The HTPC ... Part 1: Meet the Home Theatre Personal Computer
I love computers and I'm especially interested in their role in home entertainment. Almost everything is computerized these days. If your system uses a remote control or has a display, you can be sure there's a computer chip in there someplace.
But the real deal is the HTPC, which can do so much as to become the centre piece of a good system. In the series on Software Defined Home Theatre I laid out a way to connect modern computers directly to high end displays and sound systems without a lot of added complexity. My client defines it as "The best damned set of computer speakers in the world" and that is basically what it is. But I didn't do a lot to explain what an HTPC can actually do for you or how it can radically simplify and improve a system. So, here goes...
What An HTPC Does For You
The biggest advantage of a Home Theatre PC is the way it simplifies a system...
- With a BluRay drive it can replace your BlueRay, DVD and CD player.
- With a high capacity hard disk it can easily replace all your media storage.
- With a TV Tuner card it can replace your Over The Air receiver.
- With the right software it can replace your Digital Video Recorder.
- With a game nexus such as Steam it can replace your gaming boxes.
- With a magnetic phono preamp it can incorporate a Turntable.
- With the right software it will replace your Streaming Devices.
- With file sharing it can work as a Media Server for your whole home.
- With the right software it can download movies and music.
- Again with the right software it can save copies of streamed content.
- It can organize your entire music and movie collection with ease.
- A wireless keyboard will replace about half a dozen remote controls.
- And ... it will still be able to do all the usual things a computer does.
A Typical Scenario
On an average day an HTPC can easily be playing a BlueRay movie in your home theatre room, streaming music to one of the kids rooms, downloading a new movie to watch, and streaming a work related video to the den, all at the same time.
In fact there are no end of scenarios like this... And it's mostly a matter of finding and installing the right software.
One of the strong pluses of the HTPC setup is that if a new file format comes out or there is a better video format there's no need to buy a new DAC or AV Receiver, you can simply update your software to incorporate it. So your system can always stay on top of technology as it progresses.
Sound and Video Management
A key feature of an HTPC system is it's ability to manage sound and video for you. Even beyond decoding and reproducing multiple file formats, it can also be a multi-channel volume control, a playback control and it can manage the brightness and contrast of your video display.
In fact, it's a bit hard to find a multimedia related task an HTPC can't handle. Which leaves me to wonder why this isn't a far more popular option than it is.
In the next section ... Setting up your Files Collection.
I used to use a HTPC and really enjoyed it. I took all my Blu-rays and put them on a HDD. It skipped all the annoying intros and just started the movie. I could also stream the movie anywhere I had internet. Having said that, I had to keep up with it. There were software updates, which would then make you make changes otherwise it wouldn't work correctly. After a while it became too much of a headache to keep up with, so I abandoned it. However, I still use my TV tuner and windows Media Center for the Super Bowl. Great way to rewind or even pause the game if needed
Hi Nick. On mine I simply disabled all automatic updates. It's been running that way, perfectly, for nearly 3 years now. The one before it ran for almost 6 without a single update and not one hiccup.
The technician's first rule definitely applies... "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
That is a good tip. But I am talking about the programs that ran my media server. If you didn't update it, you would lose connection, as something would change the static ip or something else. then when you updated it, you would have to reconfigure. Granted it wasn't often, but since I used it rarely, it seemed everytime I got on I couldn't use it. It could have easily been the program. I think if I ever go back to that, I will switch to Plex.
Which is why we don't use dedicated media servers.
Stay tuned ... I have a segment planned for file sharing across your LAN.
Part 2: Managing File Collections
On my personal HTPC I have about 750 movies and close to 4000 music files as well as an assortment of self-made playlists. I don't even want to think about the chaos that would be if I didn't engage in the light duty task of keeping it all organized in some convenient fashion. Fortunately the most powerful tool for this is the native filing system built right into most operating systems. (The examples below are from Windows 7)
Filing For Effect
The key to any successful filing system is that you can literally think your way into finding a file when you have no actual idea where it is. "Hmmm lets see... it's a Movie." ... "It's a Drama"... etc. until you narrow it down to a list of files.
Given the large number of large files, whenever possible you should start at the root directory of a new, empty drive.
Step 1 ... Create Base Directories
So the first step is to make base directories for your broadest categories...
Open Windows Explorer, select your media drive and then click the New Folder button on the top bar. Give your folder a sensible name... "Movies" per our example. and press Enter when done. You can customize the icons etc. by right clicking the new folder and following the customization options in the pop-up dialog.
My media drive is E: which looks like this...
Step 2... Create Sub Categories
Within each Base Category you will want to create a series of Sub-Categories. Click on the base category and then repeat the New Folder sequence as above for each sub-category you want to create.
On the top bar of the Windows Explorer folder is a pulldown that will let you select from multiple display formats... for the sub-categories display I chose "Large Icons".
This is my Movies folder...
Step 3 ... Add Files As You Go
So the second thought in the example was "It's a Drama". If I click on the Drama Sub-Category this is the list I get. This is a Content list, showing which Drama files I have. For each of these folders I chose the "Content" view from the pulldown list on the tool bar.
Each of the files in the list has been added to the Drama Sub-Category manually. The files are ripped, downloaded, saved, etc. then each is renamed and added to the collection by simply dropping it into the appropriate Sub-Category folder. This is a process that takes about 1 minute to complete and when done file-by-file isn't the least bit tedious.
Some General Rules
Here are some general rules that should help you along....
- Keep a separate folder for New Files where your downloads, new rips, stream saves, etc. all go first. Organize your collection from this folder.
- Stay on top of the organization. Work through your new files one at a time renaming and moving them to their categories as you watch or listen. Don't stick yourself with 6 months of neglect then 3 days of tedious organizing. A new file isn't a NEW file if you've watched it or listened to it.
- Put files only at the end of a Category chain, never in the intermediate Categories. This is how organization breaks down. If there is no category for a new file, make one.
- If you have an empty category, get rid of it. Simply delete the folder. Don't clutter your system with empty folders.
- Most OS native file systems are extremely flexible. You can move, add, rename and delete files at will and you can create, move and rename folders at will. So don't be afraid to organize and then re-organize as the need arises.
Add Base Categories To Your HTPC Desktop
To make life easier when running your system from the local display, you should add your Base Categories to your desktop. Ideally they should be the only Icons on your desktop. This is easy to do, in Windows, simply hold down the ALT key while you drag the icons for your Base Categories out onto the desktop. This will create shortcuts that, when clicked, will jump to your Base Categories just like clicking on their folder icons does.
This is my HTPC desktop...
The KISS principle definitely applies here ... "Keep It Simple, Stupid"
In the next instalment ... SMB File Sharing.
Part 3: SMB File Sharing
Okay, lets start off with a basic trueism: "Windows file sharing is a freaking nightmare". But when it works, it works right.
Every version of Windows has played with file sharing often in ways that have been totally incompatible with anything on the planet except other copies of the same version of Windows.
But underlying this has always been the humble "Work Network" that uses the Shared Media Bios which is, fortunately, quite universal. Using SMB shares allows Windows to work with Apple, Android, Linux, BSD and other OSs using the SMB defined rules.
I will be using Windows 7 for this example, but this works with anything from Windows Vista to current. The dialogs may be a bit different so be ready to do some hunt and find...
The SMB Basics
There are a few points you need to understand before going deeper into this...
- Windows file sharing works only on local area networks. (which is a good thing, btw.)
- Windows works with hidden Workgroups. Any computer that is logged into a different workgroup won't be visible on the Network pane in Explorer. But, if you know it's name you can still access it.
- Each network host (computer) is access controlled by a User Name and Password. These correspond to your user name and password on the target computer, and if you don't have an account on the target computer you won't get in.
- SMB sharing only works on computers that are password protected.
Computers, shares, folders and files on an SMB network are accessed by a Universal Naming Convention (UNC). This consists of two back slashes, followed by the computer name, followed by an optional share name, followed by an optional folder name and and optional file name. Typing the UNC name into the address bar at the top of Windows Explorer will attempt to access the network resource.
\\Volts ... will list the shares available on the computer named Volts
\\Volts\Movies ... will list the folders and files available in the Movies share on Volts
\\Volts\Movies\Action ... will list the files available in the Action folder
\\Volts\Movies\Acton\2guns.mp4 ... would try to launch the 2guns.mp4 file.
Sharing a folder also shares all folders and files inside so if you've created and filled the Base Categories as I described above, you can share all your files by simply sharing these Base Category folders.
SMB also recognizes windows File Associations so working inside a network resource is pretty much like working with it on your local hard drive... Yep, you can just click on stuff to make it happen.
Here is what my HTPC's shares look like from my main work computer...
If I click on Movies this is what I get...
And clicking on Drama gets me this...
As you can see this is pretty much like working with the local file system right on the HTPC itself. In fact, if I clicked on one of the files my local system would attempt to play it... Yes, that is 1 click file streaming with no additional software.
Setting Up The HTPC Account
Setting up SMB Sharing in Windows is not a one click task.
A little trick I use is to set the HTPC to automatically boot itself into an account named HTPC with a relatively easy password. You can do this as follows...
First go into Control Panel->User Accounts->Manage Another Account->Create Account ... and follow the steps to create your HTPC account.
Now hold down the Windows key and type an R ... in the run dialog type NETPLWIZ and click OK.
In the resulting dialog uncheck "Users must enter a name and password", then select the HTPC account and set a password.
Click OK when done and reboot the computer. It should go straight into the new account on startup. (Note you may have to reconfigure your desktop icons)
Network Wide Setup
Do the following on all windows computers on your network, including the HTPC...
Make sure all your computers are using the same workgroup name. Windows defaults to WORKGROUP ... which is fine. But you should still check to be sure it hasn't been changed.
Open Control Panel->System->Advanced System Settings->Computer Name...
The workgroup name is not important... that they are all the same is.
Also note that each computer on the local area network has to have a different name. Collisions will cause errors.
Next you need to set up the SMB sharing. Generally, systems with newer versions will fall back to the earlier versions but older versions will not be aware of the newer one, so you want to set up for the older version...
Open Control Panel->Network And Sharing and in the Network section click on whatever network is showing, select Work Network then close the dialog.
Next on the left select Change Advanced Sharing Settings... In this dialog, in the Work section, set the following exactly as follows...
- Turn ON network discovery
- Turn ON file and printer sharing
- Turn OFF public folder sharing
- Enable file sharing for devices that use 40 or 56 bit encryption
- Turn OFF password protected sharing
- Use user accounts and passwords to connect to other computers
When done, close your dialogs and reboot the computer.
Once this is done, you should have SMB sharing working on all your windows computers. Connecting to the HTPC will now ask you for a user name and password... enter HTPC and the password you selected above. If you click the "remember" button it will only ask you once.
In the next instalment: Sharing your HTPC files
Part 4: Sharing Your HTPC Files
Now that you are set up for SMB file sharing, the next step is to actually share your HTPC files on the network. Also note that you can share files from other computers as well, using this technique.
The first step is to get rid of the dumb-assed Windows sharing wizard. We want to use advanced sharing. To do this open My Computer or any other Windows Explorer panel and click the "organize" button in the top bar. From there select "Folder and Search Options". In that dialog select View and at the bottom of the list uncheck the box for "Use sharing wizard". Click OK and close Windows Explorer.
Creating a file share is actually quite easy but, as always, there are a couple of steps for each one. I will take you through sharing your Movies, the rest are the same process...
Open Windows Explorer at the Base Category folders you created earlier...
Right click on Movies then select properties and click Advanced Sharing.
You will get a dialog like this...
Check the box for "Share This Folder". The dialog will fill itself in for the most part. As a security measure you should check the Permissions and Caching sections as well.
Clicking on permissions will give you this...
Generally you want the Everyone account set to Read ... since you don't necessarily want people renaming or deleting your files.
If you have a separate Admin level account you can add it and give yourself Full Access which will allow you to remotely administer your collection from any computer on your local area network.
Close the dialog when done.
Finally click on Caching which will give you this...
This is one of Microsoft's really dumb ideas, making shared files available off line and one of the causes of so many data breeches. Generally I suggest you deliberately set it to NO.
If all went well you should now be able to see the HTPC from any computer on your local area network as well as from Android, iOS, Linux and other devices. Each will have their own sign-in dialogs that you will have to make your way through, but your files should now be accessible and playable anywhere on your lan.
As I mentioned in the section on SMB file sharing, when you share a top level folder such as your Base Categories, you are also sharing all folders and files within. So there is no need to create long lists of shares for each sub-category.
This technique will allow you to share files from other computers as well. Simply enable sharing for the folders you want to be accessible. You could, for example, share a photo collection from your spouses computer or training videos from your office machine... all of which would be playable anywhere on your lan.
Don't worry, all of this is confined to your own lan. None of it is visible from the Internet.
Wired vs Wireless
One final note before moving on...
Wireless networking is typically slower than wired and the more nodes you have connected the slower it gets. With hard wired gigabit (or better) networking this is not necessarily the case. It will be much faster and a lot less prone to drop-outs or that dreaded swirl of death. So to get the best from all of this, whenever possible you should hard wire your stationary equipment.
Next instalment: Media Players.