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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.

  • wmt
    Nice review. Part of my problem with DVR's is limited storage and no way to save to a disk/tape (think vhs replacement). I've solved this with the HD PVR. Seems to work great with a good quality capture, reasonable editing to create DVD or BluRay without ads for those of us who want to archive something for personal use. So I record with the DVR and during off times record to my HTPC with the Happauge.
    Reply
  • ravenware
    My main reason for wanting to build is to eliminate the stack of DVDs on either side of my television.

    Not sure what software will actually allow me to copy the Media to hard drive to copyright protection bs.
    Would be nice to rip all of my simpsons DVDs and shuffle the episodes up. :)
    Reply
  • JeanLuc
    ravenwareMy main reason for wanting to build is to eliminate the stack of DVDs on either side of my television.Not sure what software will actually allow me to copy the Media to hard drive to copyright protection bs. Would be nice to rip all of my simpsons DVDs and shuffle the episodes up.
    Well that's exactly what I done with my DVD's. However ripping DVD's to an ISO file will soon fill up a hard drive, especially if you have box sets of TV programmes like I have (I have Deep Space Nine Season 3-7 ripped from DVD and each season weighs in at 58Gb's each). I got around this by encoding all my movies to a high quality XVID format (bar DS9) which has worked quite well. So far I have around 70 movies backed up onto my external Western Digital My Book hard drive, so when I get around to building my HTPC I can watch my movies right of the hard drive without having to worry about find the discs.

    The only draw back with this method is that you will lose some picture quality and the ripping and encoding process can take about 1/2 an hour per disc.
    Reply
  • suhail_th
    This is still where it was in 2008, Power DVD doesn't play nice with Microsoft MCE Remote, not all keys are mapped... so playing Hi-Def is of not much Joy.

    Playing a Blu-Ray or HD-DVD using Integrated 3200 using Arcsoft TMT Produces Stutter.

    Ripping these disc's to Hard Drive in ISO is the only viable solution, if we talk about media arrangement.

    Also, 3200 IGP doesn't support 7.1 over LPCM.

    Not sure how even after so many hurdles, i am still hanging onto the though of a quiet full functional HTPC.

    NOTE: using NGRC on iphone is a DREAM for 10 Foot Interface.
    Reply
  • rtfm
    if you have vista/mce, check out the my movies add on http://www.mymovies.dk/ its free :-) I have around 380 movies in my collection and this allows you to sort through by genre, rating, title etc and download covers and other info for the films
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  • LuxZg
    OK, I do have a few questions.

    First is - total price for hardware? I know it's from AMD, but I'm wondering if this Maui is anywhere to be seen as a complete platform, or do we have to hunt for individual components by ourselves.

    Second is - how about satelite cards? Technisat SS2 cards are very popular in my country, but there's no PCI slot on MSI board. So what can you suggest here as an addition to Maui HTPC so we can watch satellite channels as well?

    And last but not least, have you even tried using a discrete graphics card? Power supply from article is plenty even for HD4870 card (since this is almost all-ATI/AMD setup) which would alow for a good gaming session on big screen and surround, even on FullHD resolution. Problem is in dual slot cooler and how much would it interfere with rest of the add-in cards. It looks as a no-go because of MSI soundcard, right? So what could you suggest than - that's better than onboard, single slot, HDMI ready, not noisy when in 2D or playing DVD/BluRay etc. HD4850 maybe? Would it be good for HTPC setup in this platform?

    As for comments above regarding ripping collections of optical media - with 4 empty slots for 3.5" drives in that HTPC case, RAID support on MSI board, and 1.5TB drives out there - only problem is how deep are your pockets. Not to mention that you can always go the ways of NAS box in the other room with several more HDDs.
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  • chovav
    can the new media center play/sort .mkv files? used to be a pain in the butt with the last version... and is that phenom processor strong enough to play 1080p .mkv files through media center without any lag? I used to have to use windows media player to be able to do that without any lag...
    Reply
  • rlevitov
    chris one thing i dont get. whats the differance? i have HTPC for almost 3 yrs now (with VISTA) and i have all above functionality... (minus the Dual Tuner cause in israel we have to use set top BOX to see HD and Cables) i also have a remote and so on and with my old pvr150mce i can also record while playing games and such...

    what does windows seven and all above gives beyond the old vista???
    Reply
  • lillo
    try WDTV is the best solution and the cheapest

    http://www.westerndigital.com/en/products/products.asp?driveid=572

    i bought it last friday and now 2 of my friend also bought one this is a HTPC killer paired with AT&T UVERSE service
    Reply
  • BBFATTS
    You mentioned the Playstation 3 in your article, but have you ever tried the Xbox 360? It can connect to your PC too and the Windows Media Center interface that you love so much will come up right on your Xbox allowing you to browse and stream all your pictures, music, and videos as if you were on your PC. The only catch is that it doesn't support all file formats although it does support the most poular ones. The currently supported formats are: WMV, WMA, MP3, MPEG2, MPEG4-Part 2, Simple Profile, and Advanced Simple Profile (Xvid)(DivX). I have 11,000 Mp3s, about 30 T.V. seasons, and a gazzilion photos on my PC, and I 'm able to watch/listen to them all on my Big Screen through my Xbox. I can even open up my pre-made music playlists. I have never experienced any lag and I stream full 1080p video and HD audio which is supported through the Xbox's HDMI and Optical audio outputs. If your looking for a cheap solution to bring your computer's media to your front room try the Xbox for $199.99. Just beware of those high hardware failure rates... For more information go to: http://www.xbox.com/en-US/hardware/windowsmediacenter.htm
    Reply