The HTPC Is Dead! NOT!

The HTPC Is Dead! NOT!

Looking around the industry as we put the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) behind us, there seems to be an almost palatable stillness in the air, something akin to the calm before the storm. It seems like everyone is waiting with bated breath for some kind of technology that will act as a “magic pill” that, when used with the general population, will suddenly bring the nirvana of the Connected Home to everyone. I am not quite sure there is such a thing…

In a recent article, a contributing author for a well know website claimed that the “Home Theater PC is dead!” in his subject line for a recent article. As with other times I’ve shied away from the “shock” titles, I find myself needing to politely disagree with the author. I’m sorry Buddy, the HTPC is not dead!

Although the “death of the HTPC” claim was overwhelmingly met with disagreement by readers, I suppose in retrospect the use of a “shock” statement as the subject line did work to bring in the readership (I also figure that gives me the right to use it, though my meaning should be obvious). In addition, I think that the author vastly underestimates how capable the “typical user” is by saying they have “a hard enough time using a PC to surf the web”. Perhaps this applies to some of the older generation, but considering that most of us have had computers around us for a large portion of our lives, I think that most people might be a bit more proficient on the PC than was alluded to. You might as well lump Macs in there too because there really isn’t a whole lot of difference in operation, sorry!

To proceed further, it seems necessary to define exactly what an HTPC is in the first place…

HTPC Defined…?

At its most basic level, I would define the HTPC as: A personal computer (Windows, Linux, Mac) that when configured properly and connected to an HDTV, allows the user to output audio and video either through the Home Theater system or directly to the HDTV.

The thing to realize here, and what validates my objection to claiming that the HTPC is dead, is that an HTPC can truly be built with just about any combination of hardware, operating system, and media center software you can think of!

There is nothing out there that says a HTPC has to be a full-blown Windows 7 Home Premium machine using only Windows Media Center 7. Is that what I am using currently? Yes, because it is a great set up, especially when combined with Windows Home Server. But as I just mentioned, a HTPC can be comprised of a whole range of options ranging from the hardware used to the operating system and media center software; so can its definition really be expanded beyond my over-generalized attempt?

Perhaps it would help us to define the HTPC better by first starting off with its potential uses…

HTPC! Uh! What are they so good for? Absolutely Everything!

Ok, perhaps not everything, but as mentioned above the HTPC’s most basic purpose is to play audio and/or video content through your Home Theater’s sound system and/or TV.

Beyond that though, the thing to remember is that anything you can do on your home PC, you can do on your HTPC as well; and every once in awhile it is nice to be able to kick back on the couch and surf the web on a big-screen TV while you are streaming Windows media from the web or your local collection or [Insert your own personal “vision” here].

Depending on the hardware and software choices you make when building or buying your HTPC, you can also use it to:

– Rip & burn (legally), compose, and stream audio content.

– Watch Blu-ray and DVD movies; even stream them to other computers (and TVs) throughout your home.

– Pause Live TV and catch all your favorite shows with a fully functional DVR (Digital Video Recorder) that can record up to 4 channels (with the right tuner card) of HD quality content.

– Surf the web. Trust me, having the ability to quickly look something up without having to pull out a laptop, netbook, or tablet is just as, if not more convenient! Imagine having to walk to the other room to use the Internet! Kidding, but you get my point…

– Play games. Perhaps you already have a console system, but there are always some games that are PC only. Enjoy playing any PC game in full HD glory with accompanying surround sound and you’ll see what I mean.

Thinking about buying a new Blu-ray player? How about a TiVo or other DVR? Why not use a HTPC to consolidate your DVD / Blu-ray, DVR, iPod dock, and other Home Theater components into one solid (and good looking) piece of technology that will keep growing and adapting to your Home Entertainment needs?

The Hardware

One of the best attributes of a HTPC is its flexibility. Whether you build your own HTPC or buy a high-end system that was built by a well established company, you have the choice over how much power you’ll need.

Getting into the details of what you have under your HTPC’s “hood” is outside the scope of this article but the specific features and desired functionality that you came away with from the list above will play a big part in the direction you go. The more functionality you would like with your HTPC, obviously the more powerful it should be within reason. What this means is unless you are doing a lot of video encoding or other CPU intensive tasks, you don’t need that much power. My personal HTPC is built from the guts of my old gaming rig from before Iraq, we’re talking about a Core 2 Duo and 4Gb Ram and it runs great! Literally 90% of my TV interaction is via my HTPC and includes watching TV, movies, streaming music, etc. I even write from there sometimes. It is easy, and it is comfortable…what’s not to like again?

More power typically means you’ll need a bigger case as well because you will need to fit a decent video card as well as a TV tuner or Cablecard. With the more horsepower, the bigger case becomes essential for cooling purposes and, to be honest, aesthetics. While any Atom based mini-computers out there can make for a pretty decent HTPC experience for a lot of people, you’ll need some more “oomph” if you’re looking to have decent DVR functionality or something along those lines out of this machine. Luckily for us, there are still a number of manufacturers out there that make amazing HTPC cases that fit perfectly in your AV stack or entertainment center.

Some cases, such as the Zalman HD160XT (my current HTPC case), have a small LCD screen on the front. The screen is obviously too small for manipulating the desktop for any amount of time, but if you split your screens between the 7″ and your HDTV, you can use the smaller screen for miscellaneous things like displaying time, weather, or other monitoring software. I like to throw Winamp over on that screen and have it playing full screen with the visualization going while I do whatever on the big screen. Basically, it’s your world to create; having this kind of flexibility gives you the ability to create your home entertainment environment to your tastes and specifications. Having options is a good thing!

Since we are skipping the details of the guts of these rigs for now, the only other thing left to discuss are your input options. I find it almost comical when I see some people’s posts about the notion of having a keyboard in ones living room and about how this concept somehow must be going against some unwritten rules of living room technology etiquette. It almost reminds me of a snooty person gasping “Why…I Never!”.

Really? Is it really so strange and taboo to have a keyboard in the living room? I suppose it depends on personal preference in the end but none of my friends have laughed at me for having a keyboard in my living room!;) While there are a bunch of choices for wireless keyboards and mice, my recommendation for interacting with your HTPC goes hands down to the Gyration Air Music Remote combined with the Gyration Compact Keyboard. The keyboard is nice and small so won’t look to out of place in the living room and both have a 30′ range due to being Radio Frequency (RF).

You simply put the keyboard in a convenient but out of sight place (like under the coffee table) and pull it out when you need to enter data. Trust me everyone, it’s not quite as awkward as some people try to portray; it wouldn’t surprise me that in the not so distant future, keyboards will be the norm in the TV room and perhaps could even come standard with TVs. It just seems like a logical progression forward as we start to interact more and more with our TVs via computer, gaming consoles, and media streaming devices like the Logitech Revue that we have at least a compact keyboard to make entering information a whole lot easier!

Heck, why not take it a step further and use your voice to interact with your TV? Yes folks, the technology is already here and in place for those of you with a powerful aversion to having a keyboard in the living room to skip the keyboard altogether and use voice commands to control your environment! This can be accomplished via a number of avenues, for instance: using an Android or iPhone remote app like Logitech’s Harmony system to manipulate your system or going with a universal remote like Amulet Devices’ Amulet Remote which gives you voice control over Windows Media Center, there already are a number of quality solutions for using voice to control your connected home environment.

The Platform / Operating System

This is where we have the most diversity in options, as well as pretty convincing arguments against any statement about “the HTPC being dead”. Now that we’ve defined what we intend to use our HTPC for, and used that list to determine what our hardware requirements are, it’s time to make the decision on which Operating System (OS) suits our needs best.

I think much of the recent “the HTPC is dead” talk comes from reading into what Microsoft is doing with its Windows Embedded technology. Briefly, Windows Embedded is a platform that allows manufacturers to build devices that have only the parts of the OS that are needed to perform the intended function, like a device that boots directly into Windows Media Center 7. Think Logitech Revue or Roku HD type devices that are running a customized version of Windows Media Center.

Windows Embedded is certainly very exciting technology, and we’re going to see more of the great devices we got glimpses of at CES coming out soon with varying degrees of the Windows 7 Operating System embedded on them. These devices are remarkable and will certainly become widespread in the Connected Home– I am not arguing that point at all. I am also not arguing the point that these types of embedded devices, from TVs to set-top boxes will most likely have the largest portion of the market share; some people (probably more accurately most people) DO want simplicity and want things to just work. Agreed.

But is Microsoft’s Windows Media Center 7 the only option? No…not even close! Actually, there are a few contenders for the Media Center belt: SageTV and XBMC come to mind right off the bat as viable and in some ways better than Windows Media Center 7.

And, if we take Microsoft completely out of the picture, you can still build a solid HTPC using Linux to run your SageTV or XBMC Media Centers, again, in some ways better than Windows 7. But hopefully Microsoft is smart enough not to turn their back on the concept of the HTPC. I do not read into all of the excitement around Windows Embedded as a sign that they are giving up on the HTPC, but rather that they understand the need to provide a solution that addresses the need for simplicity by some people as well as creating a whole market for OEMs thereby fueling the innovation fire. Again, this is a good thing! Microsoft would indeed be foolish to jump out of this game now by putting all of its effort into Windows Embedded and abandoning Windows Media Center on the PC. If they do, there will be plenty of companies ready to swoop in and fill that void.

As cool as Windows Embedded is, there is one fact that you cannot get around:

You can do more with an HTPC than you can do with an embedded device whether it be from Microsoft, Google, or whomever else. Embedded devices are locked down and limited in one way or another. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I do not want to be limited when it comes to my Home Entertainment! I want to be able to add programs that enhance that experience, or even extend the functionality of my HTPC to controlling other facets of my smart home. Would you want to give up your freedom to create the Home Theater experience you desire? Didn’t think so!

The Magic Pill

As you can see there’s probably as many ways to build and configure a HTPC as there are people building them! With all the options available to you from hardware to operating systems to media centers, can anyone really say the HTPC is dead? I think not.

If you ask me, the HTPC is perfectly positioned for the wave of public awareness coming towards the Connected Home. Instead of removing an option for people, why not leave the HTPC in its current position as the high-end solution for integrating your Home Theater not only with the world’s content, but also with the rest of the house as well! As much as I believe that these embedded devices of various operating systems will appeal to the majority of home users because of their simplicity, I also believe that the amount of people who want the extra power and functionality that an HTPC brings to the table will continue grow as well. I think people today are much more tech-savvy than in days past and I certainly do not believe “the typical user has a hard time using a PC to surf the web”. That just doesn’t sound like an accurate statement to me.

I think we’ve shown here that the HTPC is far from dead. Perhaps if some people have a very limited and tunnel vision concept of the HTPC and its uses, then they could come to the conclusion that the HTPC is dead, but I think it is easy to see that the exact opposite is true. The HTPC is not only alive and kicking, but it is in a better spot now than ever for being a very viable solution to people looking for more. We should provide as many options to home owners interested in the “Connected Home” as possible because having more options brings more power to the consumer which brings more growth to the industry.

As for me, I plan on seeing “how far the rabbit hole goes” because this year could very well be the Year of the Connected Home, and the HTPC can play a significant role in making that happen by integrating Home Entertainment with Home Technology!

So? Which pill will you take? Red…or blue? (if you are lost, watch the Matrix)

I went Red…