Setting Up Windows Home Theater PC


Prepare yourself!

Setting up a Home Theater PC used to be a huge ordeal. Before Windows Media Center (and other all-inclusive media software), configuring a HTPC was an ongoing project as there were no standard or tested methods on achieving stability or automation. Getting a PC to ran as simply and reliably as an appliance has always been the goal of any Media PC enthusiast.

Home Theater PC enthusiasts started the trend several years ago as a way to get professional home theater features without expensive (and expansive) appliances. HTPC users were the first to enjoy progressive-scan DVD, upscaled video, MP3 jukeboxes, and PVR features before the rest of the industry. Although these features were eventually available to the consumer via home theater appliances, the HTPC is the only real “all-in-one” package. Many people still love their HTPCs, even though they haven’t been as bullet-proof as consumer appliances.

Microsoft’s Windows Media Center 2005 was the answer to a lot of our prayers, as it offered a relatively stable media experience and provided advanced media features. Sure, it had its problems, but we were willing to live with them because the PC consolidated a rack full of equipment down to one box.

Now Windows Vista is here, and along with it a brand new Media Center. Previously Media Center 2005 was officially licensed to OEMs (and for good reason, because it was a lot harder to configure). Vista’s Media Center resolves most of these configuration issues, even with third-party “beta” drivers.

I have discovered several pitfalls when using Vista as a Media Center, and have finally resolved them through trial and error. This article is the result of my experience and informs you how to configure a stable Media Center PC.

Preparing the hardware

Many media PC enthusiasts want their equipment to look and behave like official home theater equipment. PVRs and game consoles, after all, are nothing more than computers, but have achieved wide acceptance as HT appliances. Your box should be silent, have a professional look, and should operate without a keyboard and mouse… failing to do so adversely affects the SAF (Spousal Acceptance Factor) and will have your wife nagging you to buy a “real” Tivo.

There are several PC enclosures that fit the bill, but there are many more that are cheap or don’t have professional features. At a minimum I would look at cases that had a front VFD display at a minimum (LCDs tend to have viewing angle problems, and don’t look like consumer equipment IMO). The case should also have at least two front USB ports and one Firewire port. The other features are up to personal preference, but I would recommend that the case have a volume knob, a stealthed DVD drive door (preferably centered), “official” looking case feet, and an aluminum bezel. Antec’s Lifestyle Fusion HT cases are very nice, but you really can’t go wrong with a Silverstone or D-Vine cases.

I have 4 home theater PCs running, and the Silverstone GD01MX Grandia has some of the best features (although I like the look of the Silverstone LC16 better: I’m just a sucker for centered DVD drives).