case, RAM, Optical and HD.

I would also recommend Windows MCE. The main selling point it its solid interface. You really don't want to be playing around in any OS on a TV sitting from 6+ feet away, no matter how precise your control.

Bonus in your case that it can play any video (as long as you have the codec), as well as play DVD rips with a nice interface (pic). The only thing I can see in your request is that you may have to shell out to run MAME. Personally, I'd get a hacked Xbox 1 for that, to make a better experience.
posted by mphuie at 10:45 AM on April 3, 2008

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