Since launching My Media Experience in 2009, I have received hundreds of interesting questions from my readers. There are surprisingly many similar challenges, so in this post, I will try to provide an answer to the 8 most common HTPC problems.
1. Selecting the right case and components
The most common challenge is buying compatible components. You can either copy builds from the websites and forums, buy pre-built computers or do your own research on the suitable components.
Do your own research
While buying recommended components is fine, you still need to do your research to understand what are really your requirements.
So, the only real solution to the component selection is to do your research well. It is important to understand the basic principles in component selection, such as which motherboard chipset and RAM to choose if you go for a 1155 socket Intel Core i3 processor.
Use embedded graphics
Usually an embedded graphics processing unit (GPU) is enough for media center tasks. However, if you want to play games, you should also look at discrete GPUs.
Please keep in mind that mini PCs are not really meant for gaming, because silence and high processing performance do not go well hand in hand.
Focus on low energy consumption
If you want to build a silent computer, your main goal is to focus on getting parts with low energy consumption and passive cooling.
According to my experience, these areas are the main cause for heat which requires more cooling:
- Small case – the smaller the case, the more difficult it is to get a proper airflow inside the case
- Processor – choose a low TDP CPU such as AMD E-350 or Intel Core i3
- Hard drive – choose a laptop HDD or SSD disk. Use an external network attached storage to store media files
- Graphics card – use an embedded graphics chip as discrete graphics cards can generate a lot of heat
- Memory – use RAM memory modules (4GB is enough) with a heat spreader
Minimize the number of cooling fans
The second goal is to minimize the number of cooling fans in the system:
- Case fans – if possible, disable case fans completely or change them to more quieter fans
- CPU fans – stock fans can be quite noisy, so get a high quality CPU cooler such as Scythe Big Shuriken 2
- GPU fans – if you use a discrete graphics card, get a passive cooled model if possible
- Power supply – Low quality PSUs can generate a high pitching noise, so invest in a high quality passive PSU such as Seasonic X-400
2. Selecting the right media center software
Choosing a media center is really about personal preferences and requirements. The best advice would be to try the popular media center options yourself to see which one fits to your requirements.
The most popular options are Windows Media Center, XBMC, Media Portal and JRiver Media Center.
XBMC is the way to go
However, if you have been reading My Media Experience before, you know that I’m a big fan of XBMC Media Center. It is not the easiest one for beginners, but definitely the most versatile.
Many people are saying that they are not using XBMC as it does not support live TV and Blu-ray playback. However, this is not true as you can have live TV support with the latest XBMC 12.0 Frodo version and Blu-ray support either with the Blu-ray add-on (with MakeMKV) or with an advanced launcher and an external Blu-ray player such as PowerDVD.
3. Configuring the system and software
Once you have bought a pre-built computer or built your own, it is time to install all the necessary drivers and configure software with your preferences.
Here, I will guide you through the common steps in the installation and configuring the XBMC media center.
Connect the computer to TV
First, you need to connect the computer to TV with either HDMI or DVI cable. Read here what to take into account when choosing a HDMI cable.
Install the latest graphics drivers
Second, download and install the latest graphics drivers for your embedded graphics chip or discrete video card.
Configure your TV settings
Third, adjust the contrast, brightness and screen size correctly. I recommend to use the AVS HD 709 Calibration Disc as it provides a comprehensive set of tools to adjust your TV settings.
Install the media center
Fourth, download and install XBMC in 15 minutes.
Customize the user interface
Once you have installed software, install the needed add-ons, customize skins and configure media sources.
Set up the remote control
If you are using a remote control, you need to spend some time to map the remote keys with the media center software.
Launch media center automatically
Once you are happy with the 10 foot user interface, you can add a shortcut to the start up folder so that the media center will launch automatically next time you boot up your computer.
4. Getting the rest of the family using it, too
Getting your family to use your living room PC requires making the media experience as intuitive and simple as watching regular TV.
It is important to finalize your setup before unveiling the media center to your spouse. Building a home theater computer is a lot of trial and error, so make sure you have tested the system well before moving the computer to your living room.
Use official stable versions
While beta versions and unofficial builds include some of the latest features, do not use them unless your partner is willing to cope with occasional issues and troubleshooting.
Usability is the key
Try to make your system as easy to use as possible. Remote control is the most preferred input device, but keep in mind that there are other ways to control your HTPC.
For example, I have tried Logitech MX Air Mouse, Apple Remote, TV tuner’s remote and Bluetooth mini keyboard, but my wife’s favorite has been the Microsoft Arc keyboard. The keyboard is lightweight, it works without a line-of-sight and the user interface responds quickly to commands.
Hide the wires
Remember to clear the clutter. For example get a cord organizer to keep the cables hidden and nail the Ethernet and speaker cables along the baseboards.
Do something special for your family
Last but not least, do something special for your spouse, too. Make sure that your spouse’s movie collection can be easily found from the hard drive. Allow her/him to choose the XBMC skin and background images, etc. Create favorite shortcuts to playlists, children’s videos or add-ons.
5. Converting and setting up the media library
Your media collection will grow over time and it can be difficult to find a specific file unless you have organized your media files properly.
Organize media files
I recommend to use folders and sub-folders to organize your media files. Here is an example how my folder structure looks like.
Remember to put each movie into a separate sub-folder with the full movie title so that the media scrapers can find the artwork and other details.
Map network drives
If you use a network attached storage, you already know how difficult it is to get Windows 7 automatically to connect to a mapped network drive.
Fortunately, there is a quick solution for this. Simply open a command prompt and create a batch file (edit network.bat) and type the following command to the file.
net use Z: \IP_address /user:user_name password
Then add a shortcut to the network.bat in the start up folder.
If you need to rip a DVD or Blu-ray disc backups to your computer, probably the best way to rip them to your hard drive is with the MakeMKV.
6. Getting blu-ray and HD audio working
As many of you already know, setting up Blu-Ray playback can be really annoying. It seems that the copy protection scheme changes every now and then, and new discs may not work at all until software gets an update.
Some users stick with the standalone Blu-ray player
Some users don’t bother dealing with the regular ups and downs of PC Blu-ray playback, so they have a separate standalone Blu-ray player.
Have you encountered HDCP compliant issues?
Some users have reported trouble getting the discs to play due to HDCP compliance issues. There is a free Cyberlink utility that will allow you to diagnose which parts of your system are not HDCP compliant to find out the cause of the problem.
7. Finding good online video content
Earlier it was quite difficult to find good online video content, but nowadays streaming video is easier than ever. The most popular video content providers include Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, VUDU and PlayOn. You shouldn’t forget YouTube and Facebook video rentals either.
Clicker.tv as an Internet TV guide
On top of that, there are hundreds of websites that stream live TV for free. You should check out the service called Clicker.tv, which is kind of a TV guide for all internet video.
Spotify as your online music collection
Finding online music is also quite easy with music services such as Spotify, Grooveshark, Pandora and iTunes.
8. Assembling a home theater computer
Watch YouTube videos for guidance
Surprisingly, assembling a home theater computer is not a big issue according to the My Media Experience reader’s poll. The simplest way to get started is to watch a couple of YouTube videos to get a feel for what to take into account.
For example, here is a video by Newegg TV that gives you a good overview on how to build your own mini-ITX system.
Read the manual first
All the parts come with good instructions nowadays, so you can’t really go too far wrong with the user manual.