My Trip Down the Path; The Makings of a Good HTPC Experience

I’ve been questing for the perfect HTPC experience for a while now. I started off in college and since then I’ve tried many different approaches to get to my “holy grail”. In that time, I’ve had a lot of people ask me how to replicate my setup, so I’m writing this series to explain what I’ve got, why I got it, and how I arrived there. First though, allow me to establish my credentials, such as they are.

When I modded my first Xbox, I was mainly excited about playing older SNES and N64 games or playing multiplayer Xbox games without needing to waste our meager funds on multiple copies of the same game. However around my sophomore year I moved to this new interface called XBMC. The UI was much cleaner than the basic interface I had been using, but it also had some crazy new features…including the ability to play all sorts of media. I’d been downloading movies and TV shows for a couple of years now, but I didn’t like being tethered to my monitor, as my computer chair wasn’t all that comfortable for one, let alone a group. However, using the Xbox meant I didn’t have to rely on a small monitor on my desk; I could sit back on my couch with a bunch of friends and still take advantage of my growing library.

I used my modded Xbox throughout college, and it wasn’t until high definition became really prevalent that I began to consider other options. The older hardware in the original Xbox just couldn’t handle it, and when I got my first HD TV in 2010, I knew the time had come to make a change. By this time, I’d amassed a pretty healthy collection and I was running out of storage on my PC as well, so I decided simply to cable up my TV as a third monitor and invest in external storage. I ended up on a 2nd generation Drobo, which had 4 bays and could use either USB 2.0 or Firewire 800. However, I had some issues with this setup. First, the drobo software was a little janky; I would occasionally lose connectivity to the device for no discernible reason and re-establishing the link could take hours of trickery. Even when it did work, read\write was painfully slow over USB and moving over to Firewire 800 only increased the speed to glacial. Second, certain games and applications would get possessive about full-screen mode, making it difficult to use them and watch TV at the same time. Finally, I really began to miss XBMC – I could watch TV just fine, but Explorer’s interface was not meant to be read from your couch, and it was really testing my patience and eyesight.

The first problem I tackled was the Drobo, which I replaced with a Synology DS411J. It’s still got 4 bays, but instead of USB\Firewire, it lives on your LAN via a gigabit-network connection. This proved much faster and more reliable than the Firewire, and it also meant my content no longer at risk if I decided to re-install my OS or pick up a virus on my desktop. Second, I purchased an Acer Revo 3700, a mini-pc with enough of a GPU to handle HD content easily. The Acer Revo came with a Windows licence, so I installed the Windows version of XBMC and was off and running.

Both of these platforms are pretty dated now (I purchased both in early 2011), but they’re still chugging along just fine despite and\or in spite of my frequent tinkering. The only real changes I’ve made since are software – I eventually grew tired of dealing with Windows just to run XBMC and moved to Ubuntu, which I found gave a much faster XBMC experience with less overhead. Mid-2014, I ended up moving over to XBMCbuntu, which is a very lightweight version of the OS with XBMC essentially replacing the window manager entirely.

Long story short, I’ve been thinking about this for a while.