Theater Audio
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I decided to add a PC to my home theater for two reasons. First, I wanted to have a computer handy in that room for Internet surfing. Normally I'd just bring a laptop in there, but having something displayable on the TV seemed like a good idea. Second, I wanted to experiment with DVD playback from a PC. Using a HTPC allows me to display DVD's using the HDTV inputs of my TV and lets me use all of the information available from each kind of DVD (4:3, 4:3 Letterbox, and Anamorphic). Read about aspect ratio control for more information.


My HTPC is a homebrew unit consisting of components that were recommended by other HTPC owners and reviewed favorably elsewhere on the web and in print. The discussion at AVScience was invaluable in my decision making process. The discussion of both hardware and software is a "must read" for anyone considering buying or building a HTPC.

The complete hardware list is:

This motherboard is generally well reviewed and is well liked by overclockers (I'm not one). It has onboard ATA-66 support. I was disappointed with the board. It works just fine now, but it came with a bad floppy cable (boy was that a waste of time) and the BIOS rev it came with had trouble with ATA-66 support. I've put together quite a few systems over the years and this one took longer than usual
Pentium III 667, 133MHz FSB
Plenty of computrons for DVD playback. This was an OEM package that included a heat sink and fan. They attached quite easily and seem to work well.
128MB, 133MHz
Nothing special here
Hard Drive
Western Digital
10.2GB EIDE, 5400 RPM
I didn't really need anything special here. I just wanted something relatively quiet and at a good price point. These days (6/2000) 10GB drives are very inexpensive.
Already Owned I took this out of my primary home computer. I replaced it with a new Toshiba model that is also a CD-R, CD-RW unit.
Display Card
G400 32MB Dual Head
Along with NVIDIA GeForce cards, the Matrox is the most often recommended card for HTPC use. It is well liked because of its high quality and tremendous flexibility. The Matrox PowerDesk software along with Entech's PowerStrip allow a wide range of custom resolutions and timings.
Ethernet Adapter
Already owned This is just an old 10MBit ethernet card I happened to have. After rummaging around to find the driver, it works just fine.
Digital Connection
This wireless keyboard/mouse combo has a receiver that plugs into both the keyboard and mouse ports of the computer. The small keyboard uses 4 AA batteries. The keyboard works well, the "mouse", really more of a small joystick, works OK.
Sound Card
Creative Labs
SoundBlaster Live X-Gamer
This card has a digital output that can be connected directly to a Dolby Digital receiver. Since the output expects an 1/8" audio plug, you need a $1.49 converter that allows you to plug in an RCA cable. Though I'm not a very discriminating listener, this card sounds great to me.
Desktop ATX
Digital Connection
The dimensions of this case allow it to fit (snugly) in my component cabinets. It is the standard beige color, so I spray painted it black. I still need to paint the bezel on the DVD drive and drawer front to match.

Overall the hardware went together fairly smoothly despite glitches with the motherboard. It's a reasonably zippy system and is more than adequate for DVD playback.


I've kept the software installed on this machine to a minimum. It will be used primarily for DVD playback and web surfing so I didn't want to clutter it with a bunch of other software that might end up causing me trouble later. The major software packages includes:

Operating System
Windows 98
I'm running Windows 98 (first edition) on this machine. I'd prefer to run NT or W2K for greater stability, but judging from other feedback there is not enough software support yet to make those platforms a viable choice. I'm going to keep my eye on this and convert once W2K is a viable choice.
DVD Player
WinDVD 2000
This player is often credited with having the best playback quality and scaling abilities. It does produce quite a nice picture, but it also has some quirks. The alternative that I've tried, Cyberlink PowerDVD, does work well on my system. In fact it causes crashes.
Jim Ferguson
This useful utility works in conjunction with WinDVD or other programs to scale the video to an appropriate size. This is useful, for instance, for displaying 4:3 (full frame or letterbox) material on a 16:9 set.
Display Tweaking
This very cool program allows you to create new custom resolutions that are then integrated into Windows' display properties. For instance, you can define a 960x540 resolution for widescreen DVD playback. The program does many other things as well, but this is my primary usage.
Display Driver
I normally wouldn't list a display driver, but this driver comes with desktop software that is invaluable. PowerDesk allows you to customize the new resolutions that you created with PowerStrip. It allows you to set all of the details of the display timings (e.g. Horizontal Refresh rate, Front porch, Sync, Back porch) to match the HDTV parameters that your TV is expecting. Though most people won't compute these on their own, it allows you to enter values that are computed and tested by others. Look at this discussion thread for lots of details.

I have a few other things loaded such as Netscape Navigator, but the list above captures the software that is really necessary for HTPC use.

Pros and Cons

Using a HTPC for DVD playback definitely has it's pluses and minuses. Here's a list of the items that have occurred to me so far:



Learned the hard way...

See the Minuses listed above.