For the Home Technology Enthusiast

Building a Windows-based Home Theater PC

 
     
 
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What is a Home Theater?

Home Theater has come to mean a special room in a house with comfortable furnishings mimicking a movie theater, for the primary purpose of watching movies on a relatively large screen (50" or greater screen size). Electronically speaking, it typically consists of a high quality large screen television or projection TV system, a high quality audio system, a DVD player, may be a VCR , and finally a single remote control that lets you control all of the electronics. Increasingly, home theaters also include satellite or cable TV settop boxes in the electronics mix that enable you to watch live television programs also.

  

What is a Home Theater PC (HTPC)?

Home Theater PC is mostly a 'regular' home computer with some special hardware and software, that can be added to the home theater electronics mix to further enhance the home theater experience by bringing possibilities such as viewing all your digital photos collection, listening to all your music collection (e.g., MP3 collection), playing games, browsing the Internet, making phone calls, having video teleconferences, etc. right from the comfortable furnishings of the home theater! In a nutshell, the HTPC transforms an entertainment-focused home theater setup to a full blown 'e-life' center!

  

What you can do with the HTPC built as described here?

  • Watch DVD movies and TV

  • Record your favorite TV programs, edit them and burn them on to a DVD

  • Watch your personal videos (MPEG video files, etc.)

  • Rip and Store your personal DVD collection on the HTPC’s storage disks making it very convenient to browse through your DVD collection and select the one to watch

  • View your digital photo collection

  • Listen to Music (WAV, MP3, formats)

  • Listen to AM/FM Radio

  • Burn DVDs (including those that can be played on a commercial DVD player)

  • Author DVDs (meaning, create your own DVDs with custom menus, etc.)

  • And more… (depending on what software is loaded on to the machine)

Recommended Hardware

  • A known brand 'entertainment' class PC with Windows Vista Home Premium pre-loaded (HP brand recommended) with the following or better technical specifications:
  • Dual core Intel or AMD processor preferred (1.8GHz processor speed should do). Core Duo family from Intel or the Phenom family from AMD recommended. If you were to compromise between processor speed and memory for cost reasons, go for a lower speed processor and more memory.

  • At least 2GB of memory (recommend not going any lower. Windows Vista seems to perform well with at least 2GB). Note: 32-bit version of Windows Vista does NOT recognize more than 3GB of memory.  Therefore unless you use or plan to upgrade soon to Windows Vista 64-bit, there is absolutely no point in going beyond 3GB of memory.

  • At least 500GB of internal hard drive (this is important if you plan to do video editing, etc. on your PC)

  •  A 16X or better DVD burner (dual layer capability not required but most these days come with this capability)

  • 1TB of external USB hard drive (a must if you plan to rip your DVDs and store them on hard disk). Each commercial movie DVD eventually requires about 4.5GB of disk space. ‘Eventually’ because, as they come they are 7.0+GB but the ripping process can compress them with very little quality degradation to less than 4.5GB. These are for ‘standard definition’ quality DVDs, not high definition DVDs such as Blu-ray.

  • High quality built-in ‘sound card’ with both analog audio (red and white connectors) as well as digital audio (coax or optical) inputs and outputs.

  • A ‘TV Tuner’ (this is a must for watching live TV from satellite, cable, or whatever source).  If going for ‘internal’ TV Tuners (those that physically plug inside the chassis of the PC) make sure you have the right kind of ‘expansion slots’ in the PC that match the TV tuner interface type (e.g., PCI-Express, PCI, etc.).

A known brand ‘entertainment’ class PC often comes bundled with built-in TV Tuner and special software that support the functionality of a HTPC. That may suffice your needs for a HTPC. However, a HTPC built with software per this note – based on experience – is more user-friendly and versatile than the bundled packages available as of the date of the document.

 

When it comes to TV tuners – first there is the option of ‘internal’ or ‘external’. Further, there is the option of ‘standard definition’ or ‘high definition’.  As of the date of this document, high definition ones are relatively new to the market and may need careful examination of the fine prints. While there are a number of TV tuner manufacturers, there are only a handful of chipset vendors that most of these manufacturers use. The following manufactures/products are recommended:

  • Hauppauge (www.hauppauge.com)
  • Hauppauge PVR-500 (Standard Definition) (Internal PCI)
  • Hauppauge HD PVR (High Definition) (External USB)

CAUTION!

As of September 2008, there are some questions about the Hauppauge HD PVR’s compatibility with Windows Media Center module of Windows Vista. Check before buying.

  • VisionTek (www.visiontek.com)
    • VisionTek TV Wonder HD 650 USB (High Definition) (External USB)
VisionTek TV Wonder HD 650 USB has been tested and found fully compatible with Windows Vista / Windows Media Center module. Though, the ‘HD’ is misleading.  The product supports only off-air High Definition (ATSC compatible), not those coming from the satellite or cable TV box. It does not have the high definition component inputs required to connect to corresponding outputs from a settop box. This may or may not be a big deal depending on what you want to accomplish with your HTPC. Using the HD 650 will mean that you won’t be able to watch/record your HD TV channels through the HTPC.  You will need to connect the satellite or cable TV settop box directly to the home theater audio/video system.  Given that most satellite and cable TV settop boxes put out ‘standard definition’ video signals (e.g., S-Video) in addition to the high definition component video signals, you can always connect those standard definition signals to the HD 650 and record high definition channel programs, though not in high definition quality.
  • Microsoft Media Center Remote Control with IR Transmitter/Receiver (may come with your pre-built PC)0

  • Logitech Webcam with built-in microphone (USB)

  • A set of speakers connected to the PC

 

Recommended Software

 

*** Inappropriate use of DVD ripping software may be against the law. Users beware. ***
  • Windows Vista Home Premium SP1

  • Vista Home Premium comes bundled with Windows Media Center which is the main software module supporting HTPC functions. So if you get Windows Vista, then you don’t need any additional software to run a HTPC.

  • Vista Home Premium also comes with DVD authoring and burning capabilities. While these are usable, they are not as powerful as the optional software listed below.

  • For DVD ripping (or ‘copying to hard disk’), you will need the following two FREE software

    • DVD Decrypter (the ripping software that copies the DVD to hard disk) - from http://www.afterdawn.com

    • DVD Shrink (the compression software that reduces the size to less than 4.7GB, that you can then burn on to a regular, single-sided DVD) - from http://www.afterdawn.com.

To get a fairly useful HTPC going, all you need are the above recommended hardware and software. However, a more complete system is highly recommended – one that gives you content creation capabilities, making for a more wholesome HTPC experience. For that, the following paid-for software is recommended. These are ‘optional’ and so don’t have to be bought all together. They can be added as needed.

  • Windows Live One Care (not required for HTPC but highly recommended)

    • For anti-virus, anti-spyware, etc.

  • AnyDVD (www.slysoft.com)

    • For ripping DVDs. DVD Decrypter may encounter problems with more recent copy protected DVDs including HD DVDs.

  • Pinnacle Studio (www.pinnaclesys.com)

    • For video editing and DVD authoring.

  • AVS Media Video Tools  (www.avsmedia.com)

    • For video format conversion, minor video editing, DVD playing, etc. This software is one of the most versatile converter in the market and seems to the only one that can convert Windows Media Center video files (created when you record Live TV) to other editable formats such as MPEG.

  • Nero (www.nero.com)

    • For DVD burning, minor video editing, DVD playing, etc.

  • ACDSee (www.acdsee.com)

    • For advanced photo editing

  • RecordNow Music Lab (www.roxio.com)

    • For advanced audio editing

  • Skype (This is FREE!)

    • For Voice, Video chat, telephone calls, etc.

Many of the functions of the above listed software overlap. However, it has been Teksupport’s experience that a certain function of certain software is more versatile, reliable and user-friendly than the same function of another software. For example, Nero’s DVD burning software is far better than say the same function built into Windows Vista.  Another example - for simple video editing function such as deleting unwanted parts of a video clip, AVS Media Video Tools is more reliable and user-friendly than Nero Vision.

HTPC Configurations and Connections

 

Standalone HTPC Setup

Standalone HTPC setup is for use by an individual for watching TV, movies, listening to music, etc. on the PC’s monitor and speakers. Once this setup is configured (through Vista’s Windows Media Center ), all functions including changing channels can be controlled using the mouse and keyboard. No need to have any remote control lying around. Add Skype to this setup, and you don’t need to leave your e-life work area – except for food and nature calls!

 

Figure 1: Standalone HTPC setup

 

The setup shown in the figure has been tested (and works reliably!) with the following components:

  • PC:  HP Pavilion a250n PC of 2005 vintage with upgraded VGA card, 1.5GB of Memory, 500GB of internal hard disk, running Windows Vista Home Premium Service Pack 1.

  • TV Tuner: VisionTek HD 650 USB

  • Internet service provider: Verizon FiOS

  • Cable TV service provider: Verizon FiOS (Standard Definition Settop box). Connection between settop box and TV tuner is analog audio and S-video. Given the settop box is only ‘standard definiton’ capable, the setup cannot view FiOS High Definition channels.

  • Microsoft Media Center Remote Control and IR ‘blaster’

  • External Hard Disk: 1 TB (2 X 500GB units)

  • Monitor: LG 22” LCD, Widescreen

HTPC Connected to Family TV and Stereo System

HTPC when connected to a TV and Audio system extends the e-life experience to the whole family (and friends!). The setup uses a mix of HTPC and Satellite/Cable TV settop box.

 

There are a number of ways a HTPC can be ‘married’ to a home theater audio/video system. The setup shown in Figure 2 below is one example where the HTPC uses an external USB TV Tuner. Figure 3 below shows another example where the HTPC uses an internal TV Tuner.

 

The setups shown in Figure 2 and Figure 3 assume the following:

  • The Television or Projection system being used is of very recent vintage with the following features:

  • At least three audio/video inputs supporting both high definition and standard definition television signals

  • Component Video inputs

  • HDMI inputs

  • DVI or VGA input for direct connection to a computer

  • Analog stereo audio inputs/outputs (the red and white connectors)

  • Analog video connections (the yellow connector)

  • S-Video connectors

  • Digital Audio inputs/outputs (Coaxial or Optical connector)

  • The home theater electronics includes a audio ‘receiver’ system of very recent vintage with the following features:

    • Multiple audio inputs and outputs including support for both analog audio and digital audio (coax or optical)

 

Figure 2: HTPC Setup with External USB TV Tuner

 

Figure 3: HTPC Setup with Internal TV Tuner

 

Variations of the above examples will likely be needed for a given home theater setup, depending on the specific features, specifications, and functionality of the HTPC, television and audio system being used. However, the connection concepts should carry over.

 

The Secret Sauce!

A typical home theater setup has several electronic devices (as seen in Figure 2 and Figure 3 ) and that means several remote controls to handle. User friendly? Not by a long shot. Fortunately, there is an answer – Universal Remote. Like everything else in life, they come in different shapes and sizes with varying capabilities

 

Recommendation:

Logitech’s Harmony series of remote controls. These employ the concept of an ‘activity’ – such as ‘Watching TV’, ‘Watching DVD’, etc. that when called through a button press, send out a series of remote control commands  to the various devices involved so that the correct audio and video inputs are selected at the Television and at the Audio System for that activity to be fulfilled. Check out http://www.logitech.com for details. There is a one-time initialization of the Harmony remote control that requires the use of a PC and the Internet. The process is quite intuitive and straightforward.

Further recommend looking into an RF (radio frequency) -based remote as opposed to an IR (InfraRed)-based one. RF-based units eliminate the need to physically point at the devices for the remote to work correctly.

 

The configuration shown in Figure 2 has been tested (and works reliably!) with the following components:

  • HTPC : Shuttle XPC with Hauppauge PVR-500 TV Tuner Card (internal, PCI) and Streamzap Remote (which is functionally equivalent to the Microsoft Media Center Remote)
  • Large Screen TV: Sharp Aquos LC-45GD6U
  • Audio System: Yamaha HTR-6850
  • DVD Player: Sony DVP NS-425P
  • Cable Settop box: Verzon FiOS High Definition box (Motorola QIP-6416-2)
  • Universal Remote: Logitech Harmony 880

More on Harmony Remote from Logitech

Logitech provides a piece of software that must be installed on the HTPC before one can begin setting up and using the harmony remote. The process of setting up entails the following steps:

  • Creation of a free account
  • Listing of all the electronic devices – by brand name and model number – that are part of the home theater setup. Logitech has made this easy by providing a massive list of devices including some old VCRs, etc. from which to choose.
  • Defining the ‘activities’. Logitech provides a ‘wizard’ to assist you with a series of simple questions. The purpose of this step is to ultimately program the required series of commands the harmony remote has to send to the various devices of the home theater setup to enable that activity to happen. This is best explained with an example based on a setup per Figure 2 . To ‘Watch Live TV’ on that setup, the following sequence of commands have to be sent by the harmony remote:
    • Turn on Television
    • Turn on Audio System
    • Turn on Cable/Satellite Box
    • Select HDMI Video Input on Television
    • Select Digital Audio Input on Television
    • Select Input #1 on Audio System
  • After the initial setup per above, the harmony remote has to
    • Send all volume control commands to the Audio System
    • Send all TV channel selection commands to the Cable/Satellite Box
    • Etc.
  • Connecting the harmony remote to the HTPC (via USB) and programming the remote using the Logitech software.

Tips and Tricks (in no particular order)

  1. Pre-built PCs (e.g., from HP), typically come with a host of ‘junk’ software including unnecessary anti-virus, firewall, etc. It is highly recommended to uninstall all these before installing the desired software on to the HTPC from the list above.
  2. Installing a UPS backup power. Covers you in the event of a thunderstorm hit or other unexpected and unintended interruptions to your PC’s  power source.
  3. Windows Media Center downloads the TV Program Guide from the Internet and therefore needs the Internet connection to be ALWAYS ON – or at least a lot of the time. This is especially important if you plan on recording a lot of programs via the media center, where it is important for the media center to be up to date with program details including time of telecast.

 

 

 
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