Home Theatre PC Guide
Posted on: 04/02/2005 06:00 AM


Acronyms get thrown around a lot in our business and when putting together a system (or purchasing a commercial product) for digitally recording television, you'll hear two specific ones all the time: HTPC and PVR. A lot of people consider them to be exactly the same thing, but I see a subtle difference between the two.

I'd like to tackle the latter first. PVR stands for Personal Video Recorder and this not only includes TIVO or any TIVO-like device that your cable company may offer but it can also include software that you'll run on your home-brewed TIVO for the purposes of scheduling, recording and playing back digital video from your television feed (antenna, cable, satellite).

Home Theatre PCs (HTPC) will include the core functionality of a PVR but what differentiates the HTPC from the PVR are the additional feature sets that will be made available. The HTPC is the all-in-one home theatre solution. Above and beyond the scheduling, recording and playback of television, it will also let you integrate your music and picture collection into one grand solution and generally offer DVD playback as well. Depending on the manufacturer of the software involved, there may be other features offered like video compression options or a plugin for local weather.

Now that we know what we're dealing with, let's start talking about the subject we all know and love... hardware requirements.

Hardware Considerations

For most people, cost is a main factor in any purchase decision. Given that fact, I thought it would be prudent to take a few paragraphs to quickly discuss the basic hardware requirements when putting together your own Home Theatre PC. I wouldn't want anyone to waste their time reading the first several pages only to realize that building an HTPC would be an endeavor too expensive for them.

As with most projects that are computer-related, cost will be directly related to a couple of things: your own expectations and whether or not your HTPC needs to be "pretty" and integrate seamlessly with your existing home theatre equipment. If you can deal with lower-end performance, a limitation or two and an enclosure that isn't overly sexy, this probably won't be that expensive of a project. For a lot of us, it could be accomplished simply by using recycled, second-hand hardware. If you're a speed freak to the utmost degree and obsessive compulsive enough to be unable to mix a beige enclosure with your black television... you'll probably end up spending more jack than you might expect.

Processor: Contrary to what a lot of people would probably tell you, a top-of-the-line processor is not a requirement for a solid HTPC or PVR. If you end up purchasing a capture card that will encode the video in hardware (highly recommended), almost any processor 500MHz or more will suffice. While doing research for this article, I came across a forum thread where someone actually put a P2-450 back into service as a PVR after adding in a quality capture card.

If you're the type of geek who really enjoys video encoding, you might want to invest more money in your processor. If disk space is at a premium, you'll notice in a hurry that the standard MPEG-2 encoding is not going to offer much, if any compression. A lot of people like to encode what they capture using DivX, XviD or Windows Media Encoder and that can be quite processor-intensive.

Capture Card(s): I plan on talking about this more in-depth on the next page. I will add here that depending on whether or not you want to be able to record one program and watch something else, you may need to buy a second capture card.

Memory: Everyone will generally tell you something different when it comes to how much memory is required in an HTPC. Keep in mind that you are dealing with a computer and there will be an underlying operating system with certain memory requirements. Personally, I wouldn't build a computer with less than 512MB of memory in it at this point, but most PVR/HTPC applications will tell you that a minimum would be 128MB but at least 256MB would be recommended. I've used two different machines in my testing, one with 512MB and one with 1GB. Based on my experience, 512MB is quite enough.

Video Card: The question you'll need to answer when deciding on a video card is 'how will you be connecting the computer to your television?' If you have an older TV that supports S-video, but not VGA or DVI, then you'll want to consider a video card with very high quality S-video output. Unfortunately, most video card reviewers don't talk about this very much, but we did in our video card round-up awhile ago. Another possible consideration would be with respect to gaming. If you want to game on your television and high performance is a must, your costs will increase significantly. While I've always been an ATI advocate with respect to S-video output, I must say that my two test boxes are both equipped with low to mid-range NVIDIA products. The quality is solid but the fact that you can boot to the S-video output on your TV makes it an even better solution. While configuring one of my test machines, I actually installed Windows MCE2005 while using my TV as the primary display. No monitor required.

Sound Card: This will depend on whether or not you're an "audiophile". If you don't have a surround sound speaker package setup, than almost anything will do. If you need support for Dolby Digital and DTS... then you may want to invest in either a higher-end PCI sound card (Audigy?) or opt for a high-end integrated audio solution like NVIDIA's Soundstorm. In the end, you might be better off simply getting a sound card that has an s/pdif output so you can leave the decoding duties to your home-theatre receiver.

Hard Drive(s): This is an easy one. Buy the biggest 7200 rpm IDE drive that you can afford.

Enclosure: This is completely up to your taste and level of obssession. You could go with a cheap desktop/tower case or you can spend hundreds (and I mean hundreds) on a delightful case made specifically for HTPC use from any one of a variety of manufacturers. We'll be talking about this at length later in the article.

So there you have it. That's a cursory overview of what you'll need from a hardware perspective. We didn't get specific enough to start talking dollars and cents at this point, but at least now I've probably scared away the really cost-conscious and those who are truly interested in acquiring or building an HTPC are no doubt salivating and craving additional information.

Let's continue on the next page with capture cards as they really are the heart of any HTPC.

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