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Posts Tagged: HTPC

HTPC – Up and Running (projectlog part 4)

Thursday 25th February 2010

I actually wrote this back in November, but I didn’t publish it at the time because I wanted to get some better photos. I never did, and I can’t be bothered to tidy up the living room and scrounge some batteries to take some now. I realise that the last post about this – in September! – said “part 4 tomorrow”, but well, oops…

Just as a refresher, I’ve been putting together a home theatre PC for the living room at uni-house. This is basically a normal pc with a TV card in the back, that’s hooked up to a normal TV rather than a computer monitor. You then use the PC to watch TV, the advantage being that you can then record stuff or timeshift, as well as stream media from other c0mputers, use iPlayer/4od/YouTube on the TV, and also play video files on the TV.

This started as a way to re-use an old PC, and I started off using my old computer from like 5 or 6 years ago. That plan died off though, because I bought myself a new desktop when I came back to Uni, so I used the computer that replaced for the htpc. Important specs:

  • Core2Duo E6300 (dual core, 1.8GHz)
  • 2GB Ram
  • 500GB Hard Disk (I added this, because I used the old hard drives in my new PC)
  • Leadtek Geforce 7300 graphics card (I also added this, because it’s fanless)

I did a few things to keep it fairly quiet. Firstly that graphics card. I did have a Radeon X1950pro when this was my “main” pc, but it was pretty loud so I swapped it for the 7300. I also pinched a quieter power supply from another pc, and disconnected one of the smaller case fans. So it’s pretty quiet now, which is good.

Because it’s a fairly powerful computer, I went with Windows 7. I’ve ran 7 on all my computers since the Beta was out in January, and it’s pretty bloody good. Everything works really well, and really easily. By way of example, when I was setting up the htpc, I needed to connect it to the internet, but only had one Wi-Fi dongle, which I use on my main pc. So I connected the two computers with an ethernet cable, shared the wireless connection on the main pc, and had the internet running on both PCs in minutes.

Whilst I’m on the subject of OSs, I was looking at laptops a few months ago and looked at MacBooks as well as proper computers (because whatever you want to say, Apple hardware looks really good). I wanted to see what MacOS is like, so I installed it on my desktop for a bit. I can now say that anyone who says that they actually like using MacOS is either a masochist or an idiot, because it’s one of the worst operating systems I’ve ever used. It’s amazingly unintuitive and confusing, and just a pain in the arse to get working properly. It felt half-finished; some bits were really polished but other parts of the UI felt like they’d been carried over from the dark ages. Going from 7 to that felt like such a retrograde step. I also didn’t like the fact that all the “working” bits were hidden from view. I didn’t have a clue where anything was saved, which was really unsettling. The fact that one of the selling points Apple use when selling their computers is that you can run Windows kinda says it all. I digress.

Anyhow, once I got it all up and running, I hooked it all up to the TV:

htpc hooked up to TV

I’ve written before about Media Center in Vista, and it’s pretty similar in 7 so there’s no point rehashing it (look at this video though if you want an idea of how it works), other than to say that it’s pretty damn good. The only problem I’ve had is that the software I wanted to use for remote access, WebGuide, doesn’t work with 7 yet. This isn’t a major problem though, and should be sorted eventually.

There’s some really nice touches in there though. Like in the guide, it fetches information off the internet for each show. So the other night we were browsing though the listings and when we saw whatever film was on Film4, someone said “oh, isn’t so-and-so in that?”. I could find out straight away by selecting the listing and going to the info, where there’s a synopsis and a cast list. It also fetches the info for DVDs, which is pretty cool.

I think I mentioned before that the TV card I bought came with a remote control. I wasn’t that impressed with it to be honest; it didn’t work that well with Media Center and occasionally stopped working all together. After a while I replaced it with this one, which works much better. All the buttons do what they’re meant to do, and it makes it really easy to navigate round everything whilst lying on the sofa.

I’ve got a decent library of videos and stuff on there now, and I’ve also set it up to access the music library on my desktop machine (and the music library in Media Center is really impressive by the way). I’ve installed Spotify on there as well. I wasn’t going to do that initially, but one of my housemates suggested it and I think it’s turned out to be a really good idea.

There’s a load of other stuff on there, other than Media Center. I’ve installed uTorrent and scheduled it to run unthrottled overnight, so it downloads stuff quickly. It’s set up to drop finished torrents in a certain folder, which Media Center monitors so that I can play stuff I’ve downloaded straight away through the Media Center interface, which is pretty handy (although some of my housemates don’t seem to understand this idea and keep turning the pc off at night, even though I’ve asked them not to).  I’ve also got a load of emulators (N64, Megadrive, SNES and NES) as well as some PC games on there. Worms Armageddon has quickly become a house favourite…

Also, streaming video on the TV is excellent. iPlayer, YouTube or whatever, are essentially the same quality as normal TV signals, because the resolution of the screen is comparatively low. The only inconvenience is that you have to swap from the remote control to the keyboard, and leave Media Center to use a web browser to get at it. Relatively minor problem though, to be honest.

Overall, it works really well, and everyone seems to be happy with it, which is good. If I were doing it again, using new components, I think I’d get a mATX motherboard and case, or perhaps even look at MiniITX or something like that. As it is, the next upgrade (when I have a lot more money than I do currently) is to go HD. I think that Formula 1 is going to be broadcast in HD next year and I’d love to be able to get that, but unfortunately it’d require a new TV as well as a new card for the PC. Definitely not on the cards any time soon, then.

So, if anyone else has an old pc lying around, I can definitely recommend it as a worthwhile project. A htpc makes a really good addition to a TV setup, and it’s relatively inexpensive to convert a PC for the purpose.

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