Monday, February 21, 2011

My Man Cave: Windows 7 HTPC setup and ecosystem

Today's post will be a quick overview of my own personal man cave / HTPC setup I run in case any readers ever wondered.  I figure it may give a little more substance to my cable tv rants since I'm usually at the forefront of DVR/HTPC technology and trends and also some ideas on what you can do with Media Center and your PC.

(please excuse the cable mess in my pictures, I had not done cable management yet. also links in the post are relevant to the post and NOT AD links as an FYI)

Purpose of setup: To record Digital Comcast cable and Clear QAM HDTV w/o a set top box or rental fees and to be able to shift content to any device.  Ability to rip bluray/dvd and convert to MP4 also a requirement.  The ability to also automate the transcoding and delivery were sub-goals.


Main HTPC/Desktop Rig:

  • Amd Phenom II X6 1055T 2.8Ghz x 6cores

  • Gigabyte GA-880GA-UD3H (SATA-3 6GB/s, USB 3.0)

  • 8GB DDR3 PC1033 RAM

  • 4 x 1 TB Western Digital

  • LG Bluray Burner / DVD Burner

  • ATI Digtal Cable TV Tuner (CableCard)

  • AverMedia ClearQam Dual HDTV Tuner

  • Geforce 9600 GSO (HDCP ready)

  • HP 21" LCD (HDMI) and Panasonic Viera 32" HDTV (1080p DVI to HDMI)

  • HP MCE IR Adapter and MCE Remote

  • Harmony One remote setup for each zone and its components

Living Room Setup:

  • Sony Bravia 40" HDTV

  • XBOX 360 Slim (MCE Extender)

  • PS3 Slim (Bluray playback)

Bedroom Setup:

  • Samsung 40" HDTV

  • Intel C2D E5700 2.8Ghz

  • 4GB DDR3

  • 500GB Western Digital

  • Lenovo Media Center Keypad

Mobile Setup:

  • Galaxy Tab / Nexus One

  • iPhone 3GS / iPad2 (?)

  • MBA 11" / Dell XT  Tablet (work)


Main HTPC setup is the brains of the operation.  I use Windows 7 Ultimate Edition as my base OS and use Media Center (MCE) to record my TV using my ATI Cable Card tuner and cablecard from Comcast and also record my local stations in HD via my Avermedia (allows for 2 recordings while watching a live show).

I also run MCEBuddy at 1am each night to automatically encode my HDTV shows to MP4 formats. I then have another batch i have set to run each day around 6am that will copy the converted files into iTunes and at the same time tag the mp4 file using Atomicparsley and custom batch file to tag the file as "TV Show" and also embed the proper TV Show album art and Series and Network.

I can then view the converted mp4 tv shows (which are captured as WTV files in MCE and not importable into iTunes or streamable via Airvideo) on any of my Apple devices including an iPad or Macbook or iPhone (using either Arivideo or iTunes and home sharing).  I have not gotten a fully integrated delivery solution for my Android devices though I have been contemplating using VLC but have not looked to far into since I usually create a special profiled copy of my DVD/Bluray digital rips (yes its more disk space used but with storage being very cheap that is a non issue for me and the mp4 i make for my Tab/iPad looks very good and is usually around 500-750mbs in space).

I can also copy either manually or via a batch file all newly encoded vidoes to my Android devices.  Every mobile phone and device should support the mp4 file type and in a way is the new MP3 of videos.

Living Room / Bedroom Delivery:

In my living room, I watch all of my Recorded HDTV on my Sony using my XBOX 360 Slim and the Media Center extender features.  I am also able to watch live tv via it too, however Media Center features on the XBOX does require a XBOX Live Gold membership (approx $50/yr) along with Netflix.

I also use Windows 7 Home Premium and Media Center in my bedroom to watch my TV via Homegroup sharing options and streaming. I also have my Live account tied to my HTPC rig and in turn can stream all of my content remotely with MCE and Wifi connection.  Quality of stream varies on the kind of connection i can get at a hotel or from my phone's tethering.  Setting up sharing of Recorded TV in Media Center can be a bit confusing and frustrating; I have yet to nail the setup in one shot though (being able to play recorded tv on my other windows 7 pc).


I am in a way anal about my media libraries and in turn keep them very clean.  I also started a huge project about 4 years ago that involved converting every DVD I own into digital format while retainiing most quality  while not using too much data. I encode most DVDs that lead to sizes of about 2-2.5GBs and retaining full 5.1 DTS/Dolby soundtracks.  I also convert most of my Blurays to mp4 and in turn they usually end up at sizes around 3.5-4GBs. I try to stay undder 4.2GBs so i can copy it via FAT32 to my PS3 Slim.

I use Handbrake to convert my DVDs and Blurays to Mp4/M4v files.  Its free and still the best converter on the market.  It also utilizes multiple core CPUs too.

I have upgraded the hard drives in both of my PS3s to 500GB drives. In turn I believe in copying my movies to the PS3's local hard drive; streaming is nice but having it local you are guaranteeing there will not be any stuttering issues.

Streaming Options:

I use Netflix on my PS3s and XBOX 360 Slim and on my Windows 7 computers.  The Netflix add-in for Media Center really makes it easy to use from a couch or bed.  I used to run Hulu Desktop on my computers and then created a custom menu for MCE to link to Hulu Desktop in fullscreen mode but realized that I did not use Hulu Desktop as much as I thought I did and really did not like the amount of commercial breaks and the volume levels of said commercials.  Play On is another option to use to stream to consoles but it is a retail application.


Again, like any Car PC projects that I have taken on, the biggest problem is how to control your setup without having a full keyboard and mouse at your bed.  My Harmony One remote and HP 5070-2584 USB IR adapter allow me to use it for my MCE TV watching at my desk and on my living room setup.  There have not been many Media Center branded remotes released in the last few years.  I also bought a Lenovo Multimedia Remote w/keyboard with a trackball for use in my Bedroom.  So far its great but lacks a key feature that most remotes lack; backlit keys for night use.   Nonetheless it was on sale for under $30 so for the price a great find for HTPC use; however I would look around for a deal on it since it retails for $59.

Some backstory on my HTPC experience, i've been experimenting with HTPC's for the last 7 years and i must say that i am amazed at where we've come.  MCE could really put a HTPC in the living room and replace your DVR box.  However getting from what you want to do and doing it is a pretty big endeaver.  CableCard technology really hurt the enthusiast sect and set us back about 2 years (we went almost 2 years with only about 4 cablecard tv tuners being released) right now we only have about 6 solutions and all start in the $160 whereas analog tuners could be found for $50 for decent one.   I've also played with tons of DVR software suites and would say that Win7 MCE is currently the best IMO in regards to CPU utilization and integration and also GUI on a larger format screen.  I have not recently used any other suites since I've been very satisfied in that my desktop pc has not missed any recordings and Windows 7 as an OS is VERY stable; even more so than most DVR set top boxes OS are.

So there's my setup, let me know if you have any questions on how I do any of my tasks.