Quest for the ultimate HTPC

When it comes to home entertainment we're now spoilt for choice in media formats. Whilst traditional broadcast TV and radio are still around, we now have game consoles, music CDs, DVDs, Blue-Ray, streaming online radio, online video, digital image libraries, music libraries, etc. Whilst the variety is all well and good, it can become frustrating when you can't access a particular content source the way you want. That is, you download a video file from the internet and want to watch it on you big-screen TV, what do you do?
  • Convert is to mpeg2 format and burn it to a DVD to watch in DVD player?
  • Convert it to a specific DivX version that your DVD player may support?
  • Try to stick it on a USB and play it directly on the PS3, if supported?
  • Try to transcode and stream it using TVersity or similar to your PS3/XBox?
  • Use Xbox XBCM (if you have an Xbox that is)?
There's many options possible, but the option most suitable to you depends on what's at hand. In my case I have a PS3, which by default handels a lot of content (music CDs, DVDs, Blueray) and has decent support for DivX. It does not however let you stream online content, and it does not support many of the less frequently used video codecs (mkv for one).
The best solution in my case is to use TVersity or PS3 Media Server to transcode content from a PC over my wireless network to the PS3 (in a format the PS3 can understand) and output this to my TV and amp. Whilst this works, the transcoding process is often choppy (due to limitations in wireless transfer speed) and requires constant tinkering with a second device (the PC), so I started looking for a better solution. What I came up with is the following:
  • PS3 Linux MC - The PlayStation 3 supports installation of a Linux operating system. In theory you could thus install a Linux distro and trick it out with codecs & players to create a full HTPC (Home Theatre PC). Since the PS3 has HDMI & optical output, as well as a Blueray player, this would be the ultimate solution. Turns out however that this is not possible. Sony have crippled the Linux environment by running it in a virtual machine and restricting all access to the GPU, as well as restricting RAM to about 250MB. Whilst the cell CPUs are still very fast, they're not powerful enough to decode/scale/transcode full 1080p HD content. The PS3 also runs on a PowerPC (ppc) architecture which makes porting existing x86 applications quiet difficult.
  • PS3 MegaBox - The MegaBox project is a Linux distribution created specifically to turn the PS3 into a HTPC. While the list of features seems impressive, trolling through forum posts suggests the actual product was pretty poor and most things didn't really work, HDMI output or 1080p being two of them. The project was (is?) being developed by a Spanish group but their website is currently completly broken and all mention of MegaBox seems to have fizzled out.
  • PS3 XBMC Port - XBMC is one of the leading open-source free media center applications. Originally developed for the Xbox, it has now been ported to Windows, Mac OS/X and Linux. XBMC has great support for almost any audio/video codec and plays pretty much anything you can imagine. It's no surprise then that lots of people are asking for a PS3 port on the XBMC forums. However, due to the above limitations, it is very unlikely this will ever happen (XBMC developers have directly stated that without GPU acceleration this will simply not work).
  • PS3 nVidia GPU driver - Since the GPU limitation is the main PS3 crippling point, could nVidia create a driver for the ppc Linux architecture that allows access to this CPU? Apparently yes, but Sony has purposly restricted access to the GPU in the virtualization layer, and this makes sense when you look at their current plans to roll-out paid streaming audio/video services. If people could use XBMC to stream everything for free, Sony would make no money. This strongly leads me to believe that holding out for a miracle with the Linux OS is a hopeless cause.
  • All-in-One HTPC - While media center PCs are not a new concept, recent advancements in technology and miniaturization have lead to the invent of the HTPC (Home Theatre PC) term. A HTPC is a small form factor, silent device that's tricked out with HD audio/video processing, rendering and output ports. Examples of these include MSI MediaLive, Enspire AVR-200, and Western Digital WD TV. Whilst all these are great advancements, none are complete all-in-one solutions (most don't have blueray, only some have network support, various support for codecs or operating systems). Finding the perfect device is proving difficult at the moment, although more and more options are definitelly bound to come.
  • Custom All-in-One HTPC - So the goal is to be able to play CDs, DVDs, Blueray, online audio/video and support as many codecs and image formats for playback of static files as possible. One way to do this is to build your own HTPC. Whilst in the past this would've been the same as building a custom PC, these days there are more options. Namely, manufacturers are now creating dedicated small-form-factor micro-ATX motherboards (e.g. MSI Media Live DIVA) and mini-ITX motherboards (Zotac ION-ITX and the VIA EPIA range). The mini-ITX boards are particularly applealing as they consume very little power, are very silent, and fit in very small cases. The Zotac board runs a dual-core Intel Atom 1.6GHz CPU while the VIA series run VIA CPUs ranging from 1GH to 2GHz. Both architectures support up to 4GB RAM and standard PC expansion cards (LAN, WiFi, PCI-E, etc). Building a HTPC should thus be just a matter of finding the right case with a DVD/Blueray slot, an internal Blueray drive that fits the case, a HD and some RAM. This will probably cost around $900AU.
  • PS3 with HTPC Extender - Since the PS3 already has the CD/DVD/BD playback capabilities, and is already connected to your TV and amp, another option is to simply extend on this by connecting it to a custom, small, low-power HTPC that does the rest (streaming online content, streaming & transcoding local files). The HTPC would thus be running either something like XBMC Live, or a Linux/Windows OS with TVersity or PS3 Media Center. This takes away from the requirements of buying an internal blueray drive for the HTPC, but you still need enough processing grunt to transcode HD video. Reviews suggest the dual-core Atom 1.6GHz are good enough to handle 720p mkv files (given a decent network connection, preferably wired). The mini-itx store is now taking pre-orders on the Zotec bundle for $323US, which is not a bad buy as a complete extender solution. Not sure if this will support XBMC Live, but it should be grunty enough to run XP or a Linux distro with a good media server.
To sum up, minatuarization seems to be moving fast, and so is convergence. We are now seeing many manufacturers experimenting with new types of devices offering different feature-sets. Those keen enough can build their own HTPC from relativelly cheap components to achieve the best results. Using the PS3's native blueray player and extending this with a custom HTPC with XBMC Live or a transcoding media server is a good value-for-money compromise (if you already have a PS3 that is, otherwise building a custom HTPC will work out cheaper).

Update: After hours of research, here's my chosen HTPC build (all prices are in AU dollars):

Part Model Cost Description
Motherboard J&W MINIX 780G mini-ITX $185 The heart of the HTPC, this mobo has integrated video & audio and provides HDMI/SPDIF optical ports. The board supports AM2/AM2+ AMD CPUs (65w or lower models) and takes up to 2 laptop RAM sticks. Read this review for more info.
CPU AMD Athlon 64 X2 5050e $99 This is a low power 45w 2.6GHz dual-core AM2 that's perfect for our chosen motherboard. The lower power consumption means less heat, therefore less cooling and hence slower fans, i.e. should be quiet. 2.6GHz should be enough grunt for any media center needs, even HD transcoding if needed.
RAM 2GB DDR2 SO-DIMM Kingstone $49 The motherboard takes up to two sticks, leaving one free for upgrading to 4GB if/when needed.
Hard-disk 750GB WD Caviar Green $124 The Western Digital Caviar Green series are designed to be environmentally friendly consuming less power, and as a byproduct are also known to be significantly quieter than your average drive. This is a 3.5" internal SATA version.
Case AYWUN A1-8989 $89 This was a hard choice. Whilst not the best looking case, its one of the very few mini-ITX cases that supports a full 5.25" optical drive. Most other cases I've seen take slim-style drives, which cost over three times more. It's also one of the cheapest cases I've come across, and it comes with an internal 150W PSU, which should be enough for the low-power CPU/HD and MB.
DVD-RW Samsung 22x DVD+/-RW $33 This can be upgraded for a Blueray but that would cost around $150. As the PS3 is already a decent BD player, I see little point spending the extra on duplicating the functionality for me. If you don't have a PS3 however, than by all means this HTPC build would make a perfect BD player.
Total $579


And there you have it. A powerful HTPC for under $600AU. This can be upgraded to a BD player for around $725, and you can throw in a HD TV Tuner card for another $75 giving you an $800 all-in-one do-it-all machine. You just need to connect this up to your screen via HDMI and to your amp via Toslink (or HDMI switch).

Oh, and you'll also want to get a wireless keyboard/mouse to control this thing. Any would do, although the Logitech diNovo Mini is among the sleekest options (for a hefty price).

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