Media Centers in the Home


A Typical Media Center Setup
A Typical Media Center Setup

Overview


A media-center PC, sometimes called a Home Theatre PC (HTPC), is a computer designed for the living room. A Media Center PC has upgrades in order to act as an entertainment center for the household. The home media center can act like a typical computer but really can serve multiple purposes. In a standard PC media center it can provide multiple functions such as the standard Internet, e-mail, and word processing. You can also use this PC to do anything from record live TV streams (including full HD streams), playing your movies,and even playing your music, as well as your PC video games. The best part of this is the fact that it's a one time cost! The only cost your incur is the cost of building the PC itself, the peripherals, and your TV. You do not have to pay for a DVR or a DVR service(i.e. Tivo, Comcast's On Demand) and you can use the cable that you are currently using (assuming you have cable) to stream and record the video. You can also choose the size of your hard drives, so the amount of video you can record is as dependent on how large of a hard drive you choose.

Applications


You can do all of this from the comfort of your living room couch, via a wireless mouse and keyboard combo or standard IR remote. Users connect their media center PC to their HDTV via an HDMI cable, and then connect the PC's sound output to their speaker system to achieve full theater effect.

Movies
Users can play movies from various mediums. You are able to play movies that are stored locally on your hard drives (eg. avi, mpg, mkv), DVD's you ripped onto your computer, and physical DVD's. Users are only limited by their hard drives capacity or their DVD library size.

Music
-stored on hard drive (MP3, FLAC, WMA, M4A)
-stored on physical medium (CD)

Users can now fully integrate their music library into their living room and hear their music like never before. Capable of playing all major file types, the same interface you use to play all of your videos and watch TV can now be used to listen to your music with the quality of your surround sound system.

DVR (Digital Video Recorder)
-Requires TV tuner card
-Stores content locally on hard drive
-Amount of video you can record relies entirely on the size of your hard drive is
-Can store HD streams (Requires higher capacity hard drives)
-This is all done automatically on a schedule, just like a DVR (through the use of various free programs)

Through the use of various freely available operating systems online, users can essentially build their own fully customized DVR for a fraction of the price of similar products (eg. TiVo). When you build your own DVR you can customize it to your particular needs. For example, if you only have a basic cable subscription and do not recieve HD streams, you can save yourself some money by purchasing a TV tuner that only captures standard definition video, and you could save yourself some more money by getting a smaller hard drive. On the flip side, if you like the latest and the greatest, you could build yourself a DVR with terabytes of space that records all of your favorite TV series in high definition for convenient viewing. It is completely up to the user to customize their media center PC to their particular specifications.

Games
-Whatever games you have installed on your computer, you can now play them in your living room on a large HDTV sitting on your couch rather than an LCD monitor that's likely less than 20".
-Hook up your media center PC to your surround sound system, and now you have the ability to play your games in surround sound!

Internet
-Browse the internet like never before! See your favorite websites, blogs, news feeds, and streaming video all on your TV! The media center allows you to bring the internet to your living room from the convenience of your couch. Users could also purchase a Netflix account and stream movies directly to their television without wasting any hard drive space!

Implementation


There are many different options for media centers that should be taken into consideration when purchasing a Home Theatre PC (HTPC). a home theatre setup with existing TVs, DVD Players, or Bluray players can seem as a daunting task but is very rewarding once completed.


What You’ll Need:


A TV – The TV can be of any type, quality, or even a computer monitor. All it needs is a video input. Although you may be able to use a TV from the 1980’s, investing in a modern HDTV or HD capable monitor will truly unlock the power of your media center.

Internet Access – Although not really required, internet access provided to the media center will allow it to download guide data (for free) and give you up-to-date channel listings. Having this will also allow your media center to download necessary updates so your computer can ran almost autonomously.

A Computer – Almost a given, but there are many different options for computers out there that will work just as well as the next. If you have the technical background, building your own is an extremely cost effective option. Otherwise, ordering a full featured Media Center PC is a viable option as well. One absolutely required piece of hardware for any media center is a tuner card. Sometimes also called capture cards, this is the device that actually allows the user to watch TV. A capture card is strictly a video input into the computer, this can be great for passing a video camera into your computer and are also on most tuner cards. TV tuner cards come in many flavors but it is usually recommended to get at least a dual tuner card. This will allow you to record one channel while watching another, or watch two channels at the same time.

Media Center OS – There are several options for your operating system. What you ultimately use will be determined on what your needs are. The two most popular options are Windows Media Center and LinuxMCE. Both of these are full featured media center applications with tuner capabilities. There are many different media center applications out there, only a couple fully integrated options are explained here. Other options could be Boxee, MythTV, Apple TV, and many others.
Windows Media Center is built over Microsoft Windows. The latest version comes with the Premium versions of the OS. It can be configured to open as startup and open all major file formats. Older versions of MCE could only play a few file types or codecs and with some hacking it was able to play more. Windows comes installed on almost all media centers and can be installed by almost anybody. It is also able to be installed in a Mac using Boot Camp or Parallels.
Linux MCE is an open source alternative to Windows Media Center. It is completely free to download and install. It is based upon the Kubuntu Linux distribution. Kubuntu is a KDE Interface option from the maker of Ubuntu, the Linux distribution leader. Linux MCE is compatible with most major hardware but lacks support for many tuner and video cards. If anyone plans on using Linux MCE, building a computer with hardware tested on the hardware compatibility list (HCL). One of the great features of this program is its compatibility and programmability of external control features. This means that Linux MCE can control your lights, speakers, TV, security system, and phone from one computer. Linux MCE can be quite a task to install and configure so one with little background in computers, specifically Linux, should look for other options. But, new versions are always getting released so keep a watchful eye on it for a later install.

A Controller – Depending on the users use for the HTPC will ultimately decide for them the correct input method. The most basic option is a standard IR remote. These can often come with pre-built HTPCs, video cards, or TV tuner cards. If one did not come with a remote once can easily be purchased and integrated into the system. These can also come with IR Blasters that can allow the media center to control a cable box or TV. A normal keyboard and mouse can easily be used to control the media center but if you choose to install the HTPC with the rest of your devices in your A/V rack, visible wires might not be the most aesthetically pleasing option. A good wireless keyboard and mouse or IR remote is highly recommended.

TV Source – If you want to use your media center to its full potential, using the TV tuner feature is a must. Your existing cable or Satellite provider may or not be compatible with your HTPC. Very rarely are you going to find a provider that is incapable of being used. If you require a set-top-box (such as satellite) Windows Media Center and Linux MCE will control it natively. The most efficient use of Media Center is as the entire cable box. You can invest in a CableCard system that will fully integrate your HTPC as a cable box, even be able to view premium and HD channels without the need for a set-top-box. Dish Network is also working on a similar concept for their satellite service that should be out within the next year.

Audio Output – Well, you have a good movie or TV show to watch, a way to control it easily, and can watch it on your beautiful 42” 1080p TV, but the room seems a bit quiet. Your HTPC is capable of outputting beautiful sound in either analog or digital and is waiting to show you what it can do. The method for audio output is ompletely preference driven. One can easily plug the basic 3.5 mm analog stereo jack into their TV and be completely happy. Others would prefer to run the analog or digital signal through a surround sound receiver and lose themselves in whatever they are watching. This is obviously the preferred method by most audio/visual elites. If your HTPC has an optical output the digital signal should already be split up into either 5.1 or 7.1 depending on the video or audio source.

Piece it all together


Now, we’ve gone over all the pieces in parts that you need to get the job done. There are two options for you to choose from when setting up your HTPC. Would you like to have the full computer in your AV rack or would you like use an extender. If you choose the former attaching your computer to your existing equipment is as easy as plugging in your computer anywhere else. Don’t worry, you won’t have to keep an ugly case, there are many gorgeous cases available that will match your existing A/V equipment. Connecting it to your HDTV can sometimes be tricky, if trouble arises see this document. Once you have everything plugged in all you have to do is configure the software. If the operating system isn’t already installed you must install that first. Once installed just launching the media center application will initiate the setup. Setup the tuner cards and guide data and you’re ready to sit back and enjoy.

If you chose to keep your loud, heavy computer in the office but still want the full media center capabilities, Media Center Extender technology is the most efficient method to getting your media on your HDTV. Native to Windows and configurable for Linux, media center extenders can access your media center via wireless or standard Ethernet. Depending on the extender you choose the interface might change slightly but full remote control capabilities are available, including the TV tuner. There are many different choices of media center extenders. The XBOX 360 is the most well known extender, followed by companies as big as Cisco and HP. To setup the extender, you must first install the computer and setup the software just as if you were plugging it directly into your television. Follow the interface to the Add Extender screen and then complete the wizard.


Future Uses


The future of the Media Center looks very promising. A good way to describe what new features and enhancements will be available in the coming years is by using LinuxMCE (Media Center Edition) as an example.

LinuxMCE provides the following features:
  • View/Listen to any media in any room of the house
  • Control lighting devices in your house, via scenarios
  • VOIP server with video conferencing
  • Temperature control
  • Controls alarm systems and security cameras
  • Ability to answer phone calls from any room
  • Play any media (CD's,DVD's,TV) wherever you may be

In a short time from now, people could literally not have to move from their couches in order to change the temperature, close the blinds, watch a movie, and control the lights.There is also the potential for people to start using media centers in their vehicles in the form of AES (Automotive Entertainment Systems).

Blu-Ray's place in the Media Center


Further advancement is necessary for the media center to be able to play Blu-Ray discs out of the box, and future strides forward may allow for this to happen. Currently Windows Media Center does not support Blu-Ray discs without some sort of third-party software.

Citations/References


1. http://windowsteamblog.com/blogs/windowsexperience/archive/2007/08/25/happy-birthday-windows-media-center.aspx (Title Page)
2. http://computer.howstuffworks.com/media-center-pc.htm
3. http://www.linuxmce.com/
4. http://wiki.linuxmce.org/index.php/Main_Page
5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_center
6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Home_theater_PC
7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_server

External Links