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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Home Theater Solutions - Part 1

So you've got your big TV and your Blu-Ray player and you think your in the now? Guess again! Blu-Ray's are fantastic and are no where near being obsolete, as they are presented in 1080P, and 1080P is the high definition standard. The problem with Blu-Ray is that your working with physical discs. Sure, everyone likes to have a collection, but why not move your collection into the digital world. What if you could have all of your favorite movies in a single machine, like a big disc changer, and all you had to do was use your remote to pick the movie you wanted to watch, and it would just play. Better yet, what if your remote controlled a super fancy interface that showed trailers, cover art, plot summary's and links to online content for the movie you've selected. Wouldn't that be awesome? Well for those of you born yesterday, this technology is years old and has only been getting better and cheaper. Lets go over some of our current options (sorted from cheapest to most expensive) .

Western Digital Live - This is a great entry level option. It connects to your router and will allow you to stream all media content from all networked computers to your TV. It can do 1080P and it plays a wide variety of file formats. It is by far the cheapest device and offers a good bang for your buck. The only major downside to this unit is that its interface is simple with no eye candy. Unfortunately, the WD Live does not support the XBMC (X-Box Media Center) software at this time. If your just wanting to get your media files from your computer to your TV, for as cheap as possible, this is the answer.

Apple TV - This device is ridiculously small and being in it's 2nd generation, it comes with a high potential. It has a very flashy interface and can be loaded with the XBMC software. I'm a big fan of the XBMC software for home theater setups, so Apple TV is one of the cheapest solutions to get high definition content from your computer to your TV, with a big hit of style. The price of the unit is very fair for what your get, but what you get isn't perfect. The Apple TV box does not support 1080P as it is limited by hardware to output at a maximum of 720P, however it will upscale to 1080i. Luckily, it will downscale all 1080P content to 720P or 1080i, so you don't need to convert all of your media files to make it play. I don't know about you, but I have trouble paying for a device right now that doesn't support the maximum resolution of my television. Oh, and for those of you who say that the human eye can't tell the difference between 1080i and 1080P, if that makes you feel better about your TV. then keep it up.

D-Link's Boxee Box - Have you seen a picture of this unit yet? It's shaped like a cube standing on a tip. Very strange looking, somewhat intriguing but strange nonetheless. The Boxee Box uses it's own Boxee software, that is a remixed version of the XBMC. The great thing about the software is that it shares a lot of qualities, some improved, with the XBMC. The bad side of the software is that it is not as customizable as the XBMC. I can look past it though as I've read that the Boxee is always changing and improving and is really very good at what it does, which is stream full 1080P content from any computer on your network, to your TV. It is one of the more expensive dedicated set top boxes but it may just be the best one (for the price) out there. If you want a box that can play anything through a very fancy interface, this just might be your best bet. Not to mention that it's the only device shaped like a cube.

Home Theater PC (HTPC) - This is a small computer that is dedicated specifically to serve your media files to your television. The diffence between this and the ones above is that you can usually have them custom made or buy them with whatever software you want, that way you have more control on the functions and abilities of your device. You can have just a basic software installed, or you can run XBMC or even Windows Media Center. You can get a cheaper model that only does 720P, or you can pay big bucks and have it run multiple programs at once and still play your 1080P content. There are a lot of resources online on how to build a budget HTPC. If you look around at local computer stores you can sometimes get a good deal on Pre-made HTPCs. If you like to customize your system or tinker with computers, this may be the route for you.

Video Gaming Systems - This could be the most expensive route, but it does come with a lot of bonus features. Both the Xbox360 and PS3 are capable of steaming high definition media from a network computer to your television. Technically the PS3 is better at this than the Xbox360, but either way, if you already have one of these systems then you can save your money by setting it up to access your content via your network. A popular program for streaming to these system is the PS3 Media Server. Obviously these systems have other abilities such as the being great video game consoles and providing access to online content. If you already have one of these in your house, they can act as a good entry level device, but aren't exactly the most user friendly to get going. If you have content and don't want to be bothered with configuring programs or scrolling through forums, you may want to start at the top of this list. 

That's all I'm going to cover in part 1. You've seen some of the options available to you. None of the above are cutting edge as they have all been available since at least late 2010. I currently use my middle floor PS3 to stream movies from a full size computer stored in my basement. Technically it works fine, but is lacking in presentation. I am leaning towards the Boxee Box but haven't made up my mind. Check back later for Part 2.

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