Friday, July 29, 2005

HTPC for under $400

Turn your old PC into an HTPC for under $400

In his 1995 book Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte predicted that the future of home entertainment was going to be a blending of the Television with the Personal Computer. That technology is now here and it is wildly popular.

Many people are familiar with Tivo, which is a Digital Video Recorder (DVR). Tivo is currently the most popular implementation of this technology because of its user friendly interface and robust services. Tivo, however, is starting to get some real competition. The newest revolution in home computing is the Home Theater Personal Computer (HTPC), also sometimes called a Media Center PC.

An HTPC is essentially Tivo’s bigger, more capable brother. An HTPC can do things that Tivo cannot, such as surf the web, burn DVDs and play games. Also many features that Tivo charges extra for, such a photos or music, you can do for free with a HTPC. As I write this, Tivo still has an advantage with their “Season pass” feature, but given time the numerous HTPC software developers will most certainly close that gap.

If you buy a new HTPC system off the shelf, it will likely cost somewhere in the range of $1500-$3000. A Tivo system can cost between $99 and $300 and they also charge a subscription fee of $12.95 per month or a $299 fee that covers the life of the product. You can get the service for less if you purchase it in conjunction with certain content providers such as Direct TV.

I would like to suggest an alternative that will cost you less than $400. If you are like me and many other people these days you may have upgraded your computer recently, leaving you with an “old” PC or at least most of a PC. Usually these PCs or PC parts sit around and do nothing but gather dust and take up room in your storage space.

Seems like a waste, doesn’t it? Have you considered turning that “old” PC into a HTPC?

I recently did just this; used old PC parts to make my own HTPC.

In my case, I had these parts lying around;

Pentium 4 Celeron 2.5ghz processor
ASUS Motherboard with onboard 5.1 digital sound and LAN
512 MB of RAM
Mid-tower case
ATI Rage 128 video card, with S-video out.

All I needed to buy was a TV capture card, a large Hard Drive, a wireless keyboard and mouse and a DVD burner, which is optional but highly recommended.
I did all my shopping on Price Watch (http://www.pricewatch.com/)

TV Capture Card: Hauppauge WinTV PVR 150 $99
DVD Burner: BenQ DW-1610 16X DVD+/-RW $40
Hard Drive: 160 GB $57
Mouse & Keyboard: Gyration Gyromouse combo $100
Sub-total: $296

Video Card: Radeon 9600 128MB w/ S-Video $88
Total: $384

I cannot recommend enough the Gyration keyboard and mouse combo. I strongly recommend them if you intend to do any web surfing on your HTPC but the mouse is especially great if you play games on it. They even make a version specifically for Media Center PCs which combine the Gyromouse with a television remote control.

For those who do not have an extra video card, I recommend getting an ATI All-In-Wonder instead of separate Video and TV Capture cards. The All-In-Wonder can be found for between $139-150 depending upon the model. Separately you are looking at spending $100 for each.

Once I installed all the parts into the case, I installed my standard copy of Windows XP. I know what you are thinking…“XP? Why not Media Center?”

There are a couple of reasons. First, because at the moment you cannot buy Windows Media Center (WMC) except with OEM hardware. Secondly, despite the hype surrounding WMC, it is not the only software available to HTPC users. In truth, Media Center is nothing more than an application that runs on top of Windows XP. There are other great commercial Personal Video Recorder (PVR) software packages available. Sage TV and Beyond TV are both highly popular alternatives.

However, I will let you in on a secret; the only software you really need comes with most TV Capture cards with PVR capability.

One advantage of Media Center is that it formats the screen for better viewing on Television screens, especially non-HD televisions. In order to make the text readable under XP, if you have a non-HD television, it is necessary to enable large fonts under video properties -> appearance.

The Hauppauge WinTV card that I purchased came with WinTV2000 and included TV Guide functionality through TitanTV.com. I launch the Titan TV Guide from a link on my Windows desktop. It allows me to schedule recordings from the Titan TV website with a simple right-click of the mouse.



Once a show has been recorded it is saved as an MPEG file on your computer’s hard drive. You can watch the video at any time by opening the file with a video player, such as Windows Media Player or Real player. These files can also be archived by transferring them to external storage devices.

Using the DVD Burner and the included software, Ulead DVD Movie Factory, I am able to burn shows that I have recorded onto universal DVDs to archive or to watch in another room on any standard DVD player.

An HTPC also has added bonuses for those of you who are fellow music downloaders and have large digital music libraries. Using the media player’s large hard drive capacity I was able to consolidate my entire mp3 collection, music, audio books and everything, all on the one server, where they can be played through my home theater speaker system, burned onto CDs or transferred to my portable mp3 player.

Have you ever been watching a movie and wondered if a certain actor is the same guy who starred in another movie? Well, with an HTPC you can simply pause the TV, bring up imdb.com in a web browser and find out right then and there. One of the biggest advantages of going with an HTPC instead of Tivo is that it allows you to make full use of the Internet with your Media Center. You can surf the web from your couch while still watching TV in another window. With some additional software you can also schedule recordings remotely from over the Internet.

One caveat about this particular setup is that it works best with standard cable. If you are using digital cable, you will have to schedule recordings in two spots. Once on the HTPC and again on the digital cable box because the HTPC will only record whatever channels the digital cable box is tuned to. There are TV Capture cards that support digital cable but you have to shell out a lot more money for them.

In summary, Home Theater PCs are the future of home entertainment and if you have an old PC that you are not using, you can put one together for a fraction of the cost of buying one new. It also has the additional bonus of clearing up some valuable storage space.

1 comment:

holly58janessa said...
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