A Home Theater PC (HTPC) or media PC is a convergence device that combines the functions of a personal computer and a digital video recorder. It is connected to a television or a television-sized computer display and is often used as a digital photo, music, video player, TV receiver and digital video recorder.
The general goal in a HTPC is usually to combine many or all components of a home theater setup into one box. They can be purchased pre-configured with the required hardware and software needed to add television programming to the PC, or can be cobbled together out of discrete components as is commonly done with Windows Media Center, MythTV, GB-PVR, SageTV, Famulent, or LinuxMCE. The traditional HTPC concept in its purity is becoming less popular, being replaced by other devices.
Beyond functioning as a standard PC, all HTPCs have some additional characteristics.
Standard PC units are usually connected to a CRT
display, while HTPCs are designed to be connected to a television
. All HTPCs should feature a TV-out option, using either a HDMI
, Component Video
(for some LCD televisions), S-Video
, or Composite Video
Quiet / minimal noise
A common user complaint with using standard PCs as HTPC units is background noise, especially in quieter film scenes. Most personal computers are designed for maximum performance, while the functions of a HTPC system may not be processor-intensive. Thus, passive cooling systems, low-speed fans, vibration-absorbing elastic mounts for fans and hard drives, and other minimal noise devices are used in place of conventional cooling systems.
Putting the operating system on flash memory and keeping the media on a separate file server elsewhere in the home can eliminate the noise and heat generated by a hard drive.
Higher storage capacities
Because of the nature of the HTPC, higher than average capacities are required for HTPC units to allow storage of pictures, music, television shows, videos, and other multimedia
. Designed almost as a 'permanent storage' device, space can quickly run out on these devices. Because of restrictions on internal space for hard disc drives and a desire for low noise levels, many HTPC units utilise a Network Attached Storage
. Some HTPC units also feature a DVD
writer to help users copy and move their media.
TV tuner cards
A TV tuner card is a computer component that allows television signals to be received by a computer. Most TV tuners also function as video capture cards, allowing them to record television programs onto a hard disk. Several manufacturers build combined TV tuner plus capture cards for PCs. Many such cards offer hardware MPEG encoding to reduce the computing requirements. Some cards are designed for analog TV signals such as standard definition cable or off the air television while others are designed for high definition digital TV.
Integrating a HTPC into a typical living room requires a way of controlling it from a distance.
Many TV tuner/capture cards include remote controls for use with the applications included with the card. Software such as GB-PVR, SageTV, MediaPortal and Beyond TV support the use of Windows MCE and other remote controls.
Comparison with dedicated media devices
- Quality - HTPCs can rival high end dedicated devices.
- Features - such as pause live tv, usually a feature of high end dedicated devices.
- Digital media recorder
- Media server - The HTPC can serve media files to other computers / devices on a network.
- Gaming - the use of an emulator to play arcade games.
- Other media - HTPCs can store photo albums and play other media files.
- Other functions - other functions may include weather forecast, online radio streams, TV schedule, etc.
- Other software - other software, such as downloading or file serving, can be run, perhaps in the background.
- All-In-One - The features found in a HTPC would usually require more than one dedicated component.
- Cost - HTPCs can be expensive.
- Maintenance, Setup - The software in use may require configuration, updates.
- Complexity - HTPCs are more complex than their dedicated counterparts.
- Noise - HTPCs can have fans, which can be noisy.
- Power consumption - HTPCs often use more power than consumer audio/video components.
- Stability - Stability may be an issue, depending on the software.
- Gaming - Most multiplayer party games are designed for consoles, not PCs; instead, most multiplayer games for PCs are built on the model of one PC per player.
Apple Mac systems
Since Apple Inc. alone designs and builds its own Macs, what holds true for PCs may not always hold true for a Mac:
- CPU: All Macs built today use Intel dual-core or better processors. As such, all Macs today can decode/encode and/or play high-definition video (not to be confused with recording HD-TV; the reception of TV signals requires a separate TV-tuner). Older Macs used Motorola G4 or IBM G5 processors. In general, G4 chips could record from and play standard-definition (SD) video and play high-definition (HD), but a G5 was needed to record in HD.
- TV Capture: Apple may be unique in the HTPC realm in that it has (almost) never offered a TV-tuner option in its systems. Some of the same manufacturers, however, that make internal TV-tuner and software PVR cards for PCs make similar external variants for the Mac (See Software). Despite having an HDMI port and RCA jacks like those on an HTPC, the unique AppleTV is neither a Mac computer nor a HTPC. (See AppleTV for details.)
- Remote Control: This may be where Apple's systems are most like an HTPC's. The Apple Remote, used in conjunction with Apple's Front Row and Cover Flow, makes it easy for Mac users to browse and enjoy multimedia content on their systems. Front Row in particular was expressly designed for across-the-room use (known in industry parlance as "the 10-foot interface"). And, Apple routinely uses Bluetooth, the across-the-room wireless standard, in its cordless keyboards and mice.
- Audio: While all of Apple's systems have digital sound, only the high-end Mac Pro tower features dedicated S/PDIF digital outputs. Each of the other systems uses special combination analog/optical-digital audio (microphone and headphone) jacks for their audio input and output.
- Case: Apple custom designs one case to enclose each of its (desktop) systems. In brief, the Mac Pro tower is roomy and tall but heavy, the aluminum-and-black all-in-one iMac, with its 20-inch or 24-inch LCD built-in, is thin, and the Mac mini is small, lightweight, and quiet. Most Mac-based HTPCs use the Mac mini.
- HD Video: As mentioned above, all Intel-based Macs can encode/decode and playback standard and high-definition video. As for graphics, both the Mac Pro and the iMac have dedicated graphics, using either ATI's Radeon HD or nVidia's 8xxx-series (or newer). At present, the Mac mini still uses integrated shared-memory graphics, in the form of Intel's (arguably outdated) GMA950. It is worth noting that, of all three systems, only the Mac Pro's graphics card can be upgraded if desired to something newer in the future.
HTPC options exist for each of the major operating systems: Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.
Alternatively, a HTPC may be built with the addition of a third party software PVR such as GB-PVR, SageTV or Snapstream's BeyondTV to a Windows PC. SageTV and GB-PVR have integrated placeshifting comparable to the Slingbox, allowing client PCs and the Hauppauge MediaMVP to be connected to the server over the network. Snapstream provides heuristic commercial detection and program recompression. When using a faster CPU, SageTV and Beyond TV can record content from TV capture cards which do not include hardware MPEG2 compression. For a free alternative, GB-PVR and MediaPortal provide full home theatre support and good multi-card DVR capabilities. GB-PVR also has a free client, free mediaMVP client, and free network media playback.
- For the Linux operating system, Mythbuntu is a special derivate of Ubuntu which uses Mythtv while LinuxMCE combines MythTV and the Kubuntu distribution. KnoppMyth combines the Knoppix Linux distribution with MythTV, a Linux based software PVR, . SageTV provides commercially supported Linux HTPC software that is compatible with most major Linux distributions.
- For Mac OS X, some HTPC functionality is built into the operating system itself. Specifically, the programs Front Row and Cover Flow, utilized in conjunction with the Apple Remote, let users easily browse through and enjoy any multimedia content stored on their Macs. Additionally, the Apple iLife software suite (including iTunes and iMovie) enables users to create, edit, store and share their own multimedia.
Beyond the operating system itself, add-on hardware-plus-software combinations (for adding more full-featured HTPC abilities to any Mac) include Elgato's multiple award-winning EyeTV series PVRs, AMD's "ATI Wonder" external USB 2.0 TV-tuners, and various individual devices from third-party manufacturers Miglia, Hauppage, EskapeLabs, Slingbox, and others.
Portable Media Player
A Portable Media Player (PMP) can be used for portable access to recorded programs, such as for working out at the gym, or for passenger entertainment during long drives. Some devices in this category can be automatically synchronized with a PC.
When using automatic synchronization, or batch converting a directory full of recorded programs to be placed on the PMP, it is useful if the device includes a commercial skip feature. While there have been attempts at automatically detecting commercial breaks, the reliability of those detection algorithms isn't accurate enough to rely upon when converting video content. When moving video to a device which does not include a skip feature, video editing software can be used to remove commercial breaks in the programs on an individual basis.
Stand-alone media management & digital video recording software
- SageTV (Windows, Mac, and Linux)
- ShowShifter (Media Center)
- SnapStream Beyond TV (Windows)
- MythTV (Linux, free)
- Freevo (Linux, Python, free)
- GB-PVR (Windows, free)
- Orb (Web/Ajax)
- Front Row (Mac OS X, Apple TV)
- MediaPortal (Windows, free)
- EyeTV (Mac OS X)
- XBMC (Linux, Mac OS X, Windows, Xbox game-console, free)
- Plex, a fork of the XBMC code for Mac OS X users.
HTPC-bundled operating systems
- pcHDTV (for Linux)
- Hauppauge Computer Works WinTV PVR Cards
- HDHomeRun, made by SiliconDust
- nVidia TV-Tuner Cards (discontinued)
- Vista View Saber Cards (Analog and Combo)
- ATI Theater Cards
- iMON IR Remotes
- MCE IR Remotes
- Grippity - Handheld Control Solutions
HTPC system manufacturers