Beginner’s Guide What is an HTPC?
I was speaking with a friend of mine who’s new to the Home Theater PC space and he brought up a great point–after saying how much he loved the new site design, he admitted to being a bit overwhelmed by some of the content that basically assumes you know some of the standard knowledge about this world of HTPC. I agreed, and thus this beginner’s guide was born. For the sake of your sanity, we will break these guides up into small categories to hopefully make it easier to digest as well as continue to evolve. (If you see a Guide Link that’s not a working link, hang in there, it’s coming soon!)
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. Read the Beginner’s Guide to Resolutions for more details.
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. We have begun a series of Guides on Display Calibration to help you. 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. Read our Basic Overview of GPU HD Video Processing options for more details.
How should an HTPC connect to your home network?
This is a very loaded question that again varies based on what your streaming needs are. For more information see our (Coming Soon: Guide to Connected Home Networking.)
I’ve read MissingRemote.com’s Guide to Media Players. 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 :). Read the Guide to Media Players for details on a lot of the available players.
I’ve gone the HTPC route, and some of my video files either won’t play, or I only hear audio but no video (or vice versa). Is this Codec related?
Yes! Codecs can be basic or complicated depending on where you get your video content. For more information we have an entirely separate Beginner’s Guide to HTPC Codecs, File Formats, Containers, Filetypes which should answer most of your questions.
What operating system is required to build an HTPC? What software should I use as my media center?
Windows, Linux or Mac. If you’re saying to yourself, “Self. Isn’t that everything?” The answer is YES! And that’s a good thing, there’s an HTPC software option for every operating system. See the (Coming soon) Beginner’s Guide to HTPC Software for details on the solutions for each.
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.
Read the (Coming Soon) Beginner’s Guide to Building an HTPC for more details.
My laptop is a computer, can’t I use it as an HTPC?
Sure you can, but do you want it always connected to your TV? If you don’t mind “loaning” it while it’s being used, it absolutely can be used. There are several solutions out there for wirelessly streaming content such as the VeebeamHD which may fit the bill for you.
So I connected my computer to my TV, now how do I control it?
The topic of controlling your HTPC is obviously something we take very seriously (hey, our name IS MissingREMOTE after all), so see our Guide to Controlling your HTPC for more details.
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.
You mention filetypes and formats, but what is all that? What do I need to know about what a “Container” is and such?
File formats are basically the way your media files are created and with which compression method. As you can imagine, there are a lot of them out there and we cover as many as we can in detail in our (Coming Soon: Guide to Audio-Video Formats and Codecs.)
I want Live Television through my HTPC, can you help me figure out what I need?
Believe it or not, over-the-air (OTA) television broadcasts are still available and they are still 100% FREE. The best part is that they are now available in high definition in most major cities. In order to receive them, you will need some sort of antenna in order to pull in the signal. Check out AntennaWeb to see what stations are within range and what kind of antenna you will require.
For cable users, there is the possibility of obtaining free QAM channels, but these very rarely (if ever) include premium stations like HBO. Most often, you will be lucky to receive the local channels. For both OTA and QAM, you will need a television tuner to connect to you antenna, cable line or set top box (STB). Refer to our ATSC/NTSC Tuner Guide for more info. If you want premium channels, there are Cablecard solutions from Ceton and (soon) SiliconDust for–of course–cable subscribers, but there are some caveats. First, your only HTPC software option is Media Center. Second, you will still not be able to get VOD or PPV this way.
In order to obtain any content at all from your satellite company, currently, the only option is Hauppauge’s HD-PVR. This is not a tuner, but a device which captures the output from your STB. It can capture from the component video (up to 1080i) outputs, S-Video, or composite video and either the stereo outputs or the digital S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interconnect Format) output. The HD-PVR is also a viable option for cable or FiOS subscribers.