I love having the ability to play computer video files on my living room television. Back in the old days (about 3 or 4 years ago), I used a modded original XBox with XBox Media Center (XBMC) to perform this task. XBMC was great because it worked with just about every video format out there. In fact, I don’t think I ever ran across a video file that XBMC wouldn’t play. Ahh, those were the good ol’ days.
Unfortunately, the original XBox doesn’t have the horsepower necessary for playing today’s high-definition video files. Though I now have an XBox 360, the only high-definition video it will play is Windows Media or MPEG files. Oh, there are many solutions for performing on-the-fly transcoding from your PC for unsupported files, but I haven’t seen any that preserve multi-channel surround sound along with that transcoding. And modding the 360 may be possible, but it doesn’t seem as popular as the original XBox mods, so I’m not going down that dark alley.
Instead, I recently bought and built a relatively cheap home theater PC (HTPC). Building a PC for dedicated home theater use isn’t a new idea – people have been doing it for years. But the concept has recently spiked in popularity with many generic components now available allowing people to build some pretty nice systems for not too much money. Still, putting a working HTPC together is not for the weak-hearted as the industry still has a long way to go before the technology is mature. At the outset of this project, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to achieve the usability I wanted because of several factors: home network speed, audio/video codec configuration issues, integration with my Harmony remote control, proper display on my aging high-def TV, and more. In the end, it turned out to be a lot less effort than I anticipated.
The system I put together consisted of the following:
- Antec NSK2480 mATX chassis (has no IR sensor or front-panel display)
- Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-S2H mATX motherboard with integrated ATI HD 3200 graphics
- AMD Athlon 5200+ EE CPU
- 2GB Crucial PC6400 RAM
- 500GB Western Digital Hard Drive
- Windows Media Center remote control
The entire package cost me less than $500. I chose this chassis because it looks like a piece of audio/video gear and fits nicely in my A/V rack. It was inexpensive, comes with a nice power supply, and has quiet case fans. This motherboard is a popular HTPC choice because of its micro-ATX form factor, integrated ATI graphics which handles high-def video with aplomb, the built-in HDMI connector, and built-in optical S/PDIF output connector. I was originally going to get an Athlon 4850 CPU, but there were none left in stock. So I got the slightly more power-hungry 5200 for only $10 more. The Windows Media Center (WMC) remote control was only $30, and I only bought it for the IR receiver that it comes with (since I planned to used my Harmony remote instead).
Assembling the PC was a breeze, so I had no issues there. After installing Vista Ultimate as the OS, it was time to start getting my hands dirty with codec configuration. Before I get into that, I should mention that I was pleasantly surprised to find the WMC remote could be used to place the machine in and out of sleep mode. Excellent! Unfortunately, the IR code that is used for this also turns my XBox 360 on and off. I haven't yet resolved this minor annoyance.
Back to the codec thing. In preparation for what I assumed would be a nightmare of configuration trial and error, I spent some time over at AVS Forums researching the recommended installation incantations. Though many senior members strongly recommended against installing pre-packaged “codec packs,” several others indicated they had very good luck with Vista Codec Pack (VCP). So, I tried out VCP and what do you know – it worked great! All my high-definition content (including the relatively new .mkv format) worked like a charm in Vista Media Center! I had some small issues getting DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound formats to output properly to my surround processor, but I had that working within 15 minutes. So, the codec nightmare I had feared turned out to be a non-issue after all.
I did have one video glitch, however, but it wasn’t a surprise. My TV is a circa 1999 Toshiba rear-projection HDTV set. When this thing was built, HDMI wasn’t even a gleam in some video engineer’s eye. All I have are component inputs on the back of my set. I did buy an HDMI-to-component converter off eBay that works fairly well, but it appears to introduce a slight horizontal and vertical offset that unfortunately cannot be corrected with ATI’s driver software alone. Thankfully, the multi-talented Swiss-army knife of video signal software, PowerStrip, was able to remedy this for me.
After all this, I was pretty happy using Vista Media Center to browse my server for video files and play them back over my gigabit home network. I can completely control the HTPC and VMC with my Harmony remote control, and everything just works. However, having used XBox Media Center for years, I knew there was a better way to control the HTPC than with VMC. A friend at work told me about MediaPortal, a sort-of spin-off from XBMC for Windows machines. MediaPortal is somewhat more slick than VMC with my personal killer feature being the integration with the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). Instead of browsing video files alphabetically with thumbnails (which are usually black squares since movies often start with a black screen), I can now browse my videos by genre and by using the poster cover art. It’s a much better way to work with your movie collection.
I’ll still be tweaking with my HTPC for several weeks I’m sure, but for the moment I am extremely satisfied and impressed with how easy this was to put together. Stop watching video on your teeny-tiny computer screen – get yourself a nice HTPC today! :-)