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Building The Perfect One-Box HTPC?

The HTPC / Windows 7 Chronicles: You Asked, We Answer!
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This is really the Holy Grail of HTPC-building, is it not? Reader plbyrd wanted to see if we could eliminate all of the other components in a home theater setup, replacing them with this one machine. Depending on your home theater needs, the answer is that you can come close.

By definition, a Home Theater in a Box bundles everything you need—often including speakers, wire, connectors, a remote, a receiver, and a DVD player—in one package. Obviously, Maui doesn’t come close to that. You need to piece the system together, have your own speaker/sub setup, and get inventive when it comes to accessories like remotes. However, Maui does come closer than any HTPC configuration I’ve seen to filling the role of a single-box solution.

What It Does Right

Not something you'd find in a Home Theater in a BoxNot something you'd find in a Home Theater in a Box

Most obvious is the platform’s audio capabilities, which work to its favor in 5.1-channel speaker setups. The built-in amplifier does serve to replace your stereo receiver with quality output, so long as you’re able to stomach the fact that it won’t yet support Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA. When you’re watching Blu-ray content, you’ll get the equivalent of Dolby Digital or DTS output instead.

Next up are its video features. The 780M chipset, on which this platform centers, sports a Radeon HD 3200 graphics engine, itself including the Avivo HD video processing component. Avivo HD is comprised of several individual capabilities, such as HDCP encryption keys, functionality from ATI’s Xilleon chip, functionality from the Theater 200 component, HDMI audio output, and the Unified Video Decoder.

The Xilleon is actually a useful addition, enabling underscan/overscan correction that was needed to adjust the default Catalyst 9.6 video setting. Of course, you won’t be using the HDMI audio output in light of the D2Audio amp (and the fact that 780M only delivers stereo LPCM over HDMI). More important is the UVD 2.0 decoder borrowed from ATI’s Radeon HD 4000-series discrete cards. By enabling hardware acceleration of VC-1, MPEG-2, and H.264 decoding, Blu-ray playback is offloaded from the host processor to the GPU.

Moving on, the inclusion of a TV Wonder HD 650 PCIe card, sporting analog and digital tuners, opens the door to OTA digital/HDTV, analog cable, and Clear-QAM digital cable reception. Used with Windows 7’s Media Center, the stage is set for scheduled recording, time-shifting, and place-shifting. This is probably great if you’re paying for the $12 basic cable package or the $59 digital/extended package. However, it’s a little (lot) less ideal if you’re paying for premium content and are a do-it-yourselfer. In order to access those channels, you need a digital cable tuner (otherwise known as an OpenCable Unidirectional Receiver, or OCCUR). The good news is that ATI has one.

What It Does Wrong

The bad news is that you can only get it through SIs. AMD claims this is due to the legal requirements tied to protecting premium content. But that doesn’t change the fact that if you want to get those channels via CableCARD/ATI’s TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner, you have to buy your Maui box.

The other notable weakness here is Maui’s I/O—specifically its I. When you buy a stereo receiver today, you’ll probably want multiple HDMI inputs and at least one output. The inputs are good for attaching DVD players, gaming consoles, HTPCs, etc, while the output generally runs straight to your TV. Well, the MSI Media Live board is loaded with outputs, including HDMI. But it isn’t equipped with an HDMI repeater—the component that’d let you connect a console, change inputs, and game through the PC. For more elaborate home theater setups, you really would want a receiver factored in, defeating the purpose of the D2Audio amp.

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