During this last summer, I came to the conclusion that I need a better system for managing my movie collection. Yet I need to do something without bringing in more furniture, because the room’s looking a bit crowded. This is one of the challenges of the home theater hobby, arranging and designing an HT room without the clutter and mess, be it the physical media or the hundreds of cables hidden from view. After some reading (and also finally accepting that we’re living in a digital age), I decided to simplify everything with an HTPC (home theater personal computer).
One of the great things about these machines, and what essentially sold me on them, is having a large assortment of movies all in the same space without the clutter of physical discs or furniture. Essentially, an HTPC is one of the best space-savers you could imagine, when it comes to owning movies. Better still, I can retrieve and watch any movie without sifting through my stuff or getting off my chair. Everything is accessible with the push of a button on my remote. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always enjoyed looking and being available to hold in my hands what I own ever since the days of VHS. But after finally experiencing an HTPC firsthand, I wonder what took me so long to switch. Even more surprising, I really don’t miss popping a disc into the player and waiting through all the warnings and trailers. I love this so much more!
It had been a while since I last built a computer system, mostly because I switched over to name brand laptops several years ago and pretty much never looked back. So, part of the challenge was just catching up on the latest developments and changes in technology. Most important, of course, was reading about all the available options, particularly in pricing. There are a number of ways for transforming a computer into a home media station, and plenty of retailers available to put it together with the proper software ready to use out of the box. Unfortunately, such conveniences come at a hefty price.
Then again, if you don’t feel all that comfortable with the inside of computers, which can be rather intimidating and confusing if you don’t know that much about them, this option definitely has an advantage. Arguably, one of the leading high-end companies in this area — or at least one of the best known brands due to last year’s lawsuit — is Kaleidescape Systems. Kaleidescap servers and players seem like great products, but I’ll never know because the prices are far too rich for my blood. On the other hand, the rates are far more reasonable than the exceedingly outrageous costs of nJoy’s media centers.
Another high-end solution comes from Vidabox, a company with an incredible selection and prices that better match the actual product received. One attractive feature is flexibility and customization. The cost of the machine depends on your precise needs and wants. You can customize specifically how you expect to use it in your house and home theater. For those already familiar with CQC Systems, you should know what you’ll get from the products of Vidabox, which is basically an extension of that particular software platform. It’s an HTPC solution for fully automated households. This is not just a media server. Again, as great as it sounds, I doubt that I’ll ever be able to afford something that can make my computer talk to the rest of the house, and tell the toilet when to flush while setting the house alarm, closing the shades, and keeping every room at a comfortable temperature.
Coming in at slightly more reasonable prices are two other machines with that same flexibility and customization, but which require a little more hands-on knowledge of the PC. First, with a bit more damage to the wallet, is a standalone NAS (Network-Attached Storage) server like Synology. Normally used as a central workgroup data storage, the company offers a great variety of choices with high performance products up to 100TB. The drawback is having to modify the Linux-based device (which also means a level of comfort on your part using that particular OS) into a media server on your own. You’ll also need to familiarize yourself with the applications and programs, which are available for anyone wanting to go this route. The end result, from what I’ve read in a couple forums, is well worth the learning experience.
The second option is likely the most attractive for those considering a home media server – and it comes in the best available prices. The Popcorn Hour is essentially like a network-capable media jukebox. It’s fully functional out of the box — ready to record your media collection as long as you’re comfortable doing a little hardware installation on your own. What you basically pay for is the computer case with power supply, motherboard, audio/video capabilities, CPU, memory and the necessary software. You will still need to purchase and install the Blu-ray/DVD drive and a 3.5″ HDD. The fine folks from Home Theater Forum provide a nice, quick review of the company’s A210 model here.
In the end, after quite a bit of research, I decided to go with our friends over at AVSForum, where you will find a discussion forum dedicated entirely to HTPCs. One thread that caught my attention was Assassin’s Simple Beginner’s Guide, which guarantees the best option at the most affordable price depending on your needs. I figured why not, since we’re living in a little more cost-conscious society at the moment. The results, as long as you follow his guide precisely, are absolutely remarkable! In terms of flexibility and 100% customization, there is no better way of having an HTPC than building it yourself with a terrifically helpful guideline by your side. For those not comfortable constructing your own computer and piecing hardware together, Assassin also does custom jobs at excellent prices via his storefront web site. I highly recommend his advice for anyone considering a home media server.
Next time, I’ll list the actual components that I decided to purchase, and discuss my experience putting the whole thing together. I had a blast building this wonderful machine and love the final outcome. I’m even considering a second, smaller build for the bedroom. But first, I’ll finish talking about this one, which fits in perfectly with the rest of my setup.