Monday, May 02, 2005

Media Center 2005 Part One: Know Thyself (and Thy Home Theater PC)

It's been some time since my last real tech-related post, but that's because I've been giving some love to what's morphed into my Media Center PC. To refresh your memory, it still looks like this:

This thing has been taking up a fair bit of my time lately, which is both good and bad. Home Theater PC's are hot these days and since Microsoft released Windows Media Center 2005 as a standalone OEM product, I know a lot of you out there are doing what I'm doing and rolling your own. So I thought I'd rock your world a little bit and share some of the insights and some of the pitfalls I've experienced in building a (mostly) functional MCE-based PC. Originally intended as one single post, I've apparently just gleaned so much knowledge over the past few months that it now requires a multi-parter. Welcome to Part One: Know Thyself (and Thy Home Theater PC). Consider this a basic introduction to the concept of a home theater PC - in subsequent posts, I'll be doling out specific recommendations and other useful info for you to jot down on post-it notes suitable for sticking on various objects around your home.

What is a "Home Theater PC"? It can be different things to different people - hence this here post. Generally speaking, a Home Theater PC, or HTPC for short, is used to deliver some form of visual media content to a display device in a living room setting. Many people have HTPC's dedicated to progressive-scan DVD playback. Others use theirs to watch HDTV or SDTV, or both. Some use theirs to also play music and games.

The first question you'd probably ask is "why?" (I know that because it's the first question I asked.) Why not just use a standalone DVD player, why not just use a cable company-provided DVR? Why not just play games on your PS2 or Xbox? These are all questions with different answers for most people, but I think what it usually boils down to is a combination of quality and convenience. With an HTPC, you combine many components into one - you clear away a mess of wires, cut your electricity bill and reduce that jumble of remote controls. You also gain more control over the process of watching content, and can upgrade your system's capabilities over time (unlike a DVD player, which must simply be replaced when new technology supercedes it). And don't even get me started on cable company-provided DVR's - the only reasonable alternative to an HTPC for DVR functionality is TiVo or ReplayTV, but these are feature-limited and will reduce your picture quality. At any given point in time, you will likely get better quality picture and sound at greater convenience with an HTPC than with mid-priced separate A/V components. The only thing you need in your home theater system (other than the PC) is some sort of amplifier.

So you decide an HTPC is for you - how do you approach putting one together? The first thing you need to do is focus, focus, focus. This is true of anything in life, really, but it should be a mantra - print it on a poster, hang it up on your wall. Put it on one of those motivational calendars. FOCUS, FOCUS, FOCUS. What do you want this PC to do? Be specific. Know your needs, and decide whether there's anything you might want to add later. This is extremely important, because an HTPC is not just a desktop PC that also plays DVD's. It can be if that's all you want, but you need to ask yourself some hard questions, because there are always tradeoffs involved, and pros and cons to any decision you make. "What do I want to do?" Watch DVD's, watch TV, record TV? SDTV or HDTV or both? What about music and photos? What about gaming? What sort of display am I going to want to use? Will this PC be on 24/7? Do I want to do additional tasks like video capture and compression and/or video editing? Do I want to do common desktop tasks as well? What home theater software will I be using? And how important is expandability? Or home theater aesthetics?

The answers to these questions will guide what hardware and software you need, and whether or not you even really want Media Center or a competing product that may excel in one particular area where MCE does not.

In my case, functionality and expandability were key, but at the same time, I wanted a PC I could live with. I wanted near-silence, and I wanted to be able to leave the thing on 24/7 without worry. I wanted to watch SDTV with TiVo-like PVR functionality and have HD capability (I don't yet have an HD set, but I can still watch it on my old TV through the PC, and I'll have an HDTV eventually). I wanted to do video capture and editing, though I don't need to use this machine as a desktop. I wanted a music jukebox too. In short, I wanted a multimedia powerhouse, with room to grow, but in a form that's unobtrusive and invisible in daily use, and that would be utterly stable and worry-free.

I'm still not quite there yet, but I'm getting close.

Now, you may recall that I already had an XP Pro-based PC built out of old hand-me-down components (the one pictured above), which I was successfully using as both an iTunes jukebox/server and for dumb video capture and encoding - though it was so slow that encoding needed to be done overnight.

But TiVo pissed me off one too many times with their bugginess, their useless "TiVoToGo" non-feature, their subscription fees and their pop-up ads, and I decided it was time for a change.

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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