In many respects the modern PC is already the ultimate home entertainment system. After all, here's a single box that can play DVD movies and fantastic games, manage huge media collections of music, videos and photos, and in some cases even record or timeshift television shows. So why don't we all have one in our living room?
First, most PCs are either too big or ugly to be invited into the living room, not to mention much noisier than traditional consumer electronics goods. They're also more complex to use and designed to be operated at close proximity - none of which match the typical home entertainment environment where devices are operated from a distance using basic remotes.
Before you give up on the idea of integrating a PC into your living room, though, there are ways to solve all the issues mentioned above. By selecting the right components and software you can create a PC that looks great while delivering considerably greater features than almost all your existing consumer appliances put together.
Probably the most demanding application for a home entertainment PC will be video decoding, and a 2GHz Pentium, Celeron or Athlon with modest AGP graphics is easily capable of playing DVD movies or DivX files under software alone.
By integrating a hardware mpeg-2 decoder, Via's Epia-M motherboards can play DVDs smoothly even with a modest 1GHz processor. The only time you'll need a faster processor for playing video is ifyou're interested in High Definition (HD) output, either for playing HD Windows Media 9 files, or upscaling standard definition video to make the most of a high-resolution display such as a projector or plasma panel.
There's no such thing as too much processing power when it comes to ripping or transcoding video, but normal video playback requirements are quite modest.
Your choice of graphics boils down to what kind of display you'll be using and how seriously you take 3D gaming. If you're using a standard TV, you should go for a graphics card with dedicated TV output, although these normally only offer composite or S-Video connections.
Sadly, while some higher-end cards offer component video options, we haven't found any with RGB Scart output - a shame as this is potentially the highest-quality connector on the back of most UK TVs. If you own a projector or plasma panel with a VGA input, though, simply connect it with a standard monitor cable for the best results. You will almost certainly need to make some adjustments to the display settings to get the best image.
In terms of gaming, a more powerful card will deliver better performance, but you may only see the benefit at ultra-high resolutions - and remember if you're using a TV set, you'll be limited to low 640 x 480 resolution.
If you're interested in recording television, you'll need a TV tuner card. In the UK we have the choice of analogue or digital TV tuners, the former offering wider coverage, but the latter offering the unique advantage of not requiring any conversion when recording straight to disk. Digital tuners may not be supported by all software packages, though.
All-in-one graphics cards are a good overall solution, sporting TV tuners, remote controls and the advantage of only requiring a single AGP slot, but so far these use analogue tuners only and don't offer the ultimate quality and flexibility of separate cards.
Finally, while most motherboards have onboard sound, those who take audio seriously will also want to equip their home entertainment PC with a decent soundcard.
Hey, good looking!
Once you've decided on your processor, motherboard and expansion slot requirements, you can get started on the crucial mission of finding a good-looking case. While these are few and far between we've tracked down a handful of decent ones for different form factors.
If you're considering a system based around a tiny Via Epia-M motherboard, check out Hush Technologies Mini-ITX and the Tranquil PC systems. Both are slim, with hi-fi looks and an internal design which is virtually silent. There's just one PCI slot though and in the case of Hush you can only buy it as a preconfigured system. For more information see our 'ultimate quiet PC' section.
If you'd prefer a more conventional Pentium or Athlon platform, and can make do with just one PCI and one AGP slot, Shuttle's range of XPC barebones are a great choice. These are compact cubecases, fitted with a small form factor motherboard and power supply, leaving you to fit a processor, memory and drives.
The only downside is their cooling which can be slightly noisy for some living rooms and currently impossible to swap for anything quieter. Shuttle barebones are available from most specialist suppliers from £150 to £220. If you'd like a Pentium or Athlon system with three or more internal cards, then it's a full-size ATX case for you - and don't forget to cool it quietly using the accessories listed in the 'ultimate quiet PC' section.
One of the best-looking ATX cases we've found is the Accent range of HTPC (Home Theatre PC) cases, which cost £165 from the Quiet PC website and are available in black, gold and silver. Alternatively you could order a custom case from a handful of metal-working HTPC enthusiasts, such as the superb Heatsink Case from A-Tech Fabrication.
This is available with a number of custom design options and costs around £250 plus shipping from the US. Custom cases are normally made to order, may entail payment up front and a waiting time of several months, but you will end up with something few others have.
The vast majority of consumer electronics devices feature small displays and remote controls, but we rarely see either on a PC. Both are available, though, and can take your home entertainment PC to the next level.
Displays can be wonderful on a PC. Beyond the usual chapter and time information, a PC display could also indicate track and artist names, internal temperatures or even scrolling news and weather updates driven from an internet link. Numerous displays are available, costing from £65 for two lines of 20 characters.
Most can be mounted in bezels that slot into a spare 5.25in drive bay, although some HTPC cases, such as the Accent and A-Tech have dedicated mountings.
The leaders in LCDs and VFDs (vacuum fluorescent displays) are Matrix Orbital and Crystalfontz; both sell directly from their websites, although Matrix Orbital are also available from Kustom PCs. The Accent case uses a special display sold by Quiet PC.
The vast majority of LCD and VFD displays use an old-style nine-pin serial connection, while a handful of new ones operate on USB; the Accent display uses a parallel connection. Since serial, parallel and USB ports are normally on the back of a PC, you'll have to feed the cable from the display out the back of the case, just in order to plug it in.
A neater alternative is to connect the display to an internal port header. Most motherboards feature several internal headers for USB ports and those with onboard video sometimes also have an internal header for a nine-pin serial port.
Today it's almost unthinkable to consider operating a consumer home entertainment appliance without a remote control, and many options are available for PCs. One of the most popular is the Evation IR Man, a small box that, again, connects to a nine-pin serial port.
You can buy a remote control to go with it, or use software to learn the commands from existing remote controls. IR Man is available from Intolect for £21.68. Many TV tuners and all-in-one graphics cards also come with remote control facilities, but may be limited to operating specific functions.
It's also possible to use many PDAs as remote controls. Some use their built-in infrared ports, but a more powerful option is to use a wireless networking connection, allowing you to control your home entertainment PC from any room.
Desktop operating systems and applications are designed for high-resolution displays viewed from a short distance, two reasons they don't work so well on TV screens. Consequently a home entertainment PC needs a new user interface that looks good on a low-resolution TV from a distance of several metres. It should also ideally tie together all applications from TV recording to media playback.
Showshifter is one such front end for Windows and costs from £31. It easily lets you watch videos, view photos, play music and, along with the right hardware, record TV and timeshift shows; if you've got an internet connection, it can also access online TV schedules and mark shows for recording. And it looks great viewed on a television.
To play DVDs, Showshifter needs an existing software player, such a Cyberlink's PowerDVD. An alternative front end to Showshifter with similar facilities is Snapstream. Realising home entertainment PCs are a potentially huge market, Microsoft has also developed a new front end for Windows XP called Media Centre Edition.
The capabilities and user interface are not dissimilar to Showshifter although, annoyingly for DIY enthusiasts, XP Media Centre is currently only available on pre-built PCs. Several utilities are essential for a home entertainment PC.
Probably the most important is Powerstrip which allows you to tweak display settings to get the best picture from a TV, projector or plasma panel. If you have an LCD or VFD, download a copy of the LCDC utility to control it.
Building a home entertainment PC
While all-in-one graphics cards and onboard audio allow compact home entertainment PCs to be constructed, we believe the ultimate configuration demands a separate graphics card, TV tuner and decent audio card. So we'll need a full-size case and have selected an Accent HTPC model for £165 with its optional VFD and infrared kit for an additional £45 and £29 respectively.
We fitted this with a Q-Technology power supply for £45, all from QuietPC. For stability and performance, we've chosen an Intel processor and chipset. While a 2GHz chip would be fine for standard video playback we'd like support for HD and have gone for something a little faster: the 2.6GHz P4 on an 800MHz bus for £158. We've fitted this in an Abit IC7-G motherboard (winner of our most recent group test) with 512MB of Crucial PC3200 RAM (2 x 256MB for dual-channel support), costing £128 and £68 respectively.
In terms of graphics, ATI is generally accepted as having the best DVD picture quality and, as such, even a £35 Radeon 7500 will be fine for a home entertainment PC. That said, our desire for HD Windows Media 9 playback demands a fast 128MB card, so we've gone for a Radeon 9800 Pro model from Crucial for £233. To silence the main processor and graphics card we fitted them with a Zalman Flower and Heatpipe Heatsink costing £38 and £22 respectively from QuietPC.
When it comes to recording TV, you can't have too big a hard disk, so we've gone for a 160GB Seagate Barracuda with a Serial ATA (SATA) connection for £118 - it's big, quiet and the SATA cable allows good airflow. The choice of optical drive depends on your desire for writability, but we've gone for a normal DVD-Rom drive: a slot-loading Pioneer DVD-120 for £25.
As we want decent quality audio output we've fitted a professional M-Audio Audiophile 2496 sound card costing £152. When it comes to TV tuners, it's important to select one that is supported by the software you intend to use; we've gone for Hauppauge's analogue Win TV Go at £28.
While most of the day-to-day operation will be with the normal IR remote control, we'll still need a keyboard and mouse from time to time. If these times are rare then any combination will do, but if you're anticipating using the keyboard and mouse regularly from the sofa then a wireless solution is desirable, and one with a mouse that doesn't need a flat surface is better. We've gone for Gyration's cordless keyboard and mouse for £90 from QuietPC.
Finally for software we've bought Windows XP Professional, PowerDVD 5 Deluxe and Showshifter (with DivX Pro), costing £215, £45 and £40 respectively. The DVB version of Showshifter which supports digital TV tuners is due to be launched soon.
Our final total comes to £1,644 ex VAT, excluding monitor because it's designed for use on an existing TV, projector or plasma panel. In relative terms, this makes it an expensive PC, but we've opted for the very best components, ensured they're running quietly and fitted them into a great-looking case with unique features, such as a remote control and VFD.
It is possible to build cheaper home entertainment PCs though. If you're not bothered about HD video, you could shave £200 from our total, while the use of onboard audio, all-in-one graphics cards and standard cases can significantly reduce the overall cost. The beauty, as with any DIY project, is being able to decide what features and quality level you demand and shop accordingly.
For the experienced only
Building the ultimate home entertainment PC currently requires a significant amount of tweaking. In particular getting an LCD and remote control to work exactly as you wish can take some time. We'd recommend sophisticated configurations are only taken on by experienced and dedicated enthusiasts. We'd also advise visiting the HTPC section of the AVS Forum for help.
It's worth the effort, though, as a well-configured home entertainment PC combines the best in DVD playback, media management, timeshifted TV and 3D gaming, along with delivering many facilities unique to the PC platform, including superb networking support and internet access. You really can build the ultimate home entertainment system.
Also in this series:Build your own PC - Part 1: Ultimate quiet
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