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SUPERCHARGE YOUR PC

Biswajit.HD

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Leap ahead of ordinary TV programming and harness all the content available online.


These days, it almost seems that one computer per person isn’t enough! We have our desktops at work, move around with laptops, and glance at our connected smartphones all the time, but there’s room for even more computers and connected devices around the house for specialized functions. The strongest case can be made for a home entertainment PC, sometimes called a Home Theater PC (HTPC), which needs to be a dedicated machine because it’s located in a family setting rather than a private one, and it uses your TV screen as its primary monitor, which becomes somewhat inconvenient for getting any other kind of work done. Rather than running wires around a house or lugging a laptop over to the TV each time you want to watch a movie, it makes a whole lot of sense for home audio and video enthusiasts to invest in a dedicated entertainment machine.

Home theaters range from simple DVD player + receiver + surround sound speaker setups to elaborate rooms with high-def projectors, custom soundproofing, and special-purpose furniture. The cost of keeping up with technology is rather prohibitive—anyone who’s been an enthusiast for around a decade will have felt the pinch of investing in Laser Disc, DVD, HD-DVD and now Blu-ray players and movie discs, not to mention the ever-growing number of cable and connector standards that keep proliferating. Today, a large number of components which need to be upgraded periodically can simply be replaced with a computer. The costs and hassles involved with each upgrade cycle are considerably reduced, since you can often achieve superb results just by swapping out one component. Moreover, you have immense flexibility and control over your media, and new formats require only a change of software.

Today, we have very demanding, non-passive requirements when it comes to media consumption. We don’t just want to watch TV, we want to record it and skip through ads. We don’t just want music; we want videos, artist information and related track recommendations. We’ve been exposed to high quality entertainment on demand with thousands of online sources to choose from, and we love it! Why settle for anything less? A home entertainment PC is the ultimate solution for families, and singles everywhere.

The content

We’re the YouTube generation, finally riding bandwidth pipes fat enough to watch clips unbuffered and surf around from one link to another, devouring video as we go along. No longer do we have to depend on a TV channel’s programming schedule—we can download (legally or illegally) practically anything we like and watch it on demand. But we’re still doing it while sitting in front of our 13-inch laptops and 17-inch computer screens. Why not zap all that over to the TV?

Star TV: The website ‘www.startv.in’ features an option called ‘Star Player’ for those who are busy at home or at work and miss out on their regular shows. The website features almost all the recent episodes that have aired on the Star network. Just log on to the website and select the video from the fields marked Week, Month and All Time. The website is well designed and has categories depending on the genre of the videos—popular, drama, romance, comedy and reality. Alternatively, one can search for the desired program too. ‘Star Player +’ is an option which one can register for using a Facebook user ID or free account, and set up a personalized dashboard which allows you to mark any program. Once aired, you’ll see it added to your dashboard for you to view at your convenience. An email reminder can also be sent and you can see what other users on the website are watching.

International TV: Sadly, many international sites like the amazing Hulu and Vevo restrict their content to viewers in the United States. There are still a few free options such as MTV.com which has a huge archive of reality-based programming available for streaming. Justin.tv is another site with loads of great live streaming videos of concerts, nature, and pop culture topics. A single directory of all the billions of videos out there would be pretty impossible to compile, but the guys behind SurfTheChannel.com have tried to do the best job they can. Beware of links that claim to let you download these videos though!

Rajshri.com: The Indian publishing company Rajshri Media now offers hundreds of TV shows, music videos and movies. Users can stream most of these online for free, and pay to download them. Most of the shows are popular soaps and chat shows aired presently on local TV channels. Rajshri also offers its own Web serial, called Akbar Birbal Remixed, which consists of 90 three-minute episodes.

Bigflix.com: This website also has a wide selection of Indian movies, TV shows and music videos on offer. You can watch them all online and share with friends via popular social networks.

YouTube: The best blend of videos can found on YouTube. From low-quality videos taken with mobile phones to the highest quality productions, they’re all there. Plenty of commercial musicians and filmmakers now use YouTube to host their material, so search around for some real high-quality content. Amateur drama series abound, and you can catch up on recorded clips from television shows too. Live events such as music concerts and the recently concluded IPL cricket tournament are also hosted quite frequently.

Vimeo: This is more of a community for visual artists. Independent filmmakers have posted thousands of beautiful and entertaining clips to Vimeo. Some can be downloaded and saved, and many have HD versions available too.

Dailymotion, Metacafe, Joost, others: Dozens of other video streaming sites exist, usually with some specific genre. You can find tutorial videos, music, general entertainment, mainstream TV clips, independently published work, and loads more.

Podcasts and Web shows: Originally conceptualized for iPods and other portable players, the term has come to be used for any simple packaged video show, episodes of which are usually published on a regular basis. These come in audio as well as video. Literally thousands of shows are available, including ones on technology, politics, Bollywood, current events, and comedy. Chances are your favorite blogs and websites also produce downloadable or streamable podcasts. Go to www.apple.com/itunes/podcasts/ for a rundown of everything they offer through iTunes, or search around for freely downloadable files anywhere on the Web.

Shoutcast, Yahoo, Live365: Undoubtedly the grandfather of online streaming audio, Shoutcast contains thousands of stations dedicated to everything from classic polka ballads to hardcore trance to political commentary. Shoutcast stations can be played on your PC, Web browser or multiple mobile devices via free clients. Yahoo also offers tons of free streaming radio stations divided by genre and physical location. One of the nicest services, although you’ll have to pay to stream it outside a web browser, is Live365. The quality and range of options available are truly mind boggling.

iTunes/Netflix: We hope that these or some similar legal, paid distribution system will launch in India and let us download or subscribe to all the mainstream movies and shows we want to watch, finally breaking free of the TV channels’ rigid schedules. Are the companies listening?

Illegal content: What can we say? It’s out there! We don’t endorse this in any way, and you’re opening yourself up to all kinds of risks including viruses and legal repercussions, but everyone already knows that file sharing networks and download sites are full of juicy, high-quality audio and video.

Putting the content onto your TV
The most versatile way to access all this content on your large TV screen and surround-sound system is by connecting a suitable computer, i.e. the HTPC, to your existing setup. You can in fact replace all your media sources, (except for the DTH set-top box if you need one). You’ll need a suitable remote control or wireless keyboard and mouse set, along with software such as the Media Center that’s included with every copy of Windows Vista/7 Home Premium edition and above. Free alternatives for users of all types of computer include XBMC (www.xbmc.org) or its social-media-savvy derivative, Boxee (www.boxee.tv). We’ll talk more about setting up a killer HTPC in a bit, but here are some alternatives in case you don’t want a bulky computer in your living room.

High-end TVs: Many TVs themselves come with USB and networking features, though these aren’t very sophisticated. Format support isn’t always guaranteed, but it’s the cleanest solution with no boxes and wires. Check what formats your TV supports carefully if this is a purchase decision maker for you.

DTH boxes: The one area where most HTPC alternatives fail is recording. DTH boxes might not offer very much, and you’re still largely constrained by their schedules, but at least you can set your shows to record and then watch them at leisure later, skipping through ads.

Game consoles: Both the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 are superb media center devices, with support for local and network-based media playback and Web-enabled features. Audio and video quality are more than acceptable, with support for all the important standards. The PS3 has the added advantage of a Blu-ray drive, while the Xbox integrates nicely with Windows Media Center.

Connected DVD/BD players: Most DVD players today come with USB ports for playing digital files, and almost all Blu-ray players come with wired and/or wireless Internet access. BD-Live utilizes your Internet connection to deliver interactive content while you’re watching a movie, which is an added dimension as well.

USB/network media players/Apple TV: These little devices, rapidly growing in popularity, simply decode digital audio and video and output it to your TV screen. They come in all shapes and sizes, most with support for memory cards, HD output, and simple interfaces. Some come with built in hard drives, but USB ports are standard fare. The high-end varieties all support wired and wireless networking to stream content from your PCs, networked storage, and of course dozens of online services. If you already have a router at home, one of these plus a NAS device are incredibly convenient together. Examples include the Western Digital WDTV series, Asus’ O’play, and Amkette’s FlashTV. One variant on this is the Apple TV, which comes with local storage and a network connection. It’s easy enough to use, but without an Indian iTunes store, over half its potential is untappable.

Standalone PCs: You might even be perfectly happy with nothing but a standalone PC, especially one with a suitably large HD LCD monitor. This might actually be a great option for cramped apartments, but you won’t get the joy of kicking back in front of a huge screen and proper sound system.

The PC-based option

The most desirable type of HTPC is built inside a small, flat cabinet so that it blends in with your home décor just like a DVD player or other appliance. Its looks should be as unobtrusive as its noise levels, so low-voltage parts that require less cooling fans are also preferred. You don’t need a super-powerful processor or graphics card, but a few smart choices will make sure all your audio and video handling needs are met. The HTPC should of course be able to connect to your TV/projector and sound system, as well as a DTH satellite TV receiver box and other sources/peripherals you might like to use. Finally, it should have enough storage and connectivity to take care of all your present and future digital media needs. This kind of entertainment center will also be quite expensive, as dedicated components aren’t that easy to find.

We chose to set up our own HTPC by recycling an older home computer. If you have a similar existing computer that you want to use, you could either perform a dramatic upgrade and go in for the dedicated cabinet plus optional extras, or simply strengthen the old PC’s core so that it can handle heavy audio and video tasks.

We first set about building an HTPC in a dedicated cabinet which also included an infrared remote control and software that lets you control all playback and media navigation from the comfort of your couch—a definite value add. We used the old core parts, but made sure it could handle all the essentials including high-definition content, DTH reception, and online streaming media. We also prepared a list of possible accessories and add-ons to outfit our PC with even a home media server. This just goes to show that a competent HTPC doesn’t have to be very expensive.

STEPS FOR BUILDING THE HTPC

Unplug and unscrew all the components from your old PC, or unpack new ones if you’ve bought them. Reassemble them inside the new cabinet.

Add your optical drive, additional hard drive, remote control interface and other accessories.

Install your choice of operating system and media playback software. Don’t forget to search for the latest drivers for all the hardware you buy.

Connect the HTPC to your TV, plug in the receiver for the wireless peripherals, and enjoy your content from the comfort of your living room sofa!

Source : Chip magazine.
 
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