Here we go again, another trawl through the depths of technology. My problem is that I never could learn when to leave well enough alone; there are always a few niggles that will bother me, and usually I find that picking at them is like picking at a thread on my pullover, only to find that the pullover is starting to unravel.
In this case, the starting point is that I currently have a fairly reasonable home cinema setup – nothing too fancy, such as these – but for the most part it works, and more importantly, the spouse acceptance factor is reasonably good (although we are currently juggling six remote control units, which really doesn’t help).
However, it has a niggle.
When the Blu-ray player (Panasonic DMP-BD30), the audio amplifier (Denon AVR-3808) and the HDTV (Panasonic TX-37LZD800) are first switched on, it can take up to three or four minutes before I see a stable picture on the TV. The three components are connected together using HDMI interfaces, supposedly the latest and greatest technology for interconnecting audio-visual equipment. Any two of the components will work perfectly together with each other, but add the third into the chain, and the problems begin. The three of them are obviously engaged in some form of electronic pass-the-parcel; trying to decide on what level of communication will form common ground to get a DVD or Blu-Ray disc in the player displayed properly on the TV. The picture will appear momentarily before it breaks up into a multi-coloured snowstorm, and the units start over again, trying some other set of parameters to forge the chain. This continues, as I’ve said, for up to three or four minutes at a time. I’ve tried every conceivable combination of the setup possibilities in all three components in order to find a suitable starting point, all to no avail. All the units are supposed to support the same level of the HDMI specification (1.3A), but I fear that there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip – someone, somewhere, deep in the engineering departments of the companies concerned has interpreted the HDMI specification differently from his or her colleagues, and the resulting implementation doesn’t quite work properly.
I had rather naively hoped that a firmware fix would emerge that would cure the problem, but alas, despite several iterations of firmware upgrades on all components, nothing has appeared to resolve this. And now we are at a stage where some of the equipment is positively ancient by today’s standards – the Blu-Ray player was released in November 2007, which apparently makes it geriatric in this particular technology area. So I don’t really expect any further upgrades to appear, hence the chances that the problem will ever be resolved are slim, as far as I can see.
Thus, that is the niggle. And I am pulling on its thread by wondering whether I should change one of the components. The Blu-Ray player is the most obvious candidate – it is the least expensive component (comparatively speaking), and has already been shuffled off, by its makers, to the equivalent of the Old Folk’s Home. Now, I could simply replace it with a newer model of Blu-Ray player, but you know me, as Mrs. Lovett said, sometimes these ideas just pop into my head… What if, instead of a Blu-Ray player, I put in an HTPC? I must admit, I do rather like the features, and the look, of the latest iteration of the Windows Media Center software that is bundled with Windows 7. And it integrates with our Windows Home Server, which is storing all our music and photos. As an experiment, I hauled my PC out of the study, and temporarily hooked it up, using HDMI, in place of the Blu-Ray player. Sure enough, I was able to use it as an HTPC, and successfully demonstrated that it was able to play DVD and Blu-Ray discs through the home cinema setup, as well as access music and photos on the Windows Home Server. The only drawback was that the audio was only 2 channel stereo, instead of 7.1 channels, but that is a limitation of the hardware I currently have in the PC. What I also observed was that there was no protracted electronic “pass-the-parcel” – the setup between the three devices appeared instantaneous.
So, in theory, an HTPC is a real possibility. OK, let’s pull on the thread a little more – what sort of HTPC should it be? A number of possibilities spring to mind: an off-the-shelf HTPC, such as the Dell Zino HD or the Mac Mini; or a home-built HTPC.
I must admit, the design of both the Dell Zino HD and the Mac Mini is appealing, but the real question is: are they up to the job of acting as a proper HTPC?
Let’s take the Mac Mini first. I’m not really convinced that this would be the right choice for me. First, Apple’s bundled media library software for HTPC functionality, Front Row, doesn’t seem to be nearly as polished as Microsoft’s Windows Media Center. Secondly, I’ve never liked the iTunes software or the service for a variety of reasons, and I don’t think I’m likely to change my mind now. Thirdly, at the moment, the Mac Mini is only available with a DVD player, not a Blu-Ray player, which kind of defeats the whole object of the exercise. It also doesn’t have an HDMI interface. The final nail in the coffin is cost: Apple gear always comes at a premium, and the Mac Mini is no exception. Let’s move swiftly on before this degenerates into a rant about the Apple religion.
The Dell Zino HD is an interesting box. It can be configured in a variety of ways, including with a built-in Blu-Ray player, so this seems as though it could be a possibility. Once I started to look into it though, I began to have my doubts. It only comes with the 64bit version of Windows 7, which, frankly, strikes me as overkill for an HTPC. I found one enthusiast who had tried using the Zino as an HTPC, but then I found out that he’d wiped off the Dell software and done a clean install of the 32bit version of Windows 7 for the systems that he eventually bought. There’s a thread about the Zino on the AVSForum – it’s extremely active, with over 4,100 posts and counting. I can’t say that the overall impression that I get is positive. I think that what it boils down to is to get your expectations set correctly. Despite what Dell marketing might imply, this does not strike me as an HTPC out of the box. It may be a good basic PC with a small form factor (like the Mac Mini), but getting it to work flawlessly as an HTPC requires careful tweaking of software. It can be done, but most people just want to plug and play. That is unlikely to happen, at least with the current state of hardware and software. I am mildly amused by the volume of posts on the forum that say “do this”, followed by an answering chorus of “no, don’t do that, do this…” A sure sign that the technology is not yet ready for primetime. Anyway, the bottom line for me at least is that the Zino doesn’t (at least at the moment) output Dolby TrueHD or DTS-MA bitstreams, which is what my current (and geriatric) Blu-Ray player can do. Add to that the fact that I’m looking at around €800 for a system that needs further improvement, and I think, no, not for me.
So, in that case, why not go the whole hog and build an HTPC from scratch? Well, I can certainly do this, there’s no shortage of advice (and it must be said, the inevitable choruses of “do this” and “no, don’t do that, do this”). The bottom line is that I think I can build a top-flight HTPC that is whisper-quiet for around €650. Will I go ahead? Mmm, I think I need to mull this over for a while…