Wednesday, February 18, 2009

How To: Build An HTPC (With Windows 7) : One Small Hawaiian Island At A Time...

by Chris Angelini

One Small Hawaiian Island At A Time...

I’ve been trying to build great HTPCs for several years, and several generations of PR folks at AMD (formerly ATI) have tried helping me piece together the right components to make my theater room shine. Incidentally, this is one niche where Nvidia has historically had little impact. Of course, those efforts have forever centered on All-in-Wonder graphics cards, which integrated 3D, OTA television reception, time-shifting, and video playback.

Not that anything was wrong with the AiW lineup—the cards demonstrated tremendous engineering prowess, as ATI managed to fit all of its multi-media strengths onto boards that didn’t compromise 3D viability. The AiW boards simply didn’t break down all of the barriers to getting PC technology into the living room, as attractive as they were.

Pardon the cabling mess; this project required a little re-wiring.

Pardon the cabling mess; this project required a little re-wiring.

Ironically, now that the All-in-Wonder family is all but deceased (with one lonely model representing), the age of the HTPC is arguably upon us.

You see, previously, incorporating an HTPC into a home entertainment rack almost felt like showing off, since much of its functionality would be redundant. Yeah, you could get a PC wedged in between the stereo receiver and the standalone DVD player. But so much of the concept’s functionality still depended on other components in the rack.

You’d run video from the graphics card out to a DVI input, ideally, or a component input if your TV didn’t have the digital connection. You’d run optical or coaxial audio to a stereo receiver, which would be responsible for taking that sound signal, decoding it, and outputting to the non-powered speakers typical in a theater.

Adding an HTPC just seemed superfluous. And with a Playstation 3 in the loop, sporting its almost instant-on and rich audio/video playback (plus wireless network connectivity), there’s almost no reason to power-on a PC and wait for it to boot up into a Media Center environment—until now.

Maui Makes Nice With The Living Room

AMD recently (actually, not so recently—it was late last year) sent us an example of its Maui platform, a collection of hardware that, put together, achieves a remarkable degree of living room functionality despite its desktop PC pedigree. We’ve had the hardware in an HTPC role for a few months now and recently shifted the system’s software environment from the Vista Ultimate/Media Center/TotalMedia Theatre configuration that AMD shipped to a more streamlined (at least we think so) Windows 7/PowerDVD build.


In this How To guide, we’ll explain why the HTPC now makes so much sense, we’ll show you the hardware that goes into our test platform (and how it all fits together), and we’ll walk you through using it with Microsoft’s Windows 7 beta, which should be shipping by the end of the year. Truly, this is the hardware/software configuration for which we've been waiting.

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