Doin’ my H-T-P-C

The central idea of a Home Theatre PC is to build your own box that plays movies.  Names such as XBMC, Kodi, MythTV, Windows Media Center and so on float around the blogsphere and lists an impressive number of open source programs to do this.  The range is enormous and for each of the components you need to decide where your preferences lie along the buys versus build spectrum.  For example, there is a galaxy of cheap Android boxes which will connect to internet sources such as Netflix or Amazon and stream their content to your TV.  Heck, there are even TVs which will do that!

So why go to the effort to create your own?

Most of the people I read seemed to like the technical challenge and the openness achieved allowing them to add new services as they desired.  All that openness comes with a cost and the effort of Some Configuration Needed.  I particularly liked the components which could participate in the toolchain, so to speak, and even if they were useful as standalone services could also feed their results into other services.  So what services do you need?

Media comes from a variety of sources:

  • Physical media – DVDs and the like
  • Terrestrial digital transmission – also known as your tv antenna!
  • IPTV (stands for Internet Protocol television), which comes through the internet and can comprise
    • IPTV from the net, such as Youtube and other which are free
    • Online IPTV, such as Netflix for which you need a paid account
    • On demand IPTV that streams services to you, such as Hulu or Blinkbox or Wuaki, and for which you pay-per-movie

Each of these sources has ways of getting their content to you, and some like Netflix have their own client.  Each source will have a method to obtain that content, a way you can stage it, and perhaps a unique client that needs to be used to deliver it.  Feeds such as live TV require a TV tuner for example, while DVDs can be ‘ripped’ to home storage and later viewed. I settled onto a number of components to give me these feeds, a mixture of commercial and home-built:

  1. HDHomeRun by SiliconDust, to provide the live terrestrial digital channel tuners which could be piped around the home to mobile phones, computer screens or TVs.
  2. USB hard drive for storing movies.  I looked at Network Attached Storage devices but besides the Windows-only clients which some provide, the cost was prohibitive.  My movie collection ain’t that important!  So a 1TB USB drive attached to my home router was “good enough”.
  3. A Digital Video Recorder running on a single-board computer.  In this case I chose a Odroid C1+ and ran the VDR software on it to record live TV streams onto the network hard drive.  The Odroid is a very capable SBC and able to control a number of operations.  I used a variant of GNU/Linux and had a number of other things also running on this.  Warning: “Some Configuration Needed”!
  4. A front-end box running Kodi on a Raspberry Pi.  This was really simple to set up and everything is done using a wireless remote.  Much simpler than the Odroid PVR above, I’d rate this almost no-configuration needed.  If even this is too much, search Amazon for “android kodi tv box” and you can get some pre-setup TV boxes real cheap nowdays.

I’m still struggling on step #3, the PVR setup but other than that the whole thing just works.  I’m really pleased with what is possible with these little boxes.

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