The overload of media content
Watching video content from the comfort of your living room has always been something that people want. Young or old, male or female, the hours most people spend in front of their television set is increasing each year. This isn’t really a surprise now, is it? We get bombed with video content, be it by your regular TV channels, youtube, Netflix, or Stievie, Yelo and TV Overal in Belgium. The problem most people are having is the fact that they need several devices to look at this content: a TV for… well… watching TV, an iPad or any other tablet or computer for youtube, Stievie, Yelo … Preferably a smartphone so they can listen to music as well. The list goes on. My friends know I’m kind of a techie and above all an audio and video freak. I received a lot of questions from friends over the past months, asking if there’s a way to combine all those things into a single system, so you can watch movies or tv shows, listen to music, watch regular TV, youtube, without leaving the comfort or your couch. Of course there’s a way: by installing a HTPC/Media center. But the obvious follow-up question is the big “how”? Hence this series of posts. I’ll describe in detail what setup I have a home, what my choices were and why, which alternatives there are and so on.
This post will talk mainly about the actual HTPC/media center itself, specifically the hardware needed for it (you need the htpc itself, choose an operating system and control it with something). In the coming days, I’ll write up what apps and programs you need and how to set them up properly. If you’re more interested in the peripheral hardware around it such as the receiver, cabling, speaker system, … come back in a few days for the peripheral part of this series. Please feel free to give me a shout here or on Twitter if you have any other questions after reading this post. Mind you that this post might get a little too technical if you’re not familiar with IT vocabulary. If this should prove to be the case, don’t hesitate to ask for a little more clarification.
HTCP is short for Home Theatre PC. A media center if you will, a device that will play your media content, and much more. It’s a specific kind of PC (duh!) designed to use a lot less power than a regular PC, but with still enough performance to play High Def videos and more. These can come in all shapes and sizes, so you really have a lot of choice, even when it comes to the choice of your OS. There are players such as Popcorn, Boxee and others which are HTPCs per definition, but only allow you to watch the content you put on them. I’m a Telenet user (*), and as I mentioned in the intro, I wanted to use Yelo too. And Netflix. And youtube. So the Popcorn and Boxee’s of this world were not an option. Even the modern era TVs can play HD content if you plug in an external drive. While that’s not so bad, you can still face the problem of missing codecs, bad quality and most importantly, you have to switch back and forth to TV mode if you want to watch regular TV, so no “all in one” solution. This means I wanted to choose a “real” PC, and an Operating System. While I could have chosen a mac, or any version of Linux, I still chose to go with Windows 8 as the operating system. Why? Because it’s free (well, for almost a year but I’ll get back to that), no matter what people say I’m convinced their interface with the tiles does work, it’s a lot easier to get in to than Linux, and finally because I wanted to run some home automation (“domotica”) apps on it. (more on that part in later posts.)
(*) even though I’m using Telenet, my argument remains valid in the case of Belgacom (TV Overal) or any other provider.
Next Unit of Computing
The most important thing is of course the actual PC which will play your content. While I bought an XTreamer Ultra as HTPC a couple of years ago, there are currently a lot of better alternatives: Intel has their line of NUC’s, basically just a square box but it packs quite a serious punch, considering, which means you’re safe for a couple of years in terms of hardware. They’re also quite “cheap”, small (11*11*5cm) and quiet. Furthermore, they contain an infrared receiver, which is ideal for a remote control. One could argument for a Raspberry Pi or something similar, … but I remain with my NUC suggestion, given the power it packs, the quite low power usage (quite important, since my HTPC is turned on 24/7) and the advantages it has.
The power is in your hands
Obviously, besides the HTPC itself, we obviously need something to control it with. Can you picture yourself sitting in your living room with a keyboard on your lap all the time? What I really needed was a remote control. I found one within the Logitech Harmony series of remotes that was compatible with my HTPC (or any HTPC for that matter) but one that also replaced ALL of my other remotes. And yes, I do mean all of them. Goodbye remotes for: TV, Telenet Digibox/Digicorder, receiver, Xbox, Playstation and whatnot. This fine piece of hardware recognizes practically all of your infrared devices and provides a neat little interface to set up everything just the way you like it. Since their database of devices which you can control with your remote is being kept up-to-date daily and new devices are added regularly, this is also a future-proof remote.
As I said before, I chose to install a Windows 8. It does not only give me the freedom to install any application I’m used to working with, it also allowed me to write some programs to do some home automation (**). I’m also very fond of the Metro interface (the interface with the tiles, yes). Especially with the Logitech remote control, it gives me absolutely everything I need: it starts up, I can choose my desired app to watch TV, see a movie, listen to music, open Netflix or youtube and so on. Even closing an app is just a matter of pushing a button and choosing another app to start. It also gives me a way to stream my music (or videos) to my HTPC. I’m not denying you can’t achieve the same thing with a mac or Linux, but I like to stay in my comfort zone and tweak a Windows to my own needs. And furthermore, it’s free for almost a year. See my post here to get more info on that.
(**) I’ve written an application which allows me to control the lighting in my living room, all from the comfort of my couch without getting up
In this post I’ve described the basics you need to know to go out and buy yourself an HTPC and get it installed. As I said, it might have been a bit technical (read as: boring), but that’ll change in the rest of this guide, when I explain how to get everything working. Over the next few days, expect a couple more posts, starting with one describing which apps you need, how to install them, set them up and what their advantages are, but also on how to play your videos, stream your music from any device to your HTPC. I’m obviously not going advise you about your television set. There are tons of review to be found online, and it’s, for most people at least, still a matter of personal preference or brand. They walk into a store, look at TVs and decide which one they like most. And to be honest, for your average viewer, any recent TV set will do. (Make sure your TV set has HDMI though. While it’s not an absolute necessity, it’ll save you a lot of hassle afterwards)