Home theater PC?

FIOS is finally available (yay!) and I want to put together a home theater PC, because Verizon’s lease rates for DVRs and set top boxes seem absurd. I’m a bit clueless in this area, so:

To watch 1 program and record another, I need 2 cablecards. One PC can support two cablecards, but I need Vista/XP Media Center to do this?

Apparently home theater PCs need to be “certified” to handle cablecards now? Is this just PR bullshit?

Do I need another (Happauge, for example) card to handle MPEG2 processing so as to free up the CPU?

Once I have this set up, can I just run HDMI/component out from the PC to each TV, or do I need one or more of these extenders MS talks about?

Is there some kind of wireless/HDMI converter to spare me from having to run cabling over the house to connect everything to the home theater PC in some mythical centralized location? Is that what a home media extender is?

Can I dump stored content from my desktop PCs to the home theater PC and put it in the same framework as the over-FIOS content, so that I can view this stuff over connected TVs?

I assume remoting is pretty much a solved problem at this point (Harmony?), so handling that via Windows is no big deal.

I feel like I’m missing a few pieces, so any help is welcome.


If you’re concerned about cost, the lease rates on the DVRs or buying a TiVo are probably going to be a lot cheaper.

Apparently home theater PCs need to be “certified” to handle cablecards now? Is this just PR bullshit?

Nope, not bullshit at all. If you want an HTPC to work with CableCard hardware you must buy a new PC that has been ‘certified’ by CableLabs. They have a special bios on their motherboards and a bunch of other crap. There isn’t any way around this legal or otherwise. Dell suposadly has fair prices on barebones setups but I haven’t looked into this kind of thing.

Without a “Certified” PC you’re limited to Analog SD signals and Unencryped QAM Digital.

Checkout the HTPC section over at AVSForums if you haven’t uet done so as you’ll find many of the answers to a lot of your questions posted there already.

Edit: Okay there is one way you can still record encrypted content on a non-certified pc. You can have a Hauppage HD PVR hooked up between a CableCard powered SetTopBox and your computer. However, this only handles one channel at a time.

Your best bet for an HTPC that does HD cable DVR duty is to buy a prebuilt Linux machine from this “TiVo” company.

What purposes is the HTPC going to fulfill? Will you be playing games, surfing the web, etc? Do you want it to play Blu-Ray discs? How many channels do you want it to record at once? Do any of the HD channels require a subscription (ex: HBO in HD)?

  • If you’re just recording TV shows, get a TiVo or a DVR supplied by Verizon.
  • If you’re playing Blu-Ray, make sure your video card outputs in HDMI, or DVI with support for HDCP. And make sure your display device supports HDCP too, or it won’t output at full HD resolutions.
  • Depending on how many channels you want it to record, you’ll need at least 1. One tuner typically can record two HD channels at once. You’ll need a faster hard drive for HD channels, which can increase mechanical noise.
  • If the HD channels you want to record require a subscription, you’ll need a CableCARD PC, a Verizon-provided DVR or an HD TiVo.

HTPC is kind of a huge mess when it comes to HD unless you’re willing to circumvent the legitimate DRM standards and be a filthy DMCA-breaking pirate. They are repeating all the same mistakes digital music made at first and making it way easier to do things the illegal way than to try to follow the law.

Nero liquid doesn’t support cablecards, so it’s totally worthless. It would have been pretty cool in 2002. Useless miserable garbage product.

Buy a tivoHD.

I love Tivo’s UI but I don’t get why someone would use that software instead of getting a real Tivo box. It has all the downside of Tivo (recurring subscription payments) and all the downsides of setting up your own HD capable HTPC (doesn’t do shit to help you with the whole CableCard clusterfuck).

more proof the idea of a htpc has come and gone.

I have an HTPC (Ubuntu/MythTV) and my dad has an HTPC (Vista Ultimate). Neither of us use it as a DVR… and there’s a simple reason for that, you can’t get cablecards except if you buy an OEM computer (and even then I have heard bad things about them actually working), so recording most HD content just won’t work.

Using it as a streaming device to play content off other networked computers works very well though, I watch anime all the time … soon I am planning to switch to XBMC and write a scraper for AniDB which would make the media browsing an even more enjoyable experience.

I definitely don’t think the idea of an HTPC has come and gone, it’s just a matter of your expectations. I really wish it could double as an HD DVR, but I guess that will not happen for a while…

My biggest issue with existing DVRs is honestly not the fact that it’s not my own PC, but the horrible UI. With MythTV you at least get MythWeb and you can just browse this website and search the schedule, and easily setup TV show recordings with just a few clicks (takes less than 10 seconds to sign up for say Heroes).

If there was something similar for existing DVRs, it wouldn’t be too far fetched to write some software that would automatically record movies for you out of some list or “based on your taste” and then notify you.

You can throw in a cheap HD tuner and record over-the-air HD, though. You get a lot better-looking HD than you get with the compression your cable or satellite company throws in, too.

I have an HTPC and we basically use it as a backup recorder, and a recorder to grab shows that I transcode and take to the gym. Otherwise, the HTPC is for big-screen gaming, music and video playback, and social Youtubing. But for daily TV watching/timeshifting? Tivo or another good DVR is the way to go.

You guys have pretty much talked me out of an HTPC, thanks.

There are some amazing benefits to an HTPC as long as you’re not trying to do things like real time recording of high def content.

As one example use case, HDD storage is so cheap that a system with couple of terabyte drives makes a really good super jukebox (eg. rip your entire DVD and CD collections to ISO files and watch/listen to them via XBMC) even if your collection is fairly large. I actually love my HTPC, I just use it alongside a DVR instead of trying to make that one of its functions.

I use a HTPC running XBMC for linux and it works swimmingly, it just doesn’t record TV. Get a TiVo for that.

Yeah, this part is what would be the greatest benefit to a proper HTPC though. With media center extenders, popcorn hours and the like, a dedicated PC for media storage need not be hooked directly to the TV, which sorta takes the Home Theater out of the HTPC.

The HTPC was a good proposition back in the day because for under $1000, you could not only replace the $1000 TiVo, but do things that no other device could, like serve as a digital jukebox for your MP3s, or play back Divx video downloads and whatnot.

HTPCs still would be a good value proposition if they could actually do with the now $400 TiVos are capable of.

But being unable to timeshift live HDTV makes them a novelty at best. There’s nothing my HTPC can do that a PS3, 360, or Popcorn hour can’t do.

Well XBMC looks better, has a vastly superior UI, plays more formats, acts as a mythtv frontend, is extendable through plugins and scripts, and will wash your car. I certainly like it.

(note: XBMC will not wash your car)

Here’s a silly question - Where was XBMC a year ago when I was auditioning frontends and found Mediaportal to be the best of the worst?

XBMC for linux wasn’t really usable until late fall 2007.

Mediaportal is horrible.

But why make that an HTPC? Better just to make it a server, and then stream your media to whatever client devices or apps makes the most sense – a Squeezebox for audio, a 360 for video, a PS3 for photos, whatever.

Because the client devices tend to have serious codec and/or storage format limitations that make it hard for me to use them after I’ve experienced the full flexibility of a real HTPC.

In the ISO jukebox rip example I gave above, if you’ve got the right front end software on your HTPC you can have it actually read direct rip ISO files off the harddrive and use them just like DVDs including all the menus and special features and such. With client media boxes you’re generally stuck with a conversion or transcoding step that adds annoyance and likely some quality loss.

My current setup uses two “HTPCs”, though one is basically used like a dumb streaming media viewer. The PC in the living room is both the living room HTPC and a server sharing the ISO files via SMB on my LAN and then the PC in my bedroom (similar specs but far less harddrive space) acts as an extender which can also view all the files on the server via streaming. Given how cheap computer equipment is these days building a little HTPC box isn’t any more expensive than buying a decent off the shelf TV media client box but gives you way more flexibility.