The Trouble with HTPCs
I’ve been involved with Home Theater PCs from the very beginning. I’m talking Windows 3.1 era Diamond Stealth64 Video DRAM (S3 868 on VESA Local Bus ) and Orchid Kelvin MPEG with the on-board hardware Sigma Designs ReelMagic MPEG-1 decoder (it was ReelMagic not RealMagic back then). In these early days, PC multimedia was more of a novelty than anything else. Video CDs were never cheap enough to be a reasonable format in the US, and RealMagic-specific games such as Dragon’s Lair were few and far in between. We’ve left behind the era of full-motion video in games (Wing Commander 3/4 anyone?), but …
…Things were different for DVD. When DVDs first came out, there was no question that DVDs offered a significant leap in performance over Laserdisc or VHS movies. In the early days, DVD players reached into the $1000 price point. With PC DVD solutions (such as Creative Labs’s DXR and DXR2 technologies) being $500 or less, PC DVDs were a great way to get started. As computational horsepower increased and DVDs became more mainstream, DVD playback on the PC remained a good choice. By the time DVD players reached the $50 price point, PC’s were fast enough and DVD readers/burners were cheap enough that it was still a winning combination. Nowadays, it’s impossible to find a PC or laptop that doesn’t ship with a DVD burner. DVDs have become the format of choice for the world.
The last 4 years have been a golden age of HTPCs. On the mobile computing end, companies like Intel, NVIDIA, and AMD/ATI have had great opportunities to improve battery life during DVD playback. On the desktop end, things have been more exciting. With HDTVs coming into popularity, the higher quality video scaling performance of a HTPC meant that going with a HTPC offered better quality than even the most high-end set-top players. When DVI/HDCP and HDMI finally became a reality, set-top-box players caught up with the HTPC market with “upsampling” DVD players. By then, the HTPC had still leapfrogged the standalone competition with technologies such as PureVideo and AVIVO. With DeCSS, DVD on the HTPC took on a whole new role, with people archiving their DVDs onto hard drives, allowing instantaneous access to mega-libraries of movies. Hollywood may have been concerned about software piracy, but the huge sales of DVDs suggest otherwise.
HTPCs were not simply about DVD playback either. With TIVO bringing “timeshifting” into the public’s vocabulary (or at least making TIVO a verb), HTPCs became a solid alternative to TIVO or Replay TV products. Why spend hundreds of dollars on a TIVO with monthly subscription fees, when you could put a $100 tuner into your PC and have the freedom to upgrade your hard drive at any time. Windows Media Center helped make HTPC use easy, and Media Center Extenders such as the Xbox 360 made it even easier to use a HTPC as a media server. When HDTV PC tuners came out, it was also a no brainer solution. There was no cheaper way to record high-definition content than a HTPC.
When Blu-ray and HD DVD were announced, I had high hopes for a new resurgence in high-end home theater PC s. Unfortunately, every time I’ve tried to do a Blu-ray and HD DVD PC setup, I’ve run into trouble.