What is a HTPC, and how to get one?

HTPC Stands for Home Theater Personal Computer. This is a computer you build/buy which is designed solely for the purpose of connecting to your television.

Why would I want/need an HTPC? What can it do?

If you are tired of having 20 boxes on your entertainment center to each do its own task, then an HTPC gives you the flexibility of being a powerful all-in-one box. Of course that comes with it’s own caveats which we cover in our (coming soon) HTPC Myths Guide. As an overview, even your basic HTPC can do the following:

  • Live HD Television
  • Record Television
  • View photos
  • View videos
  • Watch movies (Blu-ray, DVD, downloaded, etc)
  • Listen to Music

How does an HTPC connect to your TV?

In the past this answer was very complicated, but thanks to HDMI that makes things simple since it can carry audio and video across the same cable. If your system or TV is older, you can also connect via VGA, Component, Composite for video, and Composite (Red/White), Coaxial or TOSlink S/PDIF for audio. Please see our Guide to Connecting an HTPC to a TV for further details.

What is resolution and what can an HTPC output?

When you purchase a television, assuming it was an HDTV, then it had a supported maximum resolution. Most popular are 1080p and 720p as far as retail labeling. Any graphics card (what powers video from the HTPC to the TV) in the past 5 years can easily handle 1080p resolution and more.

Why does my picture not look as good as it should?

If you have a high definition television, it needs to be calibrated (configured) to its optimal settings within your home, and with your HTPC.  It’s quite a few steps but very easy to follow and should end with you having a much better experience.

If any card will work, why would I ever need to upgrade?

Just like with games, how well your video card will work is completely dependent on what you are wanting to play. Meaning, a compressed video file with super high quality (eg, a 1080p MKV H.264 video) will take more video/system requirements than a standard DVD video file. If you have an older/slower graphics chip, it may be able to handle a certain video resolution at 720p, but not at 1080p due to the increased requirements.

Why should I build/buy an HTPC instead?

The choice is not clear cut, as each option has its own benefit, and you’ll learn that a lot of enthusiasts will actually have both or will be very adamant that one is superior to the other. An HTPC (i.e. an actual computer, running an OS of some sort) provides the most flexibility–there’s literally nothing an HTPC can’t do. Then again, you are going to be paying for a full PC now.  Essentially, every Media Player is a stripped down HTPC, built specifically around a video chip which has been optimized to play and do only certain things. This is why you can get them for a couple hundred dollars.  If you only care about viewing Netflix videos, or Video Podcasts for example, then an extender is perfect for you; it’s low powered, low cost and can easily handle that. Additionally, matching something like SageTV with their own HD Theater could be a match made in heaven.  Basically–because SageTV designed it themselves–it can handle everything the software was designed to do.  There are no codecs to worry about, no Windows drivers to update, and no software conflicts to bump into.  If, however, you are constantly wanting to try the latest streaming website, or video rental service, then a Media Player might not be a good idea since they can be outdated fairly quickly (or blocked, a la GoogleTV). With an HTPC, since it’s a computer, you can go to any browser or website you would like, and Hulu can’t do anything about it.

What components are required for an HTPC?

At it’s core, an HTPC requires the following hardware components:

  • Chassis – this is the case that houses all the components. While it does not *have* to be a desktop/horizontal, most users prefer it since then it can fit in a rack.
  • Power Supply – The most overlooked yet critically important component to select, the PSU (power supply unit) is what powers every component in your system. Choose a shoddy one, and be welcomed to random crashes, freezes and shut downs. Choose one too powerful and you’ll be wasting electricity. Choosing a cheap one and be greeted by the sound of a jet turbine engine.
  • RAM – also known as memory
  • CPU – Stands for central processing unit, this is what handles a lot of the processing of everything. The more powerful the more things you can do with your system–also the more cooling you will have to do. Basically a choice between AMD and Intel.
  • Hard Drive – Also referred to as HDD, can vary in size/capacity based on your needs. You will also hear references to SSD, solid state drive, which provide smaller storage capacity but with no moving parts, so it’s very silent.
  • Motherboard – think the brain of the computer. This is what houses all the parts. Everything connects to the “mobo” and it is also the most difficult item to ever upgrade, making its purchase choice that much more important.
  • Video – Notice I didn’t say video card, since a lot of today’s most popular HTPC mobos include On-Board Graphics, also referred to as IGP (Integrated Graphics Processor) which can easily handle HTPC duties. If you want to game from your HTPC, then you can always add a separate PCI-Express graphics card.

What other components can I put in my HTPC to make it more awesome?

Before you get carried away, remember that the more you put in your system, the more you need to worry about keeping things cool and quiet. With that being said, see the (Coming Soon) Guide to Add-On Components of an HTPC for more details.

 

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