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

Introduction

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 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 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.

  • WheelsOfConfusion
    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.
    Reply
  • mcboj
    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?
    Reply
  • Luscious
    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.
    Reply
  • empstar
    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?
    Reply
  • quadrophenia
    I thought I read somewhere that Maui does not work if you don't have an HD tv. Can anyone confirm this? Thanks
    Reply
  • kazius
    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.
    Reply
  • profundido
    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 ;)
    Reply
  • profundido
    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.
    Reply
  • swt_2k
    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?

    Reply
  • Shadow703793
    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
    Reply