Your HTPC Experience, Step 0: Figure Out What You Want

I skipped this step because I didn’t know any better, but as with most projects planning is probably the most important part of building a HTPC experience you’ll enjoy without wasting a lot of time and money.  While there’s still a few limitations to work around, going “mainstream” has really opened up the field in the last few years, and determining your personal goals for the system is also a convenient way to narrow your options down to something manageable.

Below are the core tenants of my system, made up from personal idiosyncrasies and honed by past frustrations and successes.

  • File Flexibility – Finding the right codecs is less of a problem today than in days of yore, but many set-top boxes still have limitations on the types of files they’ll play. I’m too lazy and impatient to re-encode everything I get into specific types, so I want something that will play pretty much anything I can throw at it out of the box.
  • Modularity – Having a system with discrete upgradeable pieces is a great way to spread the cost of the system out, but it also makes it much easier to tinker, which is something I can’t seem to help myself from doing. Knowing that a borked upgrade of Ubuntu won’t impact my media storage saves me a lot of stress and allows me the freedom to try something new without risking the whole shebang.
  • Extensibility – I really want an “all-in-one” solution, and since there’s always some new hotness just over the horizon, I try to look for products that can be upgraded or added to easily. For hardware, this means extra bays and ports, and for software an active community constantly churning out upgrades and add-ons.
  • Ease-of-Use – Simple inputs, self-healing, and abundant automation can go a long way; sometimes I’m just not in the mood to futz around with a terminal or even type on a keyboard.
  • Storage Upon Storage – I’m a bit of a media hoarder, and so I need plenty of space.
  • UI Speed – I’ll admit this is a bit of a personal pet peeve, but nothing grinds my gears more than a slow user interface; I’m shocked even today at how slow most cable box interfaces are and I’ll admit it’s one of the main reasons I hate cable TV. I want something snappy and responsive.

In addition to that list, there’s plenty of other factors you may want to consider, including:

  • Cost – I’ve always been willing to flex a little on budget to get the other things I want, but you don’t have or need to. There’s a whole sub-culture of people XBMC\Kodi on the raspberry Pi, whose starter kits are under $75.
  • Technology – You don’t necessarily have to be a nerd to do this. Windows\Mac\Linux-fu and\or development experience may help you shave off some of the rough edges, but they’re absolutely not essential.
  • Seamless – The workflow I use to get content into my system is fairly convoluted, mainly because I’m a little picky and a little lazy. I have a friend whose setup will actually go out and download, rename, and index new stuff for him automagically.
  • Backwards\Sideways Compatibility – It’s possible to use your HTPC setup to watch and record live TV and\or watch physical media like DVD’s and VHS cassettes if you’re into that sort of thing.
  • Fidelity – I’m not much of a perfectionist, but if you get off on the cleanest audio or truest color, it’s possible and not incredibly difficult, though potentially expensive.
  • Integration – One of the strengths of using a full computer in the living room is that it can often serve as the hub for the rest of your systems. Lighting, stereos, and all sorts of other systems can be tied in, usually without a ton of effort.
  • Gaming – I moved away from integrating gaming into my system a while ago, but only because it wasn’t as interesting as the other stuff. It’s dead simple and offers one of the best retro-gaming experiences this side of your own MAME cabinet.
  • Device Access – I use two “end-points” connected to TV’s to power my setup, but it doesn’t offer much more than file access for other devices. If you want off-site or mobile device access to your library, there are applications and extensions which can make this a snap.
  • Portability -If you travel a lot or just bring the party, and don’t mind sacrificing other things, you can craft a fairly portable setup meant to move with you.

There is one more category that I want to make mention of now because it is probably the most difficult to determine and also will drive you the most crazy. Aesthetics covers everything from UI artwork to fan noise, and has the potential to bring out OCD in even the calmest individual. While tricking out your system may pretty and impressive, in many cases a simple file list may be preferable, particularly if missing details drive you to distraction.