Top 10 Steps to HTPC Evolution

May 01 2007

I was feeling rather nostalgic today, so I decided to take some time to reminisce on the life of HTPCs and Media Centers. I've been around this since the inception, and it's always fun to take a step back and see where we've come from to get an idea of what the future holds.

I have comprised my very own Top 10 list in reference to most significant events that have occurred in the field of Home Theater PC's. I'm sure I missed some, so feel free to discuss. So let's get on with it....

 

Numbers 10-6

10. Silverstone/Lian Li/Antec/Coolermaster/DVine HTPC Cases (2001+)

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I'll never forget my first HTPC case. I bought a generic beige old-school desktop case, took it outside, sanded it down, and spray-painted it black. Believe it or not, I still own this case (it's at my Dad's house), but it showed how desperate things were for the HTPC market back in 2000 since basically none existed outside of the defunct Gateway Destination, which you couldn't buy alone.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere came Coolermaster answering the battle cry...and then others joined in. Before you knew it, you had tons of different HTPC-style cases from many companies, each appealing to a different user. Heck, I think to date Silverstone has something like 15 different cases JUST for HTPCs. Shows just how the market has grown and how companies have adopted users' enthusiasm.

 

9. ATI's All-in-Wonder Video Card (1999)

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I say 1999, but that's just when it first launched. ATI has always been an interesting company in my eyes when dealing with the HTPC market. It kind of seemed to me they never really wanted to commit fully into it, but still wanted to play. The All-in-Wonder made integrating a TV tuner into your system as easy as upgrading your video card. More importantly, it was affordable.

 

8. High Definition Televisions (1996)

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If you ever connected a computer to a standard definition TV, you really don't need any explanation as to why this is on the list. The invention of high definition televisions allowed you to use your TV basically as a gigantic monitor. Text was perfectly readible, and images could appear super clear in 1080p. And because your HTPC's Video Card could scale to basically ANY resolution, it became many people's hi-def DVD player and more. The graphics from an HTPC output digitally to an HDTV is stunning no matter how many people complain about the lack of HD TV programming.


7. ATI's Remote Wonder (2002)

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Before ATI came out with this RF gem, the only remote most people would use was the GOD-AWFUL one that was originally for the Packard Bell systems to control music. While that worked fine and sufficient for playing music, HTPCs can do so much more that it couldn't. ATI answered the call from consumers with a quality remote at a super affordable price. Designed to work with ATI's All-in-Wonder software, this was as close to a 10' HTPC experience as we had seen at the time. The remote even had a touch pad mouse--although annoying beyond belief to use--was still more effective than not having something.

 

6. Gateway Destination (1996)

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This was that computer system with monitor from Gateway, that I think really started the movement. In a time where few were connecting their PCs to TV's, they sold their system only with a 31" Tube Television. Talk about shipping & handling!! And the unit itself cost $4000, which was a lot more money 11 years ago...and sure the software was awful...but this still stands out as the turning point for me when companies started taking HTPC's seriously.

Top 5

5. Hauppauge PVR-250 (2001) / Hauppauge PVR-500MCE (2004)

 

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I combined both the PVR-250 and the 500 from Hauppauge, mainly to save space. But they both had their impact on the HTPC market. The 500 went mainstream as allowing consumers to have dual tuners on one card. Finally, dual recording became a standard with this and integration with software.

But no other tuner had more of an impact than the PVR-250. Before this, the #1 limitation to ANY HTPC software was that the only tuners available were software-based-encoders, so the images were grainy/fuzzy/soft/or just plain bad. But that all changed with the 250, with it's hardware based video & audio encoders, it brought about the highest quality television image anyone had ever seen through an HTPC. It's pretty remarkable, considering how popular HTPC's have gotten, yet you can still pop a PVR-250 into your system and be VERY satisfied.


4. Snapstream PVS, aka BeyondTV (2000) / SageTV (2001) / MyHTPC (2001) / MythTV (2002)

 

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I've included what I consider to be the list of significant HTPC applications in the past 7 years NOT called Windows Media Center. These applications each serve their own purpose and really gave consumers an option if they did not want Windows Media Center. True story, back in 2004, before Microsoft supported dual tuners, I actually switched to SageTV and BeyondTV because that feature was so important.

Each one of these programs offered innovative--and sometimes controversial--features to their applications which Microsoft's MCE did not. MythTV was so ahead of its time, that it's funny to see how little they've changed yet remain on the forefront of features in an HTPC application (if only Linux was easy, eh? :-P)

MyHTPC would later become the commercial application Meedio, which would then get bought out by Yahoo and dissapear, but nobody can argue that for a while, MyHTPC was the best frontend software out there for full control, with a phenomenal community. The Meedio crew was always creative and had features years ago which I'd kill to have within MCE (ahem....easy plugin installation, skins, etc.).

 

3. OCUR, aka Cable Card (20XX)

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Ok, so I know I'll get some heat for this. But simply the fact that Microsoft has been able to work out at the very least an agreement with CableLabs keeps the future safe for HTPCs. As more and more DVR boxes are coming out with integrated-HD support, a lot of people had been considering offing the HTPC idea since they wouldn't be able to get the HD content. Remember, this is just the first installment of something sure to change and hopefully grow. I'm including this on the importance it has and the potential to the market. Only time will tell its true impact on HTPCs, but I like to be optimistic.

 

2. Microsoft Windows Media Center (2002)

 

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Codenamed Freestyle, this was the first HTPC application from Microsoft, and truly was monumental. I know some of you may be upset that I gave Media Center it's own number, but whether you love or hate Microsoft, the HTPC market would simply NOT be where it is today had Microsoft not gotten involved. With their reach, they were able to obtain large system builder participation from the likes of Gateway & HP, and thus had a lot of marketing dollars go towards HTPC-awareness, the likes of which have never been matched even to this day.

It really was an ideal HTPC solution. Sure it suffered from occasional crashes, and TV quality was not perfect, but this was really revolutionary in that you could do EVERYTHING within Media Center from your sofa with a remote (no mouse controls needed!).

 

1. TiVo (1999)

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What can I say, something that has nothing to do with HTPCs yet was basically the catalyst for the HTPC movement. TiVo revolutionized the way people thought about watching television, and the power that could be done. Digitally recording shows became a norm and the term "Tivo-ing" became defined. Even when I use my MCE HTPC, I still say I "Tivo'd a show." The mainstream popularity of TiVo allowed all HTPC developers to have a common feature which consumers would understand, and thus see the value add of investing a bit more to either build or buy your own HTPC.

 

Honorable Mention: Extenders/AppleTV (2007)

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Both Microsoft and Apple are on the right track on this one, but it just hasn't gotten there yet. The idea of extenders is ideal as it's become clear the large majority of consumers do NOT want a computer in the living room. Extenders allow you to have a thin, small, quiet box that just pulls the information directly from your main computer, all wireless.

So far this hasn't really caught on. On Apple's part because...um....it's just not very good. On Microsoft's because for some reason there's been so many delays getting V2 Extenders to market, and the Xbox360 is as loud (if not louder) than most people's computers.

But my prediction is that the technology will improve, they will refine everything, cut the cost down, and in the end you'll have 1 main HTPC system, and a multitude of extenders to stream the content throughout your home.

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