AVADirect User Opinions On New HTPC Systems
AVADirect would like to expand our customer base to include the user would like to hook up a system to his television set and watch movies, videos, cable, or simple gaming. The system category is called a Home Theater Personal Computer (HTPC) system. It has come to our attention that our configs and hardware options are limited and older and need to be updated with new and upcoming hardware.
However with the myriad amount of options and hardware, we need your opinions and thoughts about what features and specifications you would like to see in a system of this type. Please remember this system is not to be used for 3D gaming, so please remember to base your decision upon that aspect.
Please give us your comments on our current selection of HTPC systems.
Motherboard Form Factor
The motherboard form factor plays a big role in the overall size and feature set of the system. I am not a big fan of the ATX sized system due to the size and weight of the end product. Plus there is no need for an ATX sized system as everything needed is now in the smaller mATX sized motherboards.
Mini-ITX 6.7" x 6.7" 1x Expansion Slot
Many ordinary users are unaware of this form factor type. However its small form factor is very attractive. However its single expansion slot only leaves very limited options as far as expansion such as tv capture cards and video output cards. Also many of them cannot support the new C2Q processors, but there is no need for that. Some motherboards even accept mobile processors, but that raises the costs, yet keeps power usage very low. Even with regular processors, total system power will usually not exceed 120 watts.
Intel is releasing a motherboard, DG45FC, which provided all the features necessary for this type of system. Its onboard graphics is capable of DX10 and high-def video decoding which means support for Blu-Ray devices. The DVI and HDMI ports provide support for all of today's high-def displays with no need for an adapter. Also the included optical out sound is great for high-quality audio output.
Micro ATX 9.6" x 9.6" 4x Expansion Slots
This seems to be the perfect choice for this type of system. Its 4 expansion slots is capable of using dual tv tuners and a discrete video solution. Also many HTPC cases are designed with this motherboard's sizing. These motherboards are also capable of using newer and more powerful processors, but that leads to more energy usage, more heat (more noise), and a bigger case.
Intel is releasing a bigger version of the motherboard shown above, DG45ID, which has all the features as the mini-ITX version. It supports more memory, more SATA devices, and faster processors, which are almost not needed for this system type. However, some users may find some of these features necessary.
ATX 12" x 9.6" 7x Expansion Slots
This motherboard provides the most upgrades and expandability for the system. However the size is a concern and so is the power requirements. Remember, this system is to fit in your entertainment system location. However if you store Terabytes of video and audio digitally, this may be an option. But that same purpose can also be served with a mATX system with more HDD space.
Intel is not releasing an ATX version of the above motherboards. While Intel does have ATX media motherboards, there newest releases are mATX and Mini-ITX. Most other manufacturers would have the user buy a separate discrete video card for this sized motherboard.
Another big factor towards the HTPC system is how big the case is and what features does it provide. HTPC cases come in all sorts of varieties and be one of the most expensive or less expensive case options based on size and options.
External Screens or Displays
A common theme among HTPC cases is to include a small display VFD display for volume information or an actual color screen to show videos or other information. A case with either of these will significantly raise the price.
Example of VFD display: http://www.avadirect.com/product_print.asp?info=1&PRID=4962
Example of LCD display: http://www.avadirect.com/product_print.asp?info=1&PRID=5255
Another theme with HTPC cases are knobs and buttons for control of the system functions without having to use a remote or mouse. This includes start/stop/pause functions and a volume control. However like the last options, these can add cost to the case.
Optical and HDD Size
While the ATX HTPC cases use standard sized components, the smaller mATX and mini-itx cases sometimes like to use notebook components to save on space and weight. My main concern is about the cost rather than the size saved. Also, notebook hardware also runs at reduced speeds and performance to achieve those small sizes.
With optical drives, a standard DVD-RW drive is not within $30 cost. That same drive notebook style is around $100. Also with Blu-Ray becoming the standard, combo drives have dropped close to or below $150 cost. That same drive in notebook style is over $400 cost.
Hard drives do not have that same cost difference. A 3.5" HDD at 300 GB costs $70 while the 2.5" version costs $130.
The perfect solution would be a built-in PSU the size of a deck of cards providing 300 W of power silently. That option does not exist and there are some trade offs.
A system using a normal sized PSU (ATX and some mATX solutions) makes the system very large. Also the addition of the PSU adds greatly to the overall cost of the system.
Some cases and third-parties offer a DC-DC PSU which resides inside the case. These also require an external AC-DC converter (think XBOX 360) to function. While very small, efficient, and noiseless, they can at most push 120 W. While adequate for mini-itx system, may not be enough for a mATX system with multiple HDDs and discrete video card.
Other Features and Options
Other features include front panel ports (USB, firewire, audio), front panel covers, case feet, and everything else. Please let me know your opinion on this.
TV Tuner and TV Capture Cards
Due to the fact that TV cards represent a small market compared to other computer hardware, these cards are usually plagued by bad driver support, bad OS compatibility, and bad user interface software. Also are the fact that there are many different ways that a customer can receive his television signals.
A great tuner can be found here.
Over The Air (OTA) Transmission
Almost all tv tuner cards are capable of receiving and displaying/recording this type of transmission. Newer cards provide support for receiving the digital (standard and high-def) OTA signals that will become standard in 2009.
This is where things get tricky. Most people with cable use a set-top box which decodes the channels and provides extra features. You need that box to receive special channels and special features like channel guides, channel information, and pay-per-view. Also there are different cable transmission standards that not all tv cards accept.
Only the open channels using no scrambling are able to be picked up by these tv cards. This means only clear-QAM channels. Usually your cable provider will not tell you exactly what signal transmission technology you use.
Sorry, no hardware for computers exist at this time.
Extra features include dual tuners. This means you can record on one tuner while watching on the other. However the language may be tricky on what exactly is meant by dual tuners. One tuner might be for FM radio or OTA analog channels while the other may be strictly for HDTV OTA or through cable.
Other features include hardware accelerated HDTV decoding. This is great if you want to use a lower powered CPU. If no hardware accelerated HDTV support, the burden of decoding the HDTV signal will fall straight to the CPU. This can make your system sluggish if you are recording something in the background and you are trying to do something else on the system.
Controlling this system is different then using a normal system. The controls are mainly going to be remote based as well as wireless keyboards. You will notice that I have not mentioned any mice as they are not able to be used within the settings this system will be in.
The motherboards listed above have a built in IR receiver circuit built in. That also requires that the case have a built IR as well. Then you also need to program the remote to your specifications. However, this may mean that if you have a remote that you like to use, you can program it to operate with the system.
Microsoft gives the users a free remote with purchase of the XP Media Center OS. However, it requires a bulky USB attachment that sits on top or around your system.
Certain other remotes use a smaller USB device to transmit instructions to the system. While smaller, the protruding device still causes the system to lose the styling of the HTPC system.
Still yet, other remote systems use a external drive bay to place the IR receiver. While great looking, the smaller cases only provide a single external drive bay.
All in all, the best solution is to use a motherboard with built in IR support along with a case that offers built in IR. Then we would need to choose a remote that worked with it perfectly. But that would mean restriction on motherboard, case, and remote selections.
While this may seem easy, you also need to have a mouse device attached to the keyboard as well. This is so that you can control the system like a normal pc. Many of these keyboards feature usb cords attached to a receiver station. Also other keyboards use a small usb stick to also receive signals.
A good example of a wireless keyboard with mouse functionality built-in.
The best solution would to find a keyboard with some sort of internal attachment inside the case. However, that could limit the maximum distance of the keyboard range.
These options are not as important as the above, but still add or subtract from the total system appeal. Please let me know your comments or opinions.
Hard Drive Space
While dependant upon case selection, the right amount of HDD space is crucial. If too small, the system will fill up quickly from recordings. It too much, the case and system are larger then needs be and the cost would be too high.
Discrete Sound Card
With the motherboards listed above, the needs of almost everyone are met with the sound quality and options. However, certain customers may want more or high-def options with sound quality and connections. Adding a sound card means a larger system.
Discrete Video Card
With the motherboards listed above, unless you are doing gaming, you do not need an external video card. Those motherboards feature full HD Video hardware decoding, so no decoding is left up to the CPU to handle.
Please let me know if you would like to see anything else like special recording options, playback options, support of home entertainment hardware or anything else.