There is no place for a computer in my home theater

It’s been about 10 months since I switched from TiVo to Vista Media Center and I’m happy to say I don’t regret my decision, but have learned alot and the biggest lesson is that there is no place in my home theater for a computer. So after all this time, I’ve ordered an Xbox 360 with the intent to use it as an extender in my main home theater — I’d go with another DMA2100, but I really like the animated transitions.

It’s really funny that I recently came to this conclusion as today my friend Brent Evans basically posted about the same thing today on Geek Tonic. I couldn’t agree more with his points and will be moving my XPS 420 into my office — it’s in a closet near my HT now. But in addition to Brent’s, here are a few of my personal pain points about having a computer in my living room.

  • Turing off overscan in Vista Media Center is a PITA and borderline impossible.
  • The screensaver situation. I’d love to go into this, but my trials and tribulations would take up another post all alone, so lets just say it doesn’t work.
  • Judder, jitter messy video. I’ve tried many things and still have issues.
  • Having a mouse or keyboard near the couch is a bag of hurt.

I think the HTPC as we know it is dead and instead the computer will be the central storage and collection device. The best thing already headed in this direction is Sage TV’s Windows Home Server version. I think that what every PC DVR software out there needs to do is move to the extender model with a headless server hidden away.

I that that Microsoft should do at this point is to build the backend DVR functionality into Windows Home Server. This would be the perfect compliment to the already great media collection features. In order for it to work though, it’d have to support every Media Center tuner, including CableCARD tuners and the upcoming satellite tuners. In theory it’d be more stable and easier to support because it would be relatively free of 3rd party applications. Of course to make this really useful, we’d need to be able to watch live TV on any Media Center computer in the house.

36 Responses to “There is no place for a computer in my home theater”

  1. Zack says:

    I totally agree with you. My PC was banished from my living room ever since the Xbox 360 was launched. The media center extender support with the Xbox 360 is very easy to set up with XP and Vista Media Center, and the quality is stunning! I’ve never had performance issues with this setup over a wired network (except in Windows 7 beta).

    When Windows Home Server was first announced, I was very disappointed that the Media Center backend was built into it. Hopefully, Microsoft is listening to user feedback and is working on adding this support in the next version of Windows Home Server.

  2. Andy Sexton says:

    I’ve been living this way (360 extender to VMC) for awhile since my old WMC 2005 box finally died. The biggest things missing for me are:

    1) having to leave the VMC interface to play back content in the dashboard that currently isn’t supported in VMC extender world
    2) inability to play my ripped DVDs as I used to on the old box without a bunch of incomplete hacks.

    #1 is supposedly solved by the transcoding ability of 7MC, so that’s good. #2…hopefully will be fixed at some point.

    So my two problems with extenders are format compatibility based.

  3. Ross says:

    Totally agree that extending the WHS to include TV recording would be a great idea. And a nice way for MS to leverage all the work they’ve put into Media Center. I hope it happens.

  4. Brent says:

    You know, I think it would make a lot of sense for Microsoft to make a hardware extender priced under the Xbox360 of course, but with all the MC features for it. They won’t do it though because it would tick off the others like Linksys.

    I never for the life of me have understood why MS doesn’t come out with a WHS version of MC. The WHS version of SageTV is very popular for SageTV users and it just makes sense for the server/client setup.

  5. Ben Drawbaugh says:

    I’ve been meaning to write about this as well, but the way I use Media Center I’ll never notice the limited codec support. In all honesty the current codec support even on the Vista Media Center itself is unusable IMO.

    I don’t know about anyone else, but it’s hard for me to watch a movie straight through and having to hit the 30 second skip button 90 times to get tot he 45 minute mark in a movie is not ever going to happen.

  6. Ben Drawbaugh says:

    Despite the 360 and the Zune, MS isn’t a hardware company and on top of this it would undercut their partners. Besides I believe the problem with the current extenders couldn’t be fixed with new hardware. It just has to be the platform, otherwise how else could you explain the fact that every single 3rd party extender basically works exactly the same?

    As for the WHS part, that is actually pretty simple to explain. WHS is based on Windows 2003 Server, while Media Center is built on Vista. Now in the next major version of WHS, it is expected it’ll be based on 2008 server which does share a code base with Vista, so it may be much easier for them to add this. In fact I’d be very surprised/disappointed if they didn’t. One of the reasons they might not though, is because other than extenders, there wouldn’t be any way to play back live TV. Of course they could resolve this as well, but so far they haven’t shown any inclination that they will.

  7. andy vt says:

    A more appropriate title might be “There is no place for Windows Media Center in my home theater” πŸ™‚

    I think at least some of the problems you have with MC (overscan & screensaver) are caused by how you implemented the PC into your environment (via a HAC).


    Using a digital connection (DVI/HDMI) and selected whichever screen type is a LCD monitor (been a while) during MC setup removes overscan.


    MC expects the MCE IR receiver driver (a keyboard emulator) to produce input in a way that resets the idle timers. If you don’t use their IR receiver, or use a different method to control navigation in MC (like vmccontroller) the timers aren’t reset properly. And the screensaver engages (or the machine goes into standby) at inappropriate times.

    Also it’s not smart “By Design” about reseting the timers during playback so if you use aggressive standby/screensaver settings and the playback duration is longer than the timer the machine can produce unexpected results.

    A little SW help can remove both causes of unpleasantness. Or you could just disable the screensaver and set your display timeouts to a large enough value to never see the problem.

  8. Ben Drawbaugh says:

    Thanks for the pointers, but I assure you I’ve tried them.

    I’ve tried every setting there is in the monitor configuration and the extenders still show more of the image than VMC does. If it was as simple as you say, then there wouldn’t be this long thread at TGB about it and I’d be able to watch my content without overscan right now.

    In regards to the screen saver issue. The problem is that in Vista the counter starts from the last time you hit a button, not when video stops playing. It is a well known issue and makes the screen saver setting useless. Basically what happens is if you set the screen saver to 30 minutes (not a long time IMO) and then watch a show on PBS without commercials the second the show is over and the delete/keep etc screen comes up, the screen saver kicks on almost instantly. Not cool.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there aren’t any solutions to my problems, I’m just saying I’m giving up and just going to use something that simply works without the hours of headaches.

  9. Carlton Bale says:

    I’ve found just the opposite: there’s no place for an Xbox 360 in my Home Theater. It’s too loud and doesn’t play DVD backups or Blu-ray backups from my WHS. So I use the 360 in the family room with my LCD TV and use a HTPC with VMC/MyMovies/TotalMediaTheater in my home theater room. Once everything is ripped and MyMovies is populated, it’s tough to downgrade from that experience.

  10. David says:

    I just moved my 360 to my living room, extending my Niveus system that sits in my theater room. We watch 70% of our TV in the living room, and having the ability to gracefully watch all that Nextflix offers on the 360 is great. I’m a big fan of the new 360 interface (despite being a completely-Mac household) The 360 is loud, but the fluidity of the animations, and overall performance make it a hit for me.

  11. andy vt says:

    Yeah, the screen saver thing is “By Design”; hopefully a design that will be reevaluated in 7MC.

    One of the things the DTB addin can do is correct that “feature” by resetting the system idle timer during video playback (I was having a similar problem with my machine immediately entering standby after playback stopped); I don’t remember if it does the display timer if not, easy to change. Definitely not something that anyone should have to deal with, but because it’s a pc the problem is easy to fix.

    Have you seen the crazy workarounds people are doing to make MC extenders work for “not TV” (most notably video_ts playback)? Not something that I would classify as “something that simply works without the hours of headaches”.

  12. Alton says:

    As soon as I can play MKV files on a extender I am there with you.

  13. Ben Drawbaugh says:

    No doubt that if I wanted to playback the contents of a video_ts folder I’d be singing a different tune, but I’m sure you’re aware as far as I’m concerned DVDs are so 20th Century and lost their place in my HT years ago.

    Besides, that is what DVRMSToolBox is for. πŸ˜‰

    I wonder if anyone makes a ripping profile for DVR-MS? Something that would automatically rip the movie from a DVD, then put it into a DVR-MS container with metadata.

  14. Ben Drawbaugh says:

    MKV would be a factor if VMC actually played them in any meaningful way. Sure in 7 you can finally fwd and rwd, but for me if I can only use the 30 second skip it might as well not work.

  15. andy vt says:

    Did you throw away all your DVDs (from before BR was around), and delete the related video_ts? I like subtitles and menus, besides storage is cheap.

    Does the 360 play BlueRay πŸ˜‰ m2ts is OK, but menus and features are lost. Having a PC in the HT makes iso a realistic storage container again (couple clicks with a mouse is pretty simple vs. getting up, finding a disc, opening the cabinet, pressing some buttons, etc).

    Turning dvds (actually vobs) into extender friendly dvr-ms files is work for todvrms (not dtb). I’m not aware of anyone making a profile to automate the process ( or maybe, but it wouldn’t be hard.

  16. Ben Drawbaugh says:

    I might as well have thrown them away as I haven’t watched one in over two years since I upgraded to Blu-ray. My wife has on the other hand, but I think she’d actually prefer to get up and get the disc.

    Funny you mentioned Blu-ray. I’d REALLY love an Extender that was also a Blu-ray player, but actually gave up playing Blu-ray discs on my HTPC over a month ago.

  17. andy vt says:

    You’d still have to get up, and run sneakernet for the other tvs.

  18. Ken P says:

    Smart move not going with a DMA2100. It cannot reliably do 1080i or 1080p when fed a 720p show. It intermitently gets the stutters when trying to upconvert it. Oddly, it handles 1080i sources much better. Must be the upconvert that has the problem. I have tried EVERYTHING to get it right. Assuming it was the network, I tried different network cards, routers, switches, network configs, etc. I am 99% sure it is the Linksys box itself. I have even tried several DMA2100s AND even tried a different PC. I tried a D-Link DSM-750 – NO STUTTER. That one had to be returned because it does not work reliably with Harmony remotes, or IR distribution (this was also discovered in the EngadgetHD Extender Roundup – I think you wrote that article, Ben). Anyway, finally I picked up a 360 Arcade, and so far, so good!

  19. Ben Drawbaugh says:

    That’s an interesting problem, which actually reminds me of one of my pet peeves about Media Center. You can’t play content back at it’s native resolution.

    I actually own two 2100s and am very happy with them. But neither is connected to a 1080p HDTV, so perhaps that is why I never noticed the issue you refer to.

    I have had really bad stuttering while streaming ESPN HD live to one, but usually if I hit pause and play again, it goes away.

  20. Ken P says:

    As far as codecs, noise, etc, I have the best of both worlds. I have both my HTPC and XBOX 360 in the basement, right below my living room. A couple HDMI cables are fished thru the walls. When I want to watch the m2ts recorded with my camcorder or DVD rips, I switch to the HTPC. When I want to watch recorded HD, I use the Xbox since the PQ is way better, and stable. It would be better to just use the HTPC, but the PQ for OTA HD is just not as good, and like Ben said, jittery, juddery, just not as stable as it should be. I got close to damn good with the latest NVidia drivers, but they introduced a new jumpy artifact when watching 1080i OTA. I gave up and got an Xbox 360.

  21. Ken P says:

    Ben, That is the EXACT problem – stuttering that goes away with a pause. But then it COMES BACK. Always happens for me with 720p sources. Rarely with 1080i. Ugh. I started a thread on GB about this, and got lots of things to try. None fixed it. Based on the HOURS and HOURS I spent on this, I am sure the DMA2100’s have a problem.

  22. Ben Drawbaugh says:

    It’s interesting that the problem is specific to the 2100, I don’t have another extender right now so just figured it affected all of them. I think it is a network issue as I’ve also seen network warning even though the graph shows 100%.

    The noise of the 360 has really bothered me in the past, but I have some furniture to hide it in now, so I’m hoping the new one I get will be quieter and that I won’t be able to hear it where I put it. If I do, I’ll get rid of it, as I can’t deal with that noise.

  23. Ken P says:

    Ben, If interested, here is my post on GB with my evidence as to why I am sure it is specifically the 2100.

  24. Alton says:

    Ben the reason I said MKV is like you I am also OTA + Downloads + Netflix only. I find that all the high quality downloads are in MKV. When you say Downloads how will you be watching them on your TV?

  25. Josh S says:

    That is weird you say the 360 yields you a better PQ vs. the HTPC. In my setup I have found the exact opposite.

    I’ve found that live and recorded OTA HD when played back via my xbox 360 on my projector via component video seems washed out, grainy looking vs. my HTPC directly connected to my projector via HDMI.

    One thing as Andy pointed out is with the MCE setup, where you setup your display, connection type, ect… I’ve found that if you do the exact opposite of what you have connected, for me I am using a projector and HDMI, but I chose a a rear projection tv and component video for the setup in media center and that yields me a non-overscanned image and gets me the colors without black crushing.

    My biggest issue with Media Center well HTPC in general is colors and black crushing. But I’ve found that to be a driver issue with ATI and Nvidia more than a Microsoft and Media Center issue.

    The one thing I’ve noticed is when going from a direct view LCD display to my front projection LCD, is that projectors are more forgiving when it comes to connections and overscan, the biggest issue I’ve seen with any tv, weather it be LCD, Plasma, DLP, ect.. is dealing with resolutions and overscan.

    I am like Andy when it comes to needs, for me I can’t get away from the ease of use, and the plethora of features you get with a HTPC/Media Center. DVD streaming being the big one.

    as for FF/RR, ect for Media Center have you ever given media control a try?

    – Josh

  26. Ben Drawbaugh says:

    Believe me, I’ve tried every combination there is in regards to the display type setting in VMC, and you correct, the opposite is the one I ended up using, but there is still a few lines of overscan when compared to my linksys dma2100 — I can only tell because my NBC affiliate has 3 lines of yellow on the left during network programming.

    It’s been some time since I’ve used a 360, but trust me when I say that if the quality/experience/noise level isn’t better/acceptable, I’ll be quick to switch back.

    But as far as a HTPC being better at “ease of use” I’d say it is exactly the opposite.

    Yes, I’ve tried media control, couldn’t get it working in 5 minutes so I said forget it.

  27. Andrew says:

    .mkv files are readily changed into other more accessible formats, right?

  28. I totally disagree. Extenders impose limits I’m not willing to accept at this point. I want full control, plus I love being able to switch to a browser at will.

    The overscan problem is only a problem in Windows proper. Media Center properly compensates and adjusts the placement of controls. This is not a problem at all on LCD/Plasma displays.

    I don’t really see the problem with screensavers…why do you need a screensaver? Just use MCE standby tool to configure what conditions the computer can go to a black screen. (It can detect when media center is idle independent of Windows)

    As for juttery/jiddery video. I have had 0 problems with this after correcting for poor hardware. In my case I found that my RAM was too slow. I upgraded to a measly 2 GB dual channel and those problems disappeared. At the time I upgraded my video card too being sure this was part of the problem. That video card has since died and I’m back on the onboard Geforce 6150. Turns out media center runs fine even on this slower hardware. If you’re experiencing play back problems it is always going to be a hardware problem.

    As for a keyboard and mouse, I rarely use one but if you by a Logitech deNovo edge, you solve the annoyance factor completely. It feels perfectly at home in the living room and allows you to transition from TV mode to PC mode on demand. No fumbling around for a keyboard and mouse.

    Sorry to rant. I just hate to see people dismiss the utility of the HTPC. There will always be advantages. Many more so than disadvantages in my opinion.


  29. Ben Drawbaugh says:

    Yes mkv is just a container and the contents can easily be re-encapsulated into more accessible formats, but you might lose things. Like closed captions or even worse DTS sound.

  30. Ben Drawbaugh says:

    The overscan problem is with my plasma. My TV makes it VERY easy to turn overscan on and off, so I prefer my sources to not have ANY overscan then I can choose when I want overscan. On top of this any overscan at all means video processing as something is shaving off the lines and I prefer to have ALL my video processing done in my TV, which is why I bought a nice TV. That being said, although I have spent countless hours tweaking VMC and online forums, I have never been able to get my overscan to 0 with my HTPC. Not saying it’s not possible, just saying it is too difficult to achieve.

    As for the judder jitter issues. I assure you it isn’t specific to my hardware as it only affects certain content. The issues I’m having are well documented on forums like The Green Button, but no one has a solution.

    I’m sure the deNovo edge is a nice piece, but I have no interest in ANY type of input device in my living room just to watch TV.

  31. Hey Ben, thanks for your dialog. Did you see this:

    Curious how that changes your feeling at least about 1 of the issues keeping HTPC out of your living room πŸ™‚

  32. Ben Drawbaugh says:

    For some reason I can’t follow that link. It just says, “You are not authorised to view this resource.”

  33. Ben,
    Fair enough. πŸ™‚

    You weren’t specific about your jiddery video issue so I assumed it was a general problem with all content, not specific content. I’ve had no issues in this area.

    I’ve certainly had issue with finding that perfect relationship between my video card and TV. I have a Vizio LCD which has a slightly higher (1366×768) resolution than 720P and lower than 1080i. I have learned through experience that my TV isn’t fantastic at scaling content. The result always looks a little blurry or detail looks muddled.

    Unfortunately, the TV’s HDMI interface does not inform the source about its true resolution. Consequently, my HTPC, XBOX 360, anything else I hook up all send 720P or 1080i and there is really no easy (or hard way that I know of) to correct this.

    The only way I can get past this is to use VGA.

    Ironically, since writing my original comment I have switched my 360 to VGA to combat this issue and have decided to use it as an extender in the short term as I only have one VGA connection.

    It looks great but my TV satisfaction is lower in light of all this.


  34. Ivan Y says:

    I guess, VMC extenders are a reasonable solution for people like you who use VMC’s TV recording functionality. But for a good deal of VMC users, inability of extenders to playback content that’s playable inside VMC (by whatever means necessary — codec packs, software) is completely unacceptable.

    I’ve been wanting to go the extender route and Sage’s new model is probably as good as it gets (along with PCH and WD TV), but since my PC is a tiny Mac Mini-sized AOpen model, I don’t mind running VMC on it. I used to use a regular Windows MC remote, but ever since I hid the HTPC behind the TV, I’m using Logitech’s DiNovo Mini (Bluetooth tech) which is surprisingly convenient. Even only having 30-second skips in MKV isn’t a big deal and I watch a ton of them.

    But, anyway, good luck to you in your transition and let us know how it goes! I’m especially curious how Windows 7 will operate with 360.

    P.S. I’m totally with you & everyone else on WHS. It needs to have MC built-in and have hardware/software extender support. I’m really hoping WHS v2 will have that functionality. I mean, if you have all that storage space, it only makes it logical to use it to store very large HD files! πŸ™‚

  35. Ray Casey says:

    it does not matter where you put the computer, it is all about it “role” vs. where it is. try to do green screen and open source PBX or other things with your xbox. Not going to happen. Also you are not talking about a HOME THEATER in your “living” room. That is why it is your living room… duh! Your ego kills me sometimes :), go intentions but unchecked. Show me ONE SINGLE home theater install running off just and xbox… I guess you are like the it guy that thinks you can run a database on an excel spread sheet πŸ˜‰