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Considering building a HTPC...

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May 9, 2011 12:27:13 PM

Hey guys!

I currently have a PS3. It's great for my Blu-ray and DVDs and I'm also able to use PS3 Media Server to steam my digital video files from my computer! This program can even allow the PS3 to play file types it normally won't support, such as .mkv, making the PS3 the ultimate media player! Blu-ray, DVD and any digital video file all on the one device! Hooray! Right...?

Well, not quite. While PS3 Media Server works very well for free software, there's a few annoying things about it. The biggest flaw is that .mkvs need to be transcoded. Granted, this is Sony's fault, since the PS3 doesn't support mkvs, but this is where the annoyances begin. Incorrect aspect ratios, frame-rates issues, missing or messed-up subtitles, audio quirks and so on. Not to mention I don't like the fact that the video is being transcoded, I can't shake the feeling that the quality might be getting ever-so-slightly lowered, since it's not playing the original video. Since most of my collection consists of mkvs, the PS3 isn't really the best choice for me. What would be a better choice would be something that can play that can play mkvs natively! Something like a home theater PC! Plus, I like the features of HTPC software like MediaPortal have.

But one of the things I do like about using my PS3 is that it's all-in-one. Blu-ray drives do exist for PCs, but for what I've been reading, playing Blu-ray on PC is a huge pain in the ass. Everything from performance issues, audio getting reduced in quality to the limited number of software that can play them. That last point would be a huge annoyance, if I built a HTPC, it would be designed to only need MediaPortal, would be really annoying to have to exit the program to run Power DVD. It sounds like keeping my PS3 for Blu-ray (and probably DVD) duties and let the HTPC handle everything else would be a good idea. Annoying that I need two machines, but it sounds like this will give me the best experience. But what do you guys think?

There's also a few miscellaneous questions I have about HTPCs:
1) Are they "annoying" to use? I like how snappy my PS3 is, if the mood strikes me, and I want to watch a video, it's as simple as turning on the PS3 (which only takes a few seconds to boot up), running PS3 Media Server and navigating to the video I want to play. I can boot up a HTPC then press the power button to make it sleep right? So when I press the power button again, it's ready in a few seconds?
2) Do I need to navigate Windows? I'd really rather MediaPortal is ready and waiting and I don't need to wait for Windows to load then run the program.
3) Something weird I noticed when playing digital files on my PS3 is that the audio at the beginning gets cut off. Only a little bit of it, but still annoying. It sounds like the AV receiver is taking a moment to kick-in, though it doesn't do this when I pause then un-pause. Would a HTPC do this too?
4) Are there bluetooth remotes that work with MediaPortal? I love the PS3's bluetooth remove, no need to point it at anything for it to work! Plus, that would avoid having an ugly, infrared receiver hanging from my HTPC.
5) Are HTPCs able to access files via the network? While I'll probably end up moving my videos drive from my primary PC, (since I won't be watching videos on it) to my HTPC, would it still be possible to watch stuff stored on a networked PC?
6) HMDI features, Are optional features like DeepColor etc, supported by a HTPC?
7) Do HTPCs support MKV chapters? Like, can I press the scene advance button to skip to the next chapter?
8) Is it possible to change the audio/subtitle language of an MKV while the video is playing?
9) Is there anything else I should be aware of? Like, is audio over HDMI crappy/flaky?

Thanks for your input!

More about : building htpc

May 9, 2011 2:10:57 PM

I don't:

1) Have a PS3
2) Use MediaPortal
3) Have Blu-Rays

so my input will be somewhat limited.

As I understand things, there is no getting around using a third party software program for blu-ray playback. You will need something like PowerDVD, but it's not a matter of having to exit MediaPortal (MP) and then starting PowerDVD. MP should have an option to start playback of a blu-ray. Selecting that option automatically minimizes MP and starts PowerDVD. When you're finished watching the movie, exiting PowerDVD re-maximizes MP.

As for your questions:

1) I love my HTPC. The only annoyances I have are due to my Home Theater configuration (and not the PC itself). I do not use sleep mode on my system. Rather I just leave it on 24/7.

2) You should be able to place the MP executable into the Windows list of Start Up Programs. Then, when you boot your PC, MP should start up automatically.

3a) I only notice this when I'm rebooting my HTPC. The first part of the Windows Start Up jingle gets cut off. Once the audio starts, though, it's solid.

3b) Looking into MediaPortal, it looks like it supports some remotes natively. Whether or not that includes your PS3 remote, I don't know and if it does work, you may have an issue with pairing the bluetooth devices (Remote to PC and Remote to PS3). Another option that may be of interest is using a smart phone. I've not tried it myself, but if you have an IPad, IPod, or Android smartphone, there are apps available that allow you to control your HTPC. Whether they work with MediaPortal, I don't know.

4) Yes, but you'll probably want to use a hard-wired connection. What I did is create a share on my primary PC where all my movies are stored and then created a connection to that share on my HTPC. From there, it should just be a matter of telling MP where your movie files are located.

5) I can't really answer this one due to my theater configuration. Since my receiver only does HDMI Pass-Through, I had to install an HDMI hub that could also separate the audio stream to a separate digital interface.

I hope this answered a least a couple questions.

-Wolf sends
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May 9, 2011 2:28:20 PM

Thanks for your reply! Lots of good information there, but it's a shame you can't contribute to the PS3 side of things. Does your HTPC have a Blu-ray drive though?

Getting back to the sleep thing, I seem to recall when I had Vista, I pressed the power button and Windows appeared to shut-down, but the power LED kept blinking instead of being off. When I pressed the power button to start it up, it didn't need to boot up, and went straight back to Windows. My current PC (running 7) doesn't do that, it shuts down normally when you press the power button. I assume there's a option to enable the former behavior?
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May 9, 2011 6:14:36 PM

Unfortunately, I do not have a Blu-ray drive yet. That's the next big upgrade (Blu-Ray drive and PowerDVD for the HTPC, 1080p HDTV and Projector).

As far as the Sleep Mode issue, if you go into Control Panel --> Hardware and Sound --> Power Options, on the left side of the window, you'll see an option "Choose what the power button does". Change the drop down to "Hibernate" and you should get the behavior you're looking for. I would note that in my tests, pressing the power button took 30 seconds for the system to hibernate. Waking the system by pressing the power button again took 40 seconds to get back to my login screen. I may as well have just shut down the system.

Sleep mode, on the other hand, just seems to cause more problems than it's worth, particularly in my situation where the only way to revive the HTPC is via an IR wireless keyboard or remote control. It doesn't seem to want to wake up.

-Wolf sends
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May 9, 2011 6:42:05 PM

Have the same problem with my PS3 as far as stuttering and flakey audio. The HTPC I built solved this problem. I assumed that it was a latency issue trying to stream the movie from my PC. So i just "moved" the PC to the tv. :D  works like a charm now.
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May 10, 2011 2:05:26 AM

Thanks for the info guys!

One thing I forgot to ask was with regard to HMDI features. Optional features like DeepColor etc, would they be supported by a HTPC?
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May 10, 2011 7:00:18 AM

Good information there! Little worried that the SandyBridge can only output at 24fps though, not fond of the idea that frames will need to be dropped :(  Do they make really small discrete graphics cards that will fit in a HTPC case and are powerful enough to run 1080p videos?
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May 10, 2011 12:16:15 PM

Sandy Bridge can output 23.973 when UAC is turned off. Not perfect, but close. Source
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May 10, 2011 1:18:44 PM

Really? Weird. But to be on the safe-side, I'm thinking a low profile graphics card would be a good idea.

Oh, and another question, many MKVs now have chapters, do HTPCs support them? Like, can I press the scene advance button to skip to the next chapter? And on a similar note, is it possible to change the audio/subtitle language of an MKV while the video is playing?
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May 10, 2011 6:54:28 PM

fireaza said:
Really? Weird. But to be on the safe-side, I'm thinking a low profile graphics card would be a good idea.

Oh, and another question, many MKVs now have chapters, do HTPCs support them? Like, can I press the scene advance button to skip to the next chapter? And on a similar note, is it possible to change the audio/subtitle language of an MKV while the video is playing?
One option is MPC HC or Daum Pot Player combined with Haali Media Splitter. Install both players as backup. Haali has a tray icon with chapter selection, language, audio. In MPC HC external filters add Haali Media Splitter then Directvobsub. I use it for MKV H264 + chapters + subtiles + audio language
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