Using Your PC in a Home Theater – The Dawn of a New Age For Entertainment

What could be better than relaxing at home watching a film, browsing the Internet for sites of interest, listening to your favorite music, watching your favorite TV show either live or recorded from digital High Definition TV or spending a couple of hours whacking your enemy, the Horde, in World of Warcraft. Once upon a time you needed at least half a dozen different expensive items of hardware in your home to do this, but not any more.

It’s a truism now to say that readers of newspapers and magazines are down while online based news, reviews and entertainment are up. Even more true its proving far more resilient in these tough and turbulent times than traditional media. Computer entertainment is so engaging and involving. You can immerse yourself in a virtual world of an alternate reality it’s no surprise it’s proving very attractive and growing an ever larger community.

What is an HTPC?

The Home Theater PC is just that, a PC which is capable of also serving as a home theater system. You can use it to:

Watch films on Blu-Ray, DVD or HD-DVD, or directly off the disk storage in your PC
Watch live digital or analogue, terrestrial, cable or satellite TV (known as DVB-T, DVB-C and DVB-S, or for HD content DVB-T2, DVB-C2 and DVB-S2)
Listen to high quality music from CD, DVD-Audio, SACD or High Definition audio on Blu-Ray
To manage your own personal video (H.264 or MPEG4) and photograph collections
To manage your own music collection in MP3, record off your CD collection or directly from the Internet through Spotify or a similar channel
Browse the Internet or your emails
Do your office word-processing or financial admin
Play PC games and simulators with wireless motion controllers and game pads
Because of its incredible versatility the PC can do everything you’d expect of a PC and all the functions of a high end powerful Home Theater setup. Modern advances in monitors, keyboards and mice also mean they are very useable from the comfort of your living room. No need to tuck it all away in your home office.

Why is an HTPC better than a BluRay player, or specialized device?

Recent reviews in specialist magazines of high end Home Theater PC’s have demonstrated that the PC’s compute power and upgrade flexibility give it the capability to quickly adopt emerging standards and surpass the performance of a dedicated device. Typically a dedicated device will use relatively long in the tooth trusted and reliable old technology. Utilising processors from five or so years ago when a modern video card for example has over a Teraflop of compute power to bring to dedicate to the process of decoding Blu-Ray content and displaying it in the best possible quality, frame after frame.

De-mystifying the common techno-babble

Rarely have there been so many standards and acronyms and consequentially misinformation tied up with what is essentially a very simple task. From the viewers or listeners perspective all they want to do is watch a film or listen to music, or both. We don’t care how it’s stored, what cable it comes out of, how it’s encoded or copyright protected etc. All the acronyms and technical specs you see are really about these things and understanding what they relate to makes it very easy to work out what matters and what doesn’t. So let’s divide these up into categories and see what there is, and what we really need. After this background it will be easier to understand what you need your Home Theater PC to do and why.

Copyright protection: There are a variety of standards but for the HD broadcasts or pre-recorded content HDCP is the one you want to make sure your Home Theater system is compliant with. That means everything in the system; the player, monitor, Digital Signal Processors (DSP) and receivers. Anything that isn’t HDCP compliant won’t understand the bitstream and so won’t be able to play the audio or video content. It’s designed this way to make it hard to make unauthorized copies of copy protected content. For delayed live TV recordings the standard allows temporary storage by the PVR (Personal video Recorder) unit for up to 90minutes.

Physical connection/interface: All media is now recorded digitally and the best way to get digital content to a digital display or audio device is digitally. So where possible you want to avoid converting your signal to and from digital and analogue, every conversion results in some degradation in quality. Hence why almost all displays now use either HDMI or DVI as both are digital interfaces and comfortably support 1080 lines of display as required for High Definition (1080p). HDMI has the advantage that it also supports 7.1 audio channels as well, so one neat lead from your HTPC to your TV can transmit both the audio and video content. Most manufacturers also provide DVI to HDMI converters with their graphics cards. The cards also have what are sometimes called HD or S-Video output sockets.

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