Hey, we get it. We understand that the way you watch movies and TV is different than the way we do, and that this probably differs significantly from the way your neighbors enjoy their living room and/or den. But we also understand that some fairly basic carnal desires rule our decision-making. Humongous HD screens. 3D movies. High-fidelity lossless sound. More HD recording options. Playback anywhere in the house.
At its core, the home-theater dream can be distilled as follows: We want our movies to feel as cinematic as possible. And we want to be able to record and watch as many shows as possible on the biggest-possible TV screen.
When we set about constructing this year’s home theater, we used the phrase “cutting-edge” as our guiding light. A funny thing happened on the way to cutting-edge, however. As we started identifying the components and parts and controllers and cards—many of which are being released just as you read these words—we began to realize that we were on the bleeding-edge. We’ll take that. In this story, you will find:
A unique combination of parts provides an optimum entertainment experience
In building our 3D HTPC, our two primary motivations were minimal acoustic interference and full home-theater functionality. No one wants to hear the shrill whine of a fan when Michael tells Fredo, “You broke my heart.” And if an HTPC machine can’t play a 1080p trailer, stream HD video, and play Blu-ray 3D, it’s a fail. This essentially eliminated all Atom-based configurations as well as anything using integrated graphics (at least right now). Our final 3D HTPC is slightly tall but not deep, and our InfiniTV CableCARD tuner snapped into it without any problems. Here’s the full breakdown, compliments of our awesome photography department. (For a complete PC-building walkthrough, point your browser here .)
The GeForce GT 240 is one of only three GPUs that officially support Blu-ray 3D (the other two being the GTX 470 and GTX 480). The Zotac GT 240 has the distinction of also being fanless, which makes it perfect for our 3D HTPC. You should note that we are running the Zotac card in an x8 PCI-E 2.0 slot, as the passive heatsinks for the CPU and GPU could not coexist. We first considered Dremelling off a chunk of the Zotac but settled on running it in the second slot. Because x8 PCI-E 2.0 is the equivalent of x16 PCI-E 1.0, and because we are unlikely to ever run out of bandwidth, the second slot made more sense.
While there are external power-brick PSU options that are totally silent, they are limited to 200W, so we opted for a standard ATX PSU. Fortunately, fan noise is not an issue with Silverstone’s NightJar ST40NF, which is fanless. This doesn’t mean cooling isn’t required, however. For that, we rely on the Grandia GD05’s three 12cm fans to keep the PSU cool. Capable of producing 400 watts, the NightJar is pricey but it makes our 3D HTPC ultra-quiet. And believe it or not, it’s rated by Silverstone to run a GeForce GTX 470, to boot.
We chose 64-bit Windows 7 Ultimate Edition as our OS, but you’d also be fine with Windows 7 Professional. One of the most surprising aspects of this iteration of Windows is the stability and feature-richness of Windows Media Center.
It’s quiet, cool, and uses less power than higher-rpm drives, so it’s no surprise we tapped a Western Digital 2TB Caviar Green drive to provide storage.
We considered Mini-ITX and other proprietary mini mobos but ultimately settled on MicroATX for our HTPC build. This gives us a wealth of options for add-in cards and we don’t have to sacrifice any features. MSI’s 890-GX offers support for 140-watt chips (including hexa-cores), USB 3.0, and SATA 6. It also features two physical x16 PCI-E 2.0 slots and a single x1 PCI-E 1.0 along with a legacy PCI slot. For RAM, we decided that 4GB of OCZ DDR3/1333 would be more than enough.
Silverstone’s Grandia GD05 features three nearly silent 12cm fans and can accommodate an 11-inch Radeon HD 5970.
We’ve always been slightly skeptical of CableCARD products, and the initial “CableWHAT?” response we got from Comcast support did nothing to alleviate this. However, once we got our hands on a Comcast multi-stream CableCARD (achieved by simply walking into the Comcast store) and plugged it into Ceton’s brand-new InfiniTV 4 Digital Cable Tuner, we became believers. Being able to record four different channels at the same time epitomizes the notion of a power-user’s HTPC.
AuzenTech’s X-Fi Home Theater delivers not only best-in-class audio for our home-theater rig, but high-definition Blu-ray soundtracks, too.
We’ve found that sub-2GHz procs don’t have the spunk to run compute-intensive chores by themselves, such as scaling video. Even though we have a discrete GPU here, we wanted to make sure we avoided the dropped frame rates a sub-par CPU can cause. With its 2.4GHz clock speed and four cores, AMD’s Athlon II X4 610E seems to be made for HTPC use. Even better, this processor is rated at 45 watts, which makes it practically ice cold when running. We paired it with a Silverstone NT01-E cooler, which can run in passive mode with up to 65-watt procs. Since our Athlon II is 45 watts, we have plenty of thermal headroom.
To play Blu-ray 3D, you need a drive with a minimum read speed of 2x. Our Samsung SH-B083 combo drive meets that specification and even burns DVDs at 16x, too!
The HTPC Parts List
Athlon II X4 610E
||4GB OCZ DDR3/1333||$100||ocz.com|
||Zotac GeForce GT 240||
AuzenTech X-Fi Home Theater
Digital TV Tuner
Ceton InfinitiTV 4
Western Digital 2TB Caviar Green
Silverstone NightJar ST40F
Silverstone Grandia GD05
Windows 7 Ultimate
There's more than one way to skin a CAT
In a perfect world, we’d all have a home run in a structured wiring cabinet with CAT6 cable running to every room in the house. Given the bandwidth demands associated with streaming Blu-ray 3D video with an HD-audio soundtrack from a media server, gigabit Ethernet is definitely the best way to go. Fortunately, it’s not the only way to go; goodness knows none of us lives in a perfect world, so we’ll discuss both best practices and practical alternatives.
Ideally, you’ll have an 802.11n router with a gigabit switch, and a DSL or cable modem in a home run—a central location where all your cables (Ethernet, coax, and telephone) terminate. That’s difficult to pull off in a home that’s already built, but you really should consider at least stringing Ethernet cable from your router to your home-theater PC. We recommend CAT5e cable: It’s perfectly adequate for a gigabit Ethernet network, it’s a whole lot cheaper than CAT6, and your home will likely never need a 10Gb Ethernet network, anyway.
You might still be able to operate a wired network even if you live in an apartment or condo, can’t access your attic or crawlspace, or a new cable run is otherwise out of the question.
Power-line network adapters send data over your home’s existing electrical grid: Plug one adapter in an AC outlet near your source (e.g., your router), plug a second adapter into an AC outlet near your HTPC, and data travels over the electrical wires. If you go this route, make sure you buy devices that comply with the HomePlug AV standard, since it delivers theoretical data rates of up to 189Mb/s. HomePlug AV is also the basis of the still-evolving IEEE P1901 standard. Most companies building Wi-Fi routers also offer HomePlug AV products, including Belkin, D-Link, Linksys, Netgear, and Trendnet.
Power-line networking doesn’t work in every situation. We’ve found that Z-Wave home-automation products, for instance, inject a lot of noise into the wiring, and this seriously degrades the ability of power-line networking products to achieve maximum data rates.
If power-line gear doesn’t deliver a good experience, take a look at using your home’s existing coaxial cable connections (the same cables you use with your roof-top antenna or your cable company’s set-top box). The Multimedia over Coax Coalition (MoCA) has developed a specification for a home’s coaxial cable as a networking alternative.
Since cable TV became commonplace in the late 1970s, most homes built since then include coax runs in the original construction. And unlike Ethernet cable, coax cable sheathing can withstand sun and weather and can be run outside the home (it’s not pretty, but it works). MoCA adapters operate in a similar fashion to power-line adapters and offer similar data rates (up to 175Mb/s). Unfortunately, to date, far fewer manufacturers have jumped into the MoCA market. The list includes Actiontec, Linksys, and Netgear. In Lab tests, Netgear’s MCAB1001 demonstrated solid performance results.
Installing a wireless network is, of course, the least labor-intensive solution. A high-quality Wi-Fi 802.11n router will deliver more than enough bandwidth for HD video—provided there isn’t too much distance or too many physical obstacles between the router and the client. Just don’t expect to be able to stream Blu-ray 3D over a Wi-Fi network—those bit streams average about 40Mb/s. While the IEEE 802.11n standard specifies a theoretical maximum data-transfer rate of 300Mb/s, we’ve never seen an 802.11n router deliver more than 100Mb/s at a distance of 20 feet with a single wall between the router and the client.
If you want your Wi-Fi network to multitask by supporting web browsing and data clients as well as media-streaming clients, we suggest investing in a simultaneous dual-band 2.4/5GHz router. This will enable you to operate two discrete networks: one for data and one for media. Lastly, if you want to install a video projector across the room from your entertainment center, consider investing in a wireless HDMI system that operates on the 60GHz frequency band. The WiGig Alliance is developing a standard for this, but you can buy non-standard devices from Best Buy and Gefen that will do the job today.
How to make the most of your network
All 802.11n routers are the same, right? Guess again, Charley. We’ve tested a crapload of them lately—and found, well, a lot of crap. Our current favorite is Netgear’s WNDR3700. This is a concurrent dual-band model, which means it can operate two discrete networks simultaneously, one on the 2.4GHz frequency band and a second on the 5GHz band. Attach a USB hard drive—we’ve tested it with drives as large as 500GB—and you can stream music and movies without having to deploy a NAS box or home server. Netgear discovered a firmware bug that caused periodic lockups when a USB storage device was attached, but the company told us it would have a fix available long before you read this.
For whatever reason, wireless router manufacturers haven’t seen fit to move beyond offering four-port switches on their products. Better models are equipped with gigabit switches, and that’s the type you want. If four ports aren’t enough, you can add a stand-alone gigabit switch without losing any appreciable bandwidth, much like you can plug a power strip into a single AC outlet. By the same token, you can run a single Ethernet cable from your router or switch into your entertainment center and add a multiport switch there to service multiple clients.
The typical home-theater PC enclosure doesn’t allocate a lot of room for hard drives, and you’ll need the bulk of whatever local storage you do have for recording TV programming. (While you could store this content remotely by mapping a folder on a NAS box drive or server to a drive letter on your HTPC, we don’t recommend it.) You should store all your other types of media (movies and music ripped from disc, digital photographs, and so on) on a remote server or NAS box.
You can buy a NAS or home-server product or even roll your own using either a free or commercial operating system. If you buy a NAS box, make sure it has a gigabit Ethernet port and that it’s compatible with the DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) standard. A DLNA server can stream media (music, movies, photos, and so on) to a DLNA-compliant player (such as a PC running Windows Media Center, an A/V receiver, PlayStation 3, Xbox, and even some network-connected TVs).
All the major NAS box manufacturers—Buffalo, QNAP, Seagate, Synology, Western Digital—offer DLNA-compliant products. Microsoft’s Windows Home Server OS does not support DLNA natively, but some of the companies building Windows Home Server machines—including HP and Acer—go the extra mile and add a DLNA stack to the OS.
If you’re building your own WHS machine (or if you’ve purchased a retail box that isn’t DLNA-compliant), installing the TwonkyMedia Server ($30, www.twonkymedia.com ) will accomplish the same goal. Twonky also builds versions of its server software for a raft of NAS boxes (including Linux, if you’re building your own), but these are provided “as is” and there is no official technical support.
When it comes to your Internet connection, no one would dispute that faster is better. And with services such as Netflix streaming movies in 720p and YouTube offering 3D Video, speed is more important than ever. So what is the minimum-size broadband bandwidth you need?
You’ll want broadband service of at least 1.5Mb/s to stream standard-definition video. Moving up to HD video streaming will entail a big jump in bandwidth consumption: For this you’ll need an Internet connection between 3Mb/s and 4.5Mb/s to stream 720p video. You’ll need upwards of 6Mb/s of bandwidth to stream 1080p video; even then, the client might need to buffer some of the video before initiating playback to avoid dropping frames.
Fiber-to-the-home services are the best—and most expensive—solutions. Verizon’s FiOS delivers downstream speeds ranging from 15Mb/s to 50Mb/s, and upstream speeds ranging from 5Mb/s to 25Mb/s. Monthly FiOS service plans start at $50 and top out at $140. AT&T relies on fiber-to-the-node (the node being an equipment cabinet serving an entire neighborhood) for its U-Verse product. Individual homes are connected to the node via copper wire. Internet service is provided using VDSL (very-high-bit-rate digital subscriber line). AT&T offers tiered service plans ranging from 3Mb/s all the way to 24Mb/s and costing between $35 and $65 per month (the company doesn’t publish upstream speeds).
Cable TV companies have taken advantage of the fat pipes they’ve attached to most city and suburban homes to get into the ISP business, and their offerings are compelling. Comcast’s least expensive service, for instance, delivers downstream speeds as high as 15Mb/s and upstream speeds up to 3Mb/s for just $20 per month. Comcast’s top-shelf service delivers downstream speeds up to 50Mb/s and upstream speeds up to 10Mb/s for $100 per month.
How to pair your HTPC with a display that lets you watch Blu-ray 3D
Big-screen HDTVs are great, but nothing says “home theater” like a video projector and a Really Big Screen (RBS™). Finding the right displays—both a big-screen flat-panel TV and a video projector—ended up posing the biggest challenge in building our home-theater rig. We were, it turns out, just a little ahead of the curve on this one. Hopefully, our grief will be your good fortune, if what we learned makes your quest a little easier.
As many gamers can already attest, setting up a PC to play 3D games using Nvidia’s 3D Vision is a snap. Plug in the IR emitter, load the drivers, put on your glasses, and you’re good to go. This was not the case with Blu-ray 3D. No, sir. Getting Blu-ray 3D up and running on our HTPC was a Herculean task that required pre-release drivers and pre-release player software. Hey, this is what happens when you’re bleeding-edge.
Fortunately, by the time you read this, building Blu-ray 3D into your HTPC will probably be as easy as setting up 3D Vision. The drivers should be near release, the player software should be readily available, and getting your hands on a Blu-ray 3D movie will be as simple as putting down a couple of $20s at the store.
Before we go any further, though, let’s take a quick look at the various 3D technologies that enable the new wave of 3D.
The 3D “feel” is created by feeding each of your eyes a different version of the same image, each from a slightly different perspective. Your brain assembles these two images and perceives depth.
The most widely known 3D technology is the old-school anaglyph variety, which uses those familiar red and cyan glasses. Each colored lens filters out one set of images, allowing each eyeball to see a slightly different perspective. The main drawback here has always been significant color shifting. In cinema, anaglyph imagery has been around since the 1920s; the first big 3D movie boom took place in the 1950s.
Most theaters today use various polarized systems. Here, two projectors are used to simultaneously spit out two versions of the same movie onto the screen. The movies are polarized differently and the glasses allow each eye to see separate images to create the sense of depth. While far superior to anaglyph, the 3D effect with this type of passive polarized system can suffer if you tilt your head during playback.
Perhaps the highest-quality 3D experience today—and the one that’s being adopted by most new 3D HDTVs—uses active shutter glasses. These glasses are synced to your TV and literally blank out in an alternating pattern in time with images that are displayed in an alternating pattern for each eye. Although this can sometimes produce a slight ghosting effect, this system doesn’t put two images on the screen at the same time and can deliver far more accurate color than other systems. To make the images appear smooth, a very high frame rate must be used. Thus the requirement for a true 120Hz television.
OK, let’s talk products. We initially set out with the assumption that any display with a 120Hz refresh rate would work with Nvidia’s GeForce 3D Vision system, as delivered by our GeForce GT 240. Wrong. As it turns out, most HDTVs marketed as “120Hz” won’t accept a 120Hz input signal; instead, they take a 60Hz signal and perform an inverse telecine operation to extract the original 24 frames-per-second movie signal from the video signal. The TV then creates new intermediate frames and displays the movie at five times the original frame rate (5x24=120). This eliminates the uneven motion that results from displaying a movie shot at 24fps on a display with a 60Hz refresh rate.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that this class of TV was introduced over the last few years, they are already considered “legacy” 120Hz displays because they can’t support the active shutter glasses required for Blu-ray 3D and 3D games. Ironically, just about any CRT television—remember those behemoths?—that supports a refresh rate of at least 100Hz is compatible with 3D Vision. (You’ll find an up-to-date list of 3D Vision–compatible displays and projectors on Nvidia’s website .)
We performed most of our testing using an Acer H5360 DLP 3D video projector paired with Epson’s Accolade Duet screen. The Acer is limited to a native resolution of 1280x720p, but it’s very reasonably priced at $700. Even when you tack on $120 for the screen, the total price is still incredibly affordable.
Watching a Blu-ray 3D movie with a video projector is a visceral experience that is the closest you’ll get to a movie theater. A television—even a 50-inch plasma—just doesn’t compare. On the other hand, Panasonic’s Viera is capable of delivering 1080p resolution; we couldn’t find any consumer-oriented 3D Vision–compatible video projectors capable of that at press time. That said, a TV delivers higher-quality visuals during daylight hours without forcing you to invest in room-darkening shades or heavy curtains. In our opinion, the ideal home theater will be equipped with both display devices.
OK, so now you know how 3D can figure in to your HTPC ecosystem. Here’s one final checklist to make sure you’ve got all the necessary ingredients:
3D-ready HDMI 1.4–compliant TV : Panasonic’s Viera TC-P50VT25 fits the bill and offers its own set of comfortable 3D shutter glasses.
2x Blu-ray reader : Blu-ray 3D is encoded using the fairly efficient H.264 MVC codec. But because the Blu-ray 3D disc is essentially sending one video stream per eye, your BD-ROM has to be capable of physically reading it off the disc at the minimum speed (the decoded stream can easily surpass 40Mb/s).
Blu-ray 3D media player : There are a few to pick from, but Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 10 ($95, www.cyberlink.com ) is way out in front of a crowded field. We used a beta version of Power DVD 10 Ultra Mark II to test our 3D content and found it hiccup-free. A final version will be released this summer and will be free to anyone who purchased version 10.
Blu-ray 3D–ready graphics card : ATI says it has plans to support Blu-ray 3D. We also understand that Intel’s Core i3/i5 Clarkdale parts are capable of outputting the signal you need for Blu-ray 3D. But right now, only Nvidia has a working solution. The only retail cards to support Blu-ray 3D are the GeForce GTX 480/470 and GT 240. Older parts still support 3D games, pictures, and video, but not Blu-ray 3D playback.
Nvidia’s 3DTV Play : The final ingredient in playing back Blu-ray 3D is Nvidia’s 3DTV Play software. This special driver pack will let your videocard talk to off-the-shelf 3D television sets. Nvidia won’t release 3DTV Play until later this summer, but it will be free to anyone who bought a 3D Vision set. For folks who didn’t, the company will charge $40 for the update.
In general, you want to buy a plasma screen for HDTV viewing in subdued ambient lighting, and an LCD for bright ambient lighting.
2. Ignore animated videos in store displays. They are artificial images and you have no reference for comparison. Under these circumstances, the brightest and most color-saturated TV will appear to be the best, but it isn’t. The same lack of an absolute reference also applies to Avatar because the Navi are blue.
3. Some retail stores still deliver video to HDTVs using analog distribution instead of digital because it’s a lot cheaper. Analog introduces a whole other layer of issues that can impact displayed picture quality. Find out if the signal distribution is analog or digital.
4. Bring a USB thumb drive loaded with evaluation photos with you to the store. Many HDTVs now have USB inputs and in many cases the store will allow you to view them. Include both challenging high-quality professional photos and also family photos—they are the best absolute reference because you know exactly what everyone and everything is supposed to look like.
5. Check the screen for reflections. Avoid glossy screens unless you will be watching in the dark. Many glossy screens also introduce ripples in the image because they are glued on poorly. The best time to check for screen reflections is when the screen is black. Look for ripples in the screen reflection as you shift your viewing position slightly. If you bring along a USB thumb drive, include a totally black picture.
6. LCDs all have trouble at the very bright and very dark ends of the intensity scale. Manufacturers (stupidly) try to squeeze extra brightness out of every HDTV in spite of the fact that they are already plenty bright. They wind up overdriving the display into what is called white saturation or clipping—this makes the picture look like an overexposed photo. Photos with very bright highlights are great for evaluating this (unless you have some special DisplayMate test patterns). If the highlights look washed out, turn down the Contrast Control. If that doesn’t fix it, pass on that model.— Dr. Raymond Soneira, creator of the DisplayMate testing suite
We want our HBO--straight, no chaser
Sure, you can plug in a TV tuner card or USB stick and grab all kinds of free TV programming right off the airwaves—in HD, no less. Or you can log into Hulu, Netflix, or even YouTube and enjoy many of the programs that are available only on cable or satellite TV. What you can’t get are the premium made-for-cable series, such as
, movies like
You Don’t Know Jack
, and mini-series like
, at least not until several months after they’ve originally aired.
Install a CableCARD tuner and you can. We scored a pre-release version of Ceton’s InfiniTV 4 quad-tuner PC card ( www.cetoncorp.com ); the product should be widely available by the time this issue reaches newsstands. We’re pleased to report that the product delivered a great experience—in sharp contrast to the first time we tried using a CableCARD product. (You can read all about the ordeal here .)
One thing no current-generation CableCARD product can deliver, however, is two-way communication. That means you won’t get on-demand or pay-per-view services. You also won’t get your cable company’s onscreen program guide. Thankfully, the one that ships with Windows Media Center is a perfectly fine—and in many ways superior—substitute.
The InfiniTV 4 occupies a single PCI express slot. Once you’ve inserted the CableCARD provided by your CATV service provider (be sure and get the M-Card version, because the S-Card version supports only one stream), your HTPC will be capable of simultaneously recording up to four channels of TV programming—including encrypted premium channels such as HBO and Showtime.
If you have a network and the right equipment, you can watch recorded TV programs in other rooms in your house, too. Products like the InfiniTV must transcribe the cable company’s “conditional access” DRM to Windows Media DRM. Programs flagged as “copy freely” can be archived to a server and played back on most any device that’s capable of decoding it. Programs flagged “copy once,” on the other hand, can be played back only on the device that originally recorded them.
However, you can play “copy once” content on any Windows Media Center extender device (the official name is Extender for Windows Media Center) connected to that PC via the network. Unfortunately, the list of Windows Media extenders still in production has shrunk to just one product: the Xbox 360. You cannot stream “copy once” content to other PCs on your network.
In our experience, we were able to stream recorded TV from Media Center to any PC on our network; we were only able to stream live TV to our Xbox 360.
Five devices offer up unique ways of directing, accessing, and interacting with your Home Theater
They may have finally killed the floppy drive but the mouse and keyboard live on. We’ve all dreamed of magical 10-foot HTPC interfaces that allow us to navigate everywhere, but at some point, you will need a keyboard and mouse. Logitech’s DiNovo Edge is pricey at $180, but it’s still the best for HTPC applications. It has one-button access to Windows Media Center and it doesn’t seem to suffer the range issues that we’ve run into with other devices. The only thing the Edge could use, frankly, is a backlighting option.
The universal remote remains an intriguing and essential accessory. After all, how are you going to turn on and off your TV and receiver? Our answer is Logitech’s Harmony 900 ($400). This programmable, touch-screen remote allows you to quickly and easily specify home theater functions such as “Watch Movie” or “Watch TV.” Press the button associated with a task and the remote turns on all appropriate devices and sets them to the appropriate audio and video channels. RF support means you can even hide your home theater components from view. Add-on devices allow you to control Windows Media Center, Xbox 360, or a PS3.
These days, no HTPC is complete without the ability to Skype with family and friends from the comfort of your living room sofa. Logitech’s Webcam Pro ($100) clips onto your flat-panel TV and allows you to instantly begin tele-broadcasting at 720p video. Carl Zeiss optics and a super-effective auto-focus feature make this perfect for video-calling home.
The thing we like most about the Zune HD is that the ZunePass allows us carte blanche access to any and all music we want on our HTPC. The Zune HD allows us to bundle all the music and TV we’ve recorded in Windows Media Center to go. We recommend the 64GB variant ($350) because it allows you to stack hours of TV, movies, and music. An additional nice touch is that the Zune HD AV dock add-on ($90) allows you to plug into a TV or stereo via HDMI, optical audio, or composite audio/video.
A keyboard alone shouldn’t be your only interface for a home theater PC, so we complimented our DiNovo Edge with a GlideTV Navigator ($150). The navigator is simultaneously a stylish-looking remote control and touchpad. In the center, the concave touchpad allows you to maneuver your mouse. The perimeter of the device contains D-pad-style click buttons that let you navigate through Media Center, Boxee, or XBMC interfaces.
Set up your audio the right way and you'll love it forever
Studies have shown that audio quality has a major impact on our perception of video quality. Pair a great display with a crappy audio system, and your brain won’t be impressed with either. The audio element of your home theater, therefore, is at least as important to your enjoyment as its visual element. Don’t spend a bundle on a home-theater PC, a big-screen TV, and a video projector and then cheap out on your audio gear.
The Blu-ray Disc Association certainly understands this. The consortium included high-definition standards for both video and audio in its specifications. Dolby True HD and DTS-HD Master Audio are lossless multichannel codecs used to provide studio-quality movie soundtracks in the home. Both codecs support up to eight channels of audio with up to 24-bit resolution at a sampling rate up to 192kHz.
Hollywood’s copy-protection paranoia—and short-sightedness on the part of both Microsoft and Nvidia—throws a wrench into the works when it comes to getting an HD soundtrack out of a PC and to an A/V receiver. Hollywood insists that its digital property—i.e., movies on Blu-ray—be encrypted from one end of the digital chain to the other. Microsoft included a protected video path in Windows Vista and Windows 7, but it didn’t provide a protected audio path. Left to its own devices, Blu-ray playback software—PowerDVD in this case—must down-sample that soundtrack to send it over an HDMI connection, compromising your audio experience. Technically, PowerDVD could use the PC’s onboard audio hardware to decode the soundtrack and output it through the computer’s six analog outputs without down-sampling; but even if it did, you’d need an A/V receiver with six discrete analog inputs (eight for 7.1-channel surround sound), and those are becoming increasingly rare because receiver manufacturers assume you’ll use HDMI.
AMD’s Radeon HD 5800–series GPUs do include a protected audio path and can therefore pipe the movie’s soundtrack over HDMI without compromise. But we rejected that solution because we wanted to take advantage of Nvidia’s 3D Vision technology (and none of Nvidia’s current GPUs provide a protected audio path).
Enter Auzentech’s X-Fi Home Theater HD ($250 street): This card takes Blu-ray audio at full resolution, decrypts it, combines it with HD video from the videocard (via an HDMI input), re-encrypts the whole thing, and sends it on to your A/V receiver via HDMI. Yeah, it’s a bit of a PITA, but it works. For the record, Asus’s Xonar HDAV cards accomplish the same goal, but they use a PCI slot that was blocked on the motherboard we selected.
We wanted the flexibility to output video over HDMI to both an HDTV and a video projector, so we needed an A/V receiver with two HDMI outs. Yamaha’s RX-V3900 ($1,900) fulfills that role while delivering a host of other highly desirable features. The receiver’s amp delivers 980 watts of power (140 watts times seven channels: front, surround, rear-surround, and center). Since we decided not to use rear surrounds, we took advantage of the amp’s ability to bi-amplify the front speakers (driving the front tweeters and midranges distinctly from the front woofers).
An audio system is only as good as its weakest link, so we didn’t compromise when it came to choosing speakers. We built a 5.1-channel system for $2,034 based on Klipsch’s Icon W–series, with the WF-34 floor-standing speakers up front, WS-24 surrounds, WC-24 center channel, and the 300-watt XW-300d powered subwoofer handling LFE duties.
You can tuck a home-theater PC and A/V receiver in an entertainment center, so they don’t need to look good from every angle. Your speakers, on the other hand, are going to be exposed, if not at all times, at least while they’re in use. The WF-34 series’ cabinets are finished in beautiful hardwood veneer to counter the spousal-objection factor.
The Win7 incarnation is a powerful, essential part of any HTPC
Windows Media Center has come a long way, baby. Far from the kludgy, awkward Windows add-in it once was, Media Center earns its keep with Windows 7, especially if you’re opting for a CableCARD build. But while it’s a fantastic program that does nearly everything you need, there’s always room for improvement. Here are four ways to increase functionality.
If you aren’t already rocking Netflix, you’re missing out. Not only can you borrow discs from Netflix’ huge DVD and Blu-ray library, but you can also snag immediate access to Watch Instantly, letting you watch movies and TV shows from the classic to the not-so-classic. Netflix even added HD content to its Watch Instantly lineup in May. If you do already use Netflix, a simple plugin enables you to access your Watch Instantly queue (and the entire Watch Instantly library), stream movies and TV shows, and even change your DVD queue all from within Windows Media Center. Just go to the Movies menu and go left to the Netflix option. Media Center will download the plugin, and then offer you a sign-in page. From there, you can access Netflix from the Movies menu or as a channel in Internet TV.
This one’s a bit of a hack, and it’s only really useful if you plan on keeping your HTPC in Windows Media Center for most of its uptime, as it eliminates the need to exit or tab out of Windows Media Center to view Hulu videos. Download Hulu Desktop ( www.hulu.com/labs/hulu-desktop ) and install it. Then download Hulu Desktop Integration from http://huluwmc.teknowebworks.com . Run the .msi to install Hulu Desktop Integration. Now open Windows Media Center, and scroll down past Extras. You’ll find a brand-new Hulu menu with a Hulu icon in it! Clicking the icon launches Hulu Desktop and minimizes Media Center. When you exit Hulu Desktop, you’re automatically sent back to Windows Media Center. Perfect? No. Hulu? Hell, yeah.
There are many ways to watch non-physical archives of Blu-ray and other high-def content on your HTPC. One of the Maximum PC editors stores disc images on a home server, mounts them on his HTPC, and watches them using PowerDVD. Others prefer their high-def content in .mkv containers, stored locally. Unfortunately, Windows Media Center doesn’t recognize or play .mkv files natively. Getting Media Center to do so involves several steps. To paraphrase Scarface, first you get the codec. Then you get the splitter. And then you change some registry settings!
We found (and tried) multiple methods, but the one that wound up working best is the one we found at the aptly named (and incredibly useful) blog Hacking Windows 7 Media Center . It involves the Shark007 codec pack ( shark007.net ) and a registry hack to get Windows to recognize .mkv files.
Using your HTPC as a DVR is easy, given the TV tuner/CableCARD combo we talked about in our build. But the recordings are stored in a proprietary format—and they’re huge. An hour of HD TV in the .wtv format can take up nearly 5GB of space. Fortunately, there’s a little freeware app called MCEBuddy ( www.mcebuddy.com ) that promises to help. Download the .zip file (be sure to get the 64-bit version if you’re running 64-bit Windows), extract it to your desktop, then run setup.exe as an administrator. Once it’s installed, run the MCEBuddy Configurator and select the output file type, whether to skip commercials, and the output destination. The app is only single-threaded, so you can run it in the background. And you can schedule when you want the conversions to run. Depending on the format you’re converting to, you will sacrifice some fidelity, but it’s a great way to convert your recorded TV to watch on a portable device, among other things.
The four tips we cover in depth in this section only scratch the surface of what Windows Media Center is capable of. Here are a few more things you can do:
We’ve built a great HTPC, if we may say so ourselves. But not everyone has the moolah for a full Windows 7 box, a quad tuner, and a bitchin’ sound system. Good news: You can turn an old laptop or net-top into a pretty decent HTPC using free software. You won’t be pushing out lossless surround sound or recording 1080p video from four channels at once, but you can stream Internet TV and video as well as network media to your TV. Plus you can play CDs and DVDs if you’re using a computer with an optical drive.
Our favorite free media center programs are XBMC ( www.xbmc.org ) and its variant, Boxee ( www.boxee.tv ). Both run on Windows, OS X, and Linux, so you don’t need to spend any money on an OS to get them up and running. XBMC (which can even run from a live CD) is open source, with an emphasis on streaming and local content, while Boxee is a closed-source “social” variant that leans toward Internet television and social media, with built-in support for Netflix, Last.fm, Twitter, and more. Both are great (and free) alternatives to dropping a couple hundo on Windows 7 and Media Center.