A Discussion On HTPCs

Home Theater Personal Computers (HTPCs) are becoming very popular as more and more people are realizing the benefits of having a computer connected to their HDTV.  This essay is intended to introduce you to the basics of a HTPC.

Thanks to fellow High Def Forum member SpHeRe31459, who is also a moderator at HTPCNews.com, for his help in prepairing this article.

Hardware
There are several areas of hardware for a HTPC to get familiar with, such as:

  • Case
    There are a number of case options depending on the location you are going to place your HTPC.  Many people just use a common tower case and others will use a HTPC specialized case that resembles your other equipment in your entertainment center.  If you use an A/V closet for your equipment, then the tower case is possibly the best choice and that is what I use myself.  Don’t try to scrimp on the case or power supply.  For a couple of good reviews on specialty HTPC cases check out these: Zalman HD160 Review and Thermaltake Tenor Review.

  • Motherboard - processor - 
    Here you want a motherboard that will accept the processor that is appropriate for what you need in your HTPC. If you are going to primarily play DVDs and display mostly SD video from surveillance cameras and such, then the PC will not need to be very capable,  a P2 300Mhz will do, but if you are going to get into HDTV and/or games then you want the fastest and most capable processor you can afford.

  • Power Supply
    Some people say go with at least a 500 watt power supply, but is generally overkill. What matters more is a well designed PSU that has high efficiency, a poorly designed PSU with high wattage doesn’t really help anything. This way it moves air and because it is efficient less waste heat from PSU itself has to be dealt with. A power supply like Seasonic S12 series is a great option, it features a large slow moving 120mm fan that exhausts heat, it also has a very good fan controller built in that doesn’t ramp up the fan too quickly. 120mm fan based PSUs are very common these days but most have very badly implemented fan control mechanisms that ramp the fan up too soon. Another nice model is the Zalman ZM460-APS.
     
  • Video Cards
    This is an important component to get right. Look for a video card that will support HDTV resolutions even if you are not going to HDTV just yet. Chances are, you will in the future. Video cards are available with all of the various connections that are required by today’s HDTVs; VGA, component, DVI, etc. If you have a VGA card that would otherwise work, but you need component video there are transcoders to make the signal transition.  Just remember using an input that is designed for video use rather than PC use will normally have overscan issues to accept or try to deal with.

  • Sound Cards
    Sound cards for HTPC use should be capable of handling a digital connection to your surround amplifier. You can use a good stereo sound card, but you will be limited to Dolby ProLogic surround. The sound card should also have a stereo output to hook into your TV.

  • Tuner Cards
    There are two basic types of tuner cards; standard definition (SD) and high definition (HD) and the type you decide on will greatly affect the amount of power you need for your processor.

  • Hard Disc Drives
    These usually will need to be large and fast. Look for at least 7,200 rpm drives and in the 80 gig or larger for audio files and at least 250 gig for video.

  • Other peripheral hardware
    This will include remote controls, interfaces to home automation, such as Lutron lighting controls, LAN cards and any number of other devices.

  • Computer Monitor
    In most cases you are going to still need a computer monitor that will allow for more than HDTV resolutions. Also this will be necessary if the HTPC is located remotely from your TV and used as a workstation without the TV. Often though the separate monitor isn’t really needed if you are using a dedicated HTPC, even when you do need to use it generally it is only needed during the inital setup as you tweak resolutions. Most installations don’t even need PowerStrip, both ATI and NVIDIA have support from component and DVI connected HDTVs. With the case of NVIDIA you can just boot with only component or DVI (or of course VGA) connected and go from there.

  • Finally The TV or Display
    This is an area that many people don’t preplan at all. Most times a person already has a TV and decides to go into the HTPC as an afterthought. This could end up with less than ideal results and involve a lot more work than necessary. Overscan and other compatibility issues could have been eliminated by selecting a TV that is designed to accept a TV input.

    For example, CRT based HDTVs are particularly difficult to interface with a HTPC due to the interlaced video nature of CRTs. For additional information see this article: Hooking Up A PC to A HDTV

In selecting the hardware, the most important issue is probably what you want to use the HTPC to do. If there is going to be any operations that are hardware intensive, the best thing to do is to get the biggest and baddest PC you can afford and even then maybe save a bit longer. Some of the high intensive hardware activities would be the use of a HDTV tuner card that needs to transfer the video to the video card or playing HDTV clips from the hard drive. The applications can vary all over the map.

Software
There are several areas of software to get familiar with. An excellent list of HTPC software is available on the HTPCNews site here: Links to important HTPC software

  • Operating Systems
    Most people will use XP as their operating system because it is what will come with their new PC. Older operating systems are also HTPC capable as well, so depending on the use for your HTPC could also be in consideration. Most of the time XP is going to be preferred.

  • Video Drivers
    In many cases you will be able to get all of the drivers needed with the video card, but in some cases a software package that will allow modification of your video timing parameters called PowerStrip will be required.  It can be downloaded here: PowerStrip and a companion program called Moninfo can be used to acquire your TV’s timings assuming you have a DVI connection on the TV.  For an excellent guide on the use of PowerStrip check here: PowerStrip Timings 101.

  • Basic Media Software (Front Ends)
    There are several different basic media center software packages to choose from. Probably the most widely known is the Microsoft Media Center, but there are other choices that may be better choices as shown in the above link.

  • Rip, Record, Convert
    This software is used to load media content onto your HTPC. There are two basic types; Audio and video. Rippers are used to take media data from discs and record it on your hard drive. The act of copying a CD audio disc into your computer is an example of a ripper. Normally you don’t necessarily record material in the same format as it is on the disc and a converter is used. The simplest example is the conversion of uncompressed CD audio files to compressed .mp3 files, a common method of storing music files.

  • Playback
    Media players is the software that will read the media files and play them. It is the software equitant of a DVD player or a CD player. Most media players will handle both video and audio type media files. Personal Video Recorder (PVR) software is currently very popular to turn your HTPC into a TiVo like unit.Â

  • Editing
    This software is probably getting into the optional, but fun, area of a HTPC. Normally to watch videos or listen to music, you will not need to have any editors. But if you have a home video camera and want to edit your home movies, then a video editor will be required. Many digital cameras will come with editing software. Audio editors are handy as well. I make slide presentations of friends and relatives weddings and receptions and put background music behind the slides that match the pictures being shown. For example, if there are a series of slides showing people dancing the Macarena, then the Macarena will be playing in the background. Having an audio editor that allows for matching the track to the time required for the photos is the only way to go for a polished presentation.

  • Utilities
    This software would include video card drivers, video driver modifiers, remote control software, home automation, LAN support and any other number of other software modules for downloading, file sharing,
    etc.

You can also buy a Media Center PC that will come set up for HTPC use. Generally they will be equipped with the Microsoft Media Center software, which is basically XP with a front end.  Check out this link for some Sample Prepackaged Media Center PCs.

Operation Of Your HTPC
The largest operational decision you have to make is how to control your HTPC from your couch. There are several possibilities that come to mind. You can get a wireless keyboard and mouse, I recommend blue tooth here, but that solution can be somewhat cumbersome. Also depending on the picture quality and size of your PC on the HDTV, it may be difficult to read the menus. It would be rare for a CRT based HDTV, either direct view or rear projection, to show text clearly at HDTV resolutions. Fixed pixel displays are much better if no too far away to read the screen.

There are remote control hardware and software packages that will allow some control using a hand held remote or programmable remote to control some of the activities of your HTPC, but are generally limited to controlling the media players and tuner cards. These are a nice way to integrate the HTPC into a home theater system for the HTPC activities that are pretty much canned operations. For full control of your HTPC though, you really need a keyboard and mouse.

My favorite method for controlling my HTPC is to use a laptop computer. In order for this to be successful I had to abandon my wireless network and hard wire my laptop back to the router. The wireless was just too slow.  The advantage of using a laptop as the HTPC controller is everything is in a nice neat package. I have gotten used to the keyboard and mouse pad and have no particular problem using the laptop. In fact I’m typing this on my Dell right now. I know some people have to have a separate mouse, but that would be your choice.

Wiring The Laptop
In my case it was not too difficult to run a new cable, but sometimes this can be a pain. The response difference is definitely worth the effort. By the way, if your house telephone wiring is cat5, which many newer homes are, you can use the unused wires in the telephone cables for an Ethernet connection. Each telephone line requires a single pair, usually the blue/white pair, and the Ethernet requires 2 pairs. Since there are 4 pairs in a cat5 cable, you can actually have a single cat5 drop handle 2 telephone lines and an Ethernet service. IT guys don’t like to use this method due to cross talk, but in a home situation I’ve never seen that to be a problem.

Software
I have used several software packages, but the two that seemed to work the best were PC Anywhere and UltraVNC. Currently I am using UltraVNC. With both packages you need to install the software on both computers and then configure your HTPC as a server and the laptop as a viewer in the UltraVNC case. PC Anywhere uses different terms, so I recommend hitting the manual if that is your choice. PC Anywhere will need to be purchased, whereas UltraVNC is a free download. That is the reason I switched. My PC Anywhere was a Windows 98 version and my laptop runs Windows 2000, so I would have had to get a new package. Downloading UltraVNC was just a lot easier.

Now the next thing to do is to install an automatic password entry software in the HTPC so that all is required is to be turn the HTPC on to get up and running. Putting the UltraVNC server software in the Startup menu will have the HTPC ready to go after boot up.

I use my HTPC for other operations and it is actually in another room, my bedroom, away from where my TV is located. No noise issues that way and when I’m not using it with my TV, I can use it as a workstation to make CDs, DVDs, printing, etc. I have it tied into the LAN and the internet so surfing is possible should the need arise. Usually I just use the laptop, but when there is a room full of people, sometimes the HTPC comes in handy.

Uses
The uses for a HTPC are many and varies. Of course what comes to mind first is showing downloaded HD clips and such. There are even full length HD movies available on line, but they take forever to download. Some people use the HTPC to view movies on their DVD player or burner. I prefer my stand alone DVD player myself, but to each their own, I guess. Â

My main use is to view digital photos. After a trip the family will gather about the big screen and take a photo trip with us. I usually will also put on a play list I have prepared for the background music.

Another thing I use my HTPC for is a music server. I use MusicMatch Jukebox for the main ripper and database management of my music files. I have a separate 80 gig hard drive to store my music files and have organized the files in a manner to facilitate CD backups.

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