What is HTPC?
HTPC or Home Theater PC is, as its name says, a PC that has been optimized for Home Theater. It lets you play local media from its own Harddrive, optical disks (CD, DVD, BluRay) or Network Attached Storage (NAS). You can also access the online media such as music and video streaming, with or without subscription. Finally, depending on the hardware, it includes the ability to receive TV programs and even record them. For that latter function, you’ll need a TV tuner to be installed.
HTPC Vs. Streamer Vs. Connected TV
Nowadays, if you want to watch movies in the Living-room, the offer become wider and wider. Devices keep popping out there and there. There are 3 main categories : HTPC, Streamers and Connected TV.
More and more TV come with some streaming functions, many of them with DLNA features, that gives real interesting functions as you can then have only one device and watch the broadcast TV as well as your local movies and web services. Problems there is that you are more or less depending on the manufacturer for what you have available. No extensions possible by yourself (unless you are a serious hacker). That can be sufficient in many cases, but not in mine. On top of that, for the optical disks (CD, DVD, Blu-Ray), you will still need another device. Connected TV are a nice all-in-one solution but can’t keep up with a full featured HTPC.
Those devices come with a very low price tag, around 100 USD for most. They are rather small and therefore, very easy to forget once installed. the problem I see there is that the functions are actually no better than a connected TV (although usually supports more codecs) and you are as well depending on the manufacturer for the evolution. Here again, for the optical disks (CD, DVD, Blu-Ray), you will still need another device.
Latest generation of streamers, running Android offers a whole lot more options and might actually make them interesting again. Especially with the latest port of XBMC on Android as XBMC is really the best of media center software. I’ll review this solution and update this page afterwards.
The HTPC on the other hand offer a lot of functionalities as well as a high level of customization and upgrade. The trade-off being that you have a big device beside the TV. But lately, manufacturers released small form factor PC, that are merely bigger than a DVD player. It is then what I would recommend. Price tag though is higher than a streamer, but in many cases, it is worthy to go that route.
My HTPC of Choice
Not only because I work in ARCTIC, but also because this HTPC represents what I’ve been trying to do for ages (a really silent PC), my HTPC of choice is the ARCTIC MC001. I got basically a MC001-BD but without OS. On it, I installed OpenElec and did some more tweaks to integrate it in the whole system.
Of course, choosing OpenElec has some trade-off such as no web browser, no office suite,… in short, no PC functions, just multimedia. But as we are using an iPad as remote, it can be used to browse the internet too. As for the office suite,.. well we have other PCs for that. I actually start to think that we are in a strange place now, between combining everything in one device (CD player, DVD player, Radio tuner, Video Player… can be replaced by one unique PC) but at the same time, we multiply these devices and then end up being used for one purpose only and it is not uncommon anymore to see people with 2 phones, one for phone, one for the Apps and it goes the same for the PCs… Anyway, in my case, the trade off resulting of the choice of OpenElec were accepted.
Now that it is running, the hardware choice prove to have been the right one. It is extremely silent and does the job perfectly. I can play all the movies I have, no matter the format, MKV file and all DivX plays without a problem, the HD (1080p) movies are also fully supported and flawless, I can also of course play all my music, loosy or lossless. But it also let me play my DVD collection as well as use my phone or iPad as fancy remote, much fancier that any infrared remote (I still have it in the drawer for the day I am without battery on my phone or when the phone is away).