Stop surfing the internet for a minute (we know, a tall order) and go get your last cable or satellite TV bill. Back? Good. Now skim to the bottom and look at the total amount of money you paid for TV last month. Do you feel like you got a reasonable amount of entertainment for that $60, $80, or even $100-plus? Are you happy about the money you spend for the privilege of watching TV? We’re not. The vast majority of TV we watch is available for free, over the air. Sure, we’ll occasionally watch an episode of Flight of the Conchords on HBO or a documentary on Discovery, but most of the TV we watch is on one of the big over-the-air networks—ABC, CBS, Fox, the CW, and NBC. So we started looking for alternatives.
It turns out that the vast majority of new TV shows are available online, either as part of an ad-driven website like Hulu or TV.com, or available for sale on iTunes or Amazon’s Unbox service. However, having a PC in the living room has traditionally sucked. After all, you don’t want to hear a big, noisy PC when you’re enjoying a movie or a TV show, and using a mouse and keyboard as the primary interface just doesn’t cut it when you’re kicking back on the couch. But times have changed. These days, it’s easy to build a PC that’s quiet enough to be virtually unheard, yet powerful enough to play all the high-definition video that’s currently available.
And making the proposition even more appealing, there are software frontends like Boxee and the new Hulu Desktop that let you harness all that hardware power in an easy-to-use, remote-friendly interface that combines the massive library of streaming video on the web with the DRM-free content you rip from discs or purchase legally on the web. We’ll introduce you to a couple of the options, then help you configure our favorite. By combining a few hundred bucks’ worth of hardware with a free software app and your broadband connection, you can reduce the money you spend on entertainment from $100 a month to $100 a year.
The ultimate living room PC is a balance between high performance and low power consumption—i.e., it must play high-definition H.264-encoded video while running whisper-quiet
At the heart of your living room PC should be a CPU that sips power, even during demanding tasks, to minimize heat, and thus fan noise. After testing several contenders, we ended up choosing a low-power Phenom X4 9350e ($185, www.amd.com), which draws just 65W under full load. We considered a dual-core Athlon 64 but decided we’d rather have the extra two cores for transcoding than save 20W. The CPU must be 65W or lower because of the power supply, case, and limited cooling in our system.
It crossed our minds to use an Atom or other ultra-low-power processor, but we found that the current single-core CPUs simply don’t have the muscle (or enough help from onboard graphics) to play H.264 at 1080p. We had some luck at 720p, but that’s not real high-def as far as we’re concerned. Perhaps Nvidia’s Ion chipset will give Atom a needed lift, but you currently can't build your own Ion-platform machines.
Like our CPU selection, the case must balance two conflicting forces—cooling and noise—all while fitting into a living-room-friendly formfactor. For all those reasons, we chose Silverstone’s LC19 ($200, www.silverstonetek.com). Its svelte profile (only 68mm tall!) fits perfectly into our entertainment center along with our other components, while muffling the noise so as not to disturb us.
We also like the slightly larger, less expensive Antec Veris Remote ($160, www.antec.com), which isn’t as compact or sexy as the LC19, but easier to build in.
After we selected our CPU, we went shopping for a Mini-ITX Socket AM2 motherboard that featured decent integrated graphics. Since we’re not playing games, we really just wanted a GPU that would pull a little of the heavy lifting for video decodes off the CPU. The Jetway JNC62K ($140, www.jetway.com.tw) features Nvidia’s GeForce 8200 chipset, which is more than sufficient for our needs. It offers analog VGA and DVI/ HDMI (using an adapter), it has a pair of Gigabit Ethernet ports, and its onboard audio features both analog and optical S/PDIF outputs.
Honestly, though, any Micro-ATX or smaller board that supports your CPU, includes integrated sound with an S/PDIF output, and sports integrated graphics from Nvidia or ATI will do the job.
Your entertainment PC doesn’t need a ton of storage—just a few gigs for the OS and the streaming software. (You’ll access the content you’ve ripped or purchased from your desktop PC or server over a network share.) We used a Western Digital Green terabyte drive we had in the Lab ($90, www.wdc.com), more because of its low rpm than its capacity, which is admittedly overkill for this purpose. You could just as well drop a 2.5-inch notebook drive into this rig. We initially considered running the OS on a CompactFlash card or a USB thumb drive, but having some storage in the box is preferable—if you connect your living room rig using a slow wireless link, you can copy movies to the hard drive before playing them. It adds a few more minutes of prep, but the playback will be buttery smooth despite your hoopty network.
The Jetway motherboard we're using is an AM2 motherboard with only one DIMM slot, so any generic 2GB module will do. We went with a single 2GB stick of PNY DDR2 memory, which you can find on Newegg for $25.
For very tiny PCs, it’s a good idea to have access to short SATA cables with one right-angle connector. Since the cables have a direction, you’ll need to get the type of cable that angles down, or you’ll have to mount your hard drives upside down. You can find right-angle SATA connectors at pretty much any screwdriver shop or on Amazon, but to find cables shorter than 18 inches, we had to go to Newegg.
We skipped the TV tuner in our living room rig for one simple reason: We don’t need it. While it would be nice to add over-the-air capture to our rig, we’d rather let this machine fall into its sleep mode when it’s not being used, rather than running 24/7 to pull all our TV shows from the ether. Combine that with the fact that most HD tuner cards can’t pull content from your cable or satellite service, and you’d be spending money just to get the same content you can pull from Hulu.
If you insist on hooking your cable box up to your PC, the best way to get HD content into your PC is to use the FireWire interface on your cable box. This will give you high-quality HD video for the content that isn’t marked as protected by your cable provider (typically only HBO, Starz, Showtime, and other paid channels are “protected”). Unfortunately, it’s incredibly difficult to configure, and it requires special drivers and a ton of hacking. Check out http://home.comcast.net/~exdeus/stbfirewire/ for the full scoop.
There are a multitude of possible input devices you can use for your living room PC, ranging from a traditional remote control to a keyboard/mouse combo. The keyboard/mouse is the easiest to set up and lets you fully tap into the massive flexibility of the PC—after all, you can fire up a web browser or iTunes and play any content you can download using a mouse and keyboard. We’re especially fond of the DiNovo Media Keyboard from Logitech ($160, www.logitech.com). It’s a full-size board, but it has a handy touch pad in the lower right corner, which makes mousing possible.
On the other hand, a more traditional remote control can be mighty handy, especially when you’re sitting on the couch. Hulu Desktop works with any Windows Media Center remote, which means you can use a cheap one like Anyware Computer's GV-IR01WT IR remote ($30, www.anywareus.com).
Boxee will work with pretty much any input device, but we tested a couple of Windows Media Center–compatible remotes and found them to work well. You can find a wide variety of Media Center–compatible remotes at Newegg and Amazon; they’re usually around $50. Alternately, the Logitech DiNovo Mini ($150, www.logitech.com) is a remote-size clamshell device that includes a mouse and keyboard in a smaller package. It’s a little spendy but worth the bucks.
Building a living room PC is the same as building any other PC, just in an itsy-bitsy case
Before you get started, you’ll need to open your case (image A), remove the peripherals that the vendor ships inside the case, and clear any cables. Depending on the case you use, you may need to remove the power supply and drive caddy in order to mount the motherboard. This is also a great time to mount the I/O shield in the case (image B). Line it up with the opening at the bottom of the case, then gently tap it into place using a screwdriver handle or your fingers. Make sure the holes on the shield line up with the ports on the mobo’s backplane!
Before you mount the motherboard in your case, you’ll want to mount the CPU. For our AM2-based system, all you need to do is lift the socket’s locking lever, line up the key pins on the CPU with the appropriate corner of the socket, drop it into place, then lower the lever again.
Next, you’ll want to mount the CPU cooler on the CPU. For the living room, the stock cooler that came with your CPU should be sufficient; although, if you’re using a low-profile case, it’s preferable to use the cooler designed for that specific case. Make sure you use a pea-size amount of thermal grease, or the thermal pad that’s pre-applied to your stock cooler, and don’t forget to connect the fan’s power lead to the CPU fan header on the motherboard.
With just a single memory slot, there’s no worry that you’ll accidentally misconfigure your dual-channel motherboard. With that in mind, release the retention clips, line up the DIMM, and slide it into place. As with all motherboards, mounting the memory will take more pressure than any other part of the install.
It’s time to mount the motherboard in the case. You should have already snapped the I/O shield into place, so make sure the motherboard standoffs are lined up properly for your motherboard. If you’re putting a Mini-ITX board into an ATX case, you’ll probably need to move or remove at least one or two standoffs. Once the board is in place, start one screw without tightening it all the way. Once you’ve started the rest of the screws, you can tighten them all down.
Now is a good time to plug in your power supply and test-boot the rig. While the test-boot isn’t necessary for full towers, building inside these tiny home theater cases is such a pain in the ass that we recommend making sure everything works before you go any further. To get started, plug the two power leads into the motherboard, connect the power switch to the power headers on the board, plug in a monitor, and plug in the PSU. Don’t worry about connecting drives or a keyboard to the device—we just want to make sure the machine will post. If it doesn’t, remove the board, make sure there aren’t any extra standoffs grounding the mobo, and reseat your memory before trying again. When your rig boots, move on to the next step.
The Jetway motherboard we used has a pair of power connectors. You’ll need to connect both the 4-pin ATX 12V connector and the main 20-pin ATX power connector.
The front panel connectors on the Jetway are the same as on any other mobo. As always, watch the polarity on the LED connectors (connect the colored wire to the positive pole on the connector); however, the switches work either way.
Make sure you get the HD Audio connector and your USB headers connected before you put any more hardware in the case. As you start to run cables, it gets really tough to work around the motherboard.
Finally, connect your SATA cables to the motherboard. The Silverstone case gives good access to the SATA ports, even if all the other components are installed, but that’s not always the case.
Next, it’s time to mount the drives. The LC19 case supports either a 2.5-inch notebook drive or a standard 3.5-inch drive; however, it won’t mount like in a typical case. Instead of screwing your drive into a cage, you’ll actually screw it into the bottom of the case. The LC19 includes a rubber gasket around the holes, which will help isolate vibration and keep noise from leaving the case. It’s a little tricky to mount the drive, though; the best way we found was to flip the case up on its side and hold the drive in place with one hand while starting the screws from the other side (image A). Once you’ve run all four screws into place, you can put the case back down, and connect the power and the SATA cable.
Next up is the optical drive, although this is a strictly optional feature. The LC19 is designed to work with a notebook optical drive. We picked up a generic slot-fed DVD-RW drive from our local hardware shop, but any one will work. You should be able to find a slim DVD burner at Newegg or Amazon for less than $50. If you’re using a PATA drive, you’ll also need an adapter (the LC19 comes with one). You can mount the adapter on the drive before or after you put it in the case. It doesn’t matter. Slide the drive into the machine, line up the front bezel of the drive with the case, then use the tiny screws that come with the case to lock the drive into place (image B). Connect the PATA cable and power to the adapter, making sure you line up the keyed portion of the ribbon cable.
Before you close the case, it’s a good idea to test-boot the PC once more. Everything should be hooked up and ready to go now, so connect the power brick and power up the PC the first time. Everything works? Great! Close the case and you’re ready to connect your living room PC to your TV.
There are different ways to connect your entertainment PC to a TV. The best option is HDMI, which carries both a 1080p signal and a high-quality audio signal to your TV and home theater setup. You’ll need a dual-link DVI-to-HDMI adapter—if your board didn’t come with one, you can purchase it at MonoPrice.com for a few bucks.
Secondary options are DVI for video and Toslink S/PDIF for audio. Most modern TVs include DVI ports, but you’ll need a Toslink-to-mini-DIN connector to hook up optical audio to the set. You can purchase one for about $0.75 at MonoPrice as well—search for part number 2671.
On May 28th, Hulu announced its own desktop client, aptly named Hulu Desktop. This stand-alone program has all the features of Hulu's website -- stream channels, user profiles, full screen capability -- but lets you watch videos without a browser. Its bare-bones frontend makes it ideal for a living room PC, and support for keyboard, mouse, and Windows Media Center remotes gives you plenty of control options.
Let's run down Hulu Desktop's notable features.
The install is only 2.2MB, since Hulu Desktop is essentially an Adobe Air application. Adobe Flash must be installed for it to work and the installer will prompt you to install Flash if you don't have it. When Hulu Desktop is running at full screen, Windows Task Manager showed it using up about 350MB of system memory. Also, since the window is just running a flash program, it's completely rescalable to any resolution.
Every time the program launches, you're shown a video frame with three options at the bottom. This isn't the default menu; the video is Hulu's flavor of the week -- a sponsored video that automatically plays to introduce you to new shows. At the time of this writing, the default video was the pilot episode of Fox's new Glee series. Clicking the "Menu" button takes you to the show browser.
Here's the video playback interface, which offers features similar to Hulu's web playback interface. You can skip around to different parts of the video (with thumbnail previews at time intervals), add a video to your queue, and give it a rating. Advertisements appear at the same spots on the Desktop app as they do on the Hulu website, but we haven't seen any ads on the menu screens yet.
Clicking the Menu button at any time during video playback will shrink the video to the top lefthand corner of the window, but continue playback. Here, you can browse content by network, type, popularity or your queue/subscription. The interface is actually very reminiscent of Boxee's UI, and optimized for navigating with the directional pad on a remote control. Mouse clicks and the mouse wheel work just fine, of course.
Search works as expected -- you can search by show or episode name, but not actors. Results show up in real-time on the right of the screen, and an on-screen keyboard lets you search without a keyboard.
The Preferences sub-menu is pretty scarce, offering few customization options. The most important setting is Video Quality, which lets you scale bitrates ranging from 480Kbps to 1Mbps ("high-def" video). Full screen video looks best at 1Mbps, of course, but is even the HD feeds are a far cry from true 720p or 1080i video from digital cable, satellite, or even broadcast television.
Next: But what about Boxee for Windows?
Boxee brings web video playback and social networking to a TV-connected PC. Awesome!
According to their company blog, the Windows alpha of Boxee (free, www.boxee.tv) should be public sometime in June (it's been in an Alpha testing period for several months). Boxee is a variant of XBMC—the media streaming and playback software originally designed for the Xbox 1 that now runs on all major platforms—designed with social networking in mind. In addition to many of the streaming and media management features that XBMC has, Boxee includes a friends list and the ability to pull web video from sites like CBS.com, Netflix.com, and CNN.com into the app’s sexy 10-foot interface, which makes it easy to browse with a remote control.In its current alpha state, Boxee can be a touch unstable; however, it’s so powerful and awesome that we’re willing to tolerate an occasional crash to use it.
But first you’ll need to install Windows. We’ve tested the Boxee Alpha with XP, Vista, and Windows 7 Beta 1. Boxee works great with XP and Vista (including 64-bit Vista) but has problems with Win7 due to the nascent OS’s poor OpenGL support. That may change by the time you read this, but for the time being, we don’t recommend Win7 for Boxee users.
After you’ve installed Windows, updated the OS, installed the Nvidia chipset drivers and AMD CPU drivers, changed your display settings to the native resolution for your monitor, and installed the Realtek drivers to enable sound, you should install Boxee. The installer is very straightforward, but there’s quite a bit you can do to optimize your experience after the initial install.
Once Boxee is installed, you’ll want to point it to your network shares. The easiest way to do that is to map a network drive, but you can also use Boxee’s built-in Samba client, as shown here.
First, you’ll want to calibrate Boxee’s video displays. From the home screen, go left and navigate down to Settings. Go to Appearance, then Screen. Make sure the resolution is set to your TV’s native resolution (1920x1080 for a 1080p set, 1280x720 for a 720p set), then click the Video Calibration option. This will walk you through a series of configuration options that will ensure your video is displayed at the proper aspect ratio for your set.
If you have media stored on your machine or network, you can add that content to the Boxee interface as well. In the Settings menu, go to Media Sources. While you can have Boxee connect directly to an SMB share, we recommend mapping a network drive in Windows, then accessing the media through that, as it seems more reliable. Drill down the menus in the Media Sources share and add your content. Boxee will begin indexing it and add it to your machine’s library.
And then there’s Hulu. Boxee was forced to pull Hulu from its service in February, and various workarounds have popped up since then to get Hulu streams working on Boxee. The latest update brings Hulu back to Boxee through enhanced RSS feeds, and the release of Hulu Desktop has given Boxee's creators hope that Hulu will come back to the program for good. For now, we still recommend watching your Hulu shows with Hulu's own desktop application.
We tested Boxee with Ubuntu as well and were pleasantly surprised. We had a bit of trouble getting audio configured properly on the Linux OS, but once that hurdle was passed, we had Boxee up and running in no time. The only caveat is that some online sources don’t work with the Linux edition of Boxee, so check our handy chart below to see what does and does not work.
Boxee’s 10-foot interface is simple to understand, once you know the basic rules
If you’re not as interested in streaming web video, XBMC delivers a kick-ass network streaming experience
While XBMC lacks the nifty web-based video playback and friends list that Boxee offers, it has a much more advanced streaming platform, especially if you have a large video library. It also offers support for a few streaming sites using plugins, but support for sites like Hulu is nowhere near as polished as it is was in Boxee. If you’re not looking to cut your cable, then XBMC is probably a superior choice for in-home streaming.
After you install the app (free, www.xbmc.org), you’ll need to configure your video settings using a procedure that’s very similar to Boxee’s. Simply go to Settings, then Appearance, then Screen, and run through the screen calibration process. Once that’s done, you should hit the audio settings and make sure the proper output is configured. The last thing you should do in your options menu is tell XBMC where your media is stored. As with Boxee, XBMC works better with network sources if you map your network path to a drive letter, then point XBMC to that drive rather than just using the integrated SMB client. You can also add RSS feeds for podcasts or pictures, or UPNP shares if you already have a streaming server set up on your network.
Once you have everything configured, XBMC will scan your content and download metadata associated with your videos. It can take a couple of hours if you have a large collection, but once it’s done, you can enable Library mode (using the default skin, it’s a left-column option in the Music and Video views). Library mode lets you browse your movie collection by genre, director, actor, year, or a number of other options. Library mode also works for your music collection and lets you browse by the contents of your ID3 tags. It’s very handy if you have a lot of movies and music.
Once you’ve got your media configured, you can also add other streaming sources for sites like Hulu. There are tons of plugins available, and the best place for streaming info is at the XBMC forums. Enjoy!
The machine is built, the software’s installed. So what’s left to do on our tiny living room PC?
Now that your machine is built and everything’s working properly, it’s time to put the finishing touches on it. First, you’ll want to give a quick tweak to your power management settings. How you configure your machine is really up to you, but we like to set the machine to suspend after an hour or so of inactivity, turn the hard drives off after 20 minutes, and blank the monitor after 20 minutes. It’s all optional, but you don’t want your PC running when you’re not using it. That’s just wasteful!
Next, you’ll want to make some adjustments to your fan speeds. There are a number of ways to do this, but the easiest is to go into the BIOS’s CPU Thermal Throttling menu. Set the CPU full-speed temp to around 70 C, and the idle temp around 55 C. That will run the fan at around 60 percent speed when the CPU temp is below 70 C and crank up only when the CPU temperature goes above that mark. Combined with the Cool ‘n’ Quiet feature of the AMD CPU, this should help you reduce fan noise in your rig. If you need it to run still quieter, you can always purchase a replacement cooler. We haven’t tested many low-profile AM2 coolers, but any AM2 cooler should work with this motherboard.
The last thing you’ll want to do is set up Windows to load Boxee (or XBMC, if that’s your preference automatically). First, configure Windows to load without prompting for a password. You can do that by following the instructions here: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/315231. It’s not the most secure way to do things, so we recommend using an account that has low privileges on the rest of your network. Once that’s done, all you need to do is drag your Boxee shortcut into the Startup folder on your Start Menu and you should be good to go!
That’s all there is to it. Just enjoy!
| OS X
| Apple TV
* No support via official Hulu plugin. Third-party plugins are available for all platforms.
While the current models are a tad underpowered for 1080p video, they work great for 720p, and newer models promise support for higher-resolution video. However, Flash video like Hulu or Youtube just didn't run well, which we suspect is a codec problem.
Installing Boxee on an AppleTV takes a few minutes and requires only a specially modified USB thumb drive. Once it’s installed, you get all the streaming goodness. The AppleTV lacks the hardware chops to play all high-resolution video, however.
Developments in Nano-ITX formfactors mean that in the future, you’ll be able to build a hardback book–size rig that will do everything our pizza box PC can do. We’re not quite there yet, but we’ll keep you updated as new hardware becomes available.