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Home Theatre PC (HTPC)

A Home Theatre PC (HTPC) combines the functionality of a Personal Computer with Media Center software and is designed to be a complete system for the playback of all your multimedia requirements (and more). Depending on the selection of Media Center software and hardware, it can also act as a digital recording device from both digital (DVB-T, DVB-C,DVB-S(2)) and/or analogue sources.

The GUI to a HTPC generally has a 10-foot interface meaning it is simple to read and operate from at least 10 foot away. It can be operated using a keyboard or remote control and is very feature rich. Both hardware and software can be prepacked as part of a purchased but it currently, a HTPC is still considered as something for the enthusiast. This however will change as home entertainment converges to use a single device to deliver all your home multimedia requirements.

Hardware

Most modern PC's will be capable of running as a HTPC but here is a rundown of the things you will need to consider when you build or purchase your HTPC hardware.

  • CPU - A Dual Core Processor should be ample for all your HTPC needs
  • Memory - A minimum of 1GB but 2GB or more would be better.
  • Graphics Card - To attach your PC to your TV, you will need a graphics card with a HDMI connection. Some motherboards have HDMI ports built in so this may not be necessary. depending on your requirements.
  • Audio output - There are a number of ways you could play audio on your HTPC. The best option is to have dedicated surround sound ports on your motherboard/sound card which plug in to an amplifier using SPDIF or analogue connections. Audio could also be run through the HDMI card or even through the line out mini jack.
  • Hard Disk - It's important to use a large hard disk of at least 1 TB to store your multimedia content. You will be surprised how fast the space runs out, especially if you are storing HD content. You could also look to store all your media content on a NAS server which will reduce the Hard Disk requirements of your HTPC.
  • TV card - If you wish to use your HTPC to watch or record television, you will need one or more TV cards. Some cards are capable of recording more than one channel or source concurrently and offload the processing of this onto the card itself.
  • Remote control - If you have bought a TV card, you will usually have a remote control which can be used to control your HTPC. If this is not the case, you could look to buying a dedicated remote control or a universal remote control. If your are building your own, some HTPC cases come with a remote control too.
  • Wireless keyboard - Look to buy a small wireless keyboard for your HTPC making it easier to operate from your sofa. It can also double as a remote control.
  • Fans/insulation - One of the most important factors for your HTPC will be how quite it runs. Noisy fans and disks will dampen your enjoyment of a movie so it's important to consider this as part of your purchase or build.
  • Power consumption - Something to consider after adding all your components is the power consumption of the HTPC as it may run at over 200W . Looks to have as many components as possible integrated onto your motherboard (HDMI/Audio output), use lower energy hard disk such as the Western Digital Caviar Green 1TB disk, reduce the number of memory chips etc.

Software

There are numerous HTPC packages available to the consumer. Some come as part of the operating system like Windows Media Center on Vista Ultimate/Premium, MythTV which is built on Linux, commercial applications such as Beyond TV or Sage TV and also freeware, user developed applications such as XBMC and MediaPortal.

Besides the basic multimedia functionality of playing Music, Movies and Photos, a HTPC can also view and distribute TV streams to numerous other PC's in your home, emulate games consoles, re-encode content automatically for your iPod, download content from the internet in the background using P2P client software, act as a UPnP server streaming media to your games consoles, etc. The list is seemingly endless.

Although the complexity of setting up a Home Theatre PC may put some people off, the final results are worth it and it is difficult to go back to viewing media using any other device.

Home Theatre Software

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