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Common HTPC / Media Center Myths – NOT Just a PC

by Steven Cheung September 24, 2006

Arguably, Media Centers are currently the most misunderstood home theater components available in the marketplace today. Yet, media centers are also one of the most revolutionary home theater products available. Why is there this huge discrepancy? Unfortunately, the term " Media Center " is used by many manufacturers for products that could arguably never possibly act as a home theater device. Virtually all computers sold by DELL & Gateway that include Microsoft's Media Center software are called "Media Centers", but they cannot possibly act as an entertainment appliance connected to your TV or home theater. Unsuspecting customers purchase these systems, end up being disappointed, and ultimately "damn Media Centers to hell". Quite honestly, we can't blame them - the industry is at fault for the lack of standards, vagueness, and improper use of the term "Media Center".

This mass confusion has generated a huge amount of misinformation surrounding the HTPC / Media Center appliance. This misinformation has slowly turned into myth - people refer to things that were true in the past, but are now outdated and are no longer the case. Yet, they still propagate and persist these myths by word-of-mouth.

Even though there is a tremendous amount of "imposter" Media Centers out there, there are a handful of companies that are producing true home theater quality Media Center appliances that work flawlessly. Here are some common HTPC and Media Center myths that we'd like to bring out into the open and bust.

Myth 1: I need to be a computer expert in order to be able to install or use a Media Center

The reality is that most Media center systems are actually very easy to use and setup. Simply connect the power, video, audio, and network cables and plug in the remote control receiver. Then, using easy to understand on-screen wizards, the media center software walks you through the entire installation process, step-by-step, helping you to configure every function, so that nothing is missed. How many DVD players do you know that come with a setup that walks you through your preferences?

Everyday use of the Media Center is even simpler. Using a single, intuitive remote control, everything - from watching TV shows to looking at pictures slideshows, from seeing videos to listening music, from turning your TV on/off to changing the volume on your TV or receiver - is at the touch of a button from the comfort of your couch! There is no need to use or have multiple remotes, keyboard, mice, and absolutely no need to program a complicated remote.

Myth 2: I don't want a PC in my living room because it will crash or require constant maintenance and tinkering to keep it working

Believe it or not, many appliances today are computers! TiVo boxes are actually run on Linux, and the new Blu-Ray/HD-DVD players are also computers. A myriad of other entertainment devices are actually PCs, running on their own operating system - but why don't they crash? The answer is that, although an HTPC or Media center is technically a computer, they are computers designed for a specific purpose. Premium media centers that are properly designed have high stability and rarely crash. Look for a manufacturer that tests their system designs for stability and publishes uptime ratings.

Myth 3: Lack of ability to record cable or satellite HD content makes a HTPC very limited in its functionality

Believe it or not, HD content is actually available for free! Premium-grade media centers have upgrade options that allow you to watch and record high definition (HD) TV with over-the-air (OTA) high-definition tuners. With the exception of live sports programming, most HD content offered by cable and satellite companies is typically nothing more than upscaled DVD video. Even the "direct from camera" feeds are highly compressed to save bandwidth. Thus, recorded cable or satellite HD content is inferior to antenna HDTV and is not the best HD your system has to offer.

By the time that true HD content is available exclusively on cable or satellite, CableCARD will be ready for media centers, and you can simply upgrade to record HD content! If you prefer to have a set-top box instead, DirectTV will allow you to license their HD DVR for a mere $999 - and you don't even own the box!!! The HTPC is a far superior choice. Beyond recording HD content, media centers bring a plethora of functions that aren't available on any other single device, such as burning your recorded shows onto DVD or streaming them to other TVs in your home.

Myth 4: The audio and video quality is not as good as stand alone components

Properly configured premium media centers will actually render better video and audio than stand alone components, and even exceed the performance of $2000, high-end DVD players. Look for systems that feature premium DVD decoders, use ISF-certified video and tuner cards, and have digital S/PDIF outputs with proper DTS and Dolby Digital configuration built-in. You can easily get best-in-class audio and video with premium media centers. [More Info here: http://www.hardware.info/en-UK/articles/am9nY2pqZA/ATI_and_nVidia_crush_highend_DVD_players/

Myth 5: Media Centers are very loud due to fan noise

Many modern entertainment appliances have fans: receivers, set-top boxes, and TiVo machines to name a few. Just because it has fans doesn't mean that it's loud. Look for a manufacturer with systems that emit noise levels of 30dBA or less, which is the equivalent of a quiet room. Premium manufacturers should have their systems' noise emission specifications published.

Myth 6: I need a HDTV for a Media Center to connect to

Not true. A media center is all about convenience. You can connect a media center to virtually any TV! Look for a media center that comes with VGA, DVI/HDMI, component, S-Video, and composite video outputs. You can also purchase a converter that will let you connect a media center to your TV's coaxial input.

A media center's picture quality will be good on any TV, regardless if it is standard or high definition. During the initial media center setup, there is also the option to enlarge fonts so they look clearer and crisper. There's no requirement to have a HDTV connected, but you can be sure your media center will be ready for it when you decide to upgrade!.

Myth 7: Media Centers are just computers. Why should I pay a premium for something that I can buy from DELL or Gateway for much less?

Prices of media centers can run the gamut, but there are distinct differences between something from DELL or Gateway versus a premium system. Before you buy, make sure and see if it has:

  • TV tuners - Some media centers don't come with any tuners at all, so you can't record TV. A quality media center should have two (2) tuners, to let you record two shows at once, or watch TV while recording another channel.
  • DVD decoder - Can the system play DVDs "out-of-the-box?" Does it have all the software necessary? How is the picture quality? Is it comparable to that of a high-end DVD player? Can it upscale/upconvert images to high definition quality? Look for systems with HQV ratings of 60 or better, which is the equivalent of a higher quality DVD player.
  • DVD writing/burning software - Does it come with DVD writing software preinstalled? Can you burn video DVDs that are playable on other DVD players, or will it only burn data DVDs that are only viewable with a computer?
  • Hard Drive Failure / Data Protection - What happens if a hard drive fails? Will you lose all your music, pictures, and videos, or will the system still operate without problems and keep your data safe? Look for a system with data and hard drive failure protection.
  • Audio / Video Connections - What output connections does the media center have? Not all media centers only have computer outputs. Look for systems that feature TV-friendly A/V outputs.
  • Can it connect to a set-top box? - Can a set-top box be connected to the media center? Only some media centers come with accessories and connections that work with your set-top boxes.

Myth 8: I have read/heard from many people having problems with their Media Centers, therefore I will probably have problems with my system if I buy one

This myth is probably rooted in the fact that there is a tremendously large do-it-yourself (DIY) media center community on the Internet. Most of these communities are forums filled with post after post of media center problems and installation issues, and reading them will easily give someone the impression that Media Centers are just full of problems.

Why is that the case? It's because these people are fooled into thinking that building a media center is an easy, simple task. However, compare that with the experiences of a premium media center owner. Has it ever crashed? Was their data completely lost when a hard drive failed? Did they have any stability issues? Most likely, their answer is no - premium media centers are well engineered machines that rarely have problems.

Myth 9: I can just convert my current computer to a Media Center or simply build one myself and save money

Perhaps - as the old saying goes - "Good, Fast, Cheap - pick two." Go onto the various DIY forums, such as TheGreenButton, and see the myriad of problems that DIYers have with their systems. Look on the threads describing people's problems. Have every single one of these threads been answered?

If you decide to build your own media centers - expect problems. Most DIYers assume that physically building the system is all that is required, when the reality is that software tweaking, a topic unfamiliar to most, is what causes the majority of bugs and problems. Many of the people who've "finished" their HTPCs are actually nowhere near finished - the PHYSICAL box is complete; there is video and audio coming out - but there are still dozens of bugs on their systems. Does it crash? Can you use just the remote, or will you need to get a keyboard & mouse? How often is maintenance required? How is the video and audio quality? Even if you have SPDIF, can you perfectly pass bit-for-bit digital DTS or Dolby Digital audio to a receiver? Lastly, can your wife/significant other use it without difficulty?

A lot of hardware simply does not work as advertised - having a parts list and buying the components just isn't enough. Check out this thread - http://thegreenbutton.com/forums/thread/139320.aspx - even a Microsoft Media Center MVP has spent 2 years on his and is still working on it to get it 100% functional. Even though there are only a few responses, one reply suggests the reason is that no one really ever finishes them! Still think you can build your own and get it working?

If you don't have months of time to dedicate to this, or if you can't tolerate crashes & faults where you need to use the keyboard/mouse and troubleshoot every few days, seriously rethink building one yourself. Simply having the information available is just like owning a gourmet cookbook. One cannot expect to cook like a professional chef just by reading a cookbook, and the same is true for building media centers. Having the info available is one thing, but using it to execute and implement a successful recipe/design is simply another. It's the knowledge, experience, and engineering work that one pays for when purchasing premium media centers.

Myth 10: Media Center systems become obsolete very quickly just like computers because of new hardware like the upcoming Blue Ray and HD DVD video formats

On the contrary - media center systems can last a long time, since they are completely upgradeable. Unlike single-use, set-top devices that become obsolete when a new model comes out, media center components can be added or swapped out for upgrades. They are extremely flexible and allow you to have the latest in technology without worrying about obsolescence.

Myth 11: Media Centers are too expensive for what they can do

Actually, media centers are feature-packed devices that provide a truly complete entertainment solution. A comparable system with equivalent functionality built and installed by a home theater professional, can easily cost double or triple the price of a media center. HTPCs are far from limited when it comes to functionality! Try to find a single device that will do all of the following:

  • Watch, pause, & record live television
  • Play and store music CDs and view album art
  • Play, catalogue, and store DVD videos
  • Listen, Pause, & Rewind FM Radio
  • View, store, and edit digital pictures
  • Create automated picture slideshows
  • Burn CDs and DVDs to share stored TV shows, videos, music, pictures
  • Sing Karaoke
  • Instantly check weather
  • Extend stored TV shows, videos, music, & pictures to other TVs with media extenders
  • Automatically protect your music and video files from hard drive crashes

Myth 12: I won't be able to record shows or copy music because of DRM restrictions.

Not true! You can always record TV shows in standard definition from your set-top box's s-video, composite, or coaxial connections. Unlike conventional PVR/DVR systems, you can also burn them onto DVD/CDs to share with family and friends! As for music, DRM-embedded CDs always have a workaround for you to store and play them on a media center. For DRM-embedded song downloads, such as purchases from iTunes, you can burn those files onto music CDs, and then copy the CD onto a media center without DRM restrictions.

Myth 13: I can't get my premium channels (HBO, Showtime) from my cable or satellite provider because Media Centers cannot decrypt the incoming feed

You can connect your media center to the set-top box's s-video, composite, or coaxial feed and watch all of your premium channels! Best of all, if you have an HDTV, premium media centers also upconvert/upscale the incoming video signal to match the resolution of your HDTV - something that many set-top boxes don't do!

Myth 14: Media Center support will be as bad as or worse than typical computer manufacturer support since they won't understand audio & video concepts and connection methods

Look for a media center manufacturer with a staff that isn't only familiar with computers, but is also well-versed with home theaters & their terminology. How do you do that? Just give them a call and see what they know (or don't know) - you'll get a pretty accurate picture of the support quality you receive as a customer. How long did it take to talk to a live person? Did you have to wait on hold long? Do they speak English fluently? Ask them a few questions about how you can integrate a media center into your setup. How good are their suggestions?

Myth 15: Media Centers are too big

While some media center systems can be big and bulky, a small number of manufacturers offer small form factor systems that are no bigger than a high-end DVD player. Some are as small as a shoe box! Look for a manufacturer that offers different sizes and form factors.

Myth 16: I can't return a Media Center system to an online retailer if I find that I don't like it

As with many online purchases, returns can be a hassle. However, some manufacturers offer no-hassle returns, and even 30-day risk-free trials! If you are not satisfied, you should be able to return the media center and receive a refund for the full cost of the system. They may even cover the cost of return shipping! Look for a manufacturer that has easy, friendly return policies.

Thought you knew all about media centers? It may be time for a second look. The media center has become more than "just a PC". It is every bit a set top box, just like your DVD player - but with a whole host of features and capabilities that might take a rack of equipment to duplicate.

Special thanks goes to Steven W. Cheung of VidaBox, LLC for working on this article.