Is there a future for Home Theater PCs?

Guest Blogger —  September 18, 2009


Do Home Theater PC’s (HTPC’s) have a future? If yes, how will they look and operate? And if not, what will people use instead to bring Internet digital content to their TV’s? Could there possibly be an HTPC in your future?

There are billions of dollars and thousands of jobs at stake in determining these questions, but it’s hard to say that the answers are yet apparent, much less already decided. Having played and worked in this area for a while now, I thought I would jot down some ideas. The timing seemed appropriate as a follow-up to Dave’s recent article on media streaming devices, and as I just finished building a couple of new HTPC’s (and also, sadly, retired my prized DivX Connected “Gej-box” media streamer).

The latest media streaming devices that Dave looked at included a digital media adapter from Netgear, a networked Blu-Ray player from LG, and another networked Blu-Ray player from Sony. Despite how new they are, they still seem to be hobbled by the kind of issues that have faced basically all streaming devices since they first appeared a few years ago. These devices are inevitably limited in what they can do, either in terms of playable file formats or by a particular digital distribution systems (i.e. Netflix, Amazon VOD, YouTube, etc.). None of them have proven to be “universal players,” despite some of the marketing copy them employ. And as Dave noted, the context for such devices is still somewhat dominated by gaming devices such as the XBOX 360 and Playstation 3, that also have very strong streaming options, but still share a number of annoying limitations (some dictated by hardware, some by business decisions).

Fundamentally, these networked media devices are asked to do something they are just not fully designed to do, no matter their particular pedigree or price point.

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11 responses to Is there a future for Home Theater PCs?

  1. A HTPC is only good if your goal is to record TV and distribute to multiple rooms. All the other plug-ins that work with SageTV and MCE can be handled by a lot of network connected device. My favorite is the Popcorn hour. It handles almost anything you throw at it.

    To me the future of TV content isn’t having tuners and recording to hard drives. The future is any content any time streaming from a server. I don’t need a power hungry HTPC to do that. I need good bandwidth and a small device connected to my TV. It might be one device or a couple, I’m alright with that if it’s a good experience.

    Cable/Satellite companies are also working to put a fork in HTPC with multi-room viewing and multimedia functions. Look at TiVo who is working to be installed on set-tops. DirecTV HD DVRs allow streaming of photos, music and videos. DirecTV is also testing multi-room and streaming to computers. While more limited than Tivo it’s a good start and shows the direction we’re headed.

    I invested a lot of money in HTPCs and extenders but I am coming to the realization that it’s not the future that I want.

    HTPCs have always been a hobby project for the tech savvy users. I don’t see it busting into mainstream especially since it’s designed for cable and people are ditching cable all the time for Satellite, u-verse and FIOS.

    Just my thoughts.

  2. Jeremy, that’s the conclusion I landed on in like 2004 or so when I decommissioned my HTPCs. But given the closed network approach of most television providers (cable, satellite) hardware, I’m reconsidering Media Center under Windows 7 – especially in light of the upcoming Ceton mutlistream CableCARD internal tuner card. As a stop gap until your future resolves itself – with more over-the-top video sources. :) (Need some new W7 extenders, other than a Xbox 360, to be introduced.)

  3. Is there a future for proprietary hardware HTPCs ( or STBs in general )? No.

    Will “HTPC” come to be known as “TV out” on your phone? Yes.

    ( Texas Instruments OMAP for Android already supports “TV out”, but not aware of any phones using it …yet )

  4. ….oh yeah, I forgot! Proof HTPC and STBs are already dead: The mythical Vizio net connected TV:

  5. Dave,

    Microsoft does need to figure out something with extenders. Xbox 360 is a gaming platform and people see it that way. Consumers aren’t going to want to buy a game console for every TV.

    My cable company, Mediacom, is horrible and why I switched to DirecTV. I have a few more devices with my setup vs. Media Center but I’m not tied financial to a single product. Popcorn hour, Windows home server, 2 – Roku boxes, 2 – HD DVRs. We also hook the laptops up to the TVs for paid subscription streaming, like CBS. It covers all the content we need.

  6. Yes, but not in their current form. I agree with Todd – TV-Out function on other devices (for the record, Symbian devices have had TV-Out for over 3 years ;)) will take the place.

    Personally, I’m with Dave, in that a simple smaller PC running Win7 with MC (or maybe Ubuntu with some other 10-foot interface) is *definitely* in my future. Currently, I have an old eMachines box serving as a NAS in my livingroom. I connect to it from other boxes via LogMeIn, and it serves as my media repository. As soon as I purchase a new TV, I’ll be building a custom mini-pc in a set-top box form factor, and will have that connected to the TV.

  7. DRM is a major hurdle to the HTPC.

    Do you remember Gilda Radner’s Emily Latela? This is what she would say about DRM.

    Emily: I don’t like this whole Digital Rice Management thing. Nobody should be able to tell me how to cook my rice.

    Announcer: Emily, that’s Digital Rights Management, not Digital Rice Management!

    Emily: Oh…. Nevermind.

  8. I don’t know… if you have Windows Media Center, a CableCARD or two, and some extenders you can stream that digital cable content around your home. Not to mention DRM is applicable to most platforms. For example, Cox is preventing me from using TiVoToGo and MRV due to improperly applied DRM. So it goes in this space.

  9. Hi everybody, really happy to see my post kicked off some discussion. In general, I would say I probably agree with much of what’s been said, with a few caveats.

    For me, the extender vs. HTPC question is likely going to be answered as PCs become so much cheaper. Nettops are already going for like $300? And functionality-wise, extenders just don’t really compare, imo.

    DRM I think is an interesting point in the HTPC discussion, but in somewhat diverging ways. On one hand, networked HTPCs can make DRM pretty seamless and probably better than stand alone devices can. Netflix seems to have done a good job with that with their service. Of course, otoh, HTPCs thrive on all the content out there that has been, shall we say, “freed” from any DRM. I think it’s kind of a wash overall.

  10. I have to disagree with the “A HTPC is only good if your goal is to record TV and distribute to multiple rooms” thought. I use my HTPC as a dvr, a blu-ray player, juke box, movie (both dvd and blu-ray) jukebox and internet content player. With my server I’m able to distribute all of the content to any room in the house with the right equipment. The addition of the 4 stream ceton tuner will make the pvr aspect that much better, but hardly the only aspect worth having.

  11. I hope that the HTPC becomes more mainstream, but I’m not sure it will anytime soon.

    I moved to a two HTPC household this year, with some relatively low-cost Dell Outlet purchases. I wish I could get that Ceton multistream cable card tuner and drop the FiOS cable boxes. But not yet.

    Even if I could, and I would if I could, I don’t see mainstream users wanting to deal with the upkeep of yet another PC. Windows 7 Media Center is great, and somewhat hands off maintenance compared to earlier versions of Windows. But it’s still Windows and it requires sweet whispers in its ear in order to keep running smoothly.

    Any HTPC for that matter requires maintenance–Linux, Windows, Mac. The “dumb” terminals like Roku and your networked Bluray player offer the peace of mind that most users will go for.

    If we can ever get that HTPC that has flexibility and guaranteed reliability…ha!