Hands On: Building a Home Theatre PC

- January 5th, 2010

Acer AspireRevo R3610

Over the holidays, I decided to make a project of building a home theatre PC. HTPC’s are exactly as they sound – computers that connect to your big screen/home theatre. In my case, I have an amazing Pioneer plasma display that was practically begging to be connected to a computer!

I settled on the Acer AspireRevo R3610 nettop computer, an incredibly slim device and it found a home on top of my home theatre cabinet. The beauty of this nettop is that it includes Nvidia’s Ion graphics processor – which allows the computer to stream high-definition content without overloading the system, which is common on the nettop’s svelte netbook cousin.

The R3610 has an HDMI port, which means you only need one cable for video and audio. In my case, I connected it to an HDMI switcher that fed into my AV receiver. Translation: I ran out of ports on the receiver and the switcher gave me an additional five ports for future expansion.

After connecting the hardware, I proceeded to setup the operating system (Windows 7 Home Premium 64) and the associated software. Windows 7 is a pleasure to use and felt very snappy on the R3610 thanks to the 4GB of memory. I used the included wireless keyboard and mouse to get started.

I found that the included WiFi wasn’t fast enough for streaming, so I ended up using an external Linksys USB dongle with an extension cable, placed as close to my router as possible. Since I live in a loft, the dongle is on the first floor and the router on the second. Thankfully I was able to get a 200+ megabit per second connection, which allows me to stream high-definition content from my Linksys media server. The included WiFi radio is probably good enough if you just want to stream audio, pictures and non-HD video to your television.

So what does it take to watch/listen to all of this content? Thankfully not a whole lot more than Windows Media Centre, which is part of Windows 7 Home Premium. Media Centre gives you an elegant, easy to use front-end for content. Simply tell the software where you keep your various media and it allows you to access your content with little fuss. I also installed some extra audio/video codecs for smooth playback of some HD content, which Media Centre may not do out of the box. By the by, codecs are essentially extra drivers that help improve audio/video playback. 

This was also a very opportune time to build an HTPC as Adobe recently released a beta version of their popular Flash software, which adds hardware-based video acceleration. What this means is that lower-end nettops and netbooks can now view HD content that doesn’t stutter or look choppy. Of course the R3610 has the Nvidia Ion for this functionality and I was pleasantly surprised at how well it worked, given that the driver is still in beta. HD content from various sites streamed flawlessly at full screen with no hiccups.

Finally, I had to find an easy way to control the computer from the couch. Using an infrared USB dongle, I was able to program my Logitech Harmony universal remote to control all of Media Centre’s functions. I can easily browse and access all of my music, photos and videos.

After some hardware and software tweaks, I now have an easy-to-use and cost-effective HTPC that works great for browsing the web or watching movies on the big screen. Note that it took some time to get my Harmony remote 100% in control of Windows Media Centre. You may also encounter driver issues if you use a 64 bit version of Windows as some older hardware may not be compatible – yet.

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12 comments

  1. Steve Jamieson | January 5, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    I am so jealous.. this sounds like a great setup.

    Can you offer any advice for my setup ? I can’t seem to get it working.

    Issue 1: Have a Dell – P4 – 1.4 – 256MB ram ( i know :( )
    Issue 2: Need to stream by WIFI ( cables are not a option )

    - Freshly formatted Windows XP box with upnp enabled to see my Imac share.

    Tried installing Boxee and Xbmc and I am still having a problem streaming the video. Perhaps I have a lemon and it just won’t do it. But I have read online that you should be able to do this with old CPU’s. Maybe Linux ?

  2. Jesse Michaels | January 5, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    Steve,

    I think the first issue is the memory – even using XP, 256MB probably will not do the trick. Perhaps try Linux but I suspect you will run into the same issues when trying to stream video.

    A ram upgrade or perhaps a nettop like the Acer might be in order if you have the cash :)

  3. Tom | January 5, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    I really do not understand why people go out and buy a PC. Here is my setup, and I don’t get ANY choppiness or anything. NONE. I am extremely picky and I even have problems when a background is blocky. As a matter of fact I went to the extent and have dubbed my entire DVD collection +100 movies and automatically move over TV shows that I recorded since I have a TV tuner in my PC.

    I use the following:
    Playstation 3
    My home, gaming PC (Quad core, 8GB ram)
    PS3 Media Server (free) w/Microsoft Media Sharing as backup

    I have all my photos, music, dvd’s and blurays all available not to mention I have internet feeds from Youtube and various other online Internet TV and Radio Stations…

    I bought an Xbox (original) used from EB games for $59 and hacked it easily and it provides the same thing to my other widescreen in the basement.

    What’s this buy me? I watch near-100% DVD + bluray movies, without the stupid menu’s and other marketing crap they throw on them, just move my controller down the list which shows me the media art for all my music and movies and select what I want. I don’t have to inject CD’s or anything.

    I can stream at high bit rate because I am hooked up to a Cisco Linksys WRT610 router (which I might add also does media server functionality.) hard wired to my PS3. Wireless doesn’t cut it and most rookies will try this.

    I have had friends and family over and for comparison we threw the original media in on my other DVD player that literally never gets used anymore and nobody could spot a difference. Since I have over 4 TB of space I can put any amount of stuff on.

    There is no need for another PC, or to hook anything up to your PC other than the cable from your Xbox 360 or PS3. Buying an extra PC to do this to me is just a complete and utter waste of money. Does it buy you anything in terms of saving time or money? No.

    I just think this article is very rookie and not at all cost effective or time saving.

    Not only this, but I can stream to literally ANY device in my household with ZERO rammifications to performance. Hell, my wife plays games online while I am waiting a dubbed-bluray.

  4. Jesse Michaels | January 5, 2010 at 3:45 pm

    Tom -

    Hardwired Ethernet is not an option for me so it has to be wifi, something you will find common for many folks. It is anything but a “rookie” mistake.

    I also have a PS3 and attempted to use it as a media centre – again via wifi and found the experience very frustrating.

    I’m also using the WRT610N and guess what? Wifi HD streaming is great.

    The AspireRevo 3610 is a very affordable computer and makes a perfect HTPC – wired or wifi.

    You might want to take a step back before criticizing what works well for others.

  5. Hylton Ferreira | January 6, 2010 at 12:39 am

    Hi Jessie…thank you for this post…I’ve wanted to do this for quite a while but the cost ramifications kept me from going ahead…I have a Sony Vaio that I want to connect to my HDTv…I have heard about the PS3 option before…my son has a PS3 but I do not want to take that route…the wireless option sounds good to me altogether…what else do I need except for the router to get this working…is there an entertainment package available that will cut out some of the hassle?

  6. Steve Jamieson | January 6, 2010 at 8:14 am

    Thanks for the advice Jesse.

    I kind of had the feeling that this Dell was a lemon. I am afraid that my memory upgrade options are limited to what the dell can handle. I will have to do some spec searching to see if it’s even worth my while.

    As for Tom and the “Rookie” comment, I wouldn’t say Jesse or myself are rookies. I have been involved with IT for 15 plus years, and have been tinkering away with home media devices ever since then. And only since WIFI became such a widely used technology have I been able to make the hard decisions. Not every house has a perfectly connected “Wired” solution.

    On the other hand I also have a old XBOX that happens to have a mysterous “upgrade” that allows for playing media. Problem here is that the old Xbox is ethernet only. And I need a Wifi solution.

    But the spousal approval needs to be considered too.

    I am afraid I will be left with little to no options but running freaking wires all over my house.

    Help ?

  7. Jesse Michaels | January 6, 2010 at 9:01 am

    Hylton -

    Does the Vaio have a DVI or HDMI port? If DVI, you could get a DVI-HDMI cable for your HDTV – if it has HDMI port. You would also need to connect an audio cable if you go the DVI-HDMI route as it only carries video.

    I don’t know of a specific entertainment package, other than buying or building a new HTPC.

  8. Jesse Michaels | January 6, 2010 at 9:07 am

    Steve -

    You might want to consider a Powerline/Homeplug solution – this would give you enough bandwidith to stream HD – more here:

    http://www.getconnectedmedia.com/blog/hercules-eplug-powerline-adaptors-coming-canada-early-2010

  9. Steve Jamieson | January 7, 2010 at 7:35 am

    I’ve given up. This Dell is 9 years old and it doesn’t seem worth the effort. Plus I can’t even get Windows Media player working on it correctly.

    That ePlug-Powerline is a really cool product, and I do plan on purchasing that when they come to Canada.

    Jesse have you had any experience with Boxee devices or media center packages like those from HP and Western Digital ?

  10. Jesse Michaels | January 7, 2010 at 9:53 am

    I haven’t had experience with Boxee but I did briefly install the XBMC front end but it just didn’t “click”.

    I am quite impressed with Windows Media Centre 7 as a front end and am in the process of tweaking it – lots of great plugins and of course it comes bundled with Win 7 Home Premium.

  11. Travis | January 8, 2010 at 10:39 am

    I actually tried using Windows Media Center as part of my HTPC. I built my own machine which isn’t much bigger than a VCR, but is small, quiet, and powerful and capable of doing far more than just playing video.

    I digress; I didn’t like Windows Media Center as the front end for my video capabilities. For one thing, it’s lousy with DRM if you use it to record telivision, and if you use .mpg, .mkv or .avi files on it – you can’t add .srt subtitles into the video. I’m deaf, so subtitles are a MUST.

    Instead I use GomPlayer and it works wonderfully. Albeit not as all encompassing as Windows Media Player, but until they remove DRM, and .srt support… Windows Media Player is getting the thumbs DOWN from me.

  12. Jesse Michaels | January 11, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    Wondering if anyone has tried the Boxee Beta or XBMC as a front end?

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