HTPC vs Consoles, Boxee, XBMC, WMC?

GlacialTech Altair A381 Front

I love media streamers, and being an awesome technology journalist I get to review many different media streamers.  Some are good and some are awful, but I still haven’t come across the one device that does everything.

Convert this to a handy chart (name, comments, codec support (1-10), and meta-info)

Box name Comments Codec Support Disc support Meta info Netflix Hulu
Boxee Box 10 file image Y Y N
Xbox 360 5 DVDs N Y Y
Playstation 3 9 DVD, BluRay N Y Y
Box Office 10 file image N N N
XBMC 10 DVD, BluRay, file image Y Y* Y*

* Netflix and Hulu support can be added on with hacks, but have issues

  • The Boxee Box will play every format I’ve tried, but it doesn’t support Hulu, and the Netflix app is acceptable but could be better.  It also will not play Blu-ray or DVD discs (although it will read a disc image)
  • The Xbox 360 has a great Netflix and Hulu application, but won’t play most of the media formats stored on our home NAS.  Also no Blu-Ray.  Access videos at “file” level”
  • The Playstation 3 also has a great Netflix and Hulu application and plays more formats, but not as many as Boxee.  It is also loud and produces a fair amount of heat.  Does support Blu-Ray and DVDs.  Access videos at “file” level”
  • Patriot’s Box Office (review here) plays every format you can think of, but the interface is very basic, the remote is difficult to use, and has no Netflix or Hulu support.  It will play DVD images, but not discs.
  • Google TV, Appple TV, Roku, Nexus Q

I have an Intel Ion motherboard laying around, and have thought about building a new home theater PC to address the shortcomings of the other devices.  I am outfitting it with a laptop hard drive, so the device will be very quiet and only consumes about 12 watts of power (about the same as the Boxee Box).

Addressing the issues

I thought about using the Boxee client for PC, but they have stopped development on it (as of version 1.5), and there doesn’t appear to be a way to add Netflix support to it.

There’s Windows Media Center.  It has a good Netflix client, and doesn’t have native Hulu support (you have to open the Hulu desktop and switch back and forth).  WMC is also very problematic when playing MKVs (yes, I’ve tried all the hacks and tricks to make them work).

And you can’t remove the “Recorded TV” option, even though there is no capture card installed.  I use media streamers because I’m a cable cutter.  I don’t want “Recorded TV”.

Oh, and you have to access videos at the “file level”, so there’s no meta-information or indexing of TV shows like Boxee and XBMC support.

Then there’s XBMC, which is what many of the other media streamers (like Boxee) are based on.  You can add on Hulu support that works seamlessly.  Adding Netflix support is achievable, but it runs in a full-screen IE window which cannot be closed without a keyboard or special remote control.

Instead of using Windows, I thought about using the Linux version of XBMC, but there are a few drawbacks to this approach.  While it may be more stable, it won’t support Silverlight (required for Netflix), and there are no drivers for the front VFD and media control buttons of the GlacialTech Altair case (review here) I’m using.

JIT conversion.  I know it is possible to convert videos in real time and stream to other devices, but that takes a lot of power, and that also means you’ll have to have a powerful PC running all the time.  That doesn’t really fit in with the low-power principle I’m going for.

I don’t want to have to rely on an expensive Logitech Harmony remote or anything exotic like that.   The solution should be simple and all features should work seamlessly without caveats.

Those are the pros and cons I see for each of the options for the do-it-yourselfer.    Does anyone have a suggestion for the perfect Home Theater PC configuration that is low-powered, supports all video formats, has seamless Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Primesupport, and works without compromises?

Alan is a web architect, stand-up comedian, and your friendly neighborhood Grammar Nazi. You can stalk him on the Interwebs via Google+, Facebook and follow his ass on Twitter @ocmodshop.