This is the second part of the article on designing an HTPC. In part one, I described the hardware components and assembly steps that I used to build the device. Without the proper software and media, however, all you have is a pretty box that consumes power. In this part, I will revisit some of the design requirements that were discussed in part one and review the software that will make the magic happen. Although many of the tools listed are available for both Windows and Linux systems, I will describe the Windows editions (simply because getting the drives setup for all the hardware selected in part one can be a pain under Linux). Also, while the built in Windows Media Center may have some of the desired functionality it is often not the best choice available.
HD Media Content: Store, play and organize local media
By far the best tool that I have used to organize all my media on the HTPC is XBMC. XMBC is freely available (open source) and runs on several platforms. The GUI is excellent and it works well with with standard Media Center remote controls. The system is fully functional with minimal configuration but, given its open source roots, it can also be highly configurable. So if you have a collection of pictures, music, TV shows, or Movies you can’t go wrong with this app. How you amass this collection is up to you. If you are not a stickler for high quality media you can try out tools like the popular Download Helper plug-in for Firefox.
Stream on-line content
While XMBC is great for organizing locally stored media, it is limited in the ability to access/play media streams from the Internet. This is where Boxee comes in. Boxee is actually a spin off from XBMC designed specifically to improve the web-streaming and social media experience. It is also free and available on many platforms (including a dedicated box built by D-Link). Installing the Boxee software is also straight forward but you will have to create an account on their site.
Watch/Record TV (OTA and Cable)
The TV tuner that was installed in the HTPC lets us connect the Cable/Satellite set-top box to the HTPC to view and record the content. I found the WinTV software that came with the Hauppauge tuner card to be most usable. While it doesn’t have the eye candy or the bells and whistles of Windows Media Center, it has a clean simple interface and doesn’t lock down the recorded content with DRM. Getting the IR transmitter to change channels on the cable box was a pain and not very reliable so set the universal remote to change channels on the cable box directly. For scheduled recordings, the IR transmitter seems like the only way to go.
For whatever reason, the cable service in my neighborhood is not very reliable. After a couple of service outages in a single month I decided to add a Terk Antenna to the setup. I was pleasantly surprised how clear the OTA digital channels appear and that I was able to pickup about a dozen of them from my apartment without running any wires outside. Setting this up in WinTV was actually much easier than dealing with the cable set-top box. (Next step is to switch to FIOS but that is another story)
Video calling and web conferencing works like a charm with Skype. Yes, there are other options like Cisco’s umi but they are significantly more expensive. Plus the ubiquity of the Skype platform makes it that much more of an attractive option.
I’m not a big gamer but I like having the option to keep kids busy when someone brings them over. The HTPC was not build with a high end video card or surplus memory so we wont be able to play the state of the art PC games. However, the HTPC can still accommodate your gaming needs.
I have a PS3 and wanted to use the Wireless controller to play games on the HTPC. To do this, I got an inexpensive USB Bluetooth adapter and installed the free MotioninJoy drivers. With the controller working, I installed several legacy game emulators such as ZSnes. This open up the ability to play thousands of old games (I have the PS3 to play modern games). Finally, you can tweak the HTPC user experience by setting up XBMC to catalog and launch your favorite games as described in this article.
Media Streaming Server
To get the Slingbox experience on the HTPC, we need to setup a media server for streaming the content. One option to do this is Media Hive. I also prefer using the VLC player for viewing and streaming content.
Enjoy your HTPC.