Home Theater PC (HTPC)

When I bought my new Blu-Ray player in March, it kept me from building out an htpc. Or so I thought. My Sony works with my home network, and was supposed to be able (after a firmware update due this summer) to play content from any of my PC’s. That was the plan.

Little did I know along the way that they’d start killing off my media codecs one by one. The biggest blow was the loss of the XVid codec. I like it because it’s high quality, high compression (i.e. small file sizes). I can’t play them any more. And it’s restricted to Windows Media Player extensions (WMV). No AVI, no QuickTime (mov). I spent all this money on a platform that’s turned into a fairly basic blu-ray theater now. (In it’s defense, the internet connectivity is still pretty cool).

Following a post from lifehacker.com (Check this link out) a few weeks back, I started to seriously look at building an HTPC again.  I opted to purchase it’s big brother (The Acer REVO R3610) so I could get the wireless card, faster processor, and more memory.  

These little nettops aren’t that bad.  Once I got rid of the bloatware/crapware, Win7 actually was relatively snappy.  Still slower than either my desktop or laptop.

I’ve been through a few different installs (I didn’t want to keep Win7 on there as it’s a resource hog to begin with).  Mainly I’ve been running different iterations of Ubuntu (a very popular flavor of Linux).  XMBC, detailed in the lifehacker post, runs a minimal install of Ubuntu to run.  I’ve primarily tried 10.04 LTS, 10.04 Netbook Remix, and 9.04.  Netbook remix by far is the fastest, but still not the greatest trying to run it as a media center.

Regardless, getting the on-board wifi to work has been an exercise in patience.  At first, because of how my router was setup, the card, once I got the OS to recognize it, wouldn’t scan for my network.  I must have reinstalled half a dozen times.  Once I got that figured out, it actually hasn’t been that bad.

The biggest issue that I’ve had is that the HDMI out to my TV doesn’t work with 5.1 audio correctly.  Come to find out, that’s my fault.  My TV’s onboard audio processor down-mixes “incorrectly”.  I can “hack” the Revo so it will work, but where’s the fun in having 5.1 audio tracks if you have to play them in stereo?

Let me back up a second and explain my setup here.  I have HDMI running from my cable box to the TV, then a digital (optical) cable running to my theater’s in port.  When I watch cable (and I rarely drop out of the HD-tier), I get HQ sound.  (Or so I thought until I really looked into it).  This was a fairly recent change (was Cable to theater optical audio until I got the Revo.)

So, the next step is to grab another digital audio cable (digital coax, looks like an RCA connector) and drop that from my cable box to the theater.  Then I’ll run the optical to the Revo.   Should get everything working then.  (Even though I’m going to need to hide the Revo somehow because the optical port is on the “front” of the unit.)  I haven’t tried this yet (the plan for when I get home tonight, after another quick reformat/configuration), but if it works, my review of this thing goes from “moderately like” to “love it”.

XBMC (www.xbmc.org) is a nice little setup.  It’s for one thing and one thing only – media.  With this on the Revo, I’ve been able to stream movies stored on my home server.  I’ve tried both 720 and 1080 rips.  I know there’s a boatload of plugins/programs to run, but I haven’t really gotten around to that yet.

My intention is to post another “setup” tutorial on here after awhile.  There’s too many steps I’ve gone through and the information I’ve found has been all over the place.  I’ve taken pieces meant for other hardware, other installation methods, etc.