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Overview of Home Theater on PC

Over the years, I've been putting together my home theater system based on the PC.

This article covers my trials and tribulations of setting up and maintaining a Home Theater PC (aka HTPC) with a Personal Video Recorder (PVR) that is available to all the house. In effect, this is whole-house TIVO on steroids where you are in control of your own viewing experience. Now, I'm a value-oriented guy on this. We don't watch a lot of TV, but when we do we like it to be a good experience. Also, I research the best and then buy as much as I can on special and refurbished -- i'm one of those new mega-research bargain hunting net consumerists. I also tend to purchase for the long term and try to stay small.

This is my current hardware setup:

  • Theater/Media/File Server
    • Windows XP Pro SP2
    • ASUS A7N8E-Deluxe with AMD 2800+
    • 2 x 200G SATA Hard Drives
    • ATI Radeon X1300 Pro AGP 256
    • Hauppauge PVR-500 NTSC Dual Tuner/Capture Card
    • OnAir HDTV-GT USB ATSC/QAM Tuner/Capture Device
    • GB-PVR Media Center Software
  • BenQ PB8220 DLP Projector - Not fully HDTV, but close and good for the 720p. Purchased refurbished.
  • DaLite Manual Screen 120" - cheap eBay grab!

HDTV

I was a little confused about HDTV. That may surprise a few of my friends. I wanted to add it to our home theater system. I had been putting it off, but for things like sports and then some of the better shows available, I could tell a major difference.

So, it was time to delve in. But where? Here are the more informatives sites that helped me (summarized below):

In short, all digital television (DTV) will be broadcast to your tuner (a basic tuner is built into televisions, VCRs, and such). Stations can broadcast (and must by an ever slipping deadline) a digital signal that contains various resolutions and aspect ratios and depending upon your set, it will display the best it can. There are apparently 18 various standard formats specified for the US, but three commonly used so far. HDTV is a specification for the highest (currently) resolution for DTV of 1920 x 1080 (although many broadcast in the 720 format). The i or the p commonly seen after that last number will dictate interlaced or progressive signals and has to do with the difference between how TV screens and computer monitors work. It comes up later, but don't let it confuse you yet.

The first question is can you get a DTV signal? In the US, for over-the-air (OTA) digital signals (how we used to get TV before cable), you'll need an ATSC tuner; for unscrambled digital cable, you'll need a QAM tuner (broken into two flavors of 64 or 256, but likely you don't need to worry about that spec). For scrambled digital cable, you'll need a QAM tuner that is CableCard (aka SmartCard) capable (the specification is still in limbo on this and adoption has been quite low). Most getting scrambled (pay more) digital cable use a set-top box (STB).

You can find out more of what is in your area using AntennaWeb or the AVS Forum and find the discussion for your locale. For Austin, reportedly, TW offers HDTV as part of any digital subscription (local channels, Discovery HD-Theater, TNT, A&E, MTV, some sports but no ESPN). Grande told me that they offered the local channels in HD as a part of the  basic tier of transmission. I'm not sure that I believe them, but I'll try and/or go with on-air transmissions -- whatever works. [Note: I'm hoping that when the switchover occurs that they'll all have to upgrade us to digital and put it in the lowest tiers, right? It actually behooves them to do such because even if they do that, they will open up a lot of bandwidth for additional channels without upgrading their network, and thus they can sell us additional channels, pay-per-view, etc.]

Austin OTA Digital Channels:

  • Fox 7 - 56
  • KLRU 18 - 22
  • KVUE 24 - 33
  • KXAN 36 - 21
  • KEYE 42 - 43
  • KNVA 54 - 49
  • Note: ABC, FOX, and ESPN broadcast sports events in 720p

I'm so behind the technology curve today that most DTVs now include the receiver/tuner built into it. A few years ago, that wasn't the case and the TVs were "HDTV-ready" which meant they don't have a tuner built in. With the current used market and such available, it's worth mentioning. And even if you have a QAM tuner, you'll likely need one that is CableCard ready so that you can subscribe to digital cable in the future and tune the scrambled, for-extra-pay channels without an additional STB, my preference. There are no CableCard ready tuners for PCs yet, but I expect as the standard gets finalized we'll see these.

There are three common broadcasts sizes (formats, resolutions) in the US: 480 (704x480), 720 (1280x720), and 1080 (1920x1080), although there are 18 in the specifications. Then there is the p (progressive) or i (interlaced). The p will give better pictures because it transmits better data, but i expect that most will be i -- interlaced -- since that means you can cram bigger size pictures with less resolution than with p on a set data pipe. There is a technical specification on this, but let's leave it at that. We'll see what happens in the industry. Predominantly, I see 1080i as the standard of choice. Again, HD DTV aka HDTV is the highest 1080 standard and it uses the 16:9 ratio seen in the theaters and on HDTVs as opposed to the 4:3 ratio of the old TV screens, the digital version of which is effectively 480i. Last I'd heard, ABC, ESPN, and FOX have chosen 720p.  All other networks are using 1080i. (Both of these use the same amount of data) which is about half a digital channel.

Antennas

HDTVPrimer on Antennas (some quite technical)

HDTV Tuner/Capture Cards

I actually did some searching for various NTSC (standard analog television used OTA and basic cable). In the end, I ended up with the Hauppauge PVR-500 MCE "white box" to run in my Windows XP box. It works with my gyro MCE remote/keyboard through GB-PVR and has two tuners built into it. Note that you can buy this with the MCE remote and/or the PVR-150, the single tuner version. Some have reported problems with the Samsung tuners. Mine gets a better signal than the TV next to it.

However, this section is about finding and adding an (H)DTV tuner card, and I wanted one that worked with cable DTV which required supporting QAM as well as one that worked with GB-PVR which required BDA driver support. There was only one available at the time, and luckily it was well respected. Of note, too, the Fusion card supports QAM, but not BDA, so it dropped off the list, and the VBox Cat's Eye 150/1 also got good marks, but it didn't support QAM.

  • AutumnWave OnAir HDTV-GT USB - Does it all for US (NTSC, ATSC and QAM). QAM supported via BDA, $160-170 street. This ended up being my pick because GB-PVR can control it via BDA and it otherwise was well respected.
  • Vbox Cats Eye 150/151 - BDA drivers, No QAM, Great Signal - 84dBm, well respected, not expensive, works well with GB-PVR - Found with remote and "white box"
  • Fusion HDTV 5 (or 3, see note below) (128 TV, 69 DTV) - Lite, Gold versions - LG Tuner, QAM but via WDM not BDA so GBPVR doesn't support it, NOT 64-bit compatible, some Fusions may have QAM support
  • AverMedia A180 (not impressed with last AverMedia, but may be alright, may have multipath signal issues) - $80, No QAM
  • MyHD - supposedly QAM, BDA?
  • Others that didn't make the quick cut: Airstar HD5000, KWORLD ATSC-100 (no hardware encoding)
  • ATI HDTV Wonder (doesn't support multiple tuners, although may in the future)

Some additional notes: The Fusion 5's use a LG Innotek TDVS-H062F NIM ...which consists of a Infineon Taifun TUA6034 tuner/pll, a Philips tda9887 (analog) demodulator, and a LG DT3303 (digital) demodulator. The DT3303 is LG's fifth generation demodulator. Fusion 3's used several two different combinations: Both the original Fusion 3 Gold and the subsequent Fusion 3 Gold QAM used a Temic/Microtune 4042 tuner and an external LG DT3302A (digital) demodulator ....can't recall what the analog demodulator was...The DT3302A was LG's fourth generation demodulator. The later Fusion 3 Gold QAM-T switched to a Thomson DTT7611 tuner and an external LG DT3302A.

PVR Software

You also need software to run the danged thing, too. All hardware devices come with some basically semi-functional software to view TV and maybe even record (capture) to your hard drive, and a few come with full or SE ("special edition" -- read limited) versions of solid PVR software. There is some freeware and open-source versions, including some for Macs and Linux (MythTV) as well as windows. Maybe some day.... I've been using GB-PVR because it seems to have the largest user base, but it's not open-source nor . Here are some I've found (credit to this page):

Video Cards

I needed to look at newer video cards for the HDTV so that I didn't get tearing. My GeForce 3800 just wasn't cutting it anymore for even analog and some DVD movies, so I needed to get an upgraded card to work with the system. Which to choose? Remember that HDTV uses about 1.5 Mbps of data -- about a full T1 of data. You need a video card that can keep up with the data stream. Then there is the question of nVidia PureVideo vs. ATI Radeon (most cards from many manufacturers built on their chips). It's almost a religious discussion. Some people don't like PureVideo, others had to fiddle around more with the ATI drivers and other tweaks or substitute drivers. It seemed confusing to me; I can only imagine what it's like for my luddite friends.

Here are the basic comparison charts: nVidia (another) | ATI

More is better overall (and according to my friend, too much is just about right), although the best one to look at is the data transfer since most have high refresh rates and such. Then you have to look at cooling those chips because they run hot like your main CPU and have major heat transfer devices for them now.

I started looking at the ATI X series and the nVidia 6800 as the baselines for each. Because this is video, you don't need to worry about the 3D capabilities that is all the rage now. But you do want support for DirectX 9 as that is the best renderer from what I understand. However, if you plan to play advanced games on it, then you'll want to address 3D support and things like DirectX 9.0c (or 10) support, but these come with their own cooling problems and require noisy air coolers (and I've seen some water coolers, too).

I found some reference video links at the Microsoft Windows Media High Definition Showcase. Try running a 720p and look for where your card can't keep up. Or try the 1080p for a real test of the full bandwidth needs for HD. Can yours keep up? Mine couldn't either. And that isn't even the display needs for the best new games which are more demanding. Imagine that, eh? However, games isn't my need, so I don't need the latest expensive technology.

Sound Cards

I needed a better sound card to go to my surround sound amplification system. It was time for a 96-kHz multichannel card/system. Or was it?

The saddest part to this whole story is that now I'm gonna need a true 1080 projector, but I certainly can't afford that yet. I'm on a budget!

 

 


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