BUILD A HOME THE­ATRE PC

Antony Leather in­ves­ti­gates the var­i­ous op­tions avail­able for home me­dia stream­ing, and looks at the ideal kit for build­ing an HTPC

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the home the­atre PC (HTPC) was dealt a bit of a blow with the launch of Win­dows 10 – it no longer in­cluded Win­dows Me­dia Cen­ter (WMC). In some ways, it’s a re­lief – Mi­crosoft had never given Me­dia Cen­ter the sup­port it needed to thrive and the ap­pli­ca­tion was mainly re­liant on third par­ties for fea­tures. Even at the end of its life, it wasn’t able to of­fer a com­plete ex­pe­ri­ence, but it came pretty close.

So what now for the HTPC? Well, many peo­ple have al­ready ditched WMC in favour of more stream­lined, mod­ern pro­grams such as XMBC – now called Kodi, and Plex too. The HTPC can also claim to sup­port ev­ery stream­ing ser­vice and con­tent for­mats – that’s the ben­e­fit of us­ing Win­dows. How­ever, the HTPC has some stiff com­pe­ti­tion now.

NAS en­clo­sures are offering in­creas­ingly large lists of fea­tures aimed at stream­ing and cap­tur­ing con­tent. Mean­while, me­dia stream­ers of­fer sim­i­lar func­tions as well as al­low­ing the use of stream­ing ser­vices such as Net­flix, while some have the abil­ity to browse the In­ter­net.

Then you have smart TVs, which are es­sen­tially TVs with built-in me­dia play­ers that can ac­cess pop­u­lar stream­ing ser­vices and play con­tent from USB sticks. Fi­nally, there’s e a grow­ing num­ber of HDMI-based me­dia stream­ing

Many NAS en­clo­sures sup­port USB TV don­gles

de­vices such as Chrome­cast. Th­ese de­vices can pair with smart­phones and other de­vices, such as NAS en­clo­sures, to stream your con­tent di­rectly to your TV from lo­cal files or In­ter­net stream­ing ser­vices, of­ten from cut-down but fully fledged ver­sions of Chrome OS, Win­dows 10 or An­droid. The ques­tion, then, is do th­ese prod­ucts ac­tu­ally make the HTPC re­dun­dant, or is there still a place for it in your lounge?

In this fea­ture, we’ll be try­ing to an­swer that ques­tion, look­ing at some of the gear that’s look­ing at re­plac­ing the HTPC, as well as the lat­est hard­ware you can use to make an HTPC your­self.

Why the HTPC is a great me­dia de­vice

One of the big­gest rea­sons to get an HTPC over other de­vices is its univer­sal con­tent sup­port. A Win­dows-based ma­chine can tap into prac­ti­cally all stream­ing ser­vices, such as Net­flix, BlinkBox, iPlayer, NowTV and many more, and lim­ited sup­port for var­i­ous ser­vices has of­ten plagued Smart TVs and me­dia stream­ers. Even if the lat­ter could sup­port the vast ma­jor­ity of th­ese ser­vices, there are other ben­e­fits of an HTPC, such as lo­cal con­tent play­back of al­most any file for­mat.

Many smart TVs are also un­able to play high-qual­ity au­dio files such as FLAC or ALAC, which is also an is­sue for some HDMI me­dia play­ers. Even if they do sup­port stream­ing of FLAC files, for ex­am­ple, the source de­vice usu­ally transcodes them to lower-qual­ity for­mats to be com­pat­i­ble, as do many me­dia servers such as Plex.

Video files suf­fer sim­i­lar is­sues. Files will of­ten be re­duced to 720p or won’t play at all, or there can be is­sues with au­dio and that’s be­fore we even start talk­ing about 4K play­back. An HTPC can play pretty much all your files and store them all lo­cally – at the mo­ment, no other de­vice can do the same. How­ever, the likes of Chrome­cast, Plex, NAS en­clo­sures and smart­phones aren’t de­signed to work separately, but to­gether, stream­ing, transcod­ing and us­ing the In­ter­net to get at the con­tent you need. So, are there any com­bi­na­tions out there that can usurp an HTPC?

nas en­clo­sures

As most NAS en­clo­sures lack any kind of video out­put, they’re at the mercy of third-party apps and hard­ware to get your con­tent onto your big screen or through your speak­ers. The Dig­i­tal Liv­ing Net­work Al­liance (DLNA) stan­dard al­lows var­i­ous de­vices from me­dia stream­ers to smart TVs to ac­cess your NAS and play its me­dia con­tent. Such a setup works well from a sofa in your liv­ing room – the menus are all tied into your TV screen and there’s no need to fiddle around with a gam­ing PC in the next room, a lap­top or any other de­vice – just your TV or streamer’s re­mote con­trol. Most con­soles also sup­port DLNA, so even if you don’t have a me­dia streamer or DLNA-en­abled smart TV, you may still be able to make use of this stan­dard.

Many mod­ern NAS en­clo­sures sup­port Chrome­cast too. For ex­am­ple, Synol­ogy’s smart­phone DS Video App not only transcodes video on the fly, but you can push your NAS con­tent to your TV us­ing a Chrome­cast don­gle over Wi-Fi as well. You do need a smart­phone or tablet to use this fea­ture, but most of us have th­ese de­vices now. A big­ger po­ten­tial pit­fall, how­ever, is that Chrome­cast doesn’t sup­port 4K video play­back, even with the lat­est model. Con­versely, an HTPC can han­dle 4K video with one hand tied be­hind its back, as long as your video out­put and TV are com­pat­i­ble.

NAS en­clo­sures also sup­port a va­ri­ety of me­dia servers, such as Plex, which can work sim­i­larly to var­i­ous NAS me­dia servers such as Synol­ogy’s DS Video. Again, you can con­trol them us­ing the Plex app on your smart­phone (An­droid and iOS), from the Plex Web App in a browser or from some smart TVs.

Plex’s out­put qual­ity de­pends on the client you’re us­ing, though, both for video and au­dio. Mo­bile and web apps will likely transcode high-qual­ity for­mats to low-qual­ity ones (FLAC to MP3 for au­dio files on Plex, for ex­am­ple). Some­times, you can force Plex and other servers not to transcode, but it isn’t al­ways pos­si­ble. Fi­nally, if you’re com­ing from Win­dows Me­dia Cen­ter and want a way to record live TV, many NAS en­clo­sures sup­port USB TV don­gles. You can see Synol­ogy’s list of com­pat­i­ble de­vices at

http://tinyurl.com/synol­ogy-tv

NAS ver­dict

As with most other de­vices, a NAS is pretty use­less on its own, but it will work well with DLNA de­vices such as con­soles and Smart TVs. Fail­ing that, Chrome­cast makes a great ad­di­tion, as do me­dia servers such as Plex and me­dia stream­ers such as the WDTV Live. How­ever, there are plenty of draw­backs, such as file sup­port and very of­ten, the in­abil­ity to play 4K video con­tent at the same qual­ity, as it’s stored on your NAS. There’s also no way to ac­cess stream­ing ser­vices with­out other de­vices.

Chrome­cast

For the most part, Chrome­cast is bril­liant. You get a small HDMI don­gle, stick it into your TV, and you es­sen­tially have a tiny me­dia streamer that can ac­cess the In­ter­net and play lo­cal con­tent. For stream­ing ser­vices such as Net­flix, Chrome­cast is cer­tainly far eas­ier and quicker to use than

on an HTPC, al­though once again, the de­vice is pretty point­less on its own. An­droid and iOS de­vices con­nect to the don­gle and es­sen­tially point it at the In­ter­net – for ex­am­ple, in the Net­flix apps, tap­ping the lit­tle Chrome­cast icon while view­ing con­tent sends the lo­ca­tion for it to the Chrome­cast.

There are a num­ber of apps avail­able for the Chrome­cast too, some of which, such as Videostream, al­low for wide va­ri­eties of file for­mats to be played, while oth­ers con­nect to stream­ing ser­vices and web­sites – ev­ery­thing from TED talks to Red Bull and YouTube.

The down­side is that you’ll need to in­stall apps for all th­ese ser­vices onto your mo­bile de­vice to be able to point Chrome­cast at the rel­e­vant URL. Sadly, how­ever, ac­cess­ing th­ese web­sites in Sa­fari on an iPhone, for ex­am­ple, doesn’t give you the op­tion of us­ing Chrome­cast – you have to use the rel­e­vant app. On an HTPC, you could have all th­ese web­sites in dif­fer­ent browser tabs or as book­marks, in ad­di­tion to all your favourite stream­ing ser­vices.

Chrome­cast also has an­other lim­i­ta­tion that’s likely to in­fu­ri­ate any­one who is hap­pily break­ing their Net­flix li­cens­ing agree­ment by us­ing a VPN to ac­cess Net­flix’s hid­den trea­sure trove of con­tent on its US server. When you link the Net­flix app on a mo­bile de­vice to stream on Chrome­cast, your Chrome­cast won’t ac­tu­ally use your mo­bile de­vice’s In­ter­net con­nec­tion to ac­cess the con­tent. In fact, it isn’t even go­ing to the same ad­dress – it uses Google’s on servers by de­fault, by­pass­ing any VPN you may have set up on your mo­bile de­vice. There are no VPN’s avail­able for Chrome­cast, and the only way of forc­ing it to use the server pro­vided by a VPN is to hack the de­vice it­self (which usu­ally isn’t pos­si­bly if you’ve al­ready con­nected it to the In­ter­net any­way), or by block­ing Google’s IPs on your router.

How­ever, only some routers let you block th­ese IPs, and the pro­ce­dure is pretty com­pli­cated, plus you’ll be in­ter­fer­ing with other de­vices that con­nect to the same net­work, as well as block­ing UK con­tent on Net­flix. On an HTPC, though, if you’re com­fort­able with the li­cens­ing im­pli­ca­tions, us­ing Net­flix over a VPN is bliss­fully easy. All you need is a Chrome browser plug-in such as Hola, and switch­ing be­tween UK and US servers is as easy as a sin­gle mouse click. Bear in mind, though, that Net­flix has been talk­ing about shut­ting down UK ac­counts that con­tin­u­ally ac­cess the Net­flix US ser­vice over a VPN, and it breaks the Net­flix terms of use, so you do so at your own risk.

In ad­di­tion to Chrome­cast, In­tel’s Com­pute Stick makes for a com­pelling Win­dows­based al­ter­na­tive that could solve many of Chrome­cast’s short­com­ings. You’ll need to use a wire­less key­board and mouse, so the in­ter­face isn’t quite as slick, but if you don’t need a mon­strous HTPC with lots of lo­cal stor­age, or if you al­ready have a NAS, it could make for a great, space-saving, low-power HTPC. The prob­lem, though, is that the cur­rent version has been plagued by is­sues, such as poor Wi-Fi, and flaky wire­less key­board and mouse per­for­mance. A new Core M version is set to land soon, though, which we hope will solve th­ese is­sues.

Chrome­cast ver­dict

As a bare min­i­mum you need an An­droid or iOS de­vice plus all the apps you’ll want to use to ac­cess your con­tent, such as Net­flix, iPlayer and YouTube, all con­nected to the same net­work, with the Chrome­cast con­nected over Wi-Fi. To play lo­cal con­tent, you’ll need a NAS that sup­ports Chrome­cast via its mo­bile apps, or a PC or lap­top with a Chrome­cast plugin in­stalled in your browser – again con­nected to the same net­work. Us­ing VPNs is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult at best, there’s no 4K sup­port, there are some file and for­mat com­pat­i­bil­ity is­sues, and play­back can some­times take a while to get go­ing.

Smart TVs

While Chrome­cast es­sen­tially turns your TV into a fairly ca­pa­ble smart TV, it isn’t quite as stream­lined as the real thing. The lat­est smart TVs sup­port a con­sid­er­able num­ber of stream­ing ser­vices, as well as pro­vid­ing ba­sic brows­ing func­tions and ac­cess to pop­u­lar apps such as Skype and Face­book. All they need is an In­ter­net con­nec­tion – un­like Chrome­cast, you don’t need a PC or a smart­phone.

As usual, there are some draw­backs. De­pend­ing on when you bought your smart TV, and which model you own, it will be ca­pa­ble of do­ing dif­fer­ent tasks. For in­stance,

in­stalling third-party apps from the likes of Synol­ogy on Sam­sung TVs made in 2013 and later sim­ply re­quires a USB stick and in­stal­la­tion file. De­vices made ear­lier than that, or TVs from other man­u­fac­tur­ers, will be un­sup­ported or re­quire a more com­pli­cated setup pro­ce­dure.

In ad­di­tion to wide-rang­ing stream­ing ser­vice sup­port, many smart TVs also of­fer DLNA sup­port so you can ac­cess your con­tent from com­pat­i­ble de­vices such as NAS en­clo­sures. Also, many NAS man­u­fac­tur­ers of­fer apps specif­i­cally for cer­tain smart TVs that of­fer a spe­cific ser­vice for deal­ing with video or au­dio files.

Sadly, though, in many cases, you’re not able to transcode video us­ing your NAS de­vice’s hard­ware-based ac­cel­er­a­tion, so it will de­pend on the model of NAS you own as to whether you’ll be able to transcode videos on the fly or if you’ll need to con­vert them first. For­mat com­pat­i­bil­ity is still an is­sue with smart TVs too. The range of sup­ported for­mats has cer­tainly in­creased, but both newer TVs and newer ver­sions of the var­i­ous op­er­at­ing sys­tems avail­able still have is­sues with some file for­mats, es­pe­cially MKVs.

Sim­i­larly to Chrome­cast, get­ting VPNs work­ing on smart TVs can be a mine­field too. There are no VPN apps and net­work­ing con­trols are of­ten re­stricted, mean­ing the process of set­ting up a VPN is ei­ther ex­tremely com­pli­cated or a no-goer from the start. One of the eas­ier ways of get­ting around this is­sue, as we men­tioned ear­lier, is to use your router, per­haps with its VPN func­tion – a fea­ture that’s avail­able on some high-end mod­els, such as Asus’ AC68U. An­other work­around is to fiddle around with the set­tings on the smart TV it­self.

How­ever, both th­ese meth­ods have two ma­jor draw­backs. Us­ing your router’s VPN func­tion, or a sim­i­lar fea­ture, forces ev­ery de­vice on your net­work to use it too. As such, while it will en­able you to ac­cess con­tent from an­other re­gion, UK-only ser­vices such as iPlayer will be blocked. Switch­ing be­tween coun­tries will mean log­ging into your router again and switch­ing coun­tries, which is a bit of a faff, es­pe­cially if you’re on the couch.

Chang­ing your DNS set­tings on a smart TV to those of a VPN provider (if you can do this and it works) is an even big­ger faff, plus it’s highly likely that all the na­tive apps for your of­fi­cial re­gion will be deleted too. So while a smart TV looks as though it can of­fer many of the fea­tures of an HTPC, there are still plenty of holes once you dig a lit­tle deeper.

Smart TV ver­dict

Smart TVs are among the most self-suf­fi­cient HTPC al­ter­na­tives, and they work bril­liantly from your sofa. They can also make use of var­i­ous lo­cal stor­age de­vices, sup­port all the ma­jor stream­ing ser­vices and of­fer a mod­icum of web brows­ing and gam­ing too. How­ever, they’re not as flex­i­ble as a Win­dows PC when it comes to ad­vanced fea­tures such as VPNs, deal­ing with file for­mats and 4K video files, and can’t store any large amounts of data them­selves ei­ther.

Synol­ogy’s smart­phone DS Video App transcodes video on the fly

An­droid and iOS de­vices con­nect to the don­gle and es­sen­tially point it at the In­ter­net

Stick the small HDMI don­gle into your TV, and you es­sen­tially have a tiny me­dia streamer

Chrome­cast Apps con­nect to many stream­ing ser­vices and web­sites – ev­ery­thing from TED talks to Red Bull and YouTube

The lat­est smart TVs pro­vide stream­ing ser­vices, ba­sic Web brows­ing and pop­u­lar apps such as Skype and Face­book

VPN ser­vices such as the Hola plugin work bril­liantly on desk­top browsers, but there’s no way to use them as eas­ily on a smart TV

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