Home theater PCs are the ultimate digital entertainment systems, capable of delivering everything from movies, games, YouTube videos, and more. Connect one to your home network and you can access all your music, digital photos, and digital home videos, too. We show you how to create the ultimate “HTPC” on this issue’s bundled disc.
For this week’s installment of Old School Monday (but actually a Tuesday because of Labor Day) we’ve got a little HTPC Before-and-After. The After, of course, is our recent feature on how to build the ultimate 3D home theater PC. You should check out the article, but the long and the short of it is that we set up a beast of a system, able to play video in 3D, play and record up to 4 TV channels at once, and stream pretty much everything under the sun from the internet.
So what’s the Before? It’s this beauty, from The October 1996 issue of Boot (our predecessor):
If you want to know what the state of the HTPC union was 14 years ago, read on.
I recently built an HTPC with a Gigabyte GA-MA785GM-US2H mobo and AMD Phenom X2 550 processor, with 64-bit Windows 7.
Everything runs like a top. I have the HTPC connected to my 46-inch Samsung UN46B6000 via HDMI (input 1), with only one problem: The video output displays onto the TV with black bars all around it, about an inch on each side. When viewing cable stations, watching a Blu-ray movie (via HDMI input 2), or playing Wii over the component connection, the display fills the full screen, no problem.
I’ve tried switching HDMI inputs around, using different HDMI cables, even switching from the Gigabyte motherboard’s onboard HDMI port to using a Radeon HD 4650 with HDMI out. The problem persists. No settings to adjust this are found within the ATI drivers/settings. Windows display settings are set to full 1920x1080. When connecting the HTPC to the TV via the analog connection, it does use the full screen, but the colors don’t seem as bold as with HDMI. I really would like to utilize the convenience of audio and video on one HDMI connection.
The TV itself does have “zoom” features that will stretch the picture out or make it bigger than 1080 pixels, but then it’s cutting off edges! We still use it for our Hulu viewing and day-to-day use, and everything works fine, but it’s a nuisance having those black bars around the screen.
Zotac has always had an impressive lineup of barebones Atom based Nettops, but even with the added power of the Ion 2 chipset behind it, 1080p streaming in flash could be hit or miss making them difficult to recommend for anything other than basic standard definition streaming. In response to the critical review the follow up Zboxes are now shipping with optional dual core Intel CULV processors giving them the extra kick needed to make it an extremely powerful HTPC. The appeal of the Zotac Zbox from an enthusiast standpoint is that they come without RAM, Hard Drives, or the OS allowing you to easily open and customize the performance to fit your intended application. You can simply pop in any old 2.5” hard drive you have lying around, or even step up to an SSD.
The new Zbox HD series sports either a Celeron 743 (single-core) or SU2300 (dual-core) processor, can accommodate DDR3 memory, and comes with HDMI / DVI outputs for the video. Additional storage can be added via any of the 6 external USB ports or the single eSATA. Built in Wi-Fi 802.11N, Gigabit Ethernet, and even 7.1 Channel LPCM surround sound round out the features on a box that makes my PS3 slim feel chubby.
Pricing for the new Zboxes haven’t been announced, but it sounds as though the entry level models will retail for around $270 or less according to Engadget. Hit the jump to check out for yourself how easy it is to pop one of these apart for easy upgrading.
Lian Li, maker of high-end cases often constructed in brushed aluminum, looks to add to its legacy with the PC-C50 multimedia HTPC enclosure.
Like so many cases before this one, the PC-C50 is made from the aforementioned brushed aluminum and is available in both black and silver. Modular is the name of the game here, with the PC-C50 sporting a modular CD-ROM cage and two removable HDD cages.
Adding a touch of modern flair, the PC-C50 incorporates USB 3.0 support into the front panel connectors. Other features include two 120mm exhaust fans on the side, PCI brackets with vent holes for additional cooling, two 120mm and 80mm size fan holes on the top and at the rear, respectively, an MS/SD card reader slot, and support for mATX, mini-DTX, and mini-ITX motherboards.
The PC-C50 will start shipping in late August for around $190.
MSI had HTPC users in mind when it launched its R5670-PD512 videocard earlier today. Sporting a low profile design, the new card also comes equipped with dual fans for an added cooling punch.
According to MSI, the two-fan cooling solution provides 50 percent better airflow than a single fan, but that isn't all the R5670-PD512 has going for it. MSI is also touting the heatsink, which covers both the GPU and memory while still maintaining a low profile form factor.
MSI's variant sticks close to reference specs and comes clocked at 775MHz, while the 512MB of GDDR5 memory runs at 4040MHz on a 128-bit bus. Other features include "Military Class Concept" components, such as all solid capacitors and a solid state choke.
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.
We’ve come to realize that there is no single ideal build for a home-theater PC. Some folks want an HD tuner, while others want Blu-ray. Some even expect their HTPC to function as a full-tilt boogie gaming rig. Then there are the users who want nothing more than the ability to browse the web on their glorious 60-inch TV set and dive into the vast sea of streaming content.
For these latter folks, Dell’s Inspiron Zino HD seems like a perfect fit. Like a chubby Mac Mini, the Zino HD is quiet, small, and easy to tuck away in the AV rack. It’s outfitted with a dual-core 1.5GHz Athlon X2 3250e, 2GB of DDR2/667, and AMD’s 780G chipset with integrated Radeon HD 3200 graphics. Instead of relying on a diminutive (and performance-sapping) 2.5-inch drive, the Inspiron Zino HD can fit a full-size 3.5-inch desktop drive. Our review model featured a 250GB drive, but options up to 1TB are offered, and we see no reason why a 2TB drive could not be used.
The unit has Gigabit Ethernet, two eSATA ports, VGA, HDMI, analog audio–out, and mic in on its behind. In front, the Zino has two USB ports, a headphone jack, and a multiformat card reader. Unfortunately, there’s no Wi-Fi as standard but 802.11g can be added for $25, and 802.11n for $45.
"Very sad. As an XBMP user from back in the day, and still using XBMC on the original Xbox, thank you XMBC team," an XBMC user wrote in response to the XBMC team's latest announcement.
What he's referring to is the dissolution of the original Xbox branch from the team's subversion repository. What that means is no more releases or updates to the XBMC platform for the original Xbox, and instead 100 percent of the focus will be on other, more modern platforms.
"The last official release for the XBOX by the XBMC team was Atlantis, over 18 months ago," the XBMC team announced in a blog post. "Since then, one brave soul (Arnova) has been merging code from the main codebase into the XBOX branch in our repository. Because there were many users out there that took advantage of these updates, we had no problem with this.
"But times have changed. The XBOX has hard limits for what it can handle. Some users are satisfied with these limits, and we encourage them to use XBMC there if they are happy. But it is a popular misconception that official XBOX development is still taking place by the team, so we have decided to set it free. We have enough on our plates already, and worrying about a deprecated platform just increases our workload."
On a positive note for XBMC for original Xbox users, Arnova does still plan to continue development on the Xbox, just not at XBMC. You can find his new project homepage at SourceForge.
"We're leaving it in his hands to decide how to handle the project's administration. How he manages the forum, bug tracker, scm, developers, etcs. is up to him. In other worlds, don't complain to us," the XBMC team wrote.
With the announcement of Google TV we are sure, now more than ever that the future of media lies in on demand IP TV. With just about every tech company lining up with boxes and software trying to pipe Internet content into the living room, the future promises some pretty fierce competition.
Regardless of what you think about Apple in general, they are currently in the unusual position of being the weakest player in this emerging new media category. The current $229 Apple TV with 160GB of storage is an abomination of overbearing DRM and extremely limited utility. If the rumors are correct however, an ARM based version for $99 running iPhone OS 4 might be just around the corner.
The story was first picked up by Engadget who claims that the source of the leak was "very close to Apple" and the box would even offer full 1080p streaming. It remains to be seen if consumers will ultimately warm up to the idea of an Internet appliance as a separate box, or if they will favor software solutions build into TV sets such as Google TV. If boxes are the future Apple still has its work cut out for it competing with the likes of Microsoft and Sony who sell millions of dual-purpose game consoles into households every year.
Does a revamped Apple TV stand a chance? Let us know what you think.