My HTPC setup

As I mentioned in my last post, I now have a Home Theater PC (HTPC). Want to look under the hood?

Hardware

  • Shuttle X27D, with an Intel Atom 330 dual-core 1.6 GHz low-power CPU, an Intel 945G graphics processor, and a single 2GB RAM module. This unit has DVI and VGA video ports, both capable of resolutions up to 2560×1600, but only in mirrored mode (no dual monitor support). I’m pretty happy with it, but the GPU can’t really handle 720p or 1080p at 24 frames video reliably. If I had this to do over again, the reviews suggest the Dell Studio Hybrid would have been a better choice. However, I don’t know if it is as quiet as the Shuttle, and it costs £100 more.
  • Seagate 320GB 7200RPM 2.5″ SATA hard drive. That’s plenty of room for music, 480p video, and video games (MAME, NES, SNES). Go bigger if you plan to archive higher resolution video. I tend not to keep shows once I watch them.
  • DVD+-RW Multirecorder. More than I need, really. I just want to watch my DVDs, and rip them to local video files for “Saturday morning cartoon”-style shuffling.
  • Keysonic Compact Wireless Keyboard with Integrated Touch Pad. All around a good product, and pleasingly small. I do not want a monster keyboard lying around my living room, nor anything with wires, nor a remote control. So this is pretty good. However, it supports only single-touch tapping (no two/three-finger tapping for middle/right click), and pressing both buttons together does not produce middle-click. Warning: this keyboard uses 2.4 GHz. Sniffing with Wi-Spy shows it communicates at 2422 MHz, which is WLAN channel 3. I moved my WLAN to channel 11 to avoid issues, but when I’m copying large amounts of data the keyboard still stutters a little. Not often a problem, but annoying. Also, wireless keyboards are not secure (except bluetooth keyboards, which suck for other reasons). Someone with an antenna and custom software can read what a user is typing from a distance. So don’t use this keyboard for Internet banking.
  • Panasonic TX-37LZD70 37″ LCD HDTV. I bought this last year planning to use it for this purpose, so it supports 1080p video via HDMI. It has excellent picture quality and good sound. But much to my annoyance, it refuses to believe that I don’t have a TV signal and never want one. It starts in TV mode even when the PC is operating, and I always have to change inputs after turning it on. It also waits somewhere between 20 and 60 minutes to shut off when no signal is detected (I’ve never timed it). Dear TV makers: please sack your TV development teams and replace them with your PC monitor development teams. Then instruct them to stop re-implementing the same crappy menu interface from 1992. Thank you.

Software

  • Ubuntu 8.10 Intrepid Ibex 32-bit. I wanted the simpler and faster Gnome interface rather than KDE, because KDE encourages me to customise and play. And I just want an HTPC, not a general purpose device. Despite my efforts at making 1080p video work, I tend to run at 720p so the interface is readable from my couch 3 meters back.
  • Miro 2.0.4, using the Miro APT repository for automatic updates. Miro is awesome. Miro downloads all my favourite shows and organises them in neat little menus. The interface isn’t suited to a simple remote-control interface, so expect to have a mouse or touchpad handy.
  • tvrss.net to supply RSS feeds to torrents of my favourite shows.
  • Elisa, a remote-control friendly media center interface. It’s a bit buggy and slow to index content, but it sure is pretty. It’s easy to get Elisa to play Miro’s video content. However, it needs some work before I’m ready to use it full time. Most notably the DVD interface is quite bad (probably based on gstreamer, which itself has terrible DVD support).
  • Kaffeine for playing DVDs. I’ve tried Totem (gstreamer and xine), xine-ui, and VLC. Kaffeine is the only one I have found with decent full-screen mode controls, DVD menu support, and which totally ignores stupid “this button is disabled” restrictions during playback. I’ve configured it to launch automatically when DVDs are inserted.
  • Amarok 1.4.10 for playing music. All the other software on this list can play music too, but it is hard to beat Amarok’s support for static and dynamic playlists, streaming audio, and ability to quickly parse my 110 GB music collection.

I’m still working out the best way to handle video games, especially a good front-end loader with support for MAME, FCE Ultra, and zSNES.

I named it gozer, and put a small name label over the irritating blue LED on the faceplate. It illuminates the “o” perfectly. Gozer the Gozerian, Gozer the Destructor, Vulguus Sil Drohar, Lord of the Trebulian, The Traveller has come!

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  1. Daryl’s avatar

    Nice. You might want to check out Songbird as a music player. I’ve found it a lot more sane than Amaork (ok, and a lot more like iTunes perhapos).

    Me, I just use my faithful macbook plugged into a stupidly large 23″ cinema display. Works great ! (though I have thought about grabbing a small box to just dedicate to this kinda stuff).

    I do like the name gozer though… =]

    Reply

  2. tyler’s avatar

    I’m not sure what you mean by “sane”. I never liked the iTunes interface so Songbird’s mimicry of that doesn’t interest me.

    Amarok is a great application that quickly indexes even huge collections, and 1.4.10 has perfect iPod support. I’ve delayed moving to Amarok 2 until that’s back in.

    Reply

  3. Dave’s avatar

    Been thinking of doing the same kind of setup with a Mac Mini, now that it’s been updated with a proper nVidia graphics card. Just meets the spec for 1080p and is very quite. Did you look at XBMC for the flashy interface side of things?

    Reply

  4. tyler’s avatar

    I looked at Boxee but not XMBC, and was put off by the closed source and requirement to login to use it. I’ll have to give it a try. Too bad it lacks RSS+torrent support, although I could hack that in with Azureus.

    Reply

  5. James’s avatar

    I know this post is a bit old, but I enjoyed your blog posts and wanted to comment on this one. I went through a number of ‘Buntu-based HTPC front-ends, and have to say XBMC is freaking awesome! It’s way prettier than Elisa, and Elisa isn’t bad. But it’s plugins have recently gotten a lot LOT better. If you name TV shows or movies something reasonably sane, it pretty easily looks up metadata, fan art, posters, wide banners, etc and makes it look really nice. For a power-tip (I’m over-selling myself here) try the Transparency! theme from SVN at this URL: http://xbmc-xbox-skins.googlecode.com/svn/trunk.

    Unfortunately, as with most of these solutions, live TV is awful — there is a plugin for MythTV, but it sure isn’t like watching cable! I run MythTV for subscriptions to TV shows, and wrote a script to soft-link MythTV files with proper name format (“House M.D. S01E12″) for XBMC to index it well. XBMC is amazing at the whole TV Shows –> Show (fanart) –> Seasons –> Episodes w/ teaser and thumbnail. Boxee is apparently the same codebase as XBMC, except their big sell is they write higher quality plugins. But I have MLB.com and can watch live games, any past game from any day and any team in the season, and the condensed games. (15′ for a condensed game is pretty nice.) If I can help in any way let me know, just thought I’d pass along what I thought you’d find useful. You sound a bit like me in your posts. :-)

    Reply

  6. tyler’s avatar

    Thanks, James. I never mind late replies to posts. It’s not that old. :) I’ve been meaning to give XMBC a go for some time. I’ll check out the theme.

    Reply

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