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How much machine does it take for a great HTPC experience?

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Having just given you a little taste of what Windows Home Server (WHS) has the capability to do, especially as we introduce some of the features brought by WHS  “add-ins”, I figured it might be a good time to have a brief discussion about what kind of specs constitute a good Home Theater PC (HTPC).  The reason being: what good is a Windows Home Server without also having a HTPC to view and listen to your digital media like movies, music, and recorded TV shows on that nifty HDTV of yours?  Sure, you can watch the data on the computer in the office…but seriously, how cool is that?

A couple of buddies were over last night and as we were talking about Home Theaters and different setups, the discussion drifted into what benefits a decent Home Theater PC could have over devices like the traditional cable or satellite box.

So what does make for a decent HTPC?  Well, it really boils down to what you’re looking to do with that HTPC, and that really could encompass a lot.  For example, currently my HTPC performs easily 90% of my Home Theater activities.  I use my HTPC to:

  1. Watch and record live TV via Media Center from my standard Comcast basic wall connection.  I have the Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 2250 and use the second tuner to feed from the cable box itself for the non-standard channels.  (Although I’m honestly considering ditching the cable box completely)
  2. Watch the majority of my Blu-ray movies.  Again, while I have a decently nice Samsung BD-P1600 Blu-ray player, I tend to use my HTPC’s Blu-ray player more.  I use ArcSoft Total Media Theater to watch Blu-rays either from within Media Center add-in or from its own application on the desktop
  3. Stream media shows from Boxee and Hulu clients launched from the desktop, and Netflix from within Media Center
  4. Rip DVDs and Blu-Rays from my personal collection to my Windows Home Server so I can watch them from within Media Center on any computer in the house and use the features of my favorite WHS add-ins My Movies
  5. Surf the web and,
  6. Play the occasional game.  (Truth is, I am a pretty hard-core gamer when not working on this site, so prefer to use my gaming rig to game)

Billy's HTPC

My HTPC was built from parts from an older gaming rig when I upgraded my machine after returning from Iraq.  These are the stats:

Case: Zalman HD160XT
CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo @2.66Ghz
Ram: 4Gb
HDD: C: 300Gb      D: 500Gb
Video: ATI Radeon 4600
Analog outputs to: 7” LCD on Zalman Case
HDMI outputs to: Denon AVR-790 Receiver
DVI: Not used
TV Tuner: Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 2250
Sound: ATI HDMI Audio
Mouse / keyboard: Gyration Air Music Remote with Compact Keyboard (20ft+ range)

“But wait!!  What if I don’t need to do all that fancy stuff you use your HTPC for?   What if I just want to stream content and watch DVD’s?  Is it possible to get away with a lower end PC, perhaps one that is smaller and takes less space and also is less visible?  My wife just isn’t going for having a computer in the middle of the living room!”

The answer is…absolutely! No worries!

Going back to the vision you have of how you intend to use your Home Theater PC, you can easily tone it down a bit and go with a much more scaled down version than the example above.  In fact you can get something so small that no one will ever know it’s there! We’ll get to examples in a second, but first let’s be realistic that to do many of the tasks I listed above, you’re going to need a bit of horsepower.   Honestly, the system I have really isn’t all that powerful, in fact, it’s really quite outdated.  But it’s things like the Tuner Card, extra disk space, a nice video card, and well the most obvious item…the case!

Say you like the idea of having a HTPC, but see yourself using it for activities like:

  1. Watching Blu-ray movies (depending on which PC you get),
  2. Watching movies streamed from your Windows Home Server,
  3. Stream media shows from Boxee and Hulu clients launched from the desktop, and
  4. Surfing the web.

There are a bunch of different brands, styles, and sizes to chose from, really too many to cover here effectively.  We will share perhaps just a couple of options for you to give you a feel for what you can get away with on the “lower” end of the scale.

If you really want to keep your HTPC on the low-low, check out the IdeaCentre Q Series by Lenovo, especially the Q150, pictured here.  With specs like these…

Lenovo Q150

  • Up to Intel® Atom™ dual processor
  • Genuine Windows® Home Premium
  • Up to 500GB hard drive
  • Up to 2GB DDR3 memory
  • Models with HDMI or VGA ports
  • Connects with your digital devices
  • Set up as a vertical or horizontal PC
  • Available in black

this little guy packs a pretty big punch.  And although it probably won’t be the best bet for any heavy media decoding or movie ripping, it will definitely do the job for watching and streaming movies, not to mention the fact that you can actually attach it to the back of your TV and hide it completely to keep your better half happy!

If you want to take it a step further, the Q700 is certainly a really great option coming in at around $500 and packing in these specs in a compact case:

Lenovo Q700

  • Up to Intel® Pentium™ Dual-Core processor
  • Genuine Windows®7 Home Premium 64
  • Up to 640GB hard drive
  • Up to 4GB DDR2 memory
  • Models with HDMI or VGA ports
  • Connects with your digital devices
  • Set up as a vertical or horizontal PC
  • Available in black

While these two Lenovo examples make great use of technology, they are after all just that, examples.  With SO MANY different options out there from some really amazing companies, some recognizable, some not as recognizable…but every bit as viable. The decision really comes down to what purpose you want your HTPC to serve, combined with your aesthetic tastes.   Throw the impending Google TV and even Apple TV into the mix and it can get overwhelming!

My personal preference these days is my self-built Windows 7 Premium HTPC pulling content from Windows Home Server, but I know I’m not the only guy out there with a HTPC, so tell us what you’ve got running in your home!  Look for this thread continued in the Forums and share your thoughts!  That way people can see the true variety that’s out there and hopefully find the system that suits them. That is, after all, what this site is all about!

Share your setup in the Forums!

About the Author

BillyPut simply, Tom (a.k.a Billy) loves technology! He’s been involved in the IT world since leaving the Navy in 1992 and has moved his way up to the top on the systems engineering side. After taking a short deviation into home automation, he’s never been able to shake his love for creating an environment of complete integration at home. If there is a way to make the various systems in his home more seamless (even if they weren’t originally meant to talk to each other) he’s up to the challenge of figuring out how to make it work!View all posts by Billy

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    veterinary technician01-02-2011

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Setup & Integration of Home Technology: Home Theater - Home Server - HTPC - Home Networks