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Home Theatre PC (HTPC)

HTPC  
HTPCs are complex and potentially fiddly, but can do all kinds of things.

What is a HTPC?

A Home Theatre PC (or HTPC) is a computer that's used in the living room, as part of a home theatre system. These systems are normally designed to connect directly to the television and home theatre components in the living room. While they're still around, HTPCs are usually an 'enthusiast' type thing, and aren't anywhere near as common as lower-maintenance alternatives that perform similar functions (e.g. dedicated streaming media systems, media servers).

Home theatre PCs are usually a bit different from conventional PCs, in that they're designed to blend in with the rest of the home theatre setup. HTPC boxes are generally very small and unobtrusive, and normally employ heat pipe cooling and similar passive cooling systems wherever possible to reduce the amount of distracting fan buzz. HTPCs should ideally be very quiet and unobtrusive.

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How are HTPCs used?

Because of the computing power, storage space and interface options most modern computers offer, a well set-up HTPC can bring a surprising amount of functionality to your living room. Home theatre PCs can be set up in a way that allows them to quickly and easily:

  • play movies (DVD, Blu-ray Discs, movie files)
  • play and record digital TV signals (including satellite and cable TV)
  • schedule recordings of TV shows
  • play music (with visualisations)
  • play games
  • share media with other devices
  • access media from other devices
  • display images
  • display weather
  • show news and RSS updates
  • video conference or chat
  • browse the web
  • move a satellite dish to point at a different satellite (using a DiSEqC motor)
  • manage other aspects of a smart home, including security, climate control and lighting

Controls and interfaces

HTPCs can be controlled using a wireless keyboard and mouse setup, or using a remote control similar to those used for other home theatre components.

The interface that you're likely see when using a home theatre PC is normally far simpler and easier to operate than that which you'd see on a conventional computer, and will normally resemble a TV or game console interface. The HTPC should be set up to act more or less exclusively as a user-friendly home theatre device, which in turn will dramatically improve its SAF. Most home theatre PCs use software that's specifically designed to provide a clean, usable interface.

The purposes you can use a HTPC for are, for the most part, only limited by the sorts of things you can use a computer for. Having said that, more obscure or technical uses are likely to either require a specially programmed plugin for your HTPC interface, or for you to revert to the computer's native desktop environment.

Hardware and limitations

The abilities of your HTPC will very much depend on what the hardware you put into it is capable of. If you want to use it to control your satellite TV, for example, you will need a special satellite TV card for it. If you want to use it to control terrestrial TV signals, you will need a separate card for that too. If you want a small, attractive HTPC you may not have room for both, so it's important to understand what you want to do with your HTPC before you begin.

Likewise, the software and interfaces your HTPC runs on will need to support the sorts of hardware you want to use. Ugly or complicated interfaces and menus will ruin the experience altogether - as will loud fans and slow startup times.

Because of the complicated nature of home theatre PCs, these devices are normally only used by people who are fairly computer savvy, and willing to tinker with, tweak and repair them. You can have one set up and installed for you, but if you're choosing to do this it's important to make sure you understand what's likely to be involved if you run into any issues.

Advantages
  • Extremely versatile
  • Can cut down on the need for other devices
  • Offers many different functions in the living room
  • Easy to use if set up properly
  • Can act as a central media server
Disadvantages
  • Complicated to set up yourself
  • Expensive to have set up or repaired for you
  • Prone to errors, viruses and software shortcomings
  • Potentially slow start-up times
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