Sunday, October 28, 2012

Coming Back to Windows for HTPC

I have started a slow process of a DIY project to build a home theater PC (HTPC) for my living room several months.

My primary goal is to be able to use it as a low-cost multi-purpose computer that can do the following.

  • Watch over-the-air local television programs with DVR capability.
  • Watch some ethnic programs from Kylin TV, an IPTV provider.
  • Allow easy access to the DVD library.
  • Serve as a Skype client.
  • Casual web browsing.
There are tons of instructions on how to build HTPC, so I am not going to bore you with details.  I did have some idea on what kind of components I want, and waited for them to be on sale from Newegg or Amazon, and accumulated them over several months.  I don't need the most current models, but I am very conscious on cost, energy consumption, and heat dissipation (fan noise) requirement.  I do not plan on using it as a gaming console, so I want to have a CPU with embedded graphics without the need for a discreet graphics card.  Here are what I have.
  • Foxconn ITX motherboard H67S, which is HDMI-ready.
  • Intel Pentium G630T Sandy Bridge, which has a very low TDP rating of 35W.
  • 4GB of memory
  • DVD-RW drive
  • 60GB SSD as the primary drive and 2TB HDD as the storage drive.
  • TV tuner card
  • 430W PSU
  • nMEDIAPC case, as its form factor allows it to be stacked on traditional living room media components.
The only tidbit that I wanted to mention is that the stock CPU fan from Intel was not as good.  The CPU temperature reading was over 50°C when idle.  The case is low profile and height-challenged, so I cannot fit most CPU coolers with 120mm fans.  I don't care for the noise from those bigger monster coolers, either.  So I opted for some better thermal paste that lowers the CPU temperature by about 5°C.  It now runs under 45°C when idle.

Initially I chose to use Ubuntu and XBMC.  But that gave me endless problems.  The biggest problem was the fact that it was prone to sudden freeze in the middle of media playback.  I blamed it on the quality of drivers.  XBMC playback was another problems.  XBMC couldn't handle some video, which otherwise played fine using VLC.  Thirdly, the Skype client on Linux had a very primitive user interface, and the video calls were hit and miss.

The thing that was most lacking was the limitation for remote control.  I use a wireless keyboard/mousepad combo from Logitech, but it is clumsy to use from the couch.  I tried to use XBMC remote app from my Android phone, and it worked.  I could configure to let the HTPC go to standby from the remote, but I still need to walk over to the HTPC and press the power button to wake it up.  In summary, it was good enough for geeks like me, but the build was not wife-ready.

That was enough for me to purchase a copy of Windows 7 Home Premium and start over.

I cannot be happier with the result.  The whole system is more stable than ever.  I have both Windows Media Center and XBMC configured.  Windows Media Center is a great for TV viewing, its TV guide and DVR capability is flawless.  My wife cannot tell whether she is watching from the HTPC or directly from the TV.

There are two minor tweaks that is needed for Windows Media Center.  The first is to set the temporary and recording storage locations from the default SSD to the HDD so as to reduce the wear and tear on the SSD.  The second is to disable Windows Media Center from automatically waking up from standby just to download the daily TV schedules.

Windows Media Center also provides two improvements.  The first is the remote.  There are many Windows Media Center remote controls (from $15).  The thing I like most is the ability to wake up the HTPC from standby by a press of the remote button, just like what you would expect from any other media components.  The second is the ability to show media information (TV channels, DVD chapters, etc.) using a programmable LCD ($35), so you can see them from the HTPC front panel.  Those features make Windows Media Center-based HTPC much friendlier for the living room.

I still prefer using XBMC to work with the DVD library.  Windows Media Center has a very basic linear user interface, and cover arts are not automatically downloaded.  XBMC is more mature in that area, although its configurations are still quite confusing.  I did play with different skins, and found that Xeebo is better with keyboard based navigation and controls.  But eventually I go back to use Confluence, the default skin.  Most importantly, I find that XBMC on Windows no longer exhibits the problem with some video where its Linux cousin did.

I really wish Ubuntu-based system could improve.  Not only in the areas of system stability, but also its usability with regard to remote control and front panel LCD support.  Until then, I'm sticking to Windows.  (I'm holding off from Windows 8 as I have heard that Media Center is not included in its base package.)

My takeaway from this episode of home improvement project is that open source stuff may still be a long way off from being ready to average consumers, comparing with what commercial products and solutions can deliver.

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