Thursday, August 07, 2008

making sense of media center/home theatre PCs

I bought an Apple iPod Touch 32 GB over the weekend (a post is coming) and it has led me down some interesting paths. It is wonderful to be able to scroll through a good chunk of my music, video and photos easily, all in one little handheld device.

Even more impressive than its storage and playback capabilities are all the applications and connectivity options available via the App Store. The apps will really lengthen the life of both the iTouch and iPhone for years down the road.

iPod Touch Extensibility
One app that I particularly liked was Remote, which allows one to control iTunes from the iTouch/iPhone. Plus, its free!

While surfing for applications, I also came upon the TouchPad Pro. The handy little application can be used to control a Windows Vista Media Center PC with the iPod Touch!

Unfortunately, as of this writing (08/05/2008), the TouchPad Pro is not available for the iTouch's 2.0 firmware:

Finally, Mocha VNC Lite is a free app that connects you via to any VNC Server (Mac/PC/Unix) in your environment:


Home Theatre PC (HTPC) Possibilities
In playing around with the iTouch, I started thinking about the possibilities of having the iTouch become my remote for not just my media, but for my HDTV and Home Theatre, too. This got me very excited, as I would love to have all my music, video, recorded HD, podcasts, everything integrated in one solution, with a super easy-to-use remote via the TouchPad Pro. This is the Holy Grail of the so-called "Home Theatre PC!"

From my reading, I seem to have three choices:
  • AppleTV
  • Linux MCE (MythTV)
  • Windows Vista Media Center

Here's one gentleman's comparison of Linux and Windows MCEs. Though biased, it is interesting:

Here's what I'm thinking in terms of requirements:
-should be relatively simple to setup: oops, this rules out MythTV
-needs to play cable TV (both std/high def): oops, this rules out Apple TV
-needs to play most common media formats MP3s/MPEGs/DIVX/Quicktimes/DVDs/Blu-ray
-needs to integrate iTunes*

* Yes, you may be saying that Windows Media Center does not integrate iTunes and you'd be correct. However, thinking about how this would work, it should be a relatively minor step to switch applications from Media Center to iTunes via whatever controller or remote you'd choose to use. Also, further investigation showed me that solutions from both sides of the fence (Linux/Windows) seem to have some basic level of iTunes integration or at least being able to access the media files at the system level. More on this later.

From this short list of requirements and some reading that I've done over the past couple of days, I'd say the most likely contender is Media Center running on Windows Vista. I'm no huge Microsoft fan, but if a software's features and functionality fit the bill, then you should use it.

Here is a nice walkthrough to Windows Media Center features:

How to Connect Your TV to a Windows Media Center PC:

Finally, here's five things you didn't know you could do with Windows Media Center:

The Problem
One of the stickiest wickets in that requirements list is how best to integrate your cable SD/HDTV viewing and recording. It would also be nice if this was simple to setup. From my reading so far, it doesn't look like any PC-based home theatre/media centers are easy to setup by any means. At least computer companies are starting to address this by using a PCI card that integrates with your cable TV providers service, also known as a digital cable tuner card. A CableCard is a PCMCIA like card built into new-generation televisions and PCs that allows digital cable reception without a set-top cable box. Here is a nice primer on CableCards:

Here is some basic information about cable TV tuners via HP forum:

This was a very informative read about the regulatory background of the CableCard:

And Chris also has a good FAQ on the CableCard. Be aware that in its current form, CableCard does not allow you to use On Demand or Pay Per View services. Apparently, this is because those features require two-way communication that is not present in today's CableCard solution. This is unfortunate, because it means that today, in August of 2008, we still do not have a complete Home Theatre solution. (Well, I guess I can live without ONE feature).

Possible Solution: Dell XPS 420
From this article, I found that the Dell XPS 420 might be a solution that integrates a CableCard and might fit the bill.

Here's Dell's full specs:

An excellent FAQ on the XPS 420:
Chris Lanier's blog

As a cable card is only distributed to consumers if they purchase an entire new system, the unfortunate thing is that the CableCard solution locks individuals into buying a preassembled machine versus building their own. But given some evidence from intrepid individuals like Keith Combs, this might not be all bad. Here is his very informative blog entry:

Also, his six month checkup is a nice follow through:

Another solution: HP m9300t
Another solution is from HP, the HP m9300t Series

Here is a page on HPs site devoted to more general information about the HP m9200 line of products.

Decisions, decisions
Before purchasing any solution, I plan on building out a Vista box, just to see how far I can get, without the cable tv tuner part.

Let you know how I do in a follow-up post,

Update 8/9/2008
Vista Ultimate install and first impressions

Update 8/8/2008
Digital Tuners
I happen to be perusing blog articles about people who have built their own media centers and I see this Hauppauge digital tuner card has come up a number of times. The FAQ page has some good info on it.
For more basic information on what TV Tuners can and cannot do, take a look at this post from AVS forum/

Update 8/15/2008
Vista View Saber card, Media Center and TV Pack install

Update 9/15/2008
Viewing YouTube Within VMC

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