HTPC - Chapter 1

Chapter 2      Chapter 3

Introduction to HTPC: Take the Plunge

by Conrad McDonnell


Advantages and disadvantages of a HTPC       

Some myths busted


In many cases a PC makes an ideal DVD player. Many DVD Beaver readers use a Home Theatre PC ("HTPC") with a projector for a convincingly film-like experience in the home. An HTPC can also make a superb partner for a plasma or LCD flat panel display, or even a HDTV or RPTV.

Advantages and disadvantages of a HTPC

Extremely high quality video output
Video output resolution to precisely match the resolution of your display (1:1 pixel mapping)
Very suitable source to drive a projector, with film-like results
A PC is by its very nature a progressive-scan device
Sharp video image from DVD with no moire effect
Equally compatible with PAL and NTSC disks - even if your display is NTSC only
All the features of current PC DVD software:
  * state of the art de-interlacing
  * fine control over video output (black level, etc) - settings stored on a per-disk basis
  * remembers DVD stopped position for every disk ever played
  * can bypass 'forced subtitles' and can skip trailers etc
  * can adjust playback speed, e.g. slow down PAL from 25fps to 24 fps
  * advanced video post-processing
No, or virtually no, layer change delay
Ability to store trailers and Dolby etc logos on hard drive, for playback prior to main feature presentation
A fully digital pathway from disk to screen is possible (using DVI connections and a digital projector)
Flexibility for the future - able to play WMV etc
Future upgrade of a PC to read HD-DVD or Blu-Ray (or both) likely to be less expensive than purchasing a standalone player

Can be a costly option if you do not already own a suitable PC
Troublesome to set up initially - it will take even an experienced user at least 1-2 hours to perfect
A PC requires approximately 1 minute to boot up every time
Can be fiddly in use - for best results, several settings may be adjusted on a per-disk basis
Remote control setup difficult - will require user programming
Cosmetically less attractive than a slimline consumer DVD player

Not a pretty sight when projected 8' wide

In summary, a PC will be an excellent DVD player for a person who seeks to maximize DVD playback quality and who is prepared to take the time and trouble to set it up right; while it will probably not suit a person who simply wishes to switch on the TV, put a DVD in the player, and press Play. Although it may appear daunting to novice PC users, it is straightforward to get a basic system operating and there are plenty of online experts willing to help.

The following detailed comments relate mainly to PCs running Windows operating systems; those wanting to use Linux or other operating systems will find plenty of expert advice elsewhere on the Web. Mac users are also not catered for here, but since they enjoy excellent DVD playback anyhow, they will probably enjoy the usual Schadenfreude reading about the trials of Windows users.

Some myths busted

DVD playback looks unattractive in a window
All PC DVD software has a full-screen option which should, of course, be used.

Output from a PC will look too 'digital' and not film-like
DVD players share many components with PCs and both are essentially digital devices. The main difference is that a PC's video output is very sharp and high quality (it is designed to drive high quality RGB monitors up to at least 1600x1200 resolution) so a PC should not have the blurring and shimmering associated with using a standard consumer DVD player and a TV, otherwise known by salesmen as 'standing too close to the screen'! Even a PC with 'out of the box' settings should look better than a consumer DVD player; if not then you may need to adjust your PC's Display Settings to a higher resolution (ideally one which precisely matches the resolution of the display device) and change to 32-bit colour. A well set-up PC should give you the most film-like results you have ever seen from DVD.

Smooth, film-like yet also detailed

A PC will not have the same depth of color as a good DVD player
A DVD player and a PC have exactly the same range of colors, some 16 million of them - although the DVD specification itself only uses about 11 million of the 16 million available colors. A PC offers true black levels, which some DVD players do not.

A PC will not work with recent model displays with HDCP or HDMI inputs
A PC with DVI video output will work just fine with those types of inputs. DVI to HDMI cables are available from several manufacturers.

Only the latest model PCs can function as DVD players
Virtually any PC from 1998 onwards will do a good job. The author for many years used a 700 MHz Pentium III laptop running Windows Me as an excellent HTPC, although for various reasons a faster machine is now recommended.

PCs do not have good sound
True, using the speakers which came with the PC is not likely to enhance your viewing experience! Most HTPC users connect the PC sound card to an existing audio system, using either SPDIF digital, or 6-channel or 2-channel stereo (headphone) connections.

I don't want a PC in my living room (or cinema room?)
Fair point. There are four options here: (a) hide the PC, either in a cabinet or behind seating; (b) use a PC with a
presentable case, such as one of the small form factor PCs currently popular; (c) use a PC with a horizontal or hi-fi component
style case; (d) use a laptop.

A PC will not work properly with a 16:9 widescreen display
It will, but it may be tricky to set up initially, and it may also depend on your graphics card - any recent model ATI (Radeon 7500 or better) or nVidia (GeForce2 or better) card will be able to do it; some integrated graphics solutions may not. You need to set the desktop to a 16:9 resolution such as 1280x720. Although your display should be 'Plug and Play', in some situations you may need to use a utility such as 'Powerstrip' to teach your PC the correct display settings to use.

It seems extravagant to have a dedicated PC for home theatre use
True, it can be inconvenient to use an HTPC for other tasks, both because of its location in the living room and because the only display connected to it could be a projector. A laptop overcomes these limitations. There is no technical reason why it should not have plenty of other software installed on it, with the possible exception of some video editing software which may conflict with DVD software except in the hands of advanced users. The author uses one laptop for everything: HTPC, word processor, photo editing, email and web access, and games.

I do not have a projector yet - can I connect a PC to my TV?
Yes, of course, all PCs can be connected to TVs. The method of connection can vary from S-Video (most modern graphics cards), a special TV adapter "dongle" (some cards), or RGB component video using a VGA-to-component breakout cable. Most TVs will correctly display the PC's 800x600 resolution; occasionally you may have to use Powerstrip to create a special TV resolution. The on-screen position of the DVD image may need adjustment to have it perfectly centred and to avoid part being hidden by TV overscan -
Zoom Player is used for this.

Will it be compatible with VCD, SVCD, DivX, AVI etc
You needed to ask? An advantage of a PC over a DVD player is that the PC will be able to play future versions of these formats as well, while a standalone DVD player may be frozen with the versions current at the time of manufacture.

Only "PC-compatible" or DVD-ROM disks are playable on my PC
All DVDs are playable on a PC, subject only to region control limitations (which are easily overcome). The "PC-compatible" label on a DVD often indicates the presence of the 'InterActual' DVD player software on the disk: do not use this software or even allow it to be installed on your machine, it is of poor quality. "DVD-ROM" content is almost universally disappointing, often consisting of no more than an automatic link to the website of the film you have been watching - the autorun feature of DVD-ROM content should be disabled and in most cases it should simply be ignored.

I am not a PC expert and it all seems too difficult Once a HTPC is properly configured, it should be straightforward to operate. Various retailers sell pre-configured HTPCs with all necessary software already installed; or most independent local PC vendors should be perfectly capable of setting one up for you at reasonable cost. Alternatively ask a knowledgeable friend or relative to help, or visit the various online audiovisual forums where plenty of willing experts can be found to answer your questions.

Chapter 2      Chapter 3