PC based appliances, touchscreens, technology & innovation

The Digital Divide

I mentioned a while ago that I was preparing for an upgrade to Win7 for the home theatre PC. This machine is probably the most important in the house after my laptop, as it is the absolute centre of our home entertainment world. With three kids under five, having a simple way to manage and access our media for recording and watching tv, movies, endless episodes of PlaySchool and Charlie & Lola, as well as accessing our music and photo collection is vital.

It was clear that the AMD Athlon 3500+ rig that we were running wasn’t up to the task of dealing with 4 HD tuners, a 1920 x 1080p output via HDMI,and the graphics intensive expectations of the background of Windows 7 Media Centre. An inspection of the receipts shows that machine was built just over four years ago, and has been running almost constantly ever since. So, out with the old Asus motherboard, the 2gb of RAM, and in with a new Asus board and i3 processor, and 4gb of RAM. The i3 processor and intel chipsets means that the GPU for the new rig is on the CPU die, and in the absence of anything to compare it to, it seems fine. I have a n210 sitting in the wings if I need it.

If nothing else, the primary difference between the two machines is the variation in the odd behavior on resume from standby. The old video card would shift everything approximately 1000 pixels to the right, meaning that the border was in the middle of the screen, requiring a restart. The i3 sometimes restarts with WMC showing in a small widescreen window in the middle of the monitor. This merely requires a restart of WMC, which I suppose is an improvement. It’s the inability of graphics cards to place nicely with video outputs that are always going to be a stumbling block to the WMC going mainstream. It’s one of the reasons why for the non-technical, I’ll continue to recommend things like the WD Live boxes. After all, all DVD and Blu-Ray players can make nice with a screen via HMDI, why can’t nVidia or Intel? This is one of the reasons why we continue to hold onto our Topfield PVR after all this time. If there is something important on, like a Bledisloe Cup game, I need to know that I’m not going to miss it for any reason short of a power cut.

Rounding out the remainder of the hardware in the refreshed HTPC is the 10Krpm Raptor drive for OS, as well as a reuse of the existing power supply, Pioneer DVDRW, 250gb Samsung spin point (for local recorded TV storage) and the same Antec Fusion case. My TV tuners are a PCI Haupauge, and a PCIe Terratec.

The upgrade has been well worth the effort. Playback is smooth are clear, and the update in the interface adds a newer, more modern feel. I’m not thrilled with some of the changes to the way that media management is done, but I’ll cover off my choices of plugins in a separate post.

At this stage, there is nothing that I have been able find that will take care of everything we want to do through a single interface, but I’d be interested in others experiences in using a PC as their primary home theatre device. What add-Ins are you using? What applications are you using?

Now that the hardware refresh is done, the next maintenance task is to upgrade the server (which holds my photo, music and DVD library and excess recorded television).

Is there anything else that like to know about my rig?


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