If you've already got a Mac or a PC, you can build a home entertainment center around your current computer. Here are two sample systems to help show what can be done.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

July 12, 2007

14 Min Read

A home entertainment center that uses a general-purpose computer as its controller and storage has long been one of the big goals of computer marketeers. Until recently, however, the hardware and software needed for even a reasonably useful entertainment system was well beyond the reach of any but the most tech-knowledgeable (and, even more important, high-salaried) folks.

In the last year or so, though, things have changed. Mainstream users are (finally) starting to want their computers to manage media. But what is out there that fulfills this want? What works with a PC? A Mac? What can the middle-of-the-road user -- someone who wants power and flexibility but can't afford to buy a lot of top-dollar equipment -- get out there these days?

That's the question I set out to answer.

Assembling The Basics:
Apple MacBook
Fujitsu LifeBook N6420
Philips 32-Inch Digital Widescreen Flat TV Model 32PFL7332D



Apple MacBook
(Click image to enlarge.)

I started out with two fairly typical desktop computers: A MacBook and a Fujitsu PC notebook. The MacBook came equipped with a 2Ghz Intel Core Duo processor, 1GByte of 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM, an 80MB hard drive, 1GB of RAM, two USB 2.0 ports, a Firewire (IEEE 1394) and a gigabit Ethernet port, and a built-in 802.11g/n wireless card. It used OS X 10.4.10.

On the PC side, I was able to obtain a Fujitsu LifeBook N6420 notebook available with a 2GHz Intel Core Duo T7200 processor and 2GB RAM. The Lifebook came with a few more bells and whistles on it than the Mac had, including a memory card reader, PCMIA and ExpressCard slot, five USB 2.0 ports, FireWire and Ethernet ports, and 400MB of hard disk space. The system came pre-installed with Vista Premium Home Edition.



Fujitsu LifeBook N6420
(Click image to enlarge.)

The idea was to construct a system using each of the computers that would record video, photos, and music and then be able to play it back at a remote location -- in this case, a Philips 32-Inch Digital Widescreen Flat TV Model 32PFL7332D --via a wireless LAN. For that purpose, I'd add a video front end to digitize a video signal, as well as a wireless device that could pump the media that was stored on the computers to various TV systems, including HDTV.

What I planned to look at wasn't only how well each component worked independently, but also how, once it was all over, I felt about working with both an Apple OS X system and a Vista system. I currently use mainly Mac systems -- would this change my mind? Would I learn to love Vista, or would I stick with OS X for my entertainment as well as my work?

A Tuner For The Mac:
EyeTV

Since neither the Mac nor the PC comes with a built-in video digitizer or tuner, the signal has to be gotten externally.



Elgato Systems' EyeTV Hybrid
(Click image to enlarge.)

For the Mac, I used Elgato Systems' EyeTV Hybrid tuner, which has been pumping out Apple-friendly video products for years now. The EyeTV, which is about the size of a standard USB drive, feeds video to the Mac through the USB port, and accepts analog (NTSC) or digital HDTV (ATSC) video. It even comes with the video/audio cables.

Installation was simple, and consisted of loading the latest version of the EyeTV control program, and then plugging the device into a USB port. The software took it from there, signing into update sites as needed.

Operation of the device can also be done through an included IR remote, which activates the IR receiver on the front of the Mac. I had no problem using the remote to control playback from across a room.

Elegato has integrated its device with the Titan TV listing service. The service provides information about the TV programs that are tuned by the device, and is updated on a daily basis. When the program is tuned, information about what is on that particular channel shows in the viewing window and then disappears. The aspect ratio of the picture can be automatically adjusted, or manually set to standard formats. Indeed, there is even a picture-in-picture option to use the available tuner, composite, or S-video sources.

The Titan service makes recording a TV program a snap. I simply selected the program to be recorded from the schedule that showed up in the Web browser, and the schedule was automatically set. If the computer is on, it will attempt to record the program (if, on the other hand, you forget to turn your computer on, you're out of luck). Nice subtleties include having the recording start one minute before and after the scheduled time, just in case not everyone is synchronized.

The program list is also the way to access the full TV schedule, presented in a browser window with a rolling time line. To view a program in this window, you just click on the listing. EyeTV then tunes it in. Very simple and intuitive.

A cable is provided to allow analog video sources (like that old VCR cassette camera) to be digitized, viewed, and stored on the hard disk. You can select the quality of any stored image, which can allow for great savings in hard disk space. But it also means that the images are stored in a proprietary format that only EyeTV understands. And that doesn’t help if you want to share that information.

However, EyeTV does allow for export. In the View menu, you must first open the EyeTV program list, which includes any recorded programs. Once selected, that program can be exported in iTunes, iMovie, iDVD, QuickTime, AppleTV, MPEG-4 (including “hinted” information for QuickTime streaming), HD TV, H.264, DivX AVI, and Windows Media.

A Tuner For The PC
AVerMedia Hybrid Ultra USB

For the PC, I went for an AVerMedia Hybrid Ultra USB, which gets its operating power from the USB 2.0 port it connects to.



AVerMedia Hybrid Ultra USB
(Click image to enlarge.)

The device is larger than the EyeTV -- it's a box about 4 x 4.5x 1 inches. All the AV connections (RCA video and audio jacks, S-video), the RF inputs (75-ohm cable and FM), and the USB connections are along the side of the box. An LED shows when the box is operating.

Also included are the Windows MCE USB IR Blaster and Receiver devices. The receiver plugs into the computer’s USB port, while the Blaster operates off the receiver to transmit. These devices assure that the included IR remote will be able to operate, even if the computer doesn’t have an IR port built in.

Installation procedures are typical. First, the device is plugged into the USB port, and detected by the OS. After you've installed the drives, the actual setup takes place in Windows Media Center, which causes the box to scan the TV input for active signals, build an active playlist, and download the channel guide for the appropriate zipcode.

Media Center handled playback of the TV signal rather well, and it integrated the TV picture with program notes it downloaded by keeping the TV picture alive in a small box. Recordings made by the device are also stored and integrated into Media Center, which shows them like any other Microsoft recorded video.

There is also a standalone application that can play and record TV. The standalone also controls the FM tuner that is in the box, something that Media Center can’t do. The operation is similar to TV, in that the FM band is scanned, and a playlist built. (Manual entry of stations is also possible by use of the virtual keyboard in the application.)

On the whole, compared to the EyeTV, the AVerMedia Hybrid Ultra had two strikes against it: the hardware was larger (a consideration when dealing with living room equipment) and I found the software a bit too cutesy (I think skins shouldn’t get in the way of functionality, and drawers that slide in and out have to make sense). I also felt I had less functional and archival control with the Avermedia software.

A Media Extender For The Mac
Netgear Digital Entertainer HD EVA8000

Once an audio or video signal has been recorded on the computer, the second part of the media equation comes into play: Getting the signal to your TV -- hopefully, without the muss and fuss of any hardwired connection. For the Mac, there are less hardware choices in this area than for the PC. However, while the AppleTV is the first thing you might think of, there are other choices.



Netgear Digital Entertainer HD EVA8000
(Click image to enlarge.)

The Netgear Digital Entertainer HD EVA8000 is a rather new entry into the field, and shows it both in its software and the hardware features. Not only can the EVA8000 connect to a wireless 802.11 b/g network, but also it has a USB 2.0 port for accessing media from iPods, hard drives, or thumb drives. There is an S/PDIF port for high end digital audio, along with RCA-style connectors for audio and composite video signals. There are S-video connectors, an HDMI port, a 10/100Mbps Ethernet port, and a SCART port for users in Australia and Europe.

The EVA8000 supports a wide variety of media formats, including MP3, WAV, WMA, unprotected AAC, and FLAC; MPEG1, MPEG2, MPEG4, WMV, AVI, Xvid, and DivX. It also displays photos in JPEG, BMP, PNG, and TIFF formats.

Setting up the EVA8000 started out straightforward, but I found a few quirks. The first time it was plugged in and connected to a TV, I expected an automatic sign-on. Nothing happened. I had to unplug the device and the replug it again to get the startup screen, something that was not mentioned anywhere in the manual. This behavior became repetitive after any extended unplugged period.

Another quirk is that all text input during setup must be done through the remote control device. While setup is a hopefully one-time deal, it’s still a bit of an annoyance; much like having to type e-mail on a small cell phone keypad. The remote also controls the device during media playback, as well as navigating though the control menus.

Configuring the EVA8000 out of the box for the Mac was impossible, as I found after many fruitless attempts. Finally, after a long period of diagnosis and e-mails with the top-level Netgear support team, I found out that the Netgear software needed an upgrade to handle some details right (like setting the location of where the data was going to be stored) and I needed to make sure that everything used the Samba SMB networking protocol so that Windows file sharing would work correctly on the Mac.

It is not a simple process, by the way, and it must be done exactly right. Unlike a PC, the data pathways must be manually established. But the device does work well, once configured. One can only hope that a walkthrough document showing exactly how to set up the EVA8000 to run on the Mac will be available at some future date.

The EVA8000 is a true Internet appliance as well as a display device. It can independently download content from the Internet. It browses and tunes Internet radio stations, building an internal stored playlist from choices that the user makes. On a PC (but not a Mac) it can play YouTube video content. However, it can browse Flickr photos on either platform using the Internet connection.

Video and audio podcasts (BBC, CBS, National Geographic, NPR, CNN) and RSS feeds (Reuters, New York Times, Yahoo) can also be accessed by the EVA8000 without use of an additional computer. And if you have the URL of your favorite RSS feed, the device can access it too.

I ended up using the EVA8000 routinely as an Internet radio. Even when the device is “turned off” it can still provide an audio stream from a previously tuned station. Of course, the stream can be stopped via the remote. I found this ability to deliver continuous sound very useful and to me was worth the price differential between it and other media display devices.

A Media Extender For The PC
Hardware: D-Link DSM-520 Wireless HD Media Player

There are more choices for the PC -- in this case, I settled on the D-Link DSM-520 Wireless HD Media Player. The DSM-520 looks like the Netgear box: long, low, and sleek. It has the HDMI cable interface along with component, S-video, and composite output, and a USB 2.0 port. It has a remote control, and text data can be entered during setup from an onscreen keyboard.



D-Link DSM-520 Wireless HD Media Player
(Click image to enlarge.)

To begin, I installed the server program that comes on the CD, and all seemed to proceed normally. I powered up the DSM-520, specified the wireless network it was to use (though, like the Netgear device, it can connect to LANs via Ethernet), set the media server to use, and got to the main screen. I selected the type of media to display, set all to display, and waited for the media that I knew was in the public folder to show up.

Nothing. Zip. Nada.

I retried everything. Still nothing. OK, I said to myself, time for that tech support call.

Guess what? Even though there is no mention of it on D-Link’s support site, or in their manual, you don’t need to install that server program on the CD to get the DSM-520 to work with Vista -- just for XP. You do need to go into Windows Media Player version 11 and allow media sharing, which can be done under Vista's Library tab. Once that is done, going to the device’s set-up menus (accessible from the remote via a dedicated button) can specify the computer itself as a media server.

Once I got everything set up, I had no problems with the system. The stored media accessible to Windows Media Player was picked up by the DSM-520 and played fine. Like the EVA8000, the DSM-520 supports a good number of formats, including MP3, WMA, WAV, AIFF, Ogg Vorbis; WMV9, MPEG1, MPEG2, MPEG4, Xvid (but not DivX), AVI, DVR-MS; JPEG, TIFF, PNG; and M3U and PLS playlists.

The Internet-supplied content disappointed me, however. The only free music available was from Live365.com, which is not a bad service. But it doesn’t have the quirky stuff I like (which I was able to access via the Netgear). There is also a paid service called Vtuner -- I tried the free trial, and found this one wasn't for me either. I may be a music snob, but what I wanted just wasn’t available.

Additionally, when you turn the DSM-520 off, it is totally off. No music plays through the DSM-520 when it is powered down, unlike the Netgear device.

In short, the Netgear Digital Entertainer HD eventually won me over, even though it lists at 25% more than the D-Link. The Netgear was far more flexible in operation, and what it brought to the table ended up being more useful. Since it can run on both the Mac (if one does the appropriate dances) and the PC; it would be my universal recommendation for someone who asked me about a home entertainment device.

One more note: Although Windows Vista Media Center handled things quite well, I found that I still like the Mac software better for recording video. For example, EyeTV's software was simpler to use overall; the available user choices for each step (especially for export) were all easily available under pull-down menus. In addition, in the same way that Apple pushes users of the iPod to use iTunes, Microsoft pushes users to use Media Center with PC-based hardware, no matter what software alternatives may have been shipped with the product.

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like


More Insights