Originally, when my home theater was to move into the High-Def (HDTV) world, a media center PC (a.k.a. HTPC – Home Theater Personal Computer) was high on my priority list. I wanted to be able to record anything on cable, or over the air, in high-definition. It was to replace my original DVR. There were also some other things I wanted to do with it, but they were secondary. However, upon getting my HDTV and increasing my cable service, which included the DVR service, I realized that the DVR not only covered my primary goal, but it also did it quite well.
The Time Warner DVR by Scientific Atlantic (Cisco) is the latest model offered, the 8300HD. It can record multiple channels at once in high definition. It has a fairly nice program guide, though I’d like better search capability. The remote works very good. Most importantly, it lets me fast forward through commercials.
There are a couple of things that the DVR doesn’t do. The biggest problem is that it only records 20 hours of high-definition programming. (50 hours of standard). 20 hours may seem like a lot, but it’s not. We tend to watch TV in spurts and we almost never watch live TV – everything is recorded. Sometimes, weeks go by before we sit down for an evening and catch up on our shows. Plus, I like to keep a variety of shows available for different audiences. For instance, let’s say our shows are “Terminator”, “Lost”, “Desperate Housewives” & “CSI”. If three weeks go by, that’s 12 out of 20 hours used up. Add in a couple FoodTV cake challenges, a PBS documentary, and a handful of “Good Eats” and I’m out of space.
The DVR also doesn’t do more than record. It can’t act as a media extender (i.e. play media that exists somewhere else in my home), it can’t store media other than TV programming, nor can it be the source for streaming content elsewhere. There are products out there that do some of these functions, like the PlayStation 3, xBox 360, LinkSys Media Extender, and Sling Box, and many more, but none of them do it all, not even a media center PC. However, a media center PC teamed up with some of Sling Media’s products seems to be the most powerful and flexible setup.
Check out Sling’s advertising, funny stuff….
There are cheaper stop gaps, like an external hard drive (eSATA) that plugs into the Time Warner DVR. That would run about $180 – $400, but it only adds space for TV programming. There is also the PlayStation 3, at about $500, it would be less expensive and it is a close runner up, but it still doesn’t do everything a media center PC does. In particular, it doesn’t have a lot of hard drive space, is not very flexible, and lacks upgradability. (basically, it’s limited to what Sony decides to provide)
The flexibility of an HTPC is huge. I can pick and choose parts based on price, performance, and expand in the future as needed. Before Blu-Ray won the battle against HD-DVD, I was planning on waiting it out to see which drive I would install. I will probably still wait until the Blu-Ray drive prices come down. In the meantime, I can just put in a $30 DVD drive.
The only thing bigger than flexibility is the power of an HTPC; it can do almost anything. Nothing is as accomodating and as vast as the array of Windows software available to do anything I want, much of which is free. Anything that runs in a browser will work and would have actual full browser support, not some slimmed down browser with limitations. (playing media types, viewing files types like Acrobat, plug-ins, etc) Heck, I can run iTunes, Quicken, Google Earth, and VPN into work from a media center PC. We can do online shopping, Webkinz, update the NetFlix queue, pay bills, add Wii points, book a vacation, Skype, video conferencing, backup DVD’s and make them available for instant playback… gaming… we can do anything! We could design rockets in AutoCAD if we knew how.
(If you were wondering why I am writing so much about this, I’m just practicing how to justify this to the finance committee.)
Speaking of NetFlix, we can watch unlimited streaming NetFlix movies. It is currently only DVD-like quality, but HD is coming and the need for a disc in the mail will be going away. (though, NetFlix has teamed up with LG to supply “NetFlix” boxes; I hope it doesn’t preclude PCs)
I could just buy a pre-built HTPC which would give me the ability to use a Cable Labs Cable Card and eliminate the Time Warner DVR altogether. (to use a cable card, your HTPC needs to be certified by Cable Labs, which eliminates the do-it-yourselfer) Like this $3200 Niveus Rainier, for example. (yeah! and it goes up from there) … I don’t think so.
So, the need for a media center PC is not nearly as urgent as it originally was, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still want one. What has changed is its primary mission and priorities. I will be using my blog to organize my thoughts and lay out the functions I want to be able to do, and then you can watch me pick my pieces and parts as I build it over the next year….