Home Theater PC

When Liz & I got married, one of her best friend’s from college bought us the TV that we registered for as a wedding gift. Having this fantastic 42″ TV is just awesome, but we agreed that we didn’t want to pay for satellite or cable, so we’re using a regular rabbit antenna to receive local over-the-air stations. Generally speaking its great (caught every college football game that I wanted to see, in HD quality, no problem), but I missed being able to record shows and pause live TV. So we determined a budget and I started plotting to get a home theater PC.

I ended up researching this for more than two months. I had to stay within a budget of $500, and the completed solution had to handle four things:

  • DVR to record TV (preferably with dual tuners)
  • Play DVD’s (and eventually Blu-ray)
  • Netflix streaming
  • Internet TV (YouTube, Hulu, Boxee, etc)
  • One single remote to handle everything

In other words, I want it all. If I’m going through the expense and trouble of setting this up, I want one box (and one remote) that handles everything.

Armed with my list of requirements, I started researching. I looked at everything, and I mean everything: a homebuilt PC running Linux and MythTV, a Mac Mini with Front Row and eyeTV, hacking an XBox 360 or PS3 to act as a DVR, Tivo, Windows running Sage TV or Windows Media Center… For each of these, I looked at capabilities and limitations, new and used prices, searching forums for common problems. My spreadsheet to keep track of all of this was becoming increasingly complex, and I was losing hope that this was possible.

For Christmas I got a gift certificate and a little bit of money, which made my budget a little higher. I’ve now ordered the components, put it all together, and it works. It. Is. Amazing. Here’s my setup.

The total cost of the hardware was $618 shipped, but the gift certificates and cash that we got for Christmas kept our out of pocket expenses below our $500 mark.

Installing the TV tuner was a snap, literally 20 minutes from start to watching TV via my computer. Add another 10 minutes to get Netflix downloaded and configured, and the entire process is done in less than an hour. Everything works.

Over the air TV: comes in HD quality, strong signal, no issues at all. We get 9 channels and they’re all great quality. Once in a while the screen gets pixelated while decoding the signal, but I haven’t seen this last more than 2 seconds, and its happening less than once a week. Recording one show while watching another, or recording two things at one time works perfectly. Media center handles the guide for us, so we can always see the show that we’re watching, what’s on next, etc.

Play DVDs: nothing to say here really, it works better than my 10 year old DVD player. Its flawless.

Netflix streaming: this is my favorite so far. We’re on the $16/mo plan, for which we get 2 DVD’s at a time, and we can watch all the streamed movies we want. I have about 75 movies or TV shows in our instant queue, which means that within 2 minutes I could be watching any one of them. The image quality and sound are excellent, and pause/forward/rewind works just as you’d expect. I love it. LOVE IT!

Internet TV: Hulu & YouTube work great, just as they do on your computer. I haven’t set up Boxee yet, but I plan to at some point.

Transitions: It is super easy to switch between live or recorded TV, Netflix or a DVD. The remote control makes it a snap. The menus are intuitive and the interface is attractive and easy to read.

I have to say, this project has turned out better than I expected. I have everything that I want, I haven’t sacrificed anything, other than a high cable or satellite bill.

5 replies on “Home Theater PC”

  1. This is really cool! I’m impressed with the persistence in figuring out what worked best for you. I guess it pays off to plan ahead.

  2. Great article Chris. I just bookmarked this for future reference – It doesn’t surprise me that you went thought all of this, but I’m more excited that it all worked and that you love it.

  3. So, you have inspired me to pursue something like this. One question: did you get a wireless keyboard and mouse to interact with it? Also, do you ever just use it as a computer to do more traditional “computer” type things? I’d like to be able to use it as my main tv/dvr device but at times would like to be able to use it for internet, photo/video editing, etc.

  4. I have a similar setup here in South Africa with a 40′ Sony Bravia and use a Sony ps3 as a media player and run the ethernet through it to stream internet content. I cant afford cable now and even if I did it would only be for live sport. The rest of the programs shown can always be downloaded from the internet. So yeah its a pretty good and inexpensive setup.

  5. I just put together a similar setup except we have an hdhomerun dual tuner streaming the live tv anywhere over the network. I can’t beleive that I was able to switch between any of the NCAA tourney games with ease this weekend… and tada – No Cable bill!

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