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I'm ready to join the HTPC (home theater pc) revolution - what to get?

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I've gone through both ends of the process, and I can say that while I had a desktop equivalent, I rarely used it to its full potential.  For a while, it was fun being able to game on my 46" screen.  But once the novelty wore off, all I was really doing was watching movies/tv, listening to music, and browsing the internet.  And it was loud, even though I had a silverstone power supply and case, which are made for HTPCs.

My sub $200 mini computer was quiet, small, and did everything I asked of it.  It played games, but not the more powerful ones.  But with 2 24" monitors on my desktop, I didn't miss it.  In the end, I was making excuses to use the power that was there, again, all I did was watch movies/tv, listen to music, and browse the internet.

My settop box plays movies/tv, music, and browses the internet.  It doesn't require anything in the way of maintenance.  It's quiet, and I don't miss the power.

I'm pretty much decided that for the tv, my use case is only settop boxes from now on.

Sounds right to me wraith.

I guess we should really acknowledge that there are at least 3 different approaches one could take:

1. A minimalist, small closed set top box; these can be picked up for less than $100, do not have optical drives, are preloaded with software, are silent and low energy, and are intended to have just enough power to run their software; they are meant to be as close to consumer devices as possible -- that it, you aren't expected to spend 2 weeks hacking and installing your own custom tools.  They usually have minimal memory and small hard drives, etc -- so you would plug in an external drive or connect to a network for large media storage.

2. A custom built small silent quiet htpc box -- like the beauty that dc member Dirhael posted about earlier in this thread.  The goal there is to build a machine with the power you need to do what you plan to do with it.  it can have an optical drive, large hard drive, etc.  Whatever you need.  But the goal is to built it as small and low power as you can live with to achieve a desired form faction, quietness, and low energy and cost.  With such a custom system you would install the OS and software of your choice and maintain it -- whether that's windows, linux, android, etc.

3. A big full-power desktop class machine (fit into a small box).  The goal here is maximum flexibility and power, in exchange for a higher cost, higher energy consumption and heat, more noise, bigger form factor case (perhaps cheaper components if you go with a standard size case).  With this kind of machine you have the ability to do anything.. the question is whether you actually have things to do that will benefit from that much power.

re: the small android devices.  i have one (mk808b), it will struggle with true HD files badly.  And playback of even lesser HD files like 720p can be a problem.  I tried it for one day and never used it again.

wraith, i'm having a hard time with your terminology.  what is your difference between a desktop box and a settop box?  i consider anything that runs normal windows or a user-installable OS a "full desktop".  are you referring to just the form factor?

my gigantic tower i use for an htpc is, for sure, way overkill and somewhat noisy (i.e. not silent), but it is using 5 year old parts.  but even before then, I was using a desktop tower from 2002 (yup!).  This is up until this year, 2013.  And with XP running on it, it was equally powerful for most video and music purposes.  because like wraith says, for video, audio, and internet browsing, there's only so much benefit to power.  but the full desktop experience is still ideal in that you can install most software and it's very fast.  the only difference between the 2002 and 2013 experience for me is that with the 2002 computer, i couldn't play 720p or larger files.  but 480p played perfectly fine.  even seeking and jumping around the video file (my true measure of performance for htpc's) was great.  there's just something about a desktop experience.

i'll put it this way:
assuming you can play 1080p comfortably...i'd prefer a full desktop pc in whatever form factor and noise level, over any laptop, netbook, appliance-device, xbmc, jriver, android, "media player", etc.  I don't even care if it's 7 years old.  A desktop just has that ideal level of performance.  And i'm willing to bet that no matter what you're price point is, for the same price a desktop will outperform anything else.  The ONLY deal-breaker in such a case would be GUI.  If GUI is important to you, then the other choices might be better.

Going back to the issue of XBMC being a horrible mess (and yet the best out there), I'd like to make a recommendation/propsal for the next group that wants to make something better.

The most important lesson I think that needs to be absorbed is that there are two very different things that this kind of software is trying to do.  And the reason they are failing so miserably is that they are trying to do both things in the same manner.

The First Task -- Browse and Play

The first task is presenting an elegant fancy large-font tv-style user interface to allow the user to browse and select media to play.

This is what we normally think of when we think of an htpc machine -- something you can see from 10 feet away and that makes browsing and watching stuff fun.

I want to browse my music collection by hieararchical folders and do quick searchers, and when i start playing an album, I want it to download some nice artwork and info about the artist and show it elegantly.

XBMC can be made to do this, in a reasonably ok manner with some effort -- though search and navigation (and bookmarking for later watching) and returning to where you were is abysmal.

The Second Task -- Back End Administration

The second task that these tools need to be able to do represents a majority of the work -- all sorts of utilities for scanning libraries, configuring options, configuring the user interface, etc.

This is where software like XBMC gets it horribly, horribly, criminally wrong.

There is no need to "skin" and have a million ways for 3rd party themes to deal with this backend administration area -- and the attempt to do so is cataclysmic for maintenance.  And the backend administration of stuff is just terrible and confusing and inflexible.

The right way to write programs like this is to treat this as two separate tasks.  A small focused minimal elegant front end for browsing/disovering and playing, with support for skins/themes, and good support for managing bookmarks and favorites, with a very very strong focus on making this a consumer-level experience.  I should be able to give the remote to my mother and she should not be able to get lost or trapped or cause havok or want to kill herself.

The backend administrative stuff, the configuration screens, options, etc.  Can all be done with a standard user interface.  Should have nothing to do with skins or themes, should be able to be done remotely, does not need to have a theatre-style joypad/touchscreen interface, etc.

Such a division of functionality would go a long long long way to making this software easier to use, more powerful and flexible, and easier to maintain.

wraith, i'm having a hard time with your terminology.  what is your difference between a desktop box and a settop box?  i consider anything that runs normal windows or a user-installable OS a "full desktop".  are you referring to just the form factor?
-superboyac (September 20, 2013, 10:48 PM)
--- End quote ---

What I'm using is the WD TV Live Hub (WD Link).  There are several out there like it... before this, I used the Asus OPlay.

They're closer to cable boxes than any computer... thus set top box.


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