So you want a home theatre PC? Good thinking! It’s a great way to get absolute control over all the content on your TV on the one device with infinite tweakability into the future. It’s time to ask the big questions: should you build one or buy one? Here’s what to know when choosing yours.
Gizmodo’s Home Entertainment Guide is presented by the new HP Spectre x360. Any way you bend it, the Spectre x360 delivers. With four modes, lightning-fast performance, and impressive battery life, this convertible PC has the best of all worlds and the shortcomings of none.
Setting a budget and sticking to it is paramount when it comes to tech buying, and it’s especially important when it comes to getting a home theatre PC. These are big ticket items, which means you’ll be living with a device for a long time. If it’s beyond your means or not the right device for you, you’ll be stuck in a rut with something you don’t need or can’t afford. Do a bit of maths, find a figure you can comfortably afford to spend and stick to it. Don’t let yourself be duped by slick talking tech salesfolk. At the end of the day, it’s always you left holding the bag.
Decide What You Need Above What You Want
Make a list of features you know you can’t live without in your Home Theatre PC (HTPC). Need an ace processor? Make sure there’s a note of it. Desperate for gaming options on the side? A good graphics card is important for you. Need a specific amount of storage? Write that down, too. Don’t get sucked into a certain device because it’s shiny and neglect everything you need day-to-day.
Research Your Needs
Once you have one or two devices in mind, hit your nearest search engine to see what people who own that device think about it. You might just find that it goes bang after a month with the device or it doesn’t do something you hoped it actually did. You can read reviews that we and other tech sites write until the laptop or tablet goes out of style, but we can’t tell you what it’s like to live with a device over an extended period of time in the way an owner can.
Beware The Options List
All of you will have different levels of technical know-how when it comes to computer DIY. A general rule of thumb to follow when it comes to buying a new machine, however, is that it’s always cheaper to do it yourself, rather than have the manufacturer do it for you when it comes to upgraded internal specs.
Sourcing parts like RAM and storage drives from places like StaticIce — unless hell freezes over soon — will always be cheaper than getting a manufacturer to crack open your new pride and joy to stick overpriced sticks in there for you.
Some of you might not be confident mucking about with your own gear, and that’s ok. In that case, it can be worth paying the extra money for peace of mind.
We’ll take a look at the pros and cons of the two approaches below.
Set Up Your Network Properly
Of course, your home gaming experience is often only as good as your home network. We’ve done extensive guides on how to get the most out of your home network before, which you can check out here.
Do You Really Need A Home Theatre PC?
Here’s the thing. A Home Theatre PC (HTPC) might be overkill for what you want to do on your TV. If you’re just watching Netflix and watching a few Blu-rays, you might be able to buy a new Blu-ray player for under $100 and a Chromecast for $50. That will allow you to put hot content on your big TV without going through the hassle of building a whole new machine to do it.
You’ll want a home theatre PC if you’re looking to make the best use of a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device, if you want a piece of software like Plex to give you a unified look at all your content in the single interface or if you want to do a bit of lean-back gaming on the couch.
You’ll need to source a few components to build your perfect HTPC, as well as a case to keep them in. Here’s are the basics you’ll need to get building:
You can pick yourself up something like an AMD A8-7650K for around $130, which packs in a decent amount of power (quad-core 3.3GHz processor) to help your HTPC get things done.
The AMD A8 has integrated AMD R7 graphics, so you can do a bit of gaming on the side without spending a wad of extra cash. It’s also way better than competitor Intel’s integrated Iris graphics processor. It also saves space in your case, meaning you won’t have to buy a separate graphics card.
Keep in mind that if you go the AMD route, you’ll also need to get an AMD-compatible motherboard as well.
This is the glue holding your whole machine together, so choose wisely. When it comes to a HTPC, it’s worth picking something geared towards high audio-visual performance. Something with support for 7.1 or 5.1 Surround Sound. If you’re serious about sound, get something with an Optical Audio out port for connecting to your speaker system.
For controlling your media, you should only need 4GB of DDR3 memory. It’s enough to keep everything ticking over nicely without lagging in use. Brands to look out for include Corsair and Crucial. Keep in mind that if you’re going to do lean-back gaming, especially with AAA titles, you’re going to want to at least double that number.
Think about where you’re going to be storing your HTPC content. If you plan on building a machine that keeps content stored locally, you’ll want to opt for energy-efficient spinning platter drives. WD’s high-capacity Green drives balance energy efficiency, noise and storage capacity to be a great internal drive for your HTPC. A 2TB WD Green should set you back less than $100. Remember that these are big drives, and you’ll need to make sure you have the room in your case if you decide to buy multiple disks.
If you’re going to be storing your content on a Network Attached Storage (NAS) drive, you can opt to install a super-fast solid state drive (SSD). SSDs are expensive and have generally lower storage capacities, but they’re insanely fast. If you buy one to run your software and your OS while streaming your content over a Gigabit ethernet port, you’ll be blown away by the speed..
Yes, Optical Media is a bit redundant when it comes to PCs in 2015, but when it comes to the home entertainment space, Blu-ray is king. A good Blu-ray drive should only set you back around $50-$60.
Windows 8.1 is probably the easiest thing you can throw at your new HTPC to get it off the ground. If you should be eligible for the $115 OEM edition (cheaper than any other version apart from the student release). If you’re after Mac OS X compatibility, you’ll have to completely change how you buy hardware. Check out Lifehacker’s guide on how to build a Hackintosh to get you off the ground.
If you’re stuck for ideas of parts to buy, Lifehacker has a great list of peripherals you can buy to build your own machine for just over $500.
Once you’ve put all the pieces together, you need to figure out the software your machine is going to run.
Plex is more than just a piece of media centre software — it’s a complete media ecosystem. You’ll have to have Plex Media Server installed — it’s the backend program that catalogues all your photos, videos, music and other media files and streams them out across your network to any device you want — but the Plex Home Theater front-end is the 10-foot GUI that shows you everything in a beautiful, well organised format.
The Plex Home Theater interface is beautiful on the big screen — it’s made for viewing from the couch, navigated via remote control. Images, album art and movie posters are presented in big, bold blocks, you can organise videos specifically into TV shows and movies, and the video-watching experience itself is just all-around excellent.
Even if you aren’t using a PC in your living room, you can have Plex Media Server installed on the PC in your office or study, and stream video out to another device like a PS3, PS4 or Xbox One using Plex’s huge range of apps. If you have multiple media-streaming devices set up all over your house — like a true gamer — Plex is one of the best choices you can make.
XBMC started out as the Xbox Media Center, and it’s one of the original — and the best — pieces of media centre software that you can find. As the name suggests, it started out as a software hack for the original Microsoft Xbox, but as its feature-set grew the devs decided to take their hard work and port it onto a more capable platform — and thus you have XBMC for PC.
As a media center, XBMC is one of the absolute best. The application itself supports a huge range of codecs, and as part of the installation process you’re prompted to select the photo, music, video folders on your PC, and from there the world is yours — you can use XBMC for just about any media streaming or viewing or listening task that you might require.
A specialised fork of XBMC is OpenELEC — that stands for Open Embedded Linux Entertainment Center, if you were interested. Designed to get the absolute most out of super-low-power and miniature home theatre PCs, OpenELEC is a mere 125MB in size, so if you’re running a system entirely focused on network streaming, or if you don’t need the full power of Windows, it’s a feasible choice.
A media centre PC isn’t always just about watching videos. If you have an appropriately powerful computer connected to your TV, you can use it to play games — either with a controller, or a keyboard and mouse — using the gaming-focused media interface of Steam Big Pictrue.
If you don’t have said powerful PC, you can use Steam’s In-Home Streaming feature or Nvidia GameStream to hook up a more graphically-capable PC and stream gameplay of demanding PC games from PC to PC over your home’s wired or wireless network. Especially if you’re using a miniaturised PC like Intel’s NUC, In Home Streaming transforms your low-powered living room computer into a gaming machine.
You have to have an external media folder for Big Picture to address — it takes a bit of finagling to set up initially — but if you only wanted to use one piece of media centre software, Big Picture can handle your TV- and movie-watching needs as well. It’s made for gaming, and it does that exceptionally well, but it’s also a little more versatile at the same time.
Windows Media Center has lost a little bit of its glamour and glitz in the last couple of years, but especially if you’re still running Windows 7 then it’s an excellent all-in-one program for your media — especially if you’re planning on watching live TV, which was the initial purpose of the software itself. It’s also available for Windows 8 and 8.1, although not RT, as long as you pay the $9.99 asking price.
Media Center is probably simultaneously the most complete and most streamlined piece of software for watching live TV, and recording it, for Windows home theatre PC users. For viewing a library of downloaded media, like movies and TV shows, or even your home movies, it also does a pretty good job although you have to view pictures and video within the same home screen sub-heading.
It’s worth mentioning, though, that Media Center has lost the ability to play DVDs in its latest iteration in Windows 7, so you’ll need to download an external DVD-playing program like Cyberlink PowerDVD. If you’re in Windows 8 or 8.1, the Media Center Pro Pack from the Windows Store takes care of your DVD requirements.
It’s worth keeping in mind that Media Center’s days are numbered: Microsoft won’t be including the software in Windows 10, so think long and hard about upgrading if it’s going to be your primary piece of software.
MediaPortal is one of the lesser-known 10-foot media centre programs. It’s completely free, and starting out initially as a fork of XBMC it fills most of the same roles — but it’s a completely distinct and different piece of software despite that.
When you set up MediaPortal, you’re prompted to select whichever of the built-in features you want and set the location of your various media libraries; you can use the interface to navigate pictures, movies, music or TV shows through the completely skinnable home screen — which you can navigate with either a keyboard and mouse or a supported remote control.
You can use MediaPortal to stream over Wi-Fi to a mobile device like a laptop or tablet, too. The entire program requires a little bit of tweaking and configuration to get just right, obviously, with the massive range of adjustment available to even amateur users, but what you get out of it is a comprehensive suite for big-screen media playback.
Honourable Mention: VLC Media Player
VLC is not a 10-foot GUI in the traditional sense, but I really think it deserves a special mention in this list.
VLC is so simple that it hurts. It’s a barebones, lightweight, media player that functions best when you’re opening files from a folder on your PC — double click and go, nothing more complicated than that. It does have a playlist and media centre function — you can set it to monitor folders for new content, pull metadata, add cover art, stream over a network connection, download Internet radio — but those features are better served with a more comprehensive piece of software.
If you already use your PC for other tasks than just watching movies and TV shows, streaming YouTube or listening to music, then a piece of software that doesn’t get in the way can come in handy — and as far as that goes, you can’t find many media players much more powerful and straightforward than VLC.
Of course, you can avoid the hassle of building your own machine by grabbing one of the off-the-shelf HTPCs currently on the market. Here are three great ones to choose from.
The upside to buying a device is that you get great support from the manufacturer if something goes wrong, and you get a warranty to support your device if it ever goes bang. The problem is that these boxes aren’t hugely customisable, and are mostly geared towards watching content rather than playing games. Get something that’s going to suit you for the next five years or so to get the most bang for buck here.
Ah the humble Mac Mini. Apple calls it an “enthusiast” product, and it’s absolutely right. It’s a bring-your-own-monitor job, which makes it perfect for HTPC use.
The best thing about the Mac Mini is that it can run both Mac OS X and Windows 8 (thanks to Boot Camp), meaning you get the ultimate cross-platform support for your home theatre computing hub.
The entry-level model at the time of writing packs in a 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 500GB of spinning storage, 4GB of RAM and OS X Yosemite for just $699. If that’s a little pricey for you, we’d recommend keeping an eye on Apple’s Refurbished devices store, which regularly flogs restored hardware on the cheap.
Acer Revo One
The Revo One is a stout little HTPC with a few different configurations to get your lounge room into the 21st century. You can get it with either an Intel Celeron processor or a Core i3/i5 processor and a variety of drives. The HTPC has three hard drive bays with support for 2TB storage drives in each, and two bonus SATA ports in case you need more.
You get dual-display support via an HDMI-out and Mini DisplayPort, 4K video support, 802.11AC Wi-Fi capabilities, RAID support and two USB 3.0 ports.
It comes in three configurations off-the-shelf. There’s a $419 model which packs in a 1.4GHz Intel Celeron processor, 2GB of RAM and a 60GB SSD (no drives), $799 gets you a 2GHz Intel Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 1TB HDD, while the top end model comes in at $1099 for a 2.7GHz Intel Core i5 processor with 8GB of RAM and a 2TB hard drive.
What do you look for in a Home Theatre PC? Tell us in the comments!
Bend the Rules with the HP Spectre x360