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Turn your Laptop into an HTPC

Watching a movie on a TV is any day better than a tiny PC screen, unless, of course, you have a CRT television and a big LCD monitor. But there are times when you’d want to watch something with your family or friends in which case a PC is not always the best choice. Most of us have our computers placed in our rooms or in some corner of the hall, which is fine if you’re watching it alone, but it can get rather inconvenient for a small group of people.

DivX players have been around for a long time and are quite affordable, but you’re again restricted to SD content. With Full HD TV prices dropping drastically it’s not uncommon to see an LCD TV in homes today. LG is currently the only manufacturer that supports DivX HD even in their budget series. But what about the others? Currently there are two ways of watching HD content on your TV. The first and the easiest is to get an HD media player, which is a little box that lets you connect a portable hard drive to it and lets you play 1080p movies. The Asus O!Play Mini is currently the cheapest route you can take to accomplish this as it costs just US $75  and supports full 1080p playback. 

 
 

 

The second route is building yourself an HTPC or a Home Theatre PC which is a dedicated machine for just playing back movies, music, etc. The only problem here is the cost, which is quite a bit more compared to an HD media player. The other problem is the space required to keep the PC and the extra power consumption. This is why many people are reluctant to invest in an HTPC. But what if you could extend the use of your laptop and use it as a HTPC? And I mean a proper HTPC with a remote control and everything.  There is a very simple (not to mention the cheapest) solution to all your HTPC woes.

To start off, you’ll need a laptop or even a netbook with an Nvidia ION chipset. It needn’t be a high-end laptop; anything with a Core 2 Duo should do. If you only plan on watching SD content then the onboard graphics card will handle it just fine. However, if HD content is of primary importance then it’s nice if you have an Intel GMA 4500 at least or any entry-level graphics card like an ATI Mobility HD 4350. The reason for this is the software we’ll be using supports hardware acceleration, which means the movies will run off the graphics card rather than the CPU for a smoother lag free playback.  

vga to rca

A VGA to Component cable

 

 

stereo to rca

A 3.5mm Stereo to RCA audio cable

 

Now that we have our laptop we need to connect it to the TV. If you have an LCD TV then things are much simpler. You can either use HDMI which will take care of both audio and video. If not, you can always connect it using a VGA cable for the video and 3.5mm to 3.5mm audio cable for the audio. All laptops and HDTVs come with a VGA port or PC port so that’s covered.

 In case you have a CRT television, which a majority of people still do, a VGA or HDMI cable is useless here. In this case you can get yourself a VGA to Composite or Component cable which shouldn’t be hard to find in shops. One that’s available on ebay.in is for Rs. 325. For audio you can get a 3.5mm Stereo to RCA audio for about 100 bucks. Once connected, make sure you adjust the resolution and brightness of the TV using your graphics card properties for the best picture. Now that we have sound and video on the television, a wireless keyboard and mouse would be one way to control the PC from your couch, but it’s not how we do things at Techtree.   

remote

A better solution would be to invest in a PC remote controller like the one above which is available on ebay for Rs. 700 bucks. This remote gives you complete control of the mouse, thanks to the little analog button that should work with Windows Media Center as well. Another alternative is the second remote that has better ergonomics and is priced roughly the same. I can vouch for this through personal experience that it works flawlessly with MCE and XBMC but the only trouble is finding it here.

I’m sure if you look hard enough in places like Lamington Road, you should find it, or else just get it from ebay.com or Amazon if you have someone coming down from the US.  You don’t need any drivers or anything, simply plug in the IR receiver to the laptop and you’re all set.

Now that we have our remote and laptop up and running, it’s time for the final piece of the puzzle, the software. We could have simply setup Windows at a lower resolution so that icons are visible from a distance and use your default player to play the files, but what’s the fun in doing that. For a complete Home Theatre experience, we need a software designed specifically for such a task.

Windows Media Center (MCE) which comes pre-loaded with Windows 7 is a nice place to start. The interface is easy to use and it lets you play all you photos, music and movies. One small drawback is that it is a bit heavy on the system, so if you have an old laptop, you may notice a little lag, plus there aren’t too many options for customizing it.

The next best alternative that we highly recommend is XBMC, which is an open source project that is not only a lot lighter than MCE but also has plenty of options to customize. The latest build supports hardware acceleration, which means all your HD files will be offloaded to your graphics card for a smoother playback. You can customize the audio setup, video settings on how you want the video to be rendered (whether using Software or Pixel Shaders), etc. It also supports streaming files over the network, apps like YouTube, uTorrent, RSS Editor, etc. and FanArt, which is by far the coolest thing.

For example, let’s say you have a TV series with a couple of seasons in a single folder, through MCE you’d have to simply browse the folder in the order it’s stored in your library. However, in XBMC, once you select a folder to be added in your library, you can go ahead and select the type of content like movies, music or TV series. Once you select TV series (as in our case), XBMC will look up thetvdb.com which is like an online user updateable database that contains the names of all the episodes of popular TV shows (both on-air and off-air).

The end result (see pic) is that XBMC will automatically group all the episodes for a single Season and will replace the file name with the episode name, so it’s easier to browse. It even adds a thumbnail for each season if there is one. This not only makes it very easy to sift through your movie collection, it looks very classy.

So there you have it, two very good options for setting up an HD media center. The HD media players are easiest to set up but there are times when certain audio or video codecs simply refuse to play for no apparent reason. This is mostly a problem with the first crop of HD media players like the original WD TV, which we’ve experienced first hand, so if this happens you’re pretty much in a fix. Also, if you go this route then be prepared to shell out at least 3.5K. For a cheaper alternative (albeit a bit messy at first) turn your laptop or old PC into an HD media box.

The initial setup will be a bit of work like procuring the remote and the cables but once you’re passed that, it should be smooth sailing not to mention a lot cheaper. Even with the remote and cables, the cost shouldn’t go beyond 1.5K, which is quite a significant saving. Plus, you’ll never have to worry about any file not playing, since it’s essentially a PC and with the right codec pack installed, so there won’t be any problems.

Source: techtree.com

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