There is plenty of information out there about setting up a media center using either a home theater PC (HTPC) or digital media receiver, and I’ve read a great deal of it. The long and short of it is that while either approach can get the job done, the right solution is going to depend on 1) how you intend to use it and 2) how much work you want to put into it. Technical details are covered ad nauseam elsewhere. What I’d like to focus on is how to choose between the approaches.
Home Theater PCs
An HTPC is essentially a standard Internet-connected computer hooked up to your existing media center, i.e. usually your television and audio systems. The HTPC set up is going to give you the most flexibility and power. You’ll be able to access any content that is available through a standard web browser, and access your local audio, video and photos through desktop applications. Essentially your television becomes your monitor. In addition, there are a number of media center-specific applications that can be used to centralize your media experience such as Plex, XMBC, iTunes and Windows Media Center.
If your computer has enough juice, an HTPC can also serve as a gaming system. And the setup need not be limited to media and entertainment. You should be able to multipurpose your HTPC doing anything you’d do with a normal computer including: file storage, graphic design, business productivity, web hosting, network administration, etc. While you may pay a little more for these capabilities, it surely expands what you can accomplish with the device.
The drawbacks of an HTPC are the flip side of its strengths. In order to take advantage of the system’s full capabilities, you need suitable controllers. For a regular computer setup, that usually means a keyboard and mouse. But most folks aren’t accustomed to using these controllers in front of the TV or stereo — rather, the remote control is the standard in this context. There are a number of solutions that try to address this issue including handheld Bluetooth keypads, apps to turn your mobile device into a remote, and PC-friendly universal remotes. None are as user friendly as a standard remote. This is due as much to the solutions themselves as it is to the interface they are trying to control — mainstream OSs are just designed to work with a mouse and keyboard (or touchscreen in the case of tablets).
Media center software attempts to mitigate this issue by offering a single interface through which you can organize and access all the Internet content and local media. But much like the controller options, none are as user friendly and comprehensive as what you are accustomed to from your standard cable TV guide. Plex and XMBC are excellent in many ways, but Internet content in particular can be hit or miss. You may find you have access to hundreds of niche and little-known content providers, but not the major outlets you really want such as Netflix, Hulu, and MLB.tv. Or you may be able to access your Hulu Plus account this month, but not next due to a change in your operating system or the provider’s distribution technology. Blame who you want, but you should expect to do some tinkering to keep the system running the way you want, and even then you should be prepared to temper your expectations. Of course you can always use a regular web browser to access any content, but you’re stepping away from the standard TV interface to do that.
Digital Media Receivers
On the other hand, a digital media receiver (also known as a set-top box) is a specialized device with a very focused set of features. In theory, the benefits of this specialization are ease of use and reliability. For example, a media center operating system tends to be focused on Internet streaming and media playback, making for a simple, straightforward interface. This also means that the controller can be equally simple — most media center controllers resemble a TV remote but are less complex.
Rather than trying to do many different things like a full-scale computer, a digital media receiver just tries to do a few things well (and for a lower cost than the full-scale computer). Features vary depending on the receiver itself. The original Roku for example was strictly an Internet content streamer, and in fact began as a means for Netflix to provide streaming services to its subscribers. It has expanded to offer many other Internet content channels which tend to work well. On the other hand, the Apple TV device has traditionally offered a smaller number of streaming channels, but also integrates with iTunes on the local network to provide access to your own media.
There are many other digital media receivers on the market, each with a unique set of features that is constantly evolving. The Roku 2 XS for example now supports gaming channels with a motion control remote. The WD HD Live Hub includes a 1 TB hard drive to store media in the device itself. And D-Link’s Boxee Box includes a full web browser and a qwerty keyboard on the back of its remote control. That said, where digital media receivers shine is in their ability to simplify the management of digital and online content through a single intuitive interface.
The flip side of specialization is inflexibility. Whereas the latest Internet content can be accessed from just about any browser on a standard computer, most digital media receivers only have access to a certain set of channels. Yes, new channels are made available to such devices from time to time, but you are at the mercy of the device manufacturer, content provider or private developers as to the timing and quality of such updates.
Even less frequent will be updates that actually expand the functionality of a digital media receiver black box. For instance, if your device doesn’t support management of local network media files out of the box, it’s unlikely that it ever will. That may seem ok when you are willing to go without an existing functionality, but it may be disappointing to see a new feature released shortly after you make your purchase, e.g. gaming services.
Making the Choice
No analysis would be complete without a caveat or two. Hardware and software makers are well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the solutions described here and are making strides to improve on both sides. The Windows 8 Metro interface to be released later this year may turn out to be a pretty good solution for managing media on PCs. More and more digital media receiver options are hitting the market with ever-expanding functionality. And if you are on the market for a new television, you have another option: Smart TVs, which have built in Internet TV interfaces that make an external media box unnecessary.
That said, the cost/benefits between the HTPC and digital media receiver approaches are pretty clear. If you want a powerful multipurpose device that can provide a lot of different functionality including management of your digital media experience through a standard OS interface, then you should consider the HTPC. On the other hand, if you want something that will work out of the box and are focuses specifically on bringing Internet content to your TV, then the digital media receiver is a good solution. Factor cost in, and you should have your answer.
If that’s not a simple enough analysis, try this. Want to use a remote control that just works to control your digital content? Go with the digital media receiver. Need a keyboard so that you can do more with the system? HTPC.
Want to learn more? Here are some good articles on the subject:
Why Streaming Web TV Boxes Aren’t Ready For Prime Time March 21, 2012