Revisiting the Home Theater PC

It's been almost three years since I built my home theater PC. I adore that little machine; it drives all of our family entertainment and serves as a general purpose home media server and streaming box. As I get older, I find that I'm no longer interested in having a home full of PCs whirring away. I only want one PC in my house on all the time, and I want it to be as efficient and versatile as possible.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

I should get one of those - I’d like to compare it to the power consumption of my TiVo.

Interesting post.

I have a hacked Apple TV running XBMC. It is fast, incredibly easy to use, and runs everything I throw at it.

Alternatively, something like a Boxee box. Power consumption is 11w, while playing 1080p:

Amazon is currently selling Boxee boxes for less than $200…

I used to use HTPCs for my home cinema but I switched to a Western Digital TV HD Live and didn’t regret it. :slight_smile:
Its a small, fanless 12x4x10 cm box which plays almost everything HD (up to 1080p) including mkv, dvd .iso’s, dvd directory structures from a USB HDD or over network (samba/windows share or UPnP server) while consuming ~10 watts when playing.
It has some trouble playing BluRay images or BDMV structures (the file format and codec are supported though) but thats what I have a BluRay player for.
It costs around 90 euros over here and I definitely recommend checking it out. :slight_smile:

Almost forgot, its also hackable.
WDLXTV is a custom firmware project which exposes the underlying Linux.

The hardware specs here are silly. You can do 1080p easily with the following stack:

  • Acer Aspire Revo 3600: quite old now, single core Atom, ION chipset (Nvidia 9400M): £130 used
  • Some extra RAM if you like: £20
  • Ubuntu: £0
  • Boxee: £0

I’ve spent the time to build up off an Ubuntu Server install but you can easily just use the standard Ubuntu Desktop… And there you have it. For less than $200 you have a system that does audio over HDMI, full 1080p HD, is nigh on silent and comes with a bracket to mount it to the back of a screen.

It’s not going to be as fast as your machine… But we’re talking about a computer that is really only designed for one thing: media playback. For that the old Revo does fine. And if you want more power they do do a new version with an Atom D525 which is easily three times as powerful.

Note: if you try chucking Windows on this, it will work but it’s half a minute longer to boot and playback can be hit and miss depending on what Windows decides it wants to do in the background. Ubuntu uber alles.

This was a public service announcement from your friends at

I’ve pretty good luck just using my PS3 networked wirelessly to a 1TB drive. It plays everything I’ve thrown at it and I can do a lot more with it.

congrats on a new toy. But I’m also from an Atom camp. Latest ones are totally fanless and support 1080p and background fileserver plus torrents at the same time.

Maybe there are other uses for this new HTPC than merely media playback? Otherwise it would seem there are cheaper and more efficient options out there.

I’ve got a Core2Duo PC under my telly sat inside a HTPC enclosure (which doesn’t really mean much apart from the case being black and low power!).

The machine runs Ubuntu and XBMC, and also serves as my NAS, samba server, private web server and torrent machine (running torrentfluxb4rt).

I’ve not tested the machine’s power consumption, but at night with everything switched off (apart from the server, fridge and assorted clocks, stuff on charge, etc) my entire house draws 0.3kW/h. Switching a light on causes a more noticeable increase than turning the server off.

before this my server used to be a Pentium 4 machine which alone drew 160W and gave out enough heat to warm a room!

The low power machines are good for specific uses, but if you have one computer left on permanently it tends to get used for everything to help justify its reason for being switched on.

I have a low power semprom processor downclocked at 1Ghz. All it needs to do 1080p is a fanless 30$ graphics card (an nvidia g220 actually). Of course it runs Ubuntu and xbmc. It was incredibly sluggy with Windows Vista/7 installed.

Anyway, I have to agree that it’s awesome what 300 bucks can buy you right now.

I don’t do media playback on my home server but then it’s a 66 MHZ NAS I installed Debian on for media sharing, torrents, and home automation.

I recently set up a dual core atom bare bones mini PC for a friend and I think it’s way more PC than she needs and plenty for a media server. It’s a Zotac ZBox; it draws 15 W max and it’s only fault is that it’s not a fanless design œl(and her house is super dusty). Case and power supply and all for about $400, including a nice 500 GB Seagate Momentus XT hybrid SSD/HDD.

So, you’re saying that SPCR saying:
’‘Just how slow of a processor can one use? Gradually underclocking the CPU, we found that the Blu Ray disc began to stutter at about 1.1Ghz, while audio glitches were detected in the WVC1 clip at 1.4Ghz’’’

…is wrong? Are you sure you’re using hardware acceleration at all?

While Atom/ION machines are extremely good, they do have a couple of major shortcomings for a HTPC, the first is that they don’t have enough grunt to decode 1080i content, which if you’re in the UK like me is a bit of a problem when all of the HD channels broadcast at 1080i.

The second issue is that ION based machines don’t support bitstreaming of HD audio over HDMI, so when you playback a blu-ray disc, you’ll only get the DTS core or Dolby Digital soundtrack, not the DTS-HD or Dolby TrueHD one.

I run a Zotac ION 330 for two HTPC boxes and I can decode 1080i/p like a hot knife through butter. They connect to a backend running MythTV with hd5500 OTA tuners and an HDPVR encoder for HD DirecTV. The same backend is also running Air Video for on the fly transcoding to iPad/iPhone. The IONs can switch between MythTV and XBMC at the flick of a remote. It’s a lot of hacking to get to that point, but that part is more fun for me than watching TV. My kids love the results though.

Nice! I’m finally using an AsRock Vision 3D Series i5 HTPC after using an AsRock ION 330, both rock solid products!

Great Post!

I built an HTPC back in 2006…and yes, it’s getting a little old (

I JUST bought this little gem from Newegg. I should be receiving it sometime this week (Granted, it doesn’t have a TV Tuner card, but ehhh…)

Just saw it on Thursday/Friday for $149 ($189 with -$40 instant).

I’m hoping this may work as an HTPC as well. We’ll see what I can conjure up with this. :slight_smile:

How does the new computer work for gaming? You seem to have a little extra power so it would probably be fun to see if some older games run(or well designed and efficient games like TF2 or L4D). Then you get a gaming “console” out of it too.

I love the power usage of this motherboard/CPU combo. I wonder if I can get a similar board with 2 or more ethernet ports. Would make a killer home firewall/IPS device.

I’ve been thinking about setting up a home theater PC, and I now have a good guide to follow. Thanks.