There is a whole genre of home computers out there that you may not even be aware of. They’re called, as you might have guessed by the title of this post, HTPCs. The acronym stands for Home Theatre Personal Computer. Think of it as a computer set up specifically for connecting to your home theatre setup – particularly your living room TV. Its all about using the power and flexibility of a modern computer to drive your home entertainment through your home theatre system and as you might imagine, there are a lot of opportunities once you have such a setup.
If you’re tired of having multiple boxed jacked in to your home theatre system, each there to perform a solitary task, an HTPC can be ideal to consolidate all of that within one hardware package. It can serve as an all-in-one entertainment box that is flexible enough to grow and evolve with your needs. Some of the tasks I use mine for are watching live TV, a PVR to record TV shows, Watching digital movie files, Viewing photos, Listening to music, Watching Blu-Ray and DVD movies, and even playing games. These days there are several off-the-shelf solutions for doing a handful of these tasks with one box, but there are few options that can handle them all, and still allow near endless possibilities for customizing and extending.
Most modern computers feature HDMI connectivity which makes setting up an HTPC a lot easier. You can simply plug a computer in to your PC with an HDMI cable and you’re ready to go. If you want to record live TV you’ll want to install a TV tuner which can be as simple as plugging in via USB, depending on the model you opt for. To me, recording live TV is a killer app as it saves me from renting a PVR box from my cable provider, and adding more hard drive space is cheap and easy. I even love being able to customize the TV guide as much as i want, like hiding all the channels I never watch.
There are a lot of good software packages you can run for a great HTPC experience. Boxee and XBMC are two very popular options and offer a lot of great features. Personally I prefer the Windows 7 Media Center app that comes bundled in most editions of Windows 7. Chances are you already have it installed if you’ve got Windows 7. It does the best job at handling live and recorded TV and has the most user friendly interface with the least need to tweaking and customization. I can basically run it and forget about it.
You might find the idea of sitting down on your couch with a keyboard and mouse to control your home theatre experience to be unappealing. I would agree with you. There are a lot of other ways you can control this setup to make it look and feel like a regular home theatre component, not just a computer in your living room.
Programmable remotes can be good options if you have an IR receiver for your HTPC, and can greatly simplify your home theatre experience. Alternatively you can get a nice mini wireless keyboard controller, or even an app allowing control from a tablet or smartphone. Guests never even need to know that there is a PC running the show. Once you get everything set up right it can be a seamless experience with all the technology invisible, behind the curtain.
If you’ve got a PC you’re not using, or are looking for a new project, consider the often ignored realm of HTPCs. They can be a lot of fun and let you really take control of your home theatre experience. Many of us spend thousands of dollars on the equipment in our living rooms. Speakers, HDTVs, media players, game consoles, et cetera. When you consider how much thought you put into picking those components, and setting them up to your liking, it makes a lot of sense to build an HTPC to run it all with the same power and flexibility.
Do you already use a PC as part of your home theatre setup? Tell me about it in the comments!