the original modded xbox is starting to show signs of its age. one of the greatest things about the original xbox was that it was a hackable device that you could do all sorts of great things with. it was my very first media center and it was great. i’m happy to say that it still works great. where it is starting to show its age, though, is that it is starting to have problems decoding video. i’m not sure if today’s codecs are more CPU-intensive or if videos are being encoded at higher bit rates, but there’s stuttering of video with the xbox. i’m pretty sure it’s not network-related.
so it was time to replace the xbox for the upstairs tv. i don’t watch tv often upstairs, but it’s nice when i want it. i had a spare laptop and though it is overkill for this purpose, it is a spare, so i decided to repurpose it and make it an HTPC.
there are several options when it comes to HTPC software. on windows, the popular choice is just using windows media center. i tried windows media center in the past and it’s not bad, but the interface still didn’t feel right to me.
boxee1 has a very interesting product (free!) as well. the software has come a long way since the alpha release, but my biggest pet peeve with it is that you have to click a video twice to view it. once to select it, once to tell it to play. that’s annoying enough for me to not use it.
and the classic, XBMC for windows. it works great, the confluence skin is beautiful, and it’s familiar. it’s what i’m currently using. the biggest downfall to XBMC is the lack of tv tuner support, but my tv is connected to cable, so if i want to watch tv, i just watch it straight from the cable.
the upstairs tv is a super old, rock solid sony trinitron CRT tv. these things are ultra heavy, sturdy, and just won’t break. it’s old and doesn’t have HDMI or VGA inputs. so converting the VGA out from the laptop into something usable by the TV was a big challenge.
it turns out that there’s this great little product that does just that. it is a device that will convert VGA to S-Video/Composite. it’s $20 and i can attest that it works as advertised. it supports up to 1024×7682. it accepts a VGA input and will output to S-Video, Composite, and has a pass-through VGA out as well. you can also move the image on your TV and adjust the horizontal and vertical size to best fit your display. pretty handy and works great for a cheap little device.
the next piece of the puzzle was the remote. i wanted a remote that would work in windows media center, but also XBMC. i wanted something that would work in windows vista or windows 7, and i wanted something that would not be hard to install. Wake from USB functionality was critical, i wanted to be able to turn the HTPC on and off via the remote. after reading positive reviews about this remote, i decided to get it and it is very easy to use, indeed. i just had to plug it in and it was immediately picked up by the laptop and worked out of the box. now, the usability of the remote is a different issue. it’s a little awkward in the hand and does not light up, but i think that i will most likely be using a universal remote anyhow. we’ll see.
all in all it was about $50 to get a fully working media center by reusing an old laptop. the laptop had to be configured to not power down when the lid was closed and to wake on USB. now it just sits closed and seems to work great.
in case i ever need to get into the laptop, i also installed tightvnc for remote desktop access and i have also installed a remote keyboard/mouse iphone app so that i can control the HTPC via the iphone in a pinch. this *should* mean that i should never need to open the clamshell to the laptop ever again. actually, i think if we have a power outage i may have to open it.
after talking to people about their various media server solutions, i still don’t know if i like anything better than the PS3. XBMC, boxee, and even windows media center come close, but it just doesn’t quite hit the mark yet. there’s no perfect solution. it almost seems like there’s a good market for someone to figure it out and do it right.
with all of the set top boxes that are coming out, support for DLNA streaming directly from your TV, and the like it seems like media streaming is starting to get mainstream. all we need is an easy way to access content (i’m still not convinced that DLNA is the way, but it’s close)3, a great UI to navigate our content, and easy setup.
for now, though, i’m pretty happy with what i’ve got. now i just need to figure out what to do about the home office’s tv…i don’t have another spare laptop and i’ve been thinking about the dell zino hd, but i’m not completely sure which configuration i need. if i could get away with the $199 model, i’d do it in a heartbeat.
- i hear that boxee has a set top device as well. that might be a cost-effective solution when it comes out. i think it’s going to retail for around $200 [↩]
- just because something supports a resolution doesn’t mean that it will look good on your TV. on my CRT, 1024×768 is pretty fuzzy, the captions for icons are hard to read [↩]
- ps3mediaserver is by far the best DLNA server available. if you need a DLNA server, check it out. [↩]