Why It's Finally Time To Get A Home Theater PC

I hear a lot about those damned netbooks as hot buys this season, but Prof. Dealzmodo suggests getting something that's actually, you know...useful. HTPCs baby. There has never been a better time:

I say that because HTPCs have never been smaller, cheaper or more powerful. A little over two years ago, we were talking about how purchasing an HD-capable PC would leave you with an empty bank account. Take this Sony Vaio TP1 for example. The wheel of cheese design was considered compact and "living room friendly" at the time, but it is still probably twice as big as current nettop models. The specs are lacking even by 2007 standards and it started at $US1600. Today I can easily go out and find a more powerful, feature rich nettop for less than $US400. And it would be small enough to tuck behind your HDTV due, in part, to cheap, compact, graphics-friendly chipsets like Nvidia Ion.

Today's Most Affordable HTPCs Seriously...HTPCs for less than $US400. Sure, you could spend a lot of cash on something more elaborate, and will have to if you want to access your own digital cable stream, but if you simply want a compact 1080p device that competently opens up the entire internet to your HDTV, here is a good place to start:

Dell Zino HD: The cheapest of the bunch at a base price of $US230, the Dell Zino HD offers a range of AMD Athlon processor options, up to a 1TB HDD, up to 8GB of RAM and a choice between integrated graphics and an ATI Radeon HD 4330 512MB card. Plus you get HDMI, four USB ports, and two eSATA for easy expansion. Even with a few bells and whistles like a dual-core processor, a bump in RAM to 4GB or a boost in the HDD capacity, you can keep the Zino under $US400. [Dell]

Acer AspireRevo R6310: Features include a dual-core 1.6GHz Atom 330 processor, Nvidia Ion graphics, 2GB RAM, 160GB HDD, HDMI, eSATA, VGA, 6 USB ports, card reader and wireless-N in a $US330 package. They even throw in a wireless keyboard and mouse for good measure. I have spent some time with the AspireRevo, and I can say that it is a very capable HTPC for the money. Power web surfing can be sluggish at times, as is Flash playback—but Adobe has promised support for NVIDIA graphics acceleration in Flash 10.1 that should remedy that situation. All-in-all though, it handles video quite well. [Acer]

Asus EeeBox EB1012: A release date and price have not officially been confirmed, but the EeeBox EB1012 offers basically the exact same feature set as the AspireRevo—minus a USB port or two. Hopefully, when it is released, the price point will be even more aggressive than Acer's. [Asus]

Remotes None of the HTPCs mentioned above come with a remote control out of the box, but this can be easily and cheaply remedied. Most infrared remotes require only that you have a free USB port for the included adaptor, so just about any PC with Windows Media centre can be converted to work with a remote.

If you are just looking for something basic, a remote like the MCE PC will do the job just fine—and it costs under $US20. If you have an iPhone, you can also download apps like AirMouse (iTunes link) and MediaMote (iTunes link) to handle these tasks. Gmote is also available for those of you with Android phones.

Networking Keep in mind that if your modem is far from your computer, and you'll need Wi-Fi to connect to the internet, transferring files between computers, you are probably going to want something capable of handling wireless-N (802.11n). Fortunately, all of the PCs mentioned above can do that right out of the box—although the Dell Zino requires a $US45 upgrade for that option.

If you want to upgrade an older PC to handle wireless-N, all you need is a compatible router and a USB adaptor. Decent wireless-N routers will run you about $60 on the lower end, and compatible USB adapters can be had for an additional $30 or $US40 bucks. If you just plan on connecting to the internet and you live in a smaller home or apartment, you should be fine with 802.11g.

Networked Storage Although not an essential component to owning an HTPC, at some point you are probably going to want a networked storage solution so you can dump all of your files in one place. Traditionally, setting up a home server to centrally store files from multiple computers (and multiple platforms, potentially) required another major investment, but things have definitely improved in this area. For example, HP's LX195 Windows Home Server with a 640GB drive can be had for $US250, and it performs quite well for the price. The same can be said for the Iomega Ix2-200 NAS. It runs on Iomega's proprietary software as opposed to Windows Home Server, but for the money, it has a killer feature set that makes it a pretty awesome deal. Capacity runs up to 4TB, but the base delivers 1TB at $US270 and it is user-expandable.

Even if you want to bake your own NAS server there is open source software like FreeNAS and WHS that can help to keep the costs down. Maximum PC has provided a great guide to building a NAS server using these free open source tools. If you have the hardware lying around, it's not going to cost a penny. Either way, building from scratch can be fairly inexpensive depending on how much storage space you need.

Avoid Expensive Set-Top Boxes Amusingly enough, as I was writing this article, my father called to ask me about the Roku player his IT guy was raving about. Yes, Roku's three models are priced between $US80 and $US130, a figure even the cheapest HTPCs can't match, but the fact that they are still limited to Netflix and Amazon On Demand makes them less valuable. Would you say that Netflix and Amazon VOD are worth $US130 of the AspireRevo's $US330 price tag? I should hope not.

There are certainly good reasons to pick up a $US100 HD media streamer, like the Asus O!Play, if you're aware of the limitations, but what's the excuse for Apple TV and others like it? Apple's set-top box costs $US229. I have iTunes on my HTPC...so where is the value? Throw an HDMI port on a Mac Mini and then we'll talk. The $US300 Popcorn Hour player may play a ton of file formats and have an integrated BitTorrent client, but you have to pay extra to add a hard drive, and by the time you do, you're squarely in HTPC territory.

To me, spending a little more actually saves money, because I don't need to buy so many competing boxes. It's like going to the grocery store and choosing between the regular-sized bag of coffee and the jumbo bag of coffee. The smaller bag costs lest money, but buying in bulk is cheaper pound for pound—and you know I will be drinking all of that coffee.

Conclusion Forget about netbooks and elaborate set-top media boxes this holiday season. If your budget is anywhere over $US300, go with an HTPC. Set-top boxes are doomed and I'm not interested in netbooks until they handle HD well enough to be used as a portable HTPC. It's only a matter of time before everyone watches TV through the internet, so you had better get on the bandwagon while cable companies are still scrambling to figure out how best to screw you. No matter how weird it gets, at least with a PC you know you'll be able to roll with it.

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