Unchain Your Media: The Big, Geeky Home Theater PC Entry
Two years ago, I decided not to invest in cable or satellite television. At the time, services like Hulu were coming into their own, DVDs were being marked down to $4.50 a disc at many retail outlets, and it seemed to me that subscribing to this content in addition to Internet access made little financial sense (at least for a casual TV viewer like myself).
I didn’t miss cable television, but a different problem presented itself. DVD content and web content were separated by a yawning chasm of technical requirements. Half my media was tethered to my PC, the other half to my television.
After eighteen months of tolerating this situation, I finally broke and invested in a Home Theater PC (HTPC for short). Doing so involved some hard work, hackery and more than a few lost Saturdays, but the result is a versatile machine that’s become the center of my media viewing. When it’s not playing HD video, my living room is happily dominated by the MIDI sounds and blocky sprites of classic arcade and console games emulated on the same machine. What’s not to like?
Platform and Hardware
The most common suggestion I received from those who’d undergone this project before me was the Mac Mini, and logically so. It’s compact, quiet, relatively affordable and has Apple Remote support with Front Row baked right in. Pretty neat, but I opted for a non-Apple solution for a few reasons:
- Blu-ray support. Though I would later discover some caveats with playback, Apple hasn't even attempted to support this as an option.
- Breadth of software. There are simply more front-end solutions available for Windows, especially for gaming.
- The possibility of Linux. I know you can do it on a Mac, but a Windows box is more predictably Ubuntu-friendly should software solutions become sophisticated enough for me to make the switch.
- HDMI. The Mini doesn't have it. It's 2009; why should I have to mess with audio and video cables? Sheesh.
- Price. The Mac Mini is an affordable Apple product, but the "Apple tax" is still very much in effect.
Instead I chose what was (at the time) the equivalent PC solution: a refurbished Dell Studio Hybrid. It’s small, attractive, quiet, and succeeds where the Mac fails in the above requirements. It’s certainly not perfect (Dell’s new Inspiron Zino HD might be closer to the mark), but it’s proven itself to be versatile and reliable.
The biggest flaw of the Studio Hybrid is that it comes with Vista pre-installed. Like any self-respecting geek, I quickly wiped that out in favor of Windows 7 Home Premium. For the most part, Microsoft’s and Dell’s drivers have worked flawlessly, with the exception of the proximity sensor driver and on-screen hotkey notifications (which, for no apparent reason, are bundled together). Since I rarely use the functions these drivers support, the performance boost and increased usability of Windows 7 have more than compensated for their absence.
The redesigned taskbar (and it’s built-in Window key launch functionality) makes for a surprisingly nifty ad-hoc app-launching solution, even from a distance. I point the desktop background to a folder chock-full of movie images set to shuffle every 30 minutes. The result is some spontaneous eye candy that compliments the living room (already adorned with Star Wars, Evil Dead 2 and Blade Runner movie posters).
The Studio Hybrid comes with a really nice wireless keyboard and mouse, but their large footprint makes them ill-suited for casual use. Windows Media remotes, while nice in theory, are really only reliable when paired with Windows Media Center software (more on why I avoid that later). I tried a few remote configuration apps to circumnavigate this problem, but found them frustrating and unintuitive.
After returning a couple disappointing products, I finally settled on Logitech’s Dinovo Mini, a full keyboard and trackpad in a tiny form factor perfect for HTPCs. Is it overpriced? Definitely! But there’s simply no other alternative that will replace your keyboard and mouse for every app.
Finally, this machine wouldn’t be complete without a video game controller. I really dig the comfort and compatibility of the Logitech Cordless Rumblepad 2. The d-pad is a little clicky for my tastes, but otherwise it plays and handles almost identically to a PlayStation controller, and having dual analog sticks comes in handy for playing Smash TV.
Put simply, the open source XBMC media center app rocks. It’s a little industrial-looking out of the box, but enabling the Aeon skin (with support for beautiful HD artwork) makes every menu a joy to look at.
The Library feature is where XBMC really shines. Once you’ve pointed it to where your Movie and TV Show files reside, XBMC will “scrape” information for each and every file and present them in loving detail, organized by series and season with title, synopsis and artwork. It’s a perfect vessel for your ripped DVD collection or any other videos you’ve obtained digitally.
Hulu’s relationship with the small but passionate HTPC community has been a tricky one. They’ve done everything they can to gimp support (and oddly, ad revenue) for their service in Boxee, and plugin writers for XBMC have long abandoned the hope of avoiding arbitrary rewrites to overcome the paranoia of the service’s content creators.
Still, it’s hard to passionately fault a company that gives us such a capable and remote-friendly piece of software as Hulu Desktop. It’s faster and easier to use than Boxee ever was and, despite numerous performance complaints in the blogosphere, has always run without a hitch on the Studio Hybrid. An essential piece of software.
Despite the best efforts of services like Boxee and ZeeVee’s Zinc browser to wrap up Internet video in a cozy HTPC package, a wealth of streaming video content is still most accessible through an old-fashioned web browser. After informally testing several options for performance (with an emphasis on Flash video playback), I found Chrome to be the smoothest experience. I make liberal use of Chrome’s “Create Application Shortcut” feature, which allows you to run any web page as if it were an app, pinnable to the Windows 7 taskbar for easy access.
One exception to this is Netflix, which relies on Silverlight for its excellent video streaming service and is unsupported in Chrome. In this special instance, we use Mozilla Firefox with the Prism plugin to mimic Chrome’s shortcut creation.
What about Windows Media Center?
I know, I know… Windows Media Center is supposed to be really great, especially in Windows 7. And Netflix released a couch-friendly plugin for the service that is way easier to use than its browser-based sibling. Believe me, I’m aware of that. Which is why it hurts my soul that performance in Windows Media Center is so completely and utterly abysmal.
While XBMC plays back 1080p video flawlessly and Hulu Desktop jovially hops from menu to menu, everything in Windows Media Center is choppy, slow and unresponsive. I’ve dug far into the underbelly of Google search results and Media Center’s settings to attempt some sort of fix, but it alludes me still. Incredibly frustrating.
To Blu or not to Blu?
If you’re looking into a Dell Studio Hybrid and find yourself succumbing to the promise of its optional Blu-ray drive, you should stop. Relax. Breath deeply. And don’t bother.
Blu-ray playback is terrible on this thing. Dell’s pre-installed Blu-ray software is as unsupported as it is nonfunctional. After trying demos of nearly all software solutions, Cyberlink PowerDVD came closest to the mark (imagine my surprise), yet still failed to overcome the stuttering playback I experienced with every disc. A quick search for the problem on Dell’s forums proves that I’m not alone, and there doesn’t seem to be any reliable workaround.
It’s not just bothersome that Blu-ray playback stinks, it’s unethical given the fact that Dell is marketing HD playback on the Studio Hybrid so heavily. If you care about Blu-ray, skip the Hybrid and go for a machine with a dedicated video card instead of Dell’s worthless “graphics acceleration.” Or buy a PlayStation 3.
I love video games, sometimes to the detriment of what little interior decorating sense is baked into my brain. Having multiple consoles lying around in the living room is an eyesore, and just plain inconvenient.
While the Studio Hybrid is by no means a graphics powerhouse, it’s more than adequate enough to handle my favorite classic arcade and console games. NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, arcade and even PlayStation emulators setup with ease, but aren’t very accessible from the couch. That’s where Maximus Arcade comes in.
There are a couple different emulator front-ends to choose from, but I wouldn’t bother with anything else. Maximus Arcade is better supported, better looking, stunningly full-featured and, while not recommended for emulation novices, is a breeze to set up compared to any alternative.
Games are organized by console and presented in a convenient (and skinnable) menu system, made more so once configured for the Rumblepad controller. Expect to surrender the better part of a Saturday making all the necessary tweaks and modifications, but the end product is immensely fun and shockingly simple.
Beyond the Living Room
Windows 7 makes it really easy to share media on a home network, which opens up the possibility of installing satellite devices in other rooms of the house. Patching a refurbished Apple TV has allowed me to run XBMC on an older CRT television in my office, streaming content wirelessly from the Hybrid.
Although Apple’s oft-ignored device chokes on streaming HD content and my favorite Aeon skin for XBMC, standard-resolution video plays great even over wi-fi. If you’re not into playing chicken with Apple’s paranoid anti-hacking practices, you might give Lifehacker’s standalone XBMC HTPC tutorial a whirl.
The Home Theater PC has been the centerpiece of my media watching for about six months now, and it’s been amazing. Sure, I’m still firmly in “early adopter” territory; to overuse a design cliché, my Mom couldn’t use the setup I have now. But there’s something extremely liberating about enjoying content on your own terms, however and whenever it’s convenient. I’ve engaged myself in dozens of geeky projects in the past, but none that I enjoy as regularly.
If you’re already a gadget tinkerer and a lover of online media, and if you’re in a household that isn’t queasy about seeing a Windows, Linux or Mac desktop in their living room every once in a while, I highly recommend buying or building one yourself. It’s an immensely satisfying endeavor.