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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cheap Acer HTPC solution?

Almost as if they read my blog, Engadget has a preview of a new Acer Revo product that is in very early development stages, but runs Windows Media Center Embedded complete with TV Tuner. Given the price history of Acer's Revo products ($200 to $400), this could very well stand to be the "Sub $500 Box Solution" I explained just yesterday, with a few hard to reproduce bonuses. That touchpad mouse controller is interesting, but my gut tells me navigating WMC with a touchpad would feel clunky after experiencing the native remote support. The keyboard ability is a great feature, though.

Be sure to check out the video below. Clearly, the navigation isn't quite as slick as you'll see on the average Windows Media Center set up, but given that this is still at least six months from store shelves it's possible we'll see some improvements and/or optimizations to make it quite a bit slicker.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Price Check: Cost of our existing setup

Ideally, I'd like our base setup to be entirely replicable by anyone willing to spend around $500. That seems to be the average cost of about 6 to 9 months of cable, depending on your provider and selected options. While I've picked up many of my parts while they were on sale, if someone wanted to do this today, they wouldn't necessarily have that same advantage.

So where do I stand on that goal now? Let's find out.

Case: $69 This is easily the part that is the most debatable for many people. This one actually manages to fit in with our black furniture pretty well, but it's also not exactly mistakable for any other home theater equipment. It's clearly a PC, and that will turn some people off. I like it due to having so many large fan mounts, which means more cooling with less noise. Easy drive access and cable routing make it easy to work on when you need to.

Motherboard: $77 I still think this motherboard is one of the best values around given its features and relative future-proofing. HD-capable onboard video means you can hit the ground running without having to invest in a video card. PCI-Express x16 2.0, being able to take up to 16GB of DDR3, and 6 core AM3 processors gives plenty of room for future upgrades. My only desire is that this motherboard have more than one PCI-Express x1 slot, but so far it hasn't been a problem.

Processor: $50 More than enough power to get you started, as well as take on some of the extra features without having you standing around waiting too long.

Processor Cooling: $30 Considering the processor I linked to is OEM, a purchase here is required. Not the cheapest option, but it's hard to justify skimping in something that can ultimately make or break (literally) your HTPC.

Ram: $45 Similar to the processor, more than enough to get you started, and you can easily add more later.

Power Supply: $33 I am currently reusing an older 650 watt power supply, but according to a few online calculators, this one is powerful enough to get the job done, and is the cheapest one Newegg offers that comes from a brand I feel I can trust.

Hard Drives: $55 Another area were personal preference will trump anything I say, but for those of you looking to get started, anything less than 500GB is a mistake.

DVD Drive: $18 It's hard to not just say "go with a BluRay drive" since they are merely $40, but we're about replicating our current set up, so DVD is it.

TV Capture Card: $77 Up until a week ago I would say you can live without one, but I'm absolutely shocked at how much a week has changed my mind. HD versions of shows look so much better than 480p streamed versions, and thanks to a few plug-ins, there's still little commercial interruption. This card is a dual tuner, so you can record two shows at once (or watch one while another is recording, etc). This card was only $50 when I purchased it. It's possible the price may come down again soon. If you watch a lot of shows, you may consider a four channel tuner.

Digital Antenna: $50 You'll need one of these (or something similar) to make full use of your TV capture card. This is one the we use, and while it kind of dominates the living room, it works great.

Windows 7 Home Premium: $100 Home Premium is the "lowest" version of Windows 7 that contains Windows Media Center, which is the heart of our system. A free option is to run XBMC on top of Linux, but personally I don't think XBMC has all the features I want.

How am I doing so far? $602. Not bad, but not quite on the mark yet, either.

Many of you can find savings where I myself did by re-using older computer parts. There are also a myriad of case/power supply combinations available for less money, but you'll likely wind up with a very 'computer' look, and a less reputable power supply. There's also a healthy used market of PC parts if you know where to look.

Looking over these parts, I'm honestly not sure it's possible to hit the $500 mark with a fresh set up without giving up features. The TV tuner, antenna or OS are the only things that can really be eliminated without leaving you with an incomplete system. It's possible to go with a single tuner (meaning watch OR record), but considering that's still $45, the savings isn't enough to justify it for me, personally.

Well, at least I'm under a year of cable service...

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Going 64bit (and adding a TV Tuner!)

I mentioned in my last post that I installed Windows 7 32bit simply because it was the most convenient operating system to install at the time. Upgrading it became a bit of a priority once Windows started complaining about not being registered, as the notice would break full-screen video, as well as lose application focus, making the remote not work.

Additionally, we purchased a tv tuner a while ago. You may notice that's not the same card I was initially considering, but after doing a bit of research I learned that since we're dealing almost exclusively with ATSC and QAM signals, having an onboard MPEG2 decoder is not any benefit at all. I then started looking for the cheapest internal digital dual tuner we could find.

Windows Install

This whole process was simple except for the fact that our PCI Wireless card (a Linksys WMP54Gv1--Yes, version 1) is not officially supported in Windows 7 to begin with--we had initially cheated by using Vista drivers--and we didn't have even a dream of it working 64bit (apparently version 4 of that card can use a different driver in 64bit and be fine, FYI). I wound up replacing it with a Netgear 311v3, and it worked without incident.

Once Windows was running again, I proceeded to replicate and improve our previous set up. I'll go into more detail with what plug-ins I installed in a later post, but for now I really want to focus on the--

TV Tuner Card

I really didn't know what to expect from WMC7 once we put this card in. I hoped it would be easy, but I was pleasantly surprised at just how easy it was. Once the card and its drivers were installed, it was as simple as running through the WMC7 wizard, giving it my zip code, and letting it detect my channels.

WMC will keep upwards of two weeks of channel listings available at any given time. Want to record a show? Search for it by name and it will list all instances of a show appearing within its listings. You've got all the basic DVR options available such as recording one off episodes, all new episodes, or all aired. You can chose to only record the episodes that appear on a single channel, or any instance the show appears. Finally, you have the ability to record the show in HD only, SD only, or HD Preferred, which will grab the SD only in the event that HD version isn't available.

You can also look at shows based on certain categories like Sports, Specials, Movies, etc. I took a moment last night and ran through all of the movies due to air in the next few weeks, and found a few gems like the entire Back to the Future series, as well as a few movies my wife has always wanted to see. Granted between Netflix and Redbox our movies needs are pretty much already met, and these shows being on broadcast television we may miss out on the full experience, but I was amazed at how easy it was to set up the recording.

The only thing I'm left wanting is for it to be possible to set up recording for a show that isn't currently listed on the guide, specifically some of the new shows that premier later in September. Assuming I remember to go in and schedule them once those show up in the guide, I'll be set. I don't expect this to be an issue very often.

Once I was all set up, I was amazed at how many of our 'clutch' TV Shows were actually now going to be handled by the TV tuner. Combined with a few plug-ins to eliminate commercial watching, and our reliance on Hulu has just significantly dropped. Of the top of my head, and I can only think of a few shows on FX that we will still be watching via Hulu.

What's Next?

I've been playing a little bit with remote access. My next primary goal is going to be setting up the ability to edit the recording schedule from our phones, and ideally being able to stream media to our phones as well. Our limited internet connection will prove to be a problem for some of this, but allowing the adjustment of the recording schedule should be easy enough.

Secondly, my wife is a big iTunes user, and while her collection is safely being stored on raided hard drives, having her computer keep the entire organization 'indexed' within iTunes seems to be a waste of resources. I'll start diving into some of the media sharing options that iTunes provides, ideally having our HTPC do all of the management while still ensuring her ability to sync iPods and rip CDs as necessary.

Check back for a list of add-ins that I've used, as well as a few tutorials for how to make some of them work.