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
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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