What’s an HTPC? (Another annoying geek post)

I think Shoe said it best, “uh, what’s an Htpc?”

That pretty much sums it up for the great majority of computer users. I answered her, at least a bit. It is like Tivo on steroids. Live TV, recorded TV, DVD library, music, pictures, gaming. All on a computer hooked to my television. I also run my home automation software on the same box, and some of it is tied in to my HTPC setup.

My current HTPC is running on a home brew PC. Athlon 64 3200+, Abit UL8, don’t remember how much memory it has. Although I love tweaking my PCs and the software that they contain, I have learned to leave this one alone, and just let it do it’s job. I use Windows XP as my operating system. I have tried Linux, but the HA software designed for it sucks compared to what I use, and the hardware is just not designed for it. Too much damn tweaking. The HTPC software programs that I tested under Linux just don’t do everything that I want it. No extra programs running, no anti-virus, no firewall (other than my external routers). I don’t need them since I don’t read email on this machine, or browse the web.

I have four TV tuners in the machine, a Hauppauge PVR250 (roslyn), a Hauppauge PVR150MCE, a Hauppauge WinTV PVR 2 USB external tuner, and a generic bullshit tuner I bought at a computer show a few years back. The PVR250 is hooked into my Motorola cable box via component video, and I have a serial cable run to the box as well, for channel changes. The bullshit card has a feed from my Sony VCR, and regular cable, as do the other two tuners.

Video is run from my Nvidia Geforce 6600 LE via DVI/component to my TV. Just a generic Sharp flatscreen. Nothing special, but but my eyesight isn’t particularly sharp lately anyhow.

I run sound from the MB’s onboard connectors to a Sony audio receiver, and out to about 10 mini speakers around the living room.

If you do a search around the web, you will find that mine is a pretty generic, low-price setup. I’ve seen some sweet setups that would run $10k+ that just make me weep when I think about them. I like mine though. For the most part, it does what I want. This is the second machine I have built for this purpose over the last five years. Not bad considering it gets constant 24 hour usage, and they were both built with parts from previous PCs.

My software setup is a bit more complicated. I have been interested in HTPCs for about ten years or so. I got my first TV tuner in 1995 or so, but was never able to really get a nice setup that worked, or that I could hook to my TV and my family could use. That’s one of the key factors. If my kids can use it, it works.

I started getting interested in X10 and home automation about six years ago. I picked up a basic kit, and hated the free software that came with it. After looking around for awhile, I found Homeseer and loved it. I still use it. I would like to move away from X10 into some higher end stuff, but that shit is expensive, and with my current extra spending money of $2/week 🙂 it will just be awhile. I have about 13 X10 controlled light switches, several lamp modules, and several appliance modules. I have 10 or 12 RF motion sensors that communicate with Homeseer and tell it when anyone is in proximity, as well as whether it is light or dark. I have about 10 temperature sensors around the house inside/out and a humidity sensor. Homeseer also controls my audio/video appliances via IR as well. All of it is accessed via remote control, switches, voice, as well as through a web browser in other parts of the house. I also use a couple of programs that interface with Homeseer as well as iTunes and WMP, so I can feasibly turn on the tunes from the shitter.

Anyway, about the HTPC software. I run several pieces of software. On the back end, as I said before, I sometimes use itunes and WMP through my HA software. I also access my music through a front-end, BeyondMedia. It’s OK, but not the greatest program I have used. I used to use one called Meedio, but it is now defunct, and there is no more meaningful development going on. BM is not at the top of Snapstream’s development list, but I am sure that they will get back on the bandwagon, or integrate it into their PVR product. It works for what it is supposed to though. Videos, DVD library (using a plugin), games (also using a plugin), photos, as well as access to some online stuff, although I don’t use anything other than the weather. I also access itunes on the TV screen for a few shows that I have downloaded, although the legibility sucks since it was made to be looked at on a PC screen.

The part that gets used the most is the PVR software, BeyondTV. BTV kicks ass. This post actually started out as a review of the software that someone asked me to do, but I will do that later, perhaps on my day off when I have a few extra minutes. Although there will probably always be stuff that it doesn’t do to my satisfaction, it is by far the best PVR software out there. It is easy to use, both for me and my family, right out of the box. Watch live TV, pause, rewind, record four shows at once to watch later (which is what I mostly use it for), as well as tune to FM radio. I can do this with the IR control from my HA software to my receiver, but using BTV is MUCH easier.

My favorite part, and what makes it so easy for the rest of the family, is the remote control. I have a couple of remotes that I can use. I use two different IR receivers, and both can transmit as well, but I much prefer the RF Firefly over the rest. It is easy to use, easy to set up to work with multiple programs, and fits right in my hand, so it’s not too bulky. It ties all the rest of it together. I only wish that it were a combination of RF and Infrared so that I could program it it to control my components as well.

I have tried several other programs out there, including MCE, MythTV, Sage, Meedio, Yahoo Go, and a few others, and none of them are as good as what I am currently using.

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