Home Theater PC

Spectrum Analyzer Entire Rack

With our home theater system complete, we wanted to make sure that we could enjoy the prime time programs even if we were not home to view them, or if more than one was on at the same time. I have an LG LST-4200A, so one of the devices I examined was the LST-3410 which incorporates a DVR. The product was discontinued and hard to find, not to mention pretty limited with only 120GB drive. I also examined DVD recorders, but those don't record an HD signal, and at 106", regular DVD quality is rather lackluster.

After much reading up on what many people had tried for recording HD programming, and a nudge from my buddy Jim, who helps suggest ways to spend money, I decided a Home Theater PC (HTPC) was the right device for the task. The HDTV digital broadcast stream is received by an ATSC (the american digital broadcast format) tuner card, stored on the hard drive, and played back through the video card. The HTPC is also used for playing back DVDs.

The first consideration for me was the look of the PC. I've always liked the sleek look of NAD Electronics components, and wanted to maintain the streamlined look of the rest of the component rack. The three cases I was looking at were the Silverstone LC-16, the Ahanix MCE-601, and the Origen AE H7 cases. Since I built this HTPC, a new vendor has also appeared on the scene, Zalman, with their HD-135 enclosure (yes these are the same people that make those great cooling fans).

In the end, I ended up choosing the Origen AE H7 case, because it uses a standard ATX power supply (the Ahanix case uses a custom power supply) and the display has a USB interface wired internally as opposed to some of the other displays which use an external parallel cable.

One of the most important things when building an HTPC is silence. It would be very distracting while watching a movie, during a quiet scene, to hear your HTPC sound like the inside of a server room with a jet engine case fan. There are usually four fan systems that cool a PC, and you must pay attention to all four. Those four are the CPU, video card, power supply, and case fans. Make sure you get quiet units.

Here is the hardware equipment list:

When selecting your hardware, do not skimp on the video card. HDTV decoding is a very demanding application for a video card, especially if you're running component out to a 1080i display. I had problems with video stutter occasionally until I switched to a 720P projector with a DVI interface. Stick with NVidia or ATI products. I tried to get a card with heatsink only cooling, but the cards that had this were too tall for my HTPC case. The NVidia BIOS supports fan speed control, which lets you quiet the fan down. Similarly, use a good CPU fan, which will be much quieter than the fan that comes stock with the processor. The power supply with the large 120MM top fans will be quieter than the power supplies with the 80MM rear fans. And the case fans are the last consideration. My case unfortunately only comes with 60mm fans (2). I ended up powering them at 5v to get rid of the noise, but traded case temperature for silence. Better to get a case with 80MM fans.

Here is the software list:

I selected Windows XP Pro over Media Center Edition (MCE) because I did not want to be crippled by Microsofts' Digital Rights Management (DRM). If you use MCE, the shows you record cannot be transferred to any other PC and played back. I'm tired of Microsoft telling me how to consume media, so they can shove their DRM where the sun don't shine. I use Beyond TV 4, which is a FANTASTIC user interface. My wife knows how to run it, and it's very user friendly. It includes an integrated TV guide, which is accurate and up to two weeks out. Best of all, it records shows in the native Transport Stream (TS) format, which can be compressed for storage, burned to a DVD for future playback, or transmitted to your buddies' HTPC if he missed the show.

I have not decided which of the two software DVD player I like better. Theatertek has the capability to use image filters on the DVD video, which improves the image significantly. WinDVD on the other hand has a better user interface. For now I have both pieces of software loaded.

I also have some other pieces of software loaded that aid in the user friendliness of the entire system:

The shutdown utility reboots the HTPC every night at 1:50 AM (right before the Beyond TV daily compression schedule starts) to prevent memory leaks from causing slowdowns after a few days of running. The IRTrans software comes with the IRTrans display, which acts both as a driver for the display, and a receiver/decoder for infrared remote controls. The LCD Smartie software gathers information and puts it on the display. It can display things like CPU load, data from RSS feeds (I use mine for temperature and wind speed from Intellicast), and other things like DVD statistics. I am on the developer team, and I wrote the driver for the IRTrans display, as well as the Theatertek plugin for LCD Smartie.

Freeware utilities:

As a software developer, I also wrote some of my own utilities which I have provided here for free, to help automate the HTPC.

IR2Keyboard Screenshot
The first utility I wrote is the IR2Keyboard remote control translator. Most HTPC style applications like Beyond TV and WinDVD take keyboard commands for controlling all aspects of operation. For example, WinDVD responds to "P" for play, "F" for fast forward, and "R" for rewind. The utility connects to the IRTrans server, and takes the incoming infrared remote control presses and and translates them into keyboard commands. IR2Keyboard can translate any remote control command and target it to any application, using any keyboard press. You may download this freeware utility here.
HD72 Screenshot
The other utility I wrote is the HD72 remote control serial protocol encoder. The Optoma HD72 has a neat feature that allows it to be controlled using a serial protocol that's described on their website. This allows the PC to control the projector. I use this so that I can use any remote control to control the projector, and the IR receiver for the projector is at the front of the room. This way you don't have to point your remote control at the ceiling, but you point it at the equipment rack. It also allows you to use any remote control, even ones that can't learn. I use my old Mitsubishi TV remote, learned the codes in the IRTrans decoder, which drives the IR2Keyboard utility above, which then sends keypresses to the HD72 remote utility. You may download this freeware utility here. You may also find other uses for this utility, like complete system automation, or selecting the correct source. The limit is your imagination

Thanks for visiting, if you have any questions regarding IR2Keyboard or HD72 remote, feel free to contact me using the link at the bottom of this page.

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Last updated: Fri, Sept 21, 2007.
Copyright © Mike vanMeeteren, 2007.