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Building a Home Theater PC Part 3 – Selecting and Installing the Components

Written on Mar 23, 2010 by Jesse Raab and filed under Knowledge Base, News

Editor’s note: This is part 3 of Jesse Raab’s three-part series on constructing your own home theater PC. This section covers the components selected and how to assemble them. Be sure to read part1 to learn more about the expectations and duties of the home theater PC and part 2 to see how the build went and the components used.

Test Time

With the new HTPC all put together it was time to fire it up and see how things looked. I started by just making sure it powered up and the machine could boot. After doing that successfully it was time to get an operating system and some software on it so I could start playing my content. I chose to make this a Linux-based HTPC because its free, will easily network with my server (which also runs Linux), and there are some excellent software options for HTPC’s on Linux. Both XBMC and Boxee have recently released updates in the last two months and eventually I will be fully testing both media center softwares but will start by running a minimal Ubuntu install and XBMC. I mostly followed the guide found here although I used Ubuntu 9.10 and installed the nvidia driver from Ubuntu. Alternatively, if you wish to install XBMC on top of a full Ubuntu installation, these set of instructions will help. Setup was pretty simple and I was able to accomplish these steps without any misteps. I have purposely kept everything off this machine that wasn’t necessary for playback via XBMC or Boxee. I don’t have a full desktop or full featured window manager on here and the machine to auto logs in to XBMC when the machine boots.

After following these steps I rebooted and was very quickly presented with the XBMC home screen. And when I say quickly I am speaking literally, it was so fast I had to do it again and time it. It took a grand total of about 40 seconds to go from pushing the power button to the home screen. Thirty of those seconds were spent getting through the motherboards power-on checks (I’m sure this can be further optimized). From the time I hit the loading grub text to the time I was in XMBC was 10 seconds. This made me incredibly happy, the extra money I spent on the SSD was going to be worth it, I may even need another one or two of these for my laptop and desktop. Seriously, it was that fast.

With that bit of gushing out of the way we can get on to the rest of the initial testing. I did some initial setup to make sure my sound and video settings were correct. XMBC has a nice screen for adjusting overscan, which for some reason by default was absurdly high on my setup. I also set the video to be output via HDMI and the sound to be passed through my digital coaxial output. Next it was time to start adding some content. I added the folders on my server containing my music and my movies to the appropriate content sources and could play them just fine. I asked XBMC to scan the folders and it was able to grab covers, fan art, and information for about almost all of my movies and about three quarters of my music. I will be going back and renaming and reorganizing some of these folders a bit better to see if I can’t get a few more titles added with all the coverart. XMBC was able to get cover art for both mp3 and flac files that I have.

Performance

The system itself is not totally silent. If I turn off everything else and leave it on I can easily hear it from a few feet away. However, with anything playing or when sitting across the room the system is inaudible. Temperatures when idle were reasonable, and seem to stay in the low to mid thirties.

Movie playback was excellent. I went through and tested a number of clips I’ve been using to test some of the other media streamers we’ve reviewed lately. My rips of the Bluray versions of Quantum of Solace and Kung Fu Panda both played flawlessly without any stuttering or slowdowns. I monitored the system remotely from my laptop and cpu usage stayed under 25% on both cores and temperatures climbed only a few degrees above the normal 35 degrees I was seeing in this box. Interestingly, playing these same clips in Boxee gave me lower cpu usage by a wide margin. While playing Quantum of Solace I recorded usages below 10% of the cpu when in Boxee. The software are highly related, and I had assumed video playback would be equal between the two media centers, but clearly something was different during my tests.

Music capability of this device was priority number one for me. I know that seems kind of silly to most, but I love music. I listen to it all day while working. I come home and will listen there too. I might be backwards, but I still buy CDs, I still listen to complete albums from start to end frequently. I rip every disk I get to flac files as I find it much easier to browse for something interesting this way than digging through all my albums. I’ve tried a lot of music library programs and music playback program, but I’ve never truly found anything I fell in love with. I’m currently using Rhythmbox on my Linux laptop and foobar on my Windows 7 desktop, although I have a number of other options installed on both machines. Playback of music on through XBMC works well, and the sound quality out of this box is good and on par with my Windows 7 machine running foobar which I also have hooked into my main stereo. The interface is nice, and works but is nothing spectacular when using the included Confluency skin. I very briefly tried a few other skins but returned to Confluency for the time being. I have had some trouble getting shuffling to work correctly, and I would also appreciate a better handling of playlist creation. After I spend some time enjoying my new toy I expect to revisit the music playback aspect of this box and see if I can come to a more desirable solution.

Using XBMC’s plugin system I was able to add several Internet sources with varying degress of success. Apple trailers lite plugin worked excellently, and I spent a good hour just watching different movie trailers. I was excited to find a plugin for TED talks since this was one of the sources I had hoped to get working in my home theater. Unfortunately, when trying to playback this video I ended up with sound only and a unwatchable picture. A few sources resulted in playback errors and no video or audio. XBMC is not known for its ability to provide online content in the same was as its sibling software Boxee is, so I expected a bit of trouble trying to get these to work. I quickly tested some Internet sources on Boxee and as expected not only did the play back correctly, the interface is extremely slick. Searching for a partcular show will bring up options to watch it at the different online sources it is available through, such as Hulu and nbc.com. A little more trouble shooting will be necessary to get the plugin system working correctly.

Conclusion

With most things working, or at least somewhat functional I decided I would take a few weeks to just enjoy having this system up and running. Use it for a while with XBMC and Boxee and try to decide what is lacking or other features I really want and then try to get some of those. XBMC has tremendous support for other interface options (called skins) and both XBMC and Boxee have an active community of developers creating plugins to enhance the capabilities of these media centers. Overall I was very pleased with the ease of getting a basic XBMC and Boxee setup running. Video and audio quality was good, and I was able to playback most of the formats I wished to handle. More extensive testing will be needed to fully realize all the goals I had laid out.


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