How To: Build An HTPC (With Windows 7)

It Isn’t Perfect

The HTPC concept isn’t perfect. It never has been, and probably never will be. However, it’s a far cry from the painfully PCish experience most early adopters remember from even just a couple of years ago.

Perhaps most glaring is the convergence of PC and TV. AMD’s TV Wonder HD 650 Combo is the product of many previous generations of tuner offerings, plus a ton of hardware and software work. But the dual-tuner design is still a far cry from what you can get in a simple standalone DVR box. With one analog and one digital tuner, we liked the ability to see programming for both on the same program guide. However, Media Center doesn’t like switching from one format to the other and if you're in the Guide view, it throws up an error that no tuner is available any time we go from analog to digital or vice verse without first restarting the software. Switching from 17 to 17.1 to 17.2 to 18 in the Live TV mode worked without an issue.

Naturally, trying to record one format and watch the other will only work so long as the programming cooperates. With two shows on the analog or two on the digital tuner, you’re out of luck.

And that doesn’t even begin to touch the folks with necessary cable- or satellite-based digital set top boxes that need to use an IR blaster to control that in-between hardware through Media Center. Of course, once you go down this path, a proverbial can of worms is opened.

You see, AMD sells a product called the TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner. But it isn’t available as an upgrade to the do-it-yourselfer. Rather, it can only be included with a new PC built to support an Open Cable Unidirectional Receiver, which means a special BIOS with a blessing from CableLabs. That means no CableCARD support unless you buy a pre-configured HTPC, like the Ace Computers Maui machines we saw at CES. That’s bad news for anyone looking to take their homespun HTPC to its potential. For the time being it seems that truly replicating the capability of a $5/month DVR is still out of the realm of the home theater PC.

One possible alternative might be Happauge’s HD PVR—a $250 external box the attaches via component input and encodes H.264 video at 1080i/720p in the AVCHD format. We haven’t tried one of the Hauppauge boxes yet, but would be interested to see how well it augments the TV Wonder’s capabilities. Knowing ahead of time that the HD PVR employs ArcSoft’s TotalMediaExtreme software, however, leads us to believe the integration with Media Center would be absent, though.  

Fortunately, for someone who doesn’t watch much TV (such as myself), this isn’t a debilitating handicap. And the organizational benefits of Windows 7’s Media Center suite more than make up for anything lost from premium broadcast content.

The only other gripe we had was, as previously mentioned, the lack of seamless Blu-ray content playback. Media Center would minimize and open PowerDVD any time an HD movie was inserted, whereas standard def content simply played from within Media Center. Hopefully, this will be ironed out before the operating system is finalized.

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  • aahjnnot
    You seem to have missed the big reason for a media centre (deliberately no capitals as I use MythTV on Linux): it's the network. I have a flat screen TV or computer in almost every room of the house, including wireless laptop access in the garden. That means that anything anyone in the family watches or records from the TV, together with our entire collection of music and movies, is available anywhere at any time with no reason to faff about with physical media. Sure, I don't usually want to watch a movie in the kitchen. But it's great a great place to catch up on yesterday's ski racing, or for my kids to watch their favourite bits from an old DVD.

    You can't get that level of universal access with separate dedicated components in each room - at least in the UK.
  • Anonymous
    Well said aahjnnot!

    Also, there was no mention of the other options - 9300 based MB with C2D 5200, cheaper and plays BluRay perfectly. Or G45 based board, finally Intel does proper IGP.
  • a1exh
    The price point of the HTPC still does not make sense. You still get a better bang-4-buck with a second hand XBOX1 installed with XBMC.

    It is such a shame that the video capabilities of the current generation of consoles is so under utilised.
  • Henrlk
    It's still a long way until you have it all in one spot avaliable to regular customers, i mean with a single remote that can control everything (without having a keyboard at all). People of today barely know what to buy. They have no clue what a graphic card is or what model does what nore how to handle or install them properly. Hardware or software wise All this have to be done avaliable in a extremely simple way. Detailed information "what the product is capable of" to the customer in a very simple way of telling. But still not leaving the one that know what components they want out.

    I think i could do all this, but i dont work for any of these companies and i dont know english to well so i guess this is not what i was suppose to do.
  • disc01
    I think it's about time that there was another look at the htpc.
    How ever it does cost and I feel cannot be done on a budget in order to get the full use of it. To get full use of bluray that sound card used doesnt support full bluray sound, I use a ASUS Xonar for this and it's great I get my sound and video through one cable to my av receiver, this is were the market needts to be going. I have got full bluray play back at 1080p and 96khz sound. also plugins are easy to add into media center to allow games & email or nearly anything else you want to be used from the media center.
  • hairlocks
    I have been using Mythtv since 2001. My current setup with 3 DVB tuners, and a diskless and fanless front since 2004. It still looks like windows media centre is lagging behind.

    The HTPC age has been upon me for the last 8 years.
  • jschoorl
    Hello Chris,

    Although for the most part a great review, I think you miss the essence of this platform, namely it's great audio quality combined with great onboard video quality. You say that you have used your own multi-channel receiver connected to the motherboard’s S/PDIF output. If you use this great motherboard like this, it's just another great motherboard with a few plusses.

    To name one, the 780M chipset comes with an additional 128MB side-port memory. This allows the ATI Radeon HD 3200 access to its own graphics memory, instead of sharing memory with the processor, making the configuration more efficient and strips away loading access to the processor’s memory bus which will have a positive effect on playback of 1080p content.

    The very, very special thing of this board are the audio capabilities. There are effectively 3 different audio codec's on this board. ATI for audio over HDMI. Realtek for the SPDIF (that you have used) and D2Audio for the analog amp or pre amp card. This last one makes the board special and is the reason you want to buy this board. On the board you will find the DAE-3 Digital Amplifier chip from D2Audio (recently taken over by Intersil).

    D2Audio is a very well known chipmaker in the audio space; they make high quality class D digital amplifiers for folks like B&W, Polk, Control 4, Phasetech, Denon, Marantz, etc. This code provides much higher audio quality than traditional PC audio. Signal to Noise Ratio is 105dB or higher, Total Harmonic Distortion is 0.1% or lower. This is similar to fairly expensive Mainstream Amplifiers.

    D2Audio specializes in Class-D amplifiers that achieve remarkable 93% power efficiency. This means that for every 100W of power delivered to the speakers, less than 7W is dissipated by the amplifier. Because of the way audio power is distributed between channels, the overall amplifier thermal dissipation inside the enclosure will typically be below 20W. This compares with the 40% to 50% efficiency of Class-A/B amplifiers which dissipate as much power inside the enclosure as they deliver to the speakers. That's why receivers are so heavy (a very huge cooling block and powerful PSU).

    The 5-channel amplifier with a 100W peak power (at 8Ω or 200W at 4Ω) per channel can draw as much as 500W peak alone from the typical 300W ATX power supply. If such a high power were drawn from the supply in an uncontrolled way, the CPU voltages could not be maintained at correct levels and the system would crash. Having a digital media platform crash every time a loud sequence is played in a movie or game is obviously unacceptable. Fortunately, D2Audio developed real-time power monitoring and management firmware that runs on the embedded DAE-3 DSP to carefully monitor and control the power draw from the ATX power supply. With careful supply loading and local power storage, the system is able to meet the 500W peak amplifier demands delivering outstanding audio, while also protecting the CPU operating voltages.

    If may do a suggestion, pull your speaker cables out of your receiver, including your sub and hook them up to the 5.1 AMP card that came with the board. I think you will be suprised.

    I have used the AMD Maui platform now for almost two months. Especially with Windows 7 it gave an awesome experience. I have sold my HD satelite receiver, my Pioneer receiver and DVD player. I have now just one-box-fit-all HTPC. My build can be found at
  • Anonymous
    Nice article; but would have been nice to see ClearQAM performance and/or use with two 650s All-wonder cards.
  • kevinherring
    I'm sorry but I really cannot see the point in this article. All of this technology has been around for years! On the Windows platform, MCE 2004/2005 offered all this functionality in a stable, easy to use package years ago; Vista and 7 offer a few minor tweaks, but nothing substantially new. Also MythTV has been doing this for much longer.
    The only really interesting thing about the article was the sound card, but you brushed that aside.
    Also, don't forget standby mode. There is no "booting" of the PC to watch TV etc. It is either on standby, or on all the time. My (Vista) HTPC hasn't been rebooted for weeks.
  • mp4lms
    a real eye opener for a newbie in the UK. have wanted home theatre but without the Receiver. I new there was a way.

    Quick question though. I have a Virgin Media cable box in the UK which is connected via Scart to my TV. Are you saying I just pull the Coax out the back of it and bang it in the TV card? then HDMI or Component into TV?

    many thanks and hope to hear from you..
  • mamikel
    Just a note of warning, Windows 7 and TV pack have some serious bugs for Australian users which aren't present in Vista and XPMCE prior the TV changes. While MS Media Centre is comparitively easier to set up and is arguably "prettier", offerings such as Media Portal and MythTV (although more involved to configure and perhaps less tuner support in the case of MythTV)at least offer a generally more stable offering.
  • knighthawk5
    Two Words.... Good Laptop... Just hook your laptop to you TV and there you go. Wireless to your network attached storage device for all the movies you could ever want. Access it any where in the house. PUt in a sling box and what them anywhere. you don't have to spend thousands to do these things or even reinvent the wheel.
  • anzerman
    I have used media portal for over 2 years now and there is nothing better.
    & with custom skins like monochrome....
    visually it is a winner!