I think I should start off with a note. I’m not writing this for any other reason than to geek out over stuff in writing. I’m not bragging or showing off or anything like that. I like to obsess over details, configurations and componants before I actually buy anything. Writing what I want to do helps me plan things out and make better decisions later on. It also keeps me from driving everyone around me crazy from taking about it nonstop until I finally take the plunge. Also, the choice of componants should clearly indicate that this is a budget system.
The interesting thing is that I wrote an HTPC post maybe eight months ago, but deleted it because it ended up being a hardware wish list and me bitching that the thing still wouldn’t do everything that I wanted, after spending close to a thousand (pretend) dollars. It was too hypothetical. Now, on the other hand, its a serious consideration. The landscape is different enough now that I get to completely revisit the subject. First thing is to decide what exactly this thing is supposed to do. Second is to look at my hardware and software options, including and out of box solutions versus building my own system.
Most of the HTPC setup that I’ve seen are heavily geared towards watching and time-shifting television shows. I’ve thought about this for some time and came to an interesting conclusion. I just don’t watch that much TV. Which is to say that I don’t watch that many TV shows that I would care to record or time shift. Even when I miss a show that I wanted to catch, I either have an iTunes subscription or can easily find a hi-def torrent somewhere. However, that’s not to say that things won’t ever change, so I’d like to keep this option open. TV tuners are available both as PCI cards and as USB dongles, so adding one later shouldn’t be an issue. I just have to make sure that it’ll play nice with the Harmony and with Comcast, preferably before I buy!
For me, this is the biggie. I like movies. A lot. I’m a huge Netflix fan, getting as much as I can out of my disk plan, and recently out of the Instant View as I can. I’m also a Boxee fan, and eagerly await fixes to some of the bugs that’s holding it down. I’m also in the process of rebuilding my old Quicksilver into a multi-terabyte media serving monster. The plan is to rip my DVD collection with handbrake stick them into my central iTunes library so I can access them over the LAN without having to hunt disks down. Since these are my own rips, anything that plays nice with iTunes shouldn’t have any issues playing them back.
The other consideration is Blu-ray. If I so choose, I can add a Blu-ray drive to a Windows-based HTPC. There are some ramifications to this. A Blu-ray drive currently requires Windows, as neither Linux nor OS X support the AACS DRM needed to decode the disks. Which sucks. However, the alternative is to rip the disk and perform some voodoo in Ubuntu, or run Boot Camp from a Mac. Neither solution is as elegant or smooth as just having WMC just running. I hate DRM, since it limits the things I can do and my options. That’s why I’m still keeping the PS3 in mind, since I can keep the DRM stupidity limited to the black box that way. In any case, I’ll want an HDMI port for the best picture and to complete the ACDP-compliant chain for BR playback.
Since I mentioned the PS3 and DRM, I’ll just point out that I have no intention of buying or renting any movies from the Playstation Network. Ever. Their DRM is positively draconian. I don’t care at all for Fairplay, but at least I’m allowed to back stuff up and restore for if (when) a hard disk fails. I should also point out that I don’t buy movies from iTunes, either, and I usually only rent the $0.99 rentals.
Since this machine will be connected to my central iTunes library, it’ll also have full access to all my music. This is fortuitous, since it will also be connected to my stereo! There’s not much else to say about my music, since its fairly mature. I’ll probably want to re-rip some of my earlier rips at a higher bitrate, since they were originally done at 128kbps and I now favor 320kbps. Having my music streaming from the HTPC means that it’ll be piped through the stereo, which is always a plus.
The other issue is movie and TV sound. If I don’t connect the HTPC to the reciever, I’ll want to pipe the sound there. I’ll want an optical port to connect to the receiver.
There are lots of other nifty things than an HTPC can do conected to an HDTV. There’s MAME, huge web browsing, Netflix, Hulu, etc. I’ve been playing with Boxee, but its still in alpha, and it shows. On the other hand, its getting better and more stable with every release, so I imagine I’ll find it becomes a part of my permanent entertainment system in no time.
The Apple Setup
I’m primarily a Mac user and default to Apple products first. My temporary HTPC is my first-gen Macbook Pro, which has given me a lot of experience about what I really want and can accomplish with a dedicated HTPC. The problem is that Apple doesn’t make a dedicated HTPC (yet). The two obvious choices are an TV or a Mac Mini. I considered the TV first, simply because its cheaper and is supposed to be a dedicated set-top box. It has an HDMI port and is highly hackable, most notably via Boxee. However, its nowhere near as versatile as a full computer. Boxee can run Netflix instant viewing quite comfortably on a Mini, but not at all on the TV, because the smaller device doesn’t have the raw horsepower to decode the stream. The TV can decode HD iTunes downloads because of h.264 hardware accelerators for which no public APIs exist.
What I’m hoping for is an updated Mini that combines the HTPC features of the TV with the full computer-ness of the Mini (but with modern components like the nVidia 9400M graphics card).
The Dell Solution
I like the Dell Studio Hybrid. Its in the same price range as the Mac Mini, but has a few advantages. It was clearly meant to be used as an HTPC with an HDMI port and an optional Blu-ray player (which adds over $200, but you can’t get a slim Blu-ray player for any cheaper. If at all). It also comes with Vista, which is only useful because WMC is damned good. Plus, just about every peripheral I could get will work with it. On the downside, it still ships with the Intel graphics. Plus, it runs Windows, which, WMC aside, sucks and will eventually fuck up and piss me off. Boxee doesn’t yet work on Windows, but should this month.
The DIY Solution
The benefits of building your own HTPC are, of course, the same as building any PC. You can select exactly the components you want, and not have to deal with crap you don’t. This usually comes at the cost of integration and size. Those are dealt with by thorough research and artful cable management and by careful choice of case. I’m not going to go too in-depth about my reasoning behind the following list of parts, since it should be fairly obvious. The case isn’t the most powerful or extendable, but its quiet, smallish and it looks like a piece of home theater equipment, rather than a PC. The same goes for the processor. AMD gets its ass kicked by Intel on the high end, but I’m not looking for a octo-core gaming monster. I want a processor that won’t immediately kick the fans in, but can still handle HD content without trouble. In that, AMD excels. The X2 BE-2300 is a 64 bit, 1.9GHz dual-core processor that consumes 45 watts! That’s damn impressive. Low power means lower energy costs, but more importantly, less heat, which means less fan noise. The Antec case has some good air flow management and three 120mm fans, which spin slowly, generating less noise.
Proc: AMD Althon X2 BE-2300 $34.99
Mobo: Asus M2N68-VM with HDMI $66.99
RAM: Corsair 4GB (2x2GB) $69
HDD: WD Caviar 1TB with 5-year warranty $119.99
Optical: Lite-On 4x Blu-ray $89.99
Case: Antec Fusion HTPC Case $174.99
Of course, there are other miscellaneous parts, but these are the biggies. This configuration leaves both PCI slots on the motherboard open, so I can add something like a tuner card or eSATA later. The case also has room for a second hard drive. 1.5TB drives are coming down in price, so I might splurge for one of those. It might also be interesting to boot Windows from a flash drive, and leave the hard disks open for more media.
Clearly, a DIY HTPC is the most fun and quickly becomes the most powerful. If I was to build this machine today, I’d probably test install it with the Windows 7 beta, and see how well that works. Depending on how stable the configuration is, I’d probably just leave 7 on there until I can get a retail copy. Otherwise, I’d just load Vista and wait until I can upgrade to Win7 final.
The interesting thing is that this configuration costs 573.91, which is ~$20 cheaper than the Mini and ~$130 more than the base Hybrid, but is significantly more capable than each (adding a Blu-ray drive to the Hybrid adds $200). That ignores shipping and tax, but prices change often enough that doing exact comparisons is a waste of time.
The reason why I’m only considering Macs or Windows is because Linux won’t easily work with iTunes or Blu-ray. There are a couple of really cool Linux media centers, but they all require more work than I’m really willing to put into this. Windows will work with a minimum of effort on my part. This machine needs to be rock-solid and need as little post-setup configuration as possible, almost appliance-like. I don’t think I can pull that off with Linux right now.
So, I’ll have a much better idea of where I stand after the Philnote on Tuesday. In any case, I have a really good idea of what I’m going to be spending my tax return on!