Why I Need an HDTV Capable HTPC

I miss HDTV.

Last year I gave up my HD satellite STB as part of a household cost cutting plan. I only had the box downstairs on the big screen and never watched it for two reasons: warming up my projector and turning on my whole home theater system didn’t fit with my desire for instant TV gratification and the STB had no time shifting/PVR facilities (essential to any TV viewer but more so if you have kids that don’t appreciate midwest prime time).

Recently, I caught a glimpse of HDTV and thought, “Wow, that looks really good, much better than my upscaled DVD video, I should really finally build an HTPC.”

Before dropping any money into video cards and large hard drives I wanted to assess my current HTPC (home theater personal computer) capabilities:

  • Modded Xbox with Xbox Media Center (XBMC): I use XBMC for all my standard definition video watching. The Xbox has a weak processor so it fails to be able to decode HD resolution video above “half-res,” 960×540 (opposed to HDTV’s 1920×1080). I compared a half-res HD video with the same clip at standard res and the half-res HD did have more snap but introduced color problems (the Xbox only sends Rec. 601 color which makes HD flesh tones look orange and flat). So the Xbox doesn’t meet the minimum requirements.
  • Macbook Pro and VLC/MPlayer: My Macbook Pro can play 720p x264 .mkv video clips in both VLC and Mplayer (Mplayer is also the video player behind XBMC’s high performance), two open source video player projects while connected to my Sanyo PLV-Z3 projector by HDMI. Unfortunately, each software player has fatal flaws. VLC crashes when you start to skip around or fast forward HD MKV files but can pass Dolby Digital or DTS audio from the Mac’s optical output to my AV receiver. Mplayer doesn’t crash when skipping around the video but refuses to send anything but a downmixed stereo signal to the AV receiver (Mplayer is at heart a command line tool: it has the ability to pass DD and DTS with the parameter “-afm hwac3” but this just turns the signal into pulsing noise and doesn’t switch my AV receiver over to a surround sound mode).

All of this makes me stomp around the house in a mood muttering, “Nothing works around here.”

So now I’m reading Building the Perfect PC (a beautifully illustarted “Make Projects book) to learn how to get the best bang for the buck building a custom Linux or Windows HTPC (I know there are great sources on the internet, but my head is swimming after reading so many different suggestions on the best video card for this or that). When I’m all done, hopefully I’ll have an HD capable media center with time and place shifting capabilities that will also satisfy my video/audiophile (may have to resort to Windows instead of Linux for the most advanced video card drivers that yield high HQV scores) needs without any nasty DRM hassles.

2 thoughts on “Why I Need an HDTV Capable HTPC

  • March 3, 2007 at 9:20 pm

    I don’t know how it will meet up with your insane need for audio/video purity but I have been using a Xbox 360 to stream HDTV (with pause/record capabilities) from my Media Center PC. Unfortunately for DIVX I still go with XBMC. As the high res (720p) video becomes more common I may have to add a mac mini to the mix. BTW, I also had the same experience with the .mkv files with VLC.

  • May 30, 2008 at 11:37 am

    I’d like to hear a followup on this story. I’m looking into building an HTPC myself and would like to know how useful the book was. I realize it’s been a year and technology moves fast, but if the system you built from the book was pretty good, then it should still be good today, not to mention cheaper.


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