If you checked my flickr stream recently you probably saw some pictures of a beautiful Home Theater PC. My friends and I got a crazy idea to start a new company that will build, install and support home theater PCs. Rather than building our prototype model we decided to buy a pre-built system just to see what components, hardware and techniques the “pros” used. After extensive research we decided to buy our system from PCAlchemy who seems to be a leader in HTPC systems and hardware. We chose their XTE system because we wanted a fairly impressive high-end system that we could use for demonstrations.
Well the system arrived a few weeks ago and has been nothing but headache, anger and frustration ever since. PCAlchemy used the Intel DP35DP motherboard which sports on-board Hi-def audio powered by the Sigmatel chipset. When we first powered up the system I could not have been more disappointed with the sound quality. Regardless of the audio source or quality the playback was stuttered and crackly (is that a word?). I tried everything I could think of to resolve the issue including BIOS updates, driver updates, system reconfiguration, cable replacements and hammer smashing (OK…so it was my mental hammer mentally smashing the thing into little ice-cubed size chunks). I even disabled the on-board audio and installed a SoundBlaster Audigy card to try and narrow down the problem. The SoundBlaster card produced the exact same results…leaving me even more mystified. At this point I’m hoping PCAlchemy lives up to their customer service reputation and helps me get the issue resolved. Last week they were busy fleeing for their lives from the California wildfires so hopefully this will be the week things get fixed. Until then this thing is not an HTPC…it’s an HTPoC (as in HT Piece o’ Crap).
Audio problems aside, I’m liking the HTPC concept very much and I think Vista Media Center is as good a software package as you’re going to find. If you are considering a Vista Media Center PC let me suggest a few additional tweaks and software packages that will turn your system into the ultimate HTPC.
- Enable “Gallery” (or DVD Library) view in Vista Media Center. I guess Microsoft (and the MPAA) doesn’t want you storing DVD content on your hard drives so this feature is disabled by default. If you plan on ripping DVDs to your hard disk you’ll want to enable the Gallery view in Media Center. This Microsoft KB article has instructions on how to do it.
- Because you’re putting DVDs on your hard drive, you’ll need a good movie collection management application. The free Media Center plugin MyMovies will fit the bill nicely. Features include: DVD collection management and playback, indexing of movies using online data (coverart, movie synopsis, actor information etc), multiple client support and DVD ripping from within Media Center. Unfortunately the DVD ripping feature will only work with un-encrypted DVDs which leads me to my next item…
- SlySoft AnyDVD. AnyDVD will remove DVD copy protection on-the-fly allowing you to use nearly any DVD ripping application to store DVD content on your hard drive (including the aforementioned MyMovies plugin). Buy it, install it, love it.
- CCCP. No, I’m not talking about the former communist regime. CCCP is the Combined Community Codec Pack which is a solid, reliable codec pack with support for every video and audio format you’ll ever likely need. The most compelling reason to install CCCP is for its excellent H.264 and MPEG Transport Stream (TS) support. HD anyone?
- WebGuide. WebGuide adds Slingbox-type functionality to your Vista Media Center for free! Just install and configure the application and you’ll have the ability to remotely view live TV, watch and schedule TV programs and manage your audio, pictures and videos from any web-accessible browser (including mobile phones).
- Ninan. I have a love/hate relationship with Ninan. I love the idea but I hate the oft-buggy implementation. Until I can set up a linux machine running HellaNZB, however, Ninan will have to do. So what is it doing exactly? Well, Ninan is a binary news downloading program that uses the popular NZB format. Ninan will automatically download, repair, extract and categorize binary Usenet posts. Because I don’t own a Tivo *gasp* I regularly use Usenet to timeshift my favorite television shows — Ninan has made this process easy. I have set up Ninan to download my TV shows to a “watched” folder in Media Center so all my shows, regardless of origin, are now available from one convenient location. If you want to use BitTorrent to accomplish the same thing, might I suggest Ted. UPDATE 11/20/2007: Ninan released version 1.1.4 a few days ago which fixed many of the problems plaguing the 1.1.3 version. Way to go guys! I <3 Ninan again.
By itself, Vista Media Center is a good software package…but if you’re looking for the Ultimate Home Theater PC you’ll need a little more. I hope these recommendations help. Happy HTPCing!
Special thanks to Grant Shipley for first introducing me to MyMovies, CCCP and Ninan (although I don’t think I should thank him for Ninan just yet…remember there’s still that whole love/hate thing going on).