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Discussion Starter #1
Hi all. I am new to HomeTheaterShack. It seems the folks around here know a thing or two and I could use some advice...

I am starting from scratch. I am looking to build a dedicated HTPC and, using a (probably wired) network, distribute content to a couple of remote HDTVs through additional computers or game consules. I also want to put a bunch of my DVDs and Blue Rays on the HTPC hard drive so I can access them from the other rooms without having to cruise to the basement to find the disc in question. I currently get Comcast Digital Cable. I really want to set this system up to avoid a drop in signal quality. So my questions...

1. What is the best device to control the Comcast box and capture both std def and HD content? Which format should I capture into? I am building this HTPC from scratch.

2. Am I better off getting a PS3, an Xbox 360, or building another computer to stream the content, including hd, through? I am thinking of using this as an excuse to go get a game consule... :bigsmile:

3. What video card do I want for the HTPC?

4. Software to control the HTPC? BTV, Nero MediaHome 4, WMC, SageTV...

Any other thoughts and/or suggestions are most welcome. If you could build a multi-room system from scratch how would you do it?

Thanks in advance for the help!
 

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Welcome to the Shack!

first time I have gotten to say that:flex:

I have some experience with #4
4. Software to control the HTPC? BTV, Nero MediaHome 4, WMC, SageTV...
I have used WMC, GB-PVR, Mythtv, MediaPortal and a few others...

Currently I am using MediaPortal V1 and find it to be stable (this has not always been the case) but I would not recommend starting with the list of programs. That is what I did and it was hard to narrow it down. Instead, map out all that you want the HTPC(s) to be capable of:

So far you listed:
some sort of server/client (master/slave)
the ability to use clients that are not pcs
dvd ripping and playback
blu-ray ripping and playback
tv timeshifting (dvr)

What else do you want? music playback? photo viewing? Internet?

Be sure to note which features and abilities are must have and which things are expendable.

Once you have your list, get on the internet and begin a side by side feature comparison of each package you are interested in. Of course you can start this by checking the features page for each program and there are also some tables that do some comparisons (I have never found a complete one though and they often seem to be "tilted" in favor of the reviewer's favorite). Don't forget to check out the plugins that are available for each package. Many times features that are missing in the program will be available this way, if the program allows for it. You may also find new features that you want that you didn't realize were out there. :daydream:You should be able to quickly narrow it down to a few good candidates. At this point, download the programs or the demos and play with them. It helps if you already have your htpc because you can compare true performance but even if you don't, you can at least get a feel for the interface and how well it is put together. Make notes about what you like, don't like, or think is buggy.

By now you should have 2 or 3 that are still in the running. Take your notes and hit the forums. You want to see if there are easy workarounds to the problems you found, how friendly and helpful people are, and how long it takes for issues to be resolved. Ask yourself things like "where does support come from?" and "Do they have a large number of outstanding bugs that are not getting resolved?"

Also ask yourself how much you like to tinker. Software like WMC just works but you may find yourself limited by DRM or lack of certain freedoms, whereas Mythtv and MediaPortal tend to require more tinkering to get everything up and running. I am willing to accept this because I am an Open Source guy at heart. However there is one more test that you selection must pass. The family and friends test. If your solution is not easy and intuitive to use you will be the only one using it. I speak from experience.

To answer you final question I would build a huge server with 2TB of RAID5 hdd space and 4 tv cards. I would make sure that one still had an analog input (either an NTSC tuner or composite in) for the times when I need to bring in older content. The rest would be ATSC/QAM tuners. I would set up all my content on this system and hide it in a back room. At each tv I would set up an attractive and quiet htpc case (antec, silverstone ...). I would have a blu-ray drive, hdmi, and hardware video acceleration on each machine. I would also ensure that the system was HDCP compliant. Finally, I would connect it all with Gigabit ethernet.

hope this helps,

ag
 

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Discussion Starter #3
Thanks for the insight agayton. We are definately on the same track regarding the htpc server. I am not sure if I want a true server-client model, or a peer to peer setup. I am leaning towards server/client. Raid5 in the tb range with plenty of room to grow. Four tuners, but which ones? I have seen a lot of folks using the Hauppauge HVR-1600 and the Silicondust HDHomeRun. One is in the box, one isn't. But I am having a hard time figuring out the the different benifits/drawbacks from there. Which one captures in the format that has the least or no loss of video and audio quality? It doesn't appear that the HDHomeRun can control a Comcast cable box. Considering that I want to be able to access all those premium channels I am paying for, that would be a drawback. Are there other tuner cards that I should look at?

Also, the 'client' computers in this case. I was considering the XBox or PS3 as they appear to be very capable video processing computers that are being sold below the cost of their components on the assumption that the mfg will make plenty selling you games later on. Kind of like printers and that absurdly expensive ink and toner. It also gives me an excuse to get a game consule in here without all of the complaining from the girlfriend! :T Given that, you would still build a htpc client? Better components?

Thanks for the advice!
 

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I tried peer to peer first and found that it was dificult to manage media. Having all my stuff (movies, photos, and music) on one server has sure made it easier once I was able to get it all there. I know with both Mythtv and MediaPortal you can have multiple servers if the need arises (I think some others do this too, just not sure which). The neat thing is that (for now) my server is an old Dell p4 2.4 Ghz machine I got on the cheap. I put a big HDD in it, a dual tuner and not much else. As a test I ran three clients all streaming dvd images and had no problems. I will have to upgrade when I move to blu-ray and more hd but that will be just a bit down the road.

I have used the Hauppauge cards for some time and find them to be fine performers. The only issue I have had is with drivers (this seems to be common) but, once I got it cleared up, it worked. The Hauppauge cards often come with the irblaster that you mentioned wanting so that you can control you cable box. If you get one with a remote the codes are out there that will let you set it up to do all sorts of things.

As for recording, the Hauppauge 1600 cards record digital content straight from the stream in it's MPEG2 form (somebody correct me if I am wrong on that). This results in no loss of quality; well at least no more than you already lost from the fact that the cable company compressed the out of the video before they sent it to you. I think most digital cards do it this way. The card also records analog in MPEG2 which will result in a slight quality loss due to compression but the amount of space needed to record analog video in an uncompressed format would not be worth it. Various DVR programs may offer you the option to control the quality of the recording. Most DVR programs then offer some form of post-processing that allow you to convert your recordings into smaller files (which may result in a quality loss)or remove ads.

As for which card to use, it is hard to say. I would pick my media program first and then choose from the list of cards that are known to work well with that app and provide the features you want.

I like the htpc client over the game system for the freedom of it. I just like knowing I have a full fledged computer that I can configure and do more with. That being said, the thought has crossed my mind of the ease of WMC and a few 360s. One thing to look at with each software program you examine is which clients can work with it (with or without modding:devil:)

keep us up to date on what you decide,

ag
 

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Discussion Starter #5
Do you know anything about the difference between MPEG2 and MPEG4? I know that MPEG4/H.264 is a newer encoding tech, and it sounds as if it is much better. If I am going to build from scratch, I would prefer to use tuner cards that take advantage of the new standard so they don't become obsolete as quickly. The only unit I can find that states that it can encode in MPEG4 is the Hauppauge HD PVR box, which is around $250. Ouch.
Any knowledge to share about MPEG2 and 4 would be greatly appreciated.

What server software are you running? Thoughts?

Thanks!
 

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MPEG-4 is a better technology but only when recording uncompressed material (analog or dv-avi) or material that is already in MPEG-4. If the material is already compressed with MPEG-2 the gain in smaller file size you would get in transcoding the material to MPEG-4 would not be enough to justify the loss in quality in my opinion. I do know that alot of folks do this and are happy with what they get so my view is for sure not the only one. The problem is, when you transcode you lose quality because the computer must uncompress and then recompress the video. This is sort of like what happened when we used copy tapes. Each copy got a little worse. Of course if we had the space it would be great to record in a lossless format but sources that are encoded in MPEG-2 (DVD, sat, and, I think, cable) would still not benefit. They would just take up more space.

That being said, you are right in looking for something that can encode in MPEG-4. Comcast along with most HD content providers seem to be headed to it. What I don't know, and could not find, was what digital cards support it other than the one you mentioned. Anyone else know more about this?

The other alternative is to see if you cable provider has a box or will allow you to provide you own cable box that has a firewire connection. You can then record the stream straight from the box:yay2:.

My server is a Windows XP sp3 box running MediaPortal V1. It does a good job but was bit of harder to get the scheduler and tv lineup working than some others. I tried Mythtv and loved it but, without a "real" Windows client, it was a show stopper. My wife did not want to reboot to watch tv. From what I have read, this may not be an issue much longer, but they still have issues with blu-ray and protection schemes. MediaPortal has a ton of plugins and very active development. There are some things they do, out of the box, that annoy me. Channel changing is slow because it starts the recorder when you start live tv. There is a way to change it but I have not tried yet. The other issue for me is that it requires a beefier video card than some others. Not to show the video but to run the UI. All in all though, I will probably stay with it (now that I have learned the ins and outs).

ag
 

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I am no expert on this but, in theory, you can connect the firewire out straight into you computer and record the streams. In reality, it may or may not work and may require a little or a lot of hacking.

The first barrier is wether you cable company has the port active or not. You may be able to get them to activate it if it is not. I don't know:scratchhead:.

The second issue is how well your chosen media program works with it. I hear that MCE can do pretty well with it but I have no firsthand experience. MediaPortal seems to have some support through plugins and various other hacks. I don't know about other software programs. I did find one app that lets you record things like a vcr but only from the current channel called capdvhs.

One interesting note is that it seems very possible, not to get your hopes up:innocent:, that even if you can't record from the firewire, you can change channels from it. This seems also to usually be handled via plugins.

I hope I have not sent you on a wild goose chase with this.

ag
 

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Discussion Starter #9
Well, I guess it is time to drag one of my computers over to the box and see if the firewire is active at all. I will let you know what I find...

Thanks!
 

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yeah, let me know... I just checked mine and (as I suspected) no firewire port. I live in a small town and our cable company usually goes the cheap route :gah:
 

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Discussion Starter #11
For what it is worth, these are the Comcast HD capable boxes. The little tiny box in my bedroom that runs my dinosaur tv can't tune HD, and doesn't have the firewire ports...
 

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Yes, a little more checking shows that my box is not an HD box (although it is big). It seems we got the old boxes from another system when they got upgraded boxes (from a reliable source:shh:). Our system has started offering HD but they did not inform me that it was an option when I picked up my box. Not an issue yet as I don't have an HD TV. That will be changing when I get a projector.
 

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Discussion Starter #13
I have an HDTV, and I get a few good sports channels in HD, including Vs. I am a huge hockey fan, and lemme tell ya, hockey looks incredible in HD! That is why I am spending so much time trying to figure out how to get the signal through my HTPC with the least loss in video quality. So far, it appears that the Hauppauge HD PVR is the answer, but it is bucks. I have started reading about firewire options, and haven't really figured out what the issues are. Fun fun fun!!!
 
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