Up until very recently, I had been able to remain faithful to my home-theater PC. Well, that’s not entirely true. I’ve gone through a small handful of HTPC iterations over the decade or so that I’ve had computers hooked up across from my couch. With network connections to my vast collection of MP3s and video content, TV tuners capable of recording cable and over-the-air broadcasts, and enough horsepower to handle a smattering of casual games, these systems have been my primary source of living-room entertainment. Although I’ve owned a couple of Xbox consoles and have been know to plug more powerful rigs into my TV for bouts of serious gaming, the overwhelming majority of what’s displayed on the screen comes from my home-theater PC.
Or it did, anyway.
A couple of weeks ago, I upgraded my TV service to expand on the measly four over-the-air HD channels accessible with my homebrew attic antenna. I contemplated dropping television service entirely and subsisting on torrent downloads and streaming sources alone. However, asinine region locks prevent a lot of streaming content from migrating to Canada, and online sports coverage is pretty thin overall. To get the essentials, which for me includes an admittedly odd combination of basketball, hockey, mixed martial arts, and professional cycling, paying a flat monthly rate is by far the easiest option. And it saves me from having to download episodes of Bachelor Pad and Grey’s Anatomy to keep my girlfriend happy.
Telus, my new TV provider, offers its own PVR with the Optik service I have now. You wouldn’t think I’d need it, what with four tuners inside my current HTPC, but none of them can decode the encrypted signal that comes from my provider. Making matters worse, none of the television providers in Canada support the CableCARD decryption implementations available elsewhere in the world.
Now, instead of being able to feed the entirety of my non-gaming entertainment through my home-theater PC, I’ve been forced to take on a piece of consumer electronics to manage the televised side of the equation. I suppose it’s appropriate, then, that this particular set-top experience feels as antiquated as the concept of broadcast television itself.
In a word, it’s lousy.
Let’s start with the guide, which is stupid enough to display the full range of available channels—music included—whether or not my particular plan is capable of accessing them. Trimming the channel selection manually is incredibly tedious, in part because I shouldn’t have to, but mostly because the user interface is generally sluggish and unresponsive. Scrolling through the guide takes forever, and it feels like there’s some latency between the remote and the cable box. The menus don’t flow with the sort of fluidity I’d expect from a modern interface, especially when this one is entirely devoid of anything that could remotely be called eye candy.
I’m sure there are better cable boxes out there, but I didn’t have a choice. I suppose I’m spoiled, too, coming from a history of XBMC, BeyondTV, and Windows’ own built-in Media Center software. I was using XBMC back when it was called Xbox Media Player and ran exclusively on Microsoft’s first console. Even then, the interface was superior to a lot of what I see in living rooms today.
In its latest revision, XBMC is a true wonder. That’s the best part of this whole TV upgrade, in fact. I’ve been using Windows Media Center for the past few years because my girlfriend only wanted to deal with a single interface to handle music, video, picture, and PVR duties. XBMC doesn’t play the PVR game, and now that I don’t need to, the open-source marvel can make a triumphant return to my big-screen TV.
Windows 7’s Media Center component does a decent job of integrating HTPC basics under one roof, but it’s no XBMC. To start, XBMC is free—truly so, because it’s available for both Linux and as a standalone Live version that runs solely off a bootable thumb drive. Short of recording TV streams, XBMC does everything Windows Media Center can do. The interface is prettier and snappier, though, and XBMC serves up far more configuration options. You also get stoner-friendly Milkdrop visualization plugins, broader codec support, and a host of free add-ons covering everything from YouTube browsing to remote programming.
I’m still getting my XBMC config dialed in, but I’m really impressed at how slick it’s become, especially since it runs so well on cheap, ultra-mini nettops like Zotac’s Zbox Nano AD10. I never considered nettops for my own HTPC because I’d always needed multiple tuners on board. The Nano can cover all the bases my home-theater PC does now, though, and that includes pumping out smooth frame rates in an awful lot of casual games. Valve’s new couch-friendly GUI for Steam can’t come soon enough.
Thanks to new nettop graphics solutions with solid HD video decoding in addition to capable 3D horsepower, diminutive PCs have become much more appealing for the living room. I’m not talking about the expensive, ill-conceived towers Microsoft tried to push with its original Media Center Edition of Windows—the technology now exists to put fully functional PCs with rich multimedia capabilities into palm-sized chassis that don’t cost more than a few hundred dollars.
The potential market is huge. Every year, it seems I get more and more people asking me how to get content from their laptops onto their TVs, be it picture slideshows from a vacation, YouTube clips from FPS Russia, or the latest season of commercial-free programming downloaded with BitTorrent. A long HDMI cable will do in a pinch, but as downloads and online sources become the primary source of entertainment for a lot of folks, there’s a good case to be made for a more permanent fixture in the living room.
In the past, I’ve recommended purpose-built devices like WD’s TV Live Hub, which have the benefit of costing $200 or less. Modern game consoles have plenty of baked-in multimedia capabilities, too. But neither of those solutions offers anything close to the flexibility of a basic home-theater PC, which you’re of course free to equip with enough grunt to put consoles games to shame.
The more I think about it, the more I need to be recommending that people spend just a little bit more to get a proper PC. Desktops are as good as dead in most households, making the living room the safest refuge for a stationary PC. Even friends and family who have long since moved to notebooks as their primary machines could still use a home PC to house shared data, host backups, and provide living-room entertainment.
Unlike desktops, which must compete with notebooks, tablets, and even smartphones to handle everyday tasks like email and web browsing, home-theater PCs need only to worry about set-top boxes and consoles. The tablet-and-smartphone revolution isn’t a threat to the massive flat panels in our living rooms, but the solutions that drive them should take notes on what has made the best touchscreen devices so popular. Interfaces are everything—not just how they look, but how fluidly they flow. Windows 8’s stylish and snappy Metro UI already looks like it would translate nicely if accessed from across the room on the couch, and the OS will run on the sort of ARM hardware that could challenge the definition of what constitutes a home-theater PC while further lowering the asking price.
I’m not so much concerned with semantics. All I know is there are a lot of different players vying for a slice of the living room. Giants like Apple, Google, Nintendo, and Sony all have an interest in ensuring that the PC doesn’t take root under your television, and so does Microsoft’s Xbox division. The PC may be the most desirable entertainment platform right now, but it will have to continue to evolve to stave off challenges from devices that are ultimately less capable.
With a fundamental transformation already well underway in the mobile world, the next computing revolution will surely be televised. The question is what sort of device will be streaming the footage to your TV.