HTPC - Chapter 2

  Chapter 3        Back to Chapter 1

Recommended HTPC Setup and Usage

by Conrad McDonnell


Recommended HTPC setup      

Display Resolution      

Processor speed

Eliminating fan noise      

Using a laptop as an HTPC      

Which operating system to use      

More about the WMV format       

Basic DVD Software

Alternative DVD front-end software



Recommended HTPC setup

A "home theatre PC" or HTPC is a standard PC with the following essential characteristics:
* DVD ROM drive
* basic DVD software
* reasonable quality 2D or 3D graphics card
* quiet fan noise

and the following recommended features
* sound card with SPDIF output
* graphics card with DVI-D digital output
* additional DVD and video processing software

Some HTPCs also enjoy the following optional extras
* attractive 'living room' case
* silent or near silent fan noise
* remote control
* case-mounted gas fluorescent display
* audiophile sound card with 6 channel output
* networked to 'media server'
* TV card
* personal video recorder (PVR) software
* HDTV card

Display Resolution
When using an HTPC, the display resolution (desktop resolution) should always be set to match the resolution of the display you are using. Typical widescreen resolutions for popular projectors and plasma or LCD screens are 1368x768, 1280x720, 1024x576, 960x540 and 854x480; typical fullscreen resolutions are 1024x768 and 800x600. Many dispays are 'plug and play' compatible with Windows, so that after the display is connected to the PC, following the next reboot, Windows will recognise the display's available resolutions so that the desktop can be set to the correct resolution: this may well require the display to be connected as the 'primary' display or otherwise activated. In case of difficulty a utility called Powerstrip will allow you to set up a new display mode for Windows, effectively teaching Windows what settings to use - most popular modes are pre-configured in Powerstrip so that this should be straightforward, but if you have any difficulties this is exactly the type of thing the online audiovisual forums are for!
If your display has a DVI digital input (or HDCP or HDMI) then it is strongly recommended to use a DVI connection between the HTPC and the display: this results in the best and most stable image quality as it is a fully digital pathway. Some users report increased colour accuracy and contrast using DVI connections (which is a sign of a previous poor quality analogue connection: some PC graphics cards have less than perfect VGA outputs).
If you have not yet purchased your display, it is strongly recommended to choose a 1280x720 resolution widescreen display as this is rapidly becoming the standard. The reason is that this is one of the two standard HDTV resolutions, known as 720p (the other is 1920x1080, also known as 1080i). An additional reason for this choice is that it is difficult to configure an HTPC for precise 1:1 pixel mapping using some of the non-standard resolutions such as 1368x768 and 960x540, and the non-standard resolutions are also difficult or impossible to connect over a DVI digital connection.
The current bleeding edge is full 1080i HDTV resolution, that is to say 1920x1080. This is difficult to achieve on a HTPC because many PC graphics adapters (or their drivers) do not go up that high, also because it is close to the limit of the bandwidth that can be carried by a VGA connection or a DVI connection - in fact DVI cannot support 1080p (progressive scan 1920x1080) which is what an HTPC would ideally output. Visit the online
forums for the most up to date information and to share ideas. The Apple Mac solution involves the use of a special top-of-the-range Mac-only video card with a dual DVI link to a high definition display which goes up to 2560x1600 resolution - the results are of course stunning, but impossible to replicate on a PC; the Apple Cinema displays are however usable with a PC at 1920x1080 resolution so long as the PC video card supports DVI with DDC. But generally, at the present time, HTPC users are recommended to choose a 1280x720 display which produces very good results from both DVD and HDTV sources.

Processor speed
If you only want to use it to play DVDs, and you have a graphics card which supports hardware decoding (any mainstream graphics card made in the last 5 years should do it), then the processor can be anything from a 500MHz Pentium III upwards - or for reasons of elegance, fan noise or cost, some enthusiasts choose to build a mini-ITX PC which typically contains a Via processor which is 1.0GHz Pentium III equivalent.
Reasons to use a significantly faster processor (Pentium IV 2.4 GHz and up, and equivalent) include: video or audio post-processing; playback of WMV high definition material; playback of high resolution downloaded trailers in Quicktime format etc; personal video recorder functions; HDTV functions; encoding of video. Even if you want all of these functions, you should be just fine with a processor around 2.8GHz to 3.0GHz.
Instead of spending large sums of money on the top of the range 'Prescott' P4s and the newest motherboards, you can obtain the same or better HTPC performance from (a) an Athlon64; (b) a Northwood 3.0C or 2.8C, or
2.4C with a little overclocking; (c) the latest budget-priced Celeron D processors, which unlike earlier Celerons (which were 30% slower than equivalent P4s) are now almost exactly as fast as the equivalent P4s). For HTPC, a very significant advantage of these cheaper processors over top of the range Prescott P4s is that they run cooler and thus the cooling fan can be quieter; the Celeron D is the coolest of them so should be a strong contender for anyone building a new HTPC. Alternatively, a laptop with a Pentium M (Centrino-type) processor can represent an equally fast, but very cool and quiet solution.

Eliminating fan noise
Many excellent sites deal with the troublesome question of building a fast PC which has little or no fan noise. In broad concept, you need a quiet but efficient CPU heatsink and cooler, a quiet power supply, and one or more large, low speed 80mm or 120mm case fans; ideally the fans should be variable speed so that cooling can be increased it if it a warm day or if the PC has a heavy work load. You can build such a PC yourself with relative ease, or most local independent PC vendors would be more than happy to build one for you. Attractive cases are available which go still further to reduce noise levels. Or for an acceptable or extravagant amount of money you can purchase a totally fanless silent PC solution.
Attractive fanless HTPCs from Hush Technologies (UK)

The former offering from Hush would be recommended for all HTPC uses if only the processor were slightly faster: in future if they start using the newer faster Celeron D processor then this is likely to represent an ideal HTPC.

Using a laptop as an HTPC
A laptop PC with the right configuration may make an excellent HTPC for some users.
Laptop advantages:
Built-in screen - useful for configuring and for previewing what will be shown on your projector
Quiet fan noise (especially the newer Pentium M based laptops) and usually very quiet disk drives (Seagate Momentus drives are the quietest)
Compact and acceptable in the living room
Can equally function as an excellent portable DVD player
Built-in keyboard and mouse, which are illuminated slightly by the screen so no fumbling in the dark
Laptop disadvantages:
Likely to require a port replicator or docking station for a DVI digital video connection
DVD drive may be at the side of the laptop or otherwise awkward to access
Slimline DVD drive: the DVD must be manually clicked on and off the spindle
  A laptop makes an excellent HTPC: this is a Dell Latitude D600
Although laptop audio is usually inadequate (although some laptops have an SPDIF socket, or at least one can be found on the accompanying port replicator) this problem can be overcome easily through adding an external USB audio adapter.
Laptops are near-impossible to upgrade once purchased, so if adopting this route make sure so far that you acquire one that will meet all your likely future HTPC requirements in terms of processor speed and graphics capability. But external storage can be added in future, including large hard drives, DVD ROM burners, and future HD-DVD or Blu-Ray reading drives; this may be done either using home networking to a separate server machine or using a USB IDE enclosure or

Which operating system to use
While Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me) or equivalent vintages are acceptable in a basic HTPC, if you want the full HTPC functionality, in particular the ability to decode the WMV format, then it has to be Windows XP. It may be either Windows XP Home or Windows XP Pro - the extra networking features of Windows XP Pro may be required for certain home networking setups but are otherwise irrelevant for HTPC. Although most HTPC users are currently using Windows XP, a few are using Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) which essentially allows a faster startup, looks slightly less like a PC on-screen, supports remote controls, and has additional TV and PVR software. In general MCE cannot be recommended at the present time since (a) it is only found on new brand-name PCs which may not meet your other HTPC requirements; (b) alternative non-Microsoft software is available which performs the same remote control and PVR functions, probably better at the expense of being more time-consuming to install.
As you might expect, there is also an active
Linux community.
Some HTPC users choose to use a non-Windows looking user interface / DVD launcher / "desktop alternative" such as
MainLobby, Digital Theater Pro, Meedio (formerly MyHTPC) or Talisman.

More about the WMV format
WMV, also known as WMV9, WMV-HD, VC-9 or VC-1, is a Microsoft proprietary method of encoding video; it is similar to but slightly more efficient than MPEG4, and both are much more efficient than the current DVD standard which is MPEG2. WMV allows a full length movie at 720p high definition resolution (1280x720) to be held on one side of a standard DVD. Some commercially available R1 DVDs include a WMV high definition version of the movie, including: Terminator 2 Extreme Edition; Shadows of Motown; and several IMAX/MacGillivray Hudson titles such as Coral Reef Adventure. The video quality of these, and the various downloadable WMV clips, is superb - close to D-Theater. It is possible that in future there will be many more WMV disks available in the standard DVD format; it is also likely that either or both of the future HD-DVD/Blu-Ray standards will include WMV. Current issues include Microsoft licensing fees; inconvenient (for users) copy protection (digital rights management or DRM); and full support for the Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 audio formats.

Note that although the WMV specification suggests that a 3.0 GHz Pentium IV processor or better is required, if you use non-Microsoft software for playback then 1080p high definition WMV material requires a processor of approximately 2.4 GHz, while 720p requires approximately 1.8 GHz. (These requirements may vary slightly depending on your graphics hardware, memory speed and other variables.)

Basic DVD Software
There are twenty or more commercial DVD players for the PC, but the four most commonly used are: WinDVD, PowerDVD, nVDVD DVD and Theatertek. Most consumer PCs have WinDVD or PowerDVD included free (although it may be a Lite version or not the latest version); or if you purchase a new DVD-ROM drive for your system then the software may be bundled with it. In this author's opinion, while all four are good, nVidia's nVDVD offers the best overall quality, followed by WinDVD, Theatertek and PowerDVD. Some users prefer Theatertek because it is the most sophisticated and non-PC-like in use. WinDVD is currently the best for interlaced source material such as music videos or some TV shows (see below).

WinDVD 4 in windowed mode

It is possible to use the underlying filters or 'engine' of these players with alternative 'front-end' software, and in fact that is recommended: see Advanced DVD Software. If you purchase more than one player, it is also possible to mix and match, for example nVidia's video with WinDVD's audio.

One failing of all of these players apart from Theatertek is that they tend to have ugly, over-designed user interfaces which remind you that you are using a PC and therefore spoil the overall experience. Again, this problem is avoided if alternative front-end software is used.

Some PC DVD software suffers from the "chroma bug" which also plagues many cheap DVD players. The current versions of the mainstream software do not suffer from this, but some earlier versions of the Sonic or Ravisent filters did. The chroma bug manifests itself as a slight smearing of red or orange areas of the image, in particular where there are sharp transitions from red to non-red areas. The reason for the bug is that the DVD format always stores blue 'luma' picture information on disk at the full 720x480 (or 720x576 for PAL) resolution, but stores red/yellow 'chroma' picture information only at half resolution i.e. 360x240 - this is known by technicians as 4:2:0 encoding. A good DVD player can deduce fairly accurately what the full-resolution 720x480 chroma picture should look like by examining subtle transitions in the luma picture, but a cheap DVD player simply overlays the chroma picture at 360x240 which results in some smearing out of red/yellow parts of the image. Note that the chroma bug is not visible on many commercial DVDs which filter the entire picture down to effective 360x240 resolution both to avoid this problem and to avoid the 'moire' effect and shimmering which trouble many consumer DVD players especially when connected to a standard TV using S-Video or composite video leads - these type of problems and the consequent filtering imposed by DVD producers are some of the main reasons why DVD has not realised its full potential.

Alternative DVD front-end software
The majority of more experienced HTPC users do not simply use one of the basic DVD players just mentioned, instead they combine the mechanics of those commercial players with an alternative front-end or user interface. This can be done easily since all DVD software on a Windows PC is
modular; the modules are called 'filters'. Indeed Theatertek mentioned above is itself a front-end for filters made by Sonic, although the two are usually used together.

The most popular DVD front-end is Zoom Player which requires separate third-party filters, although even the standard Windows Media Player included with Windows is capable of playing DVDs if you have third-party DVD filters included on your system.

The streamlined interface of Zoom Player

Zoom Player (get the Pro version or the WMV Pro version for around $30) is highly recommended for any user wishing to obtain the best from his or her HTPC. It is configurable to an exceptionally high degree, so you can make it the player that you require. When properly set up, it is capable of producing trouble-free playback of every media type playable on a PC (including Quicktime and Real Media files in full-screen). It is a very fast and efficient program so that high definition WMV and Quicktime files play smoothly under Zoom Player even on machines with surprisingly low processor speeds. One of the most useful features of Zoom Player for HTPC enthusiasts, which is not found in other DVD software, is that it allows small adjustments in image size and position on screen - in this way you can position your video to perfectly fill your projector screen or TV screen, even on DVDs that have annoying narrow black borders (pillarboxing). Also for DVDs which have poorly finished edges - either blurred lines of pixels or a 'notch' - Zoom Player can reposition those troublesome parts of the image offscreen or conceal them.

     on to Chapter 3        Back to Chapter 1