Home Theater PCs

I love my home theater PC. After a rocky start, the software has finally matured to the point where it’s an easy to throw one together out of a stock Windows box. If you can get a tiny one with a built-in Blu-ray player and a remote control (like, say, this one here), all you need to add is a USB TV tuner and a few pieces of mostly-free software.

Here is what I recommend for anyone wanting to use their PC with their TV.

  • Latest video card drivers and latest version of Flash. They make a huge difference.
  • Windows 7 x64 Home Premium. Comes with the amazing Windows Media Center, which is so good it’s shocking that it’s free. Netflix is now baked-in.
  • Arcsoft TotalMedia Theatre. Unfortunately it’s $100, but it’s by far the best blu-ray software out there, and it integrates nicely with Media Center.
  • Hulu Desktop. Free, authorized software with which you can watch pretty much everything on Hulu with a remote control. Doesn’t always play smoothly, but the latest Flash upgrades fixed that for me. Integrates with Windows Media Center with the freeware Hulu Desktop Integration.
  • Shark007 Codec Packs for WIndows 7 (with x64 components). It’s a pain in the butt to keep this updated, but it’s the best way of maintaining compatibility with every wacky video format under the sun.
  • Media Control x64. This extension for Media Center allows you to switch audio and subtitle tracks when playing back files. Doesn’t always work properly, but still nice to have.
  • Amazon Unbox Video Player. Automatically downloads your new Amazon VOD purchases and puts them in a place accessible by Media Center. Unfortunately, there’s no good remote control interface for their new Amazon Prime subscription streaming service.
  • iTunes. I’m sure you’ll need it at some point. There is a program that will integrate it with Media Center, but it looks like it hasn’t been updated for Windows 7 and it costs money, so I haven’t tried it.
  • Boxee software. For a bunch of other websites that don’t have remote control interfaces, and a few stray video formats that Shark007 doesn’t support, most of them will work with Boxee. You can launch it from Media Center with Boxee Media Center Integration.
  • Mobile Mouse client. Most of the time you won’t need to use a mouse or keyboard from your couch. I do it rarely enough that it’s not worth fussing with the limited range of a Bluetooth keyboard/mouse unit. Instead, with this installed and an iPhone app, you can VERY comfortably just use your iPhone/iPod Touch over WiFi.
  • DVDFab Passkey Lite. A free solution to break region codes for both DVD and Blu-ray. (It also breaks copy protection, but you won’t take advantage of that, will you? 😉
  • This should be all most people need. There are a few other add-ons I haven’t yet tried out (most notably MCE Buddy, which converts your recorded TV into useful formats and removes commercials), and quite a few I tried and couldn’t get to work. But after 3 years I think I finally have a pretty solid setup. Hope someone found this useful.

    Microsoft has apparently stopped development on Media Center for Windows 7 because few people use it. That’s a real shame. Even after all this time and all the set-top boxes that have been developed, my Home Theater PC is still the only machine that can play literally everything. I spent a lot of money on it, and I don’t regret it for a second.

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    3 responses to “Home Theater PCs

    1. Does the Zino/other configurations allow for the HDMI output to shoot out surround sound easily? The biggest problem I have with my existing “home theatre PC” (apart from the super old specs which make it a let-down) is the lack of surround sound. If say I got a Zino, and shoved in a blu-ray with an HDMI cable to my overly expensive and beautiful sound system, would it pick up a 7.1 track?

      • Yeah, audio-over-HDMI was sorted out quite a while ago, and you could probably get by just fine if you can upgrade your video card. All the current ATI cards do it just fine, and while I don’t follow nVIDIA as closely, pretty sure those do too. Newer cards also will handle video decoding of Flash as well (along with some h.264 files), which will also fix a lot of things. Now, I don’t think you get full 24-bit 192 kHz audio without a dedicated HDMI audio card, but frankly, no home receiver/speakers, and indeed, even most studio equipment isn’t capable of reproducing that quality anyway.

        • Yeah no. PC is pretty crappy. It’s an old P4 with like 512MG of RAM and it’s seen better days. I’ve read some reviews on the Zino HD that suggest you have to get the graphics upgrade on the unit (ie the 5450 chip instead of the 4250) to avoid super lag with HD content. Any history with this?

          Shame we don’t have most of these streaming options here in Australia, but it’d be nice to be able to watch some of my imported DVDs with surround sound on my TV.

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