There's always been a stigma attached to adding a computer to the living room. They don't look good in there and the ones that do – horizontal Media Center PCs that look like an old VCR – can be as expensive as a regular PC.
When I went looking for a Home Theatre PC to include in the Tech Gift Guide, I put as much weight on how it would look in the living room as what it could do. I didn't need it to be able to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, but it did have to be powerful enough so that launching programs was not an excruciatingly slow process.
It's strange to have to make this case, but when you think about it, a PC on the TV has a bunch of advantages:
- The look and feel, the filing system and input devices (ie; keyboard and mouse) are very familiar
- It can access all available Web content, from YouTube to TV networks’ websites
- Netflix’s website is more attractive and easier to navigate than console and set-top box versions
- You can download torrents directly to the living room rather than stream stuff from your main computer or networked hard drive on the other side of the house.
- It can act as a digital video recorder.
- Storage is easily expandable with portable USB hard drives or network attached storage (NAS) drives.
- It connects well with other PCs in the home.
- You can load all of your preferred software.
And – if it's your thing – you can multitask with a bunch of open windows and browse, tweet or Facebook while you're watching something.
I finally settled on ASUS EeeBox EB1501P ($480), a cute Wii-looking PC that comes with an equally cute micro mouse and thin and light keyboard – both of which connect remotely via Bluetooth. The unit can lay flat on the entertainment console or stand upright in an included plastic base. Or, and this is a nice option, the PC includes a frame with which you can bolt it to the back of your TV so it's entirely out of sight.
Despite its size, the EB1501P is a powerful computer running on an Intel Atom D525 Dual Core processor and NVIDIA ION graphics. Despite that, the machine is not a power hog. Asus says the EeeBox consumes as much as 70 per cent less energy than a generic desktop. It has four USB 2.0 ports on the back and two USB 3.0 port on the front that are perfect for an external hard drive, which you'll need because the EeeBox tops out at 350GB. USB 3.0 can transfer data in about half the time as USB 2.0.
It also has an HDMI port for connecting to the big screen and includes a Windows Media Center remote control, all of which is great for anyone wanting to funnel their TV connection through the PC and control their channel surfing, recording and program guide.
Only problem is the cute little Asus box doesn't come with a TV tuner. ( I ditched my cable box and my premise is you might want to do the same.)
Now, that's not uncommon for micro PCs like the EeeBox. Acer's Veriton N, another small PC that home theatre enthusiasts like as TV attachments doesn't come with a tuner either, but that's not a big problem. I went out and got a Hauppauge WinTV HVR 950Q USB tuner that turned out to be ridiculously easy to install and satisfyingly reliable. The $70 tuner supports ATSC Digital Over-the-Air HDTV and is the size of a large USB key, but it has a cable port on one end. I unplugged my antenna coaxial from the TV, threaded it into the tuner, plugged the tuner into the Asus PC and installed the accompanying Hauppauge software. Five minutes later, after the software detected and scanned all of my over-the-air channels, I was watching TV on the big screen.
The Hauppauge WinTV software is not the most attractive-looking interface around. The video panel has a bunch of buttons and to engage functions such as changing aspect ratio or launch the TV schedule, you use shortcut keys or a right-click menu. The tuner comes with a playing card-sized remote control, but the thing reminded me of the cramped controller for our van's DVD player and I set it aside almost right away. Truth is, I'd always planned on using Windows Media Center as the live viewing software, but was I in for a laugh.
Windows Media Center used to be a premium media player/recorder back in the Windows XP days. When Vista came out, Microsoft included WMC in certain versions and then again in Windows 7. It's nice software – it really is – and allows users to scroll and scan all of their still and moving media through clear menus and large visual thumbnails. Only problem is, Microsoft hates Canadian antenna converts.
Okay, maybe that's harsh, but I was a little stunned to discover that Windows Media Center does not support ATSC tuners in Canada. After launching the setup process and identifying my location as Ajax, Ont., WMC scanned for video signal types and gave me a few options from which to choose – but nothing in the way of ATSC. I went back to the beginning of the setup process, but this time told the TV I lived in Youngstown, New York. This time, it detected my over-the-air tuner and downloaded the channel guide for zip code 14174. All of the channels were there with the exception of CBC, which I added manually.
After the troubleshooting, I did a little research and discovered a topics page on Hugh Thompson's digitalhome.ca dedicated to helping people work around the whole WMC-hates-Canada issue. (Hugh writes a column for Globe Technology once a month). One of the regular contributors to digital home published a hack, which essentially forces WMC to enable ATSC in Canada, and another that adds listings. All in all, it was a curious exercise that left me shaking my head slowly.
Watching TV through a computer has its plusses, as I've mentioned above, but it can also have its minor annoyance. We're accustomed to turning a TV on and seeing a picture almost immediately. The benefits are lost on a grumpy 7-year-old just down for breakfast who must wait patiently while the computer boots. But overall, it's been a great experience. I used Windows Media Center's DVR functions to pause and record World Series games, which inconveniently started during bedtime. My wife loves being able to go to a network TV website and watch episodes of Desperate Housewives, Glee and Grey's Anatomy. And I've put shortcuts to My Video folders and to Netflix on the Asus's desktop and the kids can now launch and scroll on their own. Even as a companion for those who subscribe to a cable or satellite service, there's value here.
Below is a discussion with tech expert Michael Snider on the challenges of wiring up your living room with the latest entertainment technology. Mobile users can click here to read.