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How To: Build An HTPC (With Windows 7)

It Isn’t Perfect

The HTPC concept isn’t perfect. It never has been, and probably never will be. However, it’s a far cry from the painfully PCish experience most early adopters remember from even just a couple of years ago.

Perhaps most glaring is the convergence of PC and TV. AMD’s TV Wonder HD 650 Combo is the product of many previous generations of tuner offerings, plus a ton of hardware and software work. But the dual-tuner design is still a far cry from what you can get in a simple standalone DVR box. With one analog and one digital tuner, we liked the ability to see programming for both on the same program guide. However, Media Center doesn’t like switching from one format to the other and if you're in the Guide view, it throws up an error that no tuner is available any time we go from analog to digital or vice verse without first restarting the software. Switching from 17 to 17.1 to 17.2 to 18 in the Live TV mode worked without an issue.

Naturally, trying to record one format and watch the other will only work so long as the programming cooperates. With two shows on the analog or two on the digital tuner, you’re out of luck.

And that doesn’t even begin to touch the folks with necessary cable- or satellite-based digital set top boxes that need to use an IR blaster to control that in-between hardware through Media Center. Of course, once you go down this path, a proverbial can of worms is opened.

You see, AMD sells a product called the TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner. But it isn’t available as an upgrade to the do-it-yourselfer. Rather, it can only be included with a new PC built to support an Open Cable Unidirectional Receiver, which means a special BIOS with a blessing from CableLabs. That means no CableCARD support unless you buy a pre-configured HTPC, like the Ace Computers Maui machines we saw at CES. That’s bad news for anyone looking to take their homespun HTPC to its potential. For the time being it seems that truly replicating the capability of a $5/month DVR is still out of the realm of the home theater PC.

One possible alternative might be Hauppauge’s HD PVR—a $250 external box the attaches via component input and encodes H.264 video at 1080i/720p in the AVCHD format. We haven’t tried one of the Hauppauge boxes yet, but would be interested to see how well it augments the TV Wonder’s capabilities. Knowing ahead of time that the HD PVR employs ArcSoft’s TotalMediaExtreme software, however, leads us to believe the integration with Media Center would be absent, though.  

Fortunately, for someone who doesn’t watch much TV (such as myself), this isn’t a debilitating handicap. And the organizational benefits of Windows 7’s Media Center suite more than make up for anything lost from premium broadcast content.

The only other gripe we had was, as previously mentioned, the lack of seamless Blu-ray content playback. Media Center would minimize and open PowerDVD any time an HD movie was inserted, whereas standard def content simply played from within Media Center. Hopefully, this will be ironed out before the operating system is finalized.