As mentioned, our previous objection to a PC in the living room was its redundancy, especially in the face of modern networked gaming consoles designed to be there. Why bother booting a PC to watch a DVD when the PS3 has Blu-ray functionality built-in? Why bother booting a PC to record a TV show when so many services include their own DVR as part of your monthly package anyway? Why bother booting a PC to listen to .mp3s when your console is already wirelessly connected to the whole collection?
But as soon as we got Maui into a living room, it became clear that this can not only be a play on enhancing the functionality of your entertainment center, but also on saving money. There’s no longer a need for redundancy, if you don’t want it. The HTPC we’re building here can take the place of your CD/DVD player with a built-in Blu-ray drive. It can displace your console with the help of an add-in graphics card. It can almost nudge your DVR out of the way, thanks to AMD’s TV Wonder card with dual tuners. And—most important—it’s able to displace your amplifier with its own 5 x 100 W PCI Express card. Or install the optional seven-channel pre-amp and use an existing amp to drive your non-powered surround sound speaker system.
Hardware is only one half of the picture. We’ve also seen software take a huge stride forward.
It’s true that there’s plenty to like about a Playstation linked up to a home’s media server with access to music, movies, and pictures—in addition to its core competencies as a gaming platform and Blu-ray player. But the console isn’t perfect. If you’re not meticulous about keeping your media organized, trying to find your favorite tunes on the PS3 can quickly become frustrating.
In contrast, the Media Center software built into Microsoft’s Windows 7 beta does a beautiful job of tracking down album covers, movie information, and scheduled programming all on its own. Just point the software to your audio repository and video library. It does the rest.
Microsoft has put a lot of thought into the 10-foot interface, too. Once you fire up Media Center, you can almost forget about the underlying platform running in the background (even though you’ll undoubtedly find yourself tabbing out to check email or search Wikipedia—I wanted to know more about the F-35 during Live Free or Die Hard). Flipping between music, movies, live television, Internet television, and photo albums with an IR remote is incredibly convenient and much more tailored to the content on your home network.
Let’s move on to the hardware inside this improved HTPC.