Archive for the ‘Home Theater’ Category

HTPC – Windows 7 Configuration Part 1

It has been about six months since I went totally to OTA-HD antenna, Netflix and Internet for my video feeds. I have not regretted the decision one bit. Even if Satellite or Cable TV companies decided to cut their prices 80% to make them competitive (LOL) I still wouldn’t go back. It’s just way too convenient and more akin to my viewing habits to find things on-line now. I’m exposed to so much new content that I never would have watched if I was still dependent on what my Satellite provider decided to supply.

So, as a follow up to my previous post, I have decided to make this post to help detail the settings I have done to Windows 7 to make it a better HTPC. After convincing some family and friends to try out this method, I realized some of them needed help getting their OS configured to work well as a media center. I recommend restricting your HTPC to serve as a media center only. This means don’t install wordprocessors, spreadsheets, databases, etc on the machine unless it is needed to maintain your HTPC. I don’t do much PC gaming, I prefer dedicated consoles, so there are no games installed on my HTPC either. Keep it clean and simple, because if that machine goes down, so does your TV!

Here is what is installed on my HTPC: Anti-Virus with Firewall, Picasa for Photos, DVDDecrypter and DVDShrink for DVD backups, Handbrake to convert videos to MKV, VLC Media Player to playback media (audio and video), and some other smaller programs used for maintaining the system. That’s it!

Now, here are some recommendations for the OS setup. First, you don’t want the HTPC running as admin all the time, so first thing you do is create an HTPC user account with no password, as shown in this tutorial. and then make Windows login with that account on bootup. Follow this guide.

This way, all you have to do if things get slow or lock up, just reboot and the system will come back up in the correct state. I do this about once a week or so. Of course, if you haven’t already done so within WMC, go to settings and make sure to check “Start Windows Media Center when Windows starts”. This will always bring windows into DVR mode. Also in that same settings window, tell WMC to re-organize your database regularly, at 4am or something like that when no one is using the system. This will help keep your media library organized.

In addition to Netflix that is integrated into the Media Center Movies by default, you can Integrate Hulu Desktop as another alternative to Netflix. Hulu is really good for streaming some basic cable shows and major network stuff. It’s kind of like on-demand. You need to sign up for an account, but just get the free one to test it out. You can schedule recordings in Hulu just like you would on the DVR. The link below will put an icon within Media Center to launch Hulu Desktop from the home page of WMC.

Outside of the built-in Media Center capabilities of this system for HD OTA signal recording and Media Guide, I soon found that the use of a web-browser for real-time streaming is a big plus. I hadn’t expected the content of streaming sites to be as good as they are. The stream I use are nearly as good as SD Satellite or Cable for the most part, and many come close to HD quality. For example, the stuff on Comedy Central is great, and mostly unedited too, which is cool for South Park.

First, install VLC if you haven’t already for video playback and set it for default instead of Windows Media Player. VLC works much better with a bunch of media types. If you find some files won’t play, you need Codecs. I recommend the K-lite codec packs … there are many versions depending on your needs. I just used the standard pack and it covers all files I can find. Make note there are 32-bit and 64-bit versions, and if you use Win7-64 you’ll need to install both.

Finally, get a bulk downloader to help with downloading your files. I use jdownloader. You’ll need a downloader program to help get files that are stored in multiple parts like you’ll find in some forums. The final step is to find some streaming media sites … and I won’t link to them from here since some are a bit suspect in their origins. It’s not hard to find forums though, and a simple Google search should find plenty for you to use. One suggestion, if you search for encodes, make sure to include “720p” as part of the search term if you want to get the best quality.

OK, that’s it for Part 1 … I’ll pick up more in a bit.

Home Theater PC

After years of dedicated Satellite access, we decided to see if we can make the move to OTA-HDTV (Over the Air High Definition Television).  We realized that although some of the specialty shows on HBO and Showtime were part of our usual DVR addiction, we didn’t really watch the rest of the premium channels all that much.  In addition, like many Americans we’re trying to cut our monthly expenses, and it was getting hard for us to justify the $165 TV bill. We already have a 12Mbps DSL link so we’re not hurting for access to the Internet for streaming content.

I started doing some research to find out what was needed to get the OTA TV signals in my area, and do some sort of DVR functionality.  Also, we signed up for NetFlix, and for $9 we get nearly all the premium channel shows that we like to watch, albeit a season or so behind.  To be honest, it wasn’t all that important for us to be up to the minute on True Blood. 😀

The first step to the OTA setup was getting an antenna to pick up the signals.  Lucky for me, I looked in the crawl space in my basement and found a huge antenna that a previous owner had left behind, a Radio Shack VU-190XR.  I did some research on it, and found it should be able to pick up the transmissions for all of the local channels I watch (ABC, NBC, CBS, CW, FOX) although it wasn’t exactly highly rated on HDTV Antenna Labs.  I didn’t want to mount my antenna on the outside of the house or on my property because of concerns with HOA restrictions, and to just keep the eyesores to a minimum.  I decided to install the antenna in my attic, as we are pretty high up on a hill, and there are no big buildings between us and the TV Transmitters that are nearby.  I went to the HDTV Antenna Alignment page and got the coordinates for my area. Almost all the channels I want are in the same general direction. So, after a couple of hours assembling the antenna in my attic, climbing up and down a couple of times to check I was getting signal, I had the first step completed … free signals acquired. One thing I should mention, if you have cable TV or Satellite coax running through your attic already, you should be able to splice into it and re-use it for sending the OTA signal down to your TV.  I had already pulled coax from my satellite dish through the attic to a TV in the master bedroom. So, I just cut into that cable and re-used it for my antenna.  That saved me a lot of time.

Once I got the HDTV signal captured in the attic and sent down to my TV, I needed a way to record content to DVR system.  I decided the best device for me would be a purpose built Windows7 machine.  I had an old case lying around and I have my sound components in a different room from my TV, so I don’t have to worry about sound or heat coming from the HTPC. Some new hardware is available for reasonable prices that didn’t exist when that article was written, so I upgraded the CPU to an AMD Phenom II X4 910e 2.6GHz 65W … four cores and only 65Watts of power makes this an awesome chip for an HTPC.

The reason I built a new machine is because I already have a lot of content encoded into DIVX and XVID format.  I have movies stored on DVD and watch them with a DVD player that can read those formats.  I thought it would be a good chance to improve on that setup, ditch the DVDs, and just use a PC to serve up my archives.  I have to say that the Windows Media Center system works great.  I know there are many alternatives and by all means do what you’re most comfortable with, but for me it was nearly plug and play, thanks to a special box that transfers my OTA signal to Ethernet.

The secret to making the OTA HDTV signals available to all of my TVs is in a small box called the HD HomeRun Dual. This awesome device takes an OTA HDTV or unencrypted cable feed and puts it out an Ethernet port so that a Media Center PC can pick up the stream and encode it. I took my OTA cable and split it into three different runs, sending two feeds to the HD HomeRun and one directly to my TV. This gives me two encoders for the Media Center, and one feed directly to the TV. It’s a lot like my old DirecTV DVR … I can record two channels, or record one and watch another on Media Center, but I also have the third option of watching live TV directly. My Plasma Hitachi 55HDX99 has a built in HDTV decoder, so it can take a direct antenna feed. I assume most newer TVs can do the same. An interesting thing I found is that the shows that I watch directly OTA are better quality than the Hi-Def channels I used to get on Satellite.  Another bonus.

With the HDHomeRun putting the OTA signal on the network, I can use any network connected device in my house to plug-in to that feed, or use the built in Media Center protocols to watch programming that is saved on the HTPC.  My wife and I have our laptops setup to connect to the HTPC so we can watch our saved shows, and I also bought a Western Digital WDTV Live Plus box for the master bedroom. This device is the final piece that serves to connect regular TVs to the media streams on the HTPC. I didn’t have an Ethernet jack in the master bedroom, so I bought a USB WiFi dongle that plugs in to the WDTV and gets me connected wirelessly to my network. I was thinking ahead a few years ago and bought a dual-band wireless router Linksys WRT610N so that I can have two wireless networks running in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz range.  I keep the 2.4 reserved for laptops and handhelds that run 802.11G, and use the 5GHz band for 802.11N systems.  I had to do a little digging to find which USB WiFi adapter would work with the WDTV, but found a forum post that said the Linksys WUSB600N was on the approved list. Bonus that it was available from Amazon for $24 refurbished!

Not that it’s all up and running, I really have no complaints.  Sure, we have to do a bit of digging around to find things on websites to fill in the missing content that we used to have on 600+ satellite channels, but the reality is that most of that stuff is available online somewhere.  Most major cable network shows can now be watched in near high-def directly on their websites.  I guess I spent about $500 acquiring all the parts I needed to get this running … here’s a list of everything from my “buy list”.

OTA to Ethernet:
SiliconDust HDHomeRun HDHR-US

HTPC Hardware:
Gigabyte GA-MA785GMT-UD2H Micro ATX Motherboard
AMD Phenom II X4 910e 2.6GHz 65W
Extra Disk Storage – Western Digital 2 TB Caviar Green SATA Hard Drive
IOGear Multimedia Keyboard
Media Center PC Remote Control

WDTV Live Plus:
Western Digital WD TV Live Plus HD Media Player
Cisco-Linksys Refurbished Wireless-N USB Adapter

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