October 3, 2009

An HTPC project/bleg

Filed under: HTPC, Tech — Chris @ 1:59 pm

The time has come for new audio-visual technology in our home. The 8-year-old PowerMac G4 that stores our iTunes Library has reached the outer limits of its useful life. Our cable box is an aggravating piece of junk. Our DVD player takes about thirty seconds to decide whether it wants to open its tray, or close it, or open it then quickly close it again before you can do anything with it.

The time has come for one box to rule them all. This one box will be expected to:

  • Store all of our music and photos.
  • Provide entertainment in the form of moving pictures. This could include:
    1. Playing digital videos, including DVD movies and streaming content, on our TV. (required)
    2. Playing Blu-Ray movies. (optional)
    3. Recording standard- or high-definition TV broadcasts from an antenna or cable. (very optional, quite probably unnecessary)
  • Be upgradeable, so I don’t bitterly regret decisions made about storage, memory, or other hardware in the future.

Based on these requirements, it would seem that we need a Home Theater PC. That is, a computer with:

  • A case that will fit comfortably on top of the stereo receiver.
  • A hard disk big enough to hold our entire music library (preferably in FLAC for the music ripped from CDs) and some reasonable amount of hi-def video (say 30 hours). Our music library is currently about 90 GB, as medium-to-high quality MP3s. I figure I need a terabyte or more.
  • A DVD or Blu-Ray player.
  • HDTV-quality video output (HDMI, I guess).
  • Decent 3.0-5.1 channel audio output (digital coax or optical)
  • An IR receiver for use with a remote control and/or wireless keyboard and mouse.
  • A clever cooling system so that it doesn’t make an infernal racket in the living room.

Since we don’t want to use Windows software or Mac hardware, it will evidently have to run Linux. This poses the following difficulties:

  • Playing Blu-Ray movies is not currently possible on Linux, due to DRM restrictions. This is the case even if you paid for the Blu-Ray disc in the first place.
  • Recording non-free HDTV programming (e.g., pay cable) is not currently possible on Linux (or even on any device that was not specifically made for the purpose by some giant corporation), due to DRM restrictions. This is the case even if you paid for the programming in the first place.

I’m willing to compromise on both of these points. I have no reason to believe that either won’t become technically possible in the future (though probably not legally).

From my research online, I haven’t been able to find anybody who will build me such a computer without installing Windows on it. The alternatives seem to be to (1) build my own box from scratch, buying the case, motherboard, CPU, etc. separately and assembling them myself, or (2) pay a premium of several hundred dollars for a pre-built computer running Windows and install Linux on it.

I don’t mind paying a premium to have an expert assemble my computer, but the portion of the premium in (2) that goes towards paying Microsoft monopoly rents galls me.

I’m willing to pursue (1), but it seems like a really big hassle. I’ve never built a PC from scratch before and there are a million choices for any given component. I’m a bit paralyzed by the fear that I will make some epically bad choices.

Talk to me people. Does anybody know of an outfit that will sell me a pre-built Linux HTPC? How about a bare-bones OS-less HTPC “starter kit”, e.g., a case with the power supply, motherboard, CPU, and heat sink pre-installed and the various ports pre-wired? (I can handle RAM and disk drives, no problem.) Any advice on building my own?


1 Comment

  1. […] Filed under: Tech — Chris @ 7:43 pm I’ve spent some more time on the HTPC project over the last week, taking into consideration advice I got from my last post, and looking more […]

    Pingback by HTPC update « Procrastiblog — October 12, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

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