Monday, December 6, 2010


I've had a computer hooked up to my TV for many years, starting back from around 2003 or so when I was still living in a studio and decided to make use of some spare parts left over from upgrades. However, it isn't until the last year or so that I've really turned it into what could be called an HTPC or home theater PC. Up until then it was a just computer hooked up to a TV, with a mouse and keyboard needed to navigate and a regular Windows interface. Fine for occasionally watching videos or playing music at parties but not user friendly in the slightest.

What pushed me towards making a real HTPC was learning about a program called XBMC. XBMC is a fantastic piece of software designed to turn a computer into a home theater powerhouse. It takes all of your digital media and presents it beautifully, with thumbnails and fan made artwork for movies, TV shows and albums.  There are many guides on how to set up XBMC at their homepage as well as on

Once I'd decided I wanted to move forward, the next step was a big one.  XBMC is capable of automatically identifying movies and TV shows but only to a certain extent. TV shows in particular require a particular naming scheme and file organization in order to be detected properly.  The process of making sure everything gets named correctly and identified properly is time consuming but as I learned, its way better to get it taken care of ahead of time.

One thing that I realized fairly soon into the process of building my HTPC was that my old hardware simply wasn't up to the task anymore.  This isn't to say that all HTPC's need to be powerhouses, in fact there are many Atom based nettops being sold that are perfectly good as an HTPC. However, in my case I had settled on having a few features that required a better system.  For one, I like computer games and I wanted a system that could play decently well at 1080p resolution.  I also wanted to be able to run both audio and video over a single HDMI cable, something which required the latest generation of video card at the time. Finally, I'd been wanting to replace my cable box with a PC based solution, something that requires a fair bit of processing power.

Where I ended up was with a new MB, quad core AMD processor and a Radeon 5770 video card.  On recommendations from (also a fantastic source of information) with regard to driver support I installed a 32 bit version of Windows 7.  I made one big mistake in that I kept an old hard drive in place, but eventually fixed that by replacing it with an SSD.   There have been massive delays in the release of TV cards compatible with cable, I'm still waiting. Once I do get the TV card, I'll probably add an additional HD but it isn't needed yet.

My media is all stored on NAS devices rather than the HTPC.  One of the great features about XBMC is that you can save all of the metadata and artwork in the same folder as your media so that from a brand new installation all you need to do is identify which folders to scan and you library is restored.  Getting all my video files sorted and tagged properly was a load of work and not the kind of thing that would be fun to do sitting in front of a TV with a mini-keyboard.  Being able to handle all the organization from my desktop and then have XBMC up and running with in full visual splendor almost immediately after I built my HTPC was fantastic.

With the local media side of things taken care of the next step was on how to work with streaming media, something XBMC isn't really geared towards.  Because the HTPC interface is supposed to be simple I installed a program called ObjectDock to create some very large application buttons along the side of the screen with all of the applications I felt would be needed for day to day use.  This lets me put in very specific streaming solutions, like HBO GO, next to more general purpose apps like Boxee.  I decided to go with several specific applications. XBMC handles local media and at some point will be configured to launch other apps directly from within it.  Boxee is very good at aggregating streaming content, although I'm not a big fan of the interface in general. HBO, Amazon VOD, Netflix, Hulu and Pandora each have their own standalone applications, in the case of Amazon really just a link. Another general purpose streamer called ZincTV, still on a trial basis as I haven't used it much and the times I have its been crashprone.

While it sounds cluttered, in practice each application is just one button along a strip on the side of the screen. In order to make it more friendly for my Android phone there is a separate folder with links to each application as well. In fact, for music only its possible to open up XBMC without even having the TV on and navigate to the music I want to play.  Before I had the phone I was using a Lenovo wireless mini-keyboard which worked well for navigating from the couch.  For certain tasks its still preferable to using the phone but I've fallen in love with the XBMC app on Android.

There is still quite a bit of work to be done with the HTPC and probably always will be.  There will always be ways to add new functionality or tweak the interface to make it a little more polished.  A recent addition was to put a webcam and Skype software in place in order to have video chats with family (the next and much more difficult step is getting Skype set up for my parents and teaching them to use it without assistance.) Another recent addition was the addition of a Subsonic server. Subsonic is a great music server that handles almost any format and can stream to a PC or phone.  I love that it can index lossless music files and also transcode them when bandwidth is an issue.

That's it for now.

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