How To: HTPC Basics Part 1

By Mike on 12:52 pm

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Home Theater PCs are very popular right now among tech enthusiasts. Their one major advantage is to squeeze all your major home theater components into one unit that you can quickly pair up with a speaker system and TV. In this series, we'll look at the basics HTPCs.

There are a variety of different types you can choose from. You can buy one from a store pre-built, get one custom made at your local computer shop, or you can build your own. All HTPCs have several things in common. They must be small, they must offer complete systems, and most importantly, they must be silent. That last part is the most difficult.

There are a variety of purpose built all-in-one home theater units out there. The most well known are the Apple TV, Xbox 360, and Playstation 3. The PS3 is by far the best due to it's robust hard drive space and built in Bluray player. However, the problem with many of these purpose built all-in-one media devices is they tend to be limited in scope. The one major issue is the limited number of codecs they can playback. Codec stands for "coder/decoder". It's also known as a media file type. These players are usually quite limited in that they only play the most common types, which are not always the best ones. If they can encode, they can only encode audio at preset bitrates. They don't allow for flexibility. These units also cannot burn CDs and DVDs and some, such as the Apple TV, don't feature an optical disc drive at all. You still need a desktop computer to do all the work and then transfer the files to your device. This is hardly convenient.

The good news is, you're not limited to these devices, thanks to Small Form Factor PCs (SFFPC). The Apple MacMini is an example of a SFFPC. Your advantage here is that you have a fully functional, pre-built computer with a small footprint. The MacMini is about the size of two CD wallets stacked on top of each other and includes Apple's Mac OS X Leopard operating system, complete with iLife and Front Row. This allows you to use it as you would the Apple TV but with full computer functionality. Aside from that, the MacMini will also do all the tasks that you'd typically use a computer for such as web surfing, emailing, photo editing, etc. The downside with the MacMini is that it only has a DVI output so it won't work with TVs that have analogue AV connectors. You need an HDTV with a DVI-D or HDMI input. Also, the MacMini can only output audio in stereo unless you purchase a 5.1 USB sound card for it.
If you're into Windows PCs, there's a much wider variety of parts to work with. Though larger (but getting smaller), you can use built in 5.1 sound cards and a much wider variety of video connectors. They can also be easily customized to meet your specific needs and budget. These systems are widely available from major retailers and feature Windows XP Media Center Edition or Windows Vista Home Premium.

When buying a Windows based HTPC, there are several things to look for. You want at least 1gb of memory for XP and 2gb for Vista. For processor choice, I recommend Intel's Core 2 line. Intels have been long known to be the best multimedia processors. For hard drive, you want at least 60gb but more is better. The choice of video and sound card greatly depends on what you'll ultimately be using the system for in the end. However, the graphics card should have 128mb memory for HD playback. If you intend to have a media server to connect this device to another over a network, say to stream video from a desktop PC, you'll want to make sure it has a Gigabit (1000mbps) LAN connector. All media servers should be hardwired to a network rather than using Wifi. If you have to use Wifi, use the new Wireless N standard, which is twice as fast as the current 54mbps Wireless G standard.

In Part 2, we'll different HTPC components.

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