Sign in with
Sign up | Sign in

The HTPC / Windows 7 Chronicles: You Asked, We Answer!

The HTPC / Windows 7 Chronicles: You Asked, We Answer!
By

A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece about building a home theater PC using AMD’s Maui platform and the Windows 7 beta. If you missed that piece, you can find it right here.

Old and bustedOld and busted

The idea there was twofold. First, explore the HTPC hardware environment. It had literally been years since I’d made an effort to replace dedicated A/V equipment with general-purpose PC components, and not for any lack of desire. Rather, I had given up trying to force desktop technology into the living room when, as readers pointed out in the comments section of the last story, you can already get so much functionality from Xbox 360s and $10/month DVRs.

But AMD’s Maui box was cool. It’s truly a configuration designed to address the HTPC space. And even though I’ve seen “Build Your Own” guides on other sites since my original story leveraging G45-based platforms in order to get Intel’s Core 2 lineup in the mix, that’s not the direction that I’d go—for reasons we'll explore in this story. The MSI Media Live Diva motherboard has that DAE-3 digital amplifier onboard, which works with the MS-4140 sound card to deliver five 100W channels right from the back of the PC. For someone who doesn’t already own a good A/V receiver, that’s pretty compelling functionality. I didn’t use those powered outputs in the last story, though, opting instead to tie the Maui platform in to an existing home theater rack.

Naturally, I received tons of feedback, asking not only to reassess the MSI board using those amplified outputs, but also to explore high-definition audio formats, dig deeper into the remote control situation, try out discrete graphics, and get more specific on pricing. If you left feedback on the last piece and I was able to track down an answer, you’ll find it here.

The new hotnessThe new hotness

Is It Perfect Yet?

So, between the maiden build and this revised configuration, was I able to settle in on what could be considered the perfect HTPC? Hardly. In fact, as the euphoria of having a respectable PC in my theater room wore off, it became increasingly clear that we’re a long way from true interoperability between desktop hardware and the CE world.

In the following pages I’ll discuss what worked, what didn’t, and what exactly we’re still waiting on before the hardware/software worlds can collide and form a critical mass. You’ll find info on my updated theater configuration, gaming benchmarks on the big screen, a new remote control solution, subjective evaluation of the D2Audio amp, more information on the only sound card out there able to bitstream the latest audio formats, and a brief answer for the folks who want to organize their entertainment on a media server.

A big thank you to the readers who provided feedback last time around, to Cyberlink's Tom Vaughan, and AMD's Jay Taylor for answering questions along the way. The tricked out Maui machine still does its job better now than it did before. Let’s take a look at some of your questions and my answers.

Display 60 Comments.
This thread is closed for comments
  • 3 Hide
    WheelsOfConfusion , July 6, 2009 6:42 AM
    Nice follow-up. A bit more entertaining than benchmarking the same suite of games over and over, I'll bet.
    Unfortunately you ran into that DRM breakdown problem, where one snagged link in the hardware/software chain negated the high-quality features we're supposed to be enjoying through "easy" and "transparent" copy protection schemes. DRM will make criminals of us all, one way or another: if not by trying to get around it, then when we go on a bloody rampage out of frustration from trying to make it work.
  • 0 Hide
    mcboj , July 6, 2009 7:29 AM
    Nice article. Made for a good read, as I'm wanting to build a HTPC very soon. Seems crazy that the combined might of all these manufacturers aren't able to make this work 100% yet. Too many cooks in the kitchen?
  • 0 Hide
    Luscious , July 6, 2009 8:17 AM
    Great article. I've been looking into getting BD content onto a HTPC but have run into the same DRM and audio issues as you describe. DVD's were a lot easier to deal with, but BD is an entirely different animal. True, I've yet to experiment with Win7 and have only touched Vista and MCE so far. I'm probably going to wait a few more months for Win7 to show before I look into it further.

    I do agree in your choice of a dedicated receiver. I've got an Onkyo receiver connected to Yamaha speakers in a 7.1 arrangement that I use primarily as a source switch. Originally I had three DVD changers that I replaced with a HTPC. It's worked well, but now with a growing BD library I need to take a second look at my system. Unlike you, however, I chose to go with a dedicated gaming box alongside with passive PSU, passive GPU and a silent CPU heatsink for big-screen gaming. The multiple HDMI and audio inputs on the receiver helped out big time. I also have a dedicated BD player at the moment that I'll probably keep just in case.
  • -2 Hide
    empstar , July 6, 2009 8:59 AM
    Hi I'm new to HDTV or HDPC I'm using the laptop(HP media DV1125 C2D, ATI 4650) to connect to my SONY 32" LCD TV 100MHz motion flow (32W550 just bough it on 04july09) using HDMI cable 1920x1024 Max Res. but the picture/win desktop look ugly and the front in the windows exploere look
    ugly too. Q1) how to SET? the best res? and Q2) should I use HDMI or PC-input (D-Sub 15 pin) to connect? DVD player connected to watch movie look great. HELP... some one?
  • -1 Hide
    quadrophenia , July 6, 2009 10:07 AM
    I thought I read somewhere that Maui does not work if you don't have an HD tv. Can anyone confirm this? Thanks
  • -1 Hide
    kazius , July 6, 2009 12:05 PM
    There are a lot of factors that you didn't factor in: room acoustics, speaker quality, speaker placement (NEVER place the speakers directly in the corner - like as seen in the pictures), and so on. These make the audio comparison a moot point - I'd expect a richer low end may actually harm the overall listening experience in such a setup, inaccurate spectral positioning, and a somewhat muffled/smudged sound.

    ... Of course, nearly everyone makes these mistakes, because even home theater and PC enthusiasts tend to think that like the screen or PC, higher quality components is all you actually need for better results... which is true only after you solve all the acoustic issues in your setup.
  • 3 Hide
    profundido , July 6, 2009 1:07 PM
    Dear Tom,

    I have started my quest for the holy grail of htpc 2 years ago and have found it about a month ago. I set for myself the following requirements:

    -it must be 1 box that is able to handle ALL available media
    -it must be user friendly and relative dummy proof: no switching audio formats and settings in between movies, just press play and experience the magic (a typical non-tech minded person must be able to play it all)
    -it must serve as TV-VCR in it's highest possible quality
    -the audio quality must be at high end hifi quality in such a degree that if you play FLAC from it professional hifi dealers are blown away
    -video must be full-HD
    -it must be able to play current videogames fluent in full-hd res
    -it must be able to handle all bluray audioformats flawlessly including dts-hd, master and LPCM WITHOUT HAVING TO SET ANYTHING OR SWITCH ANYTHING in the settings of the htpc
    -it must appear and look like a receiver, not like a pc in the living room
    -the surround sound must meet THX reference standards and volume

    my quest led me through (funny) the exact same products and their respective problems among many others. I was able just like you to get the digital passthrough to work with the Xonar 1.3 deluxe but with that card a few problems remain such as having to switch standards before playing it in the Xonar console, malformed LPCM that sounds flattened and lacking bass etc and last but not least the very slow hdmi-video switching of all Onkyo receivers so that wasn't perfect. Then I went to a hi end hifi seminar and listened to the professional audiocard of Onkyo and was totally blown away by the amazing crystal clear sound quality it produces in combination with a proper receiver that amplifies the channels seperately in a fully analogue way. That's when the light hit me. I rebuilt my entire htpc concept around this "analogue" setup and left the trail of the "immature hdmi" path. The result was amazing. 1 time calibration with the aid of Vista Ultimate built-in room correction and I was in the middle of the best htpc experience I had ever witnessed. I'm so happy with the result since it meets all the criteria of the holy grail. I also store and stream bluray content in full size on a 6.5TB windows drive at the speed of full gigabit (RAID 8*1TB) and play it with Arcsoft TMT 3. High dev TV functionality is provided with Firedtv, an austrian solution that allows digital satellite HD streams to be displayed directly on the pc with a modified version of DVB viewer as software (more userfriendly). For the analog amplification And all that in a fusion remote case from Antec é voila, there's your holy grail in a slim slick box ;) 
  • -1 Hide
    profundido , July 6, 2009 1:20 PM
    correction of missing part in above reply: For the analogue amplification of all 7.1 channels at THX ultraplus 2 standards and the volume of dolby reference I use the Onkyo 906 networkreceiver with 200watt per channel. Once the setup is calibrated, nothing else has to be done or switched on the receiver except volume control.
  • 0 Hide
    swt_2k , July 6, 2009 1:25 PM
    Great information in this article "The HTPC / Windows 7 Chronicles: You Asked, We Answer!”

    Like most Media Center software users, I wanting to see a Digital PCI tuner card certify by Cablelabs; I don’t like to set top cable box. By-the-way, you cannot find the "ATI TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner" anywhere. Sony no long lists that item. Also that item only uses the 1.0 unidirectional cable cards as opposed to the new 2.0 bi directional cable cards. Cablelabs is too slow bringing a digital cable card solution to the market.

    Does any know when or where I can buy a digital tuner like the ones in current LCD TVs?

  • -1 Hide
    Shadow703793 , July 6, 2009 2:34 PM
    Not sure if this was out when this was written, but there are PASSIVELY cooled 4670s. For example: http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16814102816
  • -1 Hide
    Anonymous , July 6, 2009 2:38 PM
    I see xbox360's and DVR's are referenced for their HTPC like abilities. It's a shame most people haven't taken a look at the PS3. There is a great piece of free open-source software called "Java PS3 Media Server". With this little application, you can stream movies to your HDMI equipped PS3 in 1080p /w 5.1 DD or DTS audio. It smartly takes advantage of the PS3's native video capabilities and simply remuxes files when necessary, but it can also do great multi-threaded on the fly transcoding. 1080p transcodes can be done in real time over wired Ethernet with a Core2 Duo or better. Finally it comes with many basic tools such as tsmuxer and mencoder integrated, so you don't have to go codec hunting and cluter your PC. I also own an Xbox 360 and I've tried other software such as TVersity. PS3 + Java PS3 Media Server really destroys the competition and is second only to having a dedicated HTPC connected to your TV.
  • -1 Hide
    Computer_Lots , July 6, 2009 2:53 PM
    HIS Radeon 4670 1GB from Newegg.com...
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16814161272
    It does not take up the slot in front, but does take up space in the slot behind it. This might work.
  • -1 Hide
    Nossy , July 6, 2009 3:32 PM
    I don't know a good reason why we have to pay extra (like over $200, and a lot of headaches) to bitstream HD Audio. The day when Windows 7 MC can natively play Blurays and bitstream HD Audio is when HTPCs will shine. The future for that is slim and probably won't happen (legally).

    But screw that. MKV with AC3 FTW. Yes, I do notice that DTS HD MA and Dobly TrueHD is far superior to their predecessor counterpart on my sound system. But unless you are willing to spend over $2000 on a speaker set, and over $1,000 on a AVR/amp/decoder, it's hard to tell the difference.
  • -1 Hide
    Kill@dor , July 6, 2009 4:27 PM
    I was really looking forward to building my fist HTPC. And with a lot of research i came to the conclusion: still very pricey to build one; and thats not even including the speakers. I'll stick to my PC and just mod it into an HTPC with minor upgrades...and still get Blu-ray/HD. Good article for those looking into building their own.
  • -1 Hide
    lolwuut , July 6, 2009 4:36 PM
    Right now Mobile Air Mouse is available for $1.99.
    I bought it even though I don't have an HTPC yet, will save me $4 when I do :)  I'd recommend you do the same.
  • -1 Hide
    Anonymous , July 6, 2009 5:14 PM
    I've only skimmed through the article, but it seems to me that the author of this article spends a lot of time and research in it.
    It would be nice if the author is capable of (in all his research) find a $300, $600, and a sub $1000 HDTV PC setup.
    Obviously the $300 solution will be an ion platform. But I know many aren't really looking for a $1200 build neither.

    Also, many hardware parts used in this review 'may' be hard to get.
    I'm sure there must be a way to get a good Windows7 or XP MCE system out there that could display 720p and perhaps 1080p video for around $600.

    Those are just suggestions. Perhaps it's already difficult to get a good $1200 system together,I don't know.

    One thing I do know is that Windows 7 will be an operating system much desired for HDTV PC's.
    Linux probably will be less interesting.
    If I where to make one with Ubuntu, I'd give Studiobuntu (or Ubuntu Studio)a try. It has some great software for editing, but I don't know if it differs much from the standard Ubuntu.
    There are always driver issues. Especially intel igp's have trouble getting drivers. AMD has some drivers, but sometimes you'd have to do with a generic driver for a while, and it needs some tweaking.
    I also doubt Ubuntu is a good OS for HDTV signals.
    But Ubuntu and Mandriva are probably your best bets on Linuxes. They generally have the largest database in drivers.
  • 1 Hide
    Core2uu , July 6, 2009 5:17 PM
    If this article taught me one thing, it's that HDCP needs to go **** itself in a corner, realize that's it's not wanted anywhere, then go buy a gun, shoot all the members of the BDA and then kill itself.
  • 5 Hide
    scook9 , July 6, 2009 6:00 PM
    Call me crazy, but I do not understand the ridiculous hype around "high-end" and "audiophile" class sound equipment. My dad just built a house with a $38k A/V system. It has 7.1 and all that jazz but frankly, it doesn't blow my mind at all. I have always been perfectly happy with the on-board sound (which is paid for with the motherboard) going to PC speakers (for me these were always THX cert. Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 or Logitech Z-5500). I'm not def or anything, just don't get the reason to spend so much. Sounds like outstanding marketing though - it must be working.

    Here is my current HTPC which I have been perfectly happy with:
    Intel Core 2 Duo E7200
    Asus P5Q-EM
    Corsair XMS2 DDR2-800 4GB
    Linksys Wireless G PCI adapter
    Hauppauge HVR-1800 PCI-e Analog/Digital TV Tuner
    Nvidia 8800GTS 512 MB (G92)
    LG GGC-H20L Blu-Ray/HD DVD player
    WD GP 1TB (wd10eacs)
    WD Caviar Blue 640 GB (wd6400aaks)
    Antec Fusion 430 Black Case and PSU (430 watt)
    Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit

    This connects to the Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 speakers currently and a 52" Panasonic Rear Projection LCD TV (720p but at $500 the price was right).
    The only change I could think of would be to perhaps use one of the fancier mATX boards without onboard graphics like the DFI LP JR P45-T2RS or the upcoming Asus Maximus Gene and possible an E8400 - cooling is limited here. This system started using the onboard graphics then added the 8800GTS later. As stated, maybe I dont have the (on paper) best audio coming out of my speakers....but it sure does sounds good enough to me. And when I have some more money floating around I'll get a 2nd set of Z-5500 (currently my only one is on the gaming PC) and enjoy surround sound. This is a particlarly nice speaker set as it allows coaxial, toslink, OR analog inputs. I will add that the peak power output on the Z-5500 is 505 watts, so this is comparable to a 1010 watt home theater set, as PC speakers are advertised at rms wattage and HT ones at peak. And let's not forget that they are also THX certified speakers.

    This setup allows me to game on said TV screen without any problems while staying quite, pretty cool, and working well. I would love to be shown the difference between my $200 speakers and my dads $38k setup, but aside from sheer volume of sound, I can't see it.

    I expect to be booed and thumbed down now for not being an "audiophile" but hey, they couldn't tell the difference between a clothes hanger or $1200/foot cable either.
  • 1 Hide
    cangelini , July 6, 2009 6:00 PM
    ProDigit80I've only skimmed through the article, but it seems to me that the author of this article spends a lot of time and research in it.It would be nice if the author is capable of (in all his research) find a $300, $600, and a sub $1000 HDTV PC setup.Obviously the $300 solution will be an ion platform. But I know many aren't really looking for a $1200 build neither.Also, many hardware parts used in this review 'may' be hard to get.I'm sure there must be a way to get a good Windows7 or XP MCE system out there that could display 720p and perhaps 1080p video for around $600.Those are just suggestions. Perhaps it's already difficult to get a good $1200 system together,I don't know.One thing I do know is that Windows 7 will be an operating system much desired for HDTV PC's.Linux probably will be less interesting.If I where to make one with Ubuntu, I'd give Studiobuntu (or Ubuntu Studio)a try. It has some great software for editing, but I don't know if it differs much from the standard Ubuntu.There are always driver issues. Especially intel igp's have trouble getting drivers. AMD has some drivers, but sometimes you'd have to do with a generic driver for a while, and it needs some tweaking.I also doubt Ubuntu is a good OS for HDTV signals.But Ubuntu and Mandriva are probably your best bets on Linuxes. They generally have the largest database in drivers.


    Pro, I'll be circling back to do another build with a better sense of the hardware scene now (mentioned in the story itself ;-)
  • 0 Hide
    scook9 , July 6, 2009 6:02 PM
    sorry for the typo, RMS power on Z-5500 is 505, peak is 1010.
Display more comments