What is the state of today’s home theater computing? Is it time to upgrade your HTPC? Throughout this article, I will summarize the recent releases and trends in the world of home theater computing.
After reading this article, you will learn the following:
- What are the recent releases in the world of HTPCs
- What is the current popularity of home theater computers and software
- What is the state of HTPC hardware
- What is the state of media center software
The Popularity of HTPCs
Before going into the state of hardware and application software, let’s start by looking at the popularity of the terms HTPC, Windows Media Center and XBMC in the Google Search. This will give us an indication whether the popularity of the topics are increasing or decreasing.
All HTPC, Windows Media Center and XBMC search terms are declining.
As you can see from the chart above, the popularity of HTPC and Windows Media Center search terms has declined steadily over the past years. Interestingly, the popularity of XBMC Media Center has increased significantly since the year 2010. XBMC popularity trend went upwards thanks to Apple TV 2 jailbreaks, Raspberry Pi and Frodo release, but now popularity is declining slightly.
Now, what happens if we add the leading media streamer, Apple TV?
After adding the Apple TV to the chart, we can see that things really took off after the second generation of Apple TV. At the same time, the Apple TV jailbreaking community got quite active and it had a positive effect on the popularity of XBMC as well. A similar, but smaller effect happened after the release of Raspberry Pi.
However, the Apple TV is not even close to the mass market in the digital lifestyle industry if we compare its popularity to such devices as Apple’s iPad.
So, let’s put things into perspective and add the popularity of the iPad.
Unfortunately, HTPCs do not even fit into the same scale…
So, the ultimate question here is what is wrong with HTPCs? The answer is: they are simply too complicated to build, set up, and use for the average consumer.
Home theater computers are a hobby, Apple TV is not. Apple TV is something you buy in order to rent and watch movies, play music from your iTunes library, view photos from your photo stream or stream online videos from YouTube.
A HTPC is something you research for weeks or months, build it over a weekend, and configure and troubleshoot for the following couple of months (or years). However, at the end of the project you will have something that none of the other consumer devices can do out of the box. That is the beauty of home theater computers.
State of Hardware
In this section, I will have a look at the latest trends in the hardware ideally suited for HTPCs.
Accelerated Processing Units
Currently there are two new accelerated processing units (CPU and GPU integrated to one chip) that are optimal for home theater computers: Intel Core i3 Ivy Bridge (replacing Sandy Bridge) and AMD Trinity (replacing Llano) series. During 2013, there is coming a new generation of accelerated processing units (Intel Haswell and AMD Richland) which will gradually change this situation.
Intel Ivy Bridge and AMD Trinity popularity has declined as new generation of Intel Haswell and AMD Richland are gaining more attention.
The chart above illustrates well, how much attention each processor release has generated. While the Intel Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge curves looked almost identical in the past, it seems that the Intel Haswell series is gaining a lot more attention compared to the previous generation.
Meanwhile, AMD has not been able to create similar buzz with its AMD Trinity and the latest AMD Richland series.
The Ivy Bridge is a codename for the latest generation of chips that are based on Intel’s Sandy Bridge micro architecture.
Ivy Bridge processors are backwards-compatible with the Sandy Bridge platform, so you can use the same LGA1155 motherboards as with the previous generation.
The Intel Core i3 desktop processors have been available since September 2012.
Perhaps the most suitable Ivy Bridge processor for home theater use is the Intel Core i3-3225, which has a clock speed of 3.3 GHz with 2 cores and a TDP of 55W.
The number 5 at the end of the model name means that it uses the latest Intel HD Graphics 4000, which represents the higher-end integrated graphics.
With the Intel HD 4000 graphics, you do not need discrete graphics, even if you are planning to do some casual gaming.
Intel Haswell will be the next generation platform, which will definitely challenge Ivy Bridge’s position, but desktop Haswell CPUs that are suitable for HTPC are not yet available. Haswell will fix some of the nagging bugs of the previous generation such as stable support of DXVA2 APIs. Perhaps the biggest advantage is lower power consumption which allows you to keep the HTPC even cooler and silent than before.
AMD Trinity desktop APUs have been in stores since October 2012.
Unfortunately, the Trinity series is not compatible with the previous generation FM1 (Llano) socket.
AMD has been leading Intel in the integrated GPUs while the CPU processing performance has been lagging behind Intel’s processing power.
If you are looking for high CPU and GPU performance, perhaps the most interesting CPU is the AMD A10-5700 with Radeon HD 7660D that runs at 65W TDP.
Another interesting Trinity APU is the dual core AMD A6-5400K with Radeon HD 7540D, which also runs at 65W, but it costs only half compared to the A10-5700.
The latest generation of AMD APUs are called Richland. Richland processors are based on updated Trinity cores, with higher clock speeds, improved memory support and better integrated graphics. So, keep a close eye on the up coming models such as AMD A6-6400K, A8-6500 and A10-6700 that all are operating at 65W TDP.
You have probably heard about the Raspberry Pi mini computer by now.
The technology enthusiasts have been ordering their own copies of Raspberry Pi and are eagerly awaiting to install XBMC media center on them.
The Raspberry Pi is a low cost ($35) computer with enough processing power to run basic media center activities including decoding 1080p H.264 video.
Another interesting group of mini computers are the Android powered devices. XBMC has already been available for Android for some months now and it will be interesting to see how popular these mini Android computers will become.
There have not been any major changes in the remote controlling technology until recently.
The most interesting new technology is the HDMI CEC (Consumer Electronics Control), which allows you to control devices that are connected via HDMI cables with just one remote.
I have reviewed the top 7 remote controls in my previous article, where you can learn more about the HDMI CEC adapter.
State of Application Software
In this section, I will have a look at the application software that is most commonly used to watch movies, photos and play music among other media center tasks.
Windows Media Center and MediaPortal search terms are declining, but the popularity of XBMC and Plex Media Server continue to increase.
As can be seen from the trend chart above, XBMC is clearly the most popular media center. Plex Media Server is slowly gaining more attention in the community, while MediaPortal and Windows Media Center are clearly declining.
Next, let’s have a look at how active development communities and roadmaps are behind these software.
Windows Media Center
The future of Windows Media Center is quite a controversial topic at the moment.
Microsoft has made it clear that they are focusing on Xbox One as the main entertainment hub, and they have even dropped the Windows Media Center out from the standard version of Windows 8. The WMC is still available as an add-on on for Windows 8 that you will need to activate and install separately.
XBMC Media Center
XBMC seems to have the most active development community at the moment and the future looks really bright.
While the current XBMC 12.2 Frodo version provides several performance improvements and features such as official PVR support compared to the older 11.0 Eden, many people are already waiting for the 13.0 Gotham version that will bring better Android support and updates to the PVR functionality.
The latest OpenELEC 3.0 version (Linux based XBMC operating system) also includes all the nice features of XBMC Frodo 12.2.
MediaPortal is currently approaching the official 2.0 version.
According to the developers, the 2.0 version will bring some jaw dropping features such as concurrent playback (think picture in picture), a true client/server architecture, new media library, and much more.
It is also possible to use MediaPortal’s TV server together with the XBMC media center.
The development team behind the Plex Media Center and Media Server has been busy particularly with the Plex Media Server application.
The Plex Media Server brings some cool features such as a new web client and PlexPass (exclusive features to exclusive members).
I have been discussing Plex Media Server in detail in my previous article.
What’s in It for You?
As a conclusion, while the popularity of HTPC hardware is declining, there is nothing wrong with home theater PCs. They are and continue to be a small niche segment for DIY home theater enthusiasts and those who enjoy them as a hobby.
In the middle of all these changes in the HTPC market, what’s in it for you? The key thing is to remember that you do not necessarily need the latest hardware to run media center software and watch 1080p full HD movies.
So go on… enjoy your HTPC (with XBMC).