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What is an HTPC and how do I start?

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What is an HTPC and how do I start?

In starting your search for the perfect DVR, you may have come across the term Home Theater PC (HTPC). You probably realized that computers were involved but didn't know more more than that. Read on to find out what HTPCs are and how they can become the ultimate DVR.

Hardware

The hardware used in an HTPC isn't really that different from what you'd find in your standard desktop computer. All the standard parts are there: CPU, motherboard, RAM, hard drives and DVD/Blu-ray. The differences in an HTPC are the types of standard hardware you choose.

The Case

While there are HTPC solutions that will allow you to hide the PC away somewhere, there are ample solutions available that allow you to build a computer to look like any other piece of Audio/Video gear. Most people don't think about it but I highly doubt you want your standard beige PC case standing next to your television.

HTPC cases will typically cost you a bit more money than your standard desktop case but they're well worth it. Not only for the looks, but for insulation as well.

Sound Concerns

PCs tend to be loud. Processors, video cards and other components generate heat. The easiest way to dissipate this heat is with the use of fans.

Unfortunately, fans make noise. While this is fine in an office environment where people are talking, keyboards are clacking and other noises are all around, this noise can easily detract from your home theater enjoyment.

There are a good number of cooling solutions on the market that are near silent and this certainly helps. As well, choosing things like fanless video cards is important. The fewer fans running, the better.

Video Out

The other main concern when purchasing an HTPC is how you'll view your content. By definition, an HTPC is connected to a TV. This typically means your standard computer video connections such as VGA or DVI won't work.

You're best bet is to find a PC (or video card) with HDMI. This will allow you to use one cable to get both picture and sound to your TV or A/V receiver.

Other options include component connections and even S-video but keep in mind that neither of these are compliant with newer technology such as Blu-ray and you could run into trouble depending on the type of content you want to view.

Software

This is where HTPCs can get troublesome. There are a good number of options on the market. Below, we introduce a few. The one you choose will depend on several factors. You comfort level with technology, what you want your HTPC to do and cost. Let's take a look at some of the options.

SageTV

SageTV has been around for several years now. One of the more popular HTPC solutions, the company has built an impressive community of users who develop plug-ins, help each other and try to move the platform forward.

SageTV supports TV tuners meaning you can record your favorite content from cable or satellite. The one caveat is that there is no CableCard support, so getting HD digital content directly into SageTV is problematic. There are workarounds but they tend to be quite involved.

While the main SageTV component is software, one of the platform's biggest benefits is the hardware the company produces. Known as extenders, the devices allow you to access your PC content from other TVs in your home. This means one PC controlling multiple rooms. The extenders also give you access to select streaming content if you enjoy watching streaming video.

If SageTV has a shortcoming it's the fact that it can be difficult to setup and maintain. While the community that has formed around the product is more than willing to help new people, adding functionality or getting your settings exactly as you want them isn't always the easiest process.

Microsoft Windows Media Center

Built directly into Microsoft Windows since Vista, Media Center is probably one of the easier software packages to use depending on what you want to do. When it comes to recording TV, listening to music or viewing pictures, Media Center requires only a bit of quick setup and you're ready to go. If you have a TV tuner in your PC, the application will walk you through getting television running in almost no time.

Like SageTV, Media Center has hardware extenders. While there have been others in the past, your best bet at this point is the Microsoft Xbox 360. This device acts not only as a game machine, but it can also bring the Media Center interface, along with your live and recorded TV, to the other televisions in your home. While the Xbox 360 is lacking some functions that work on the actual PC, it's an easy to use solution for extending your experience.

Other Software

There are of course, other HTPC software platforms on the market. They do tend to be more complicated. That doesn't mean they're bad, as many provide greater flexibility than SageTV or Media Center. You will have to do your research first however as they aren't as easy to setup as the others listed above. MythTV is an open source Linux distribution which handles TV tuners as well as importing media from other PCs in your home so you can listen to music or view home movies. While development has stopped on BeyondTV, it was a strong competitor and the community still supports new users.

Conclusion

While getting started with HTPCs seems complicated (and it can be), they provide functionality that a cable company or satellite DVR simply cannot provide. While companies like TiVo are starting to add computer media sharing, streaming content and mobile access, the HTPC is more customizable, extendable and upgradeable than any DVR solution on the market.

It of course takes time, but if you're willing to invest in some research and legwork, using a computer as your DVR certainly has its rewards.

Keep reading here for more articles related to HTPCs. We'll be sharing how-tos, setup instructions and other articles that you'll find helpful in your quest for the perfect DVR solution.

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