The days of bulky HTPCs with built-in optical drives, massive internal storage arrays, and integrated TV tuners are long gone. The advent of over the top (OTT) online streaming services has moved a lot of functionality to the cloud. As NAS units become more powerful, it has made sense to move local media files to a central repository. All these have enabled the TV-connected PC to become more compact. Unless the consumer has specific requirements (like, say, high quality gaming), even ultra-compact form factor (UCFF) machines such as the Intel NUCs can fit the bill.

Home Theater Components: Keeping up with the Times

The primary functionality of HTPCs has evolved to become one of a powerful and versatile media player. However, recent advances such as 4K and high dynamic range (HDR) videos, as well as stricter DRM requirements such as HDCP 2.2 for premium content have made the perfect HTPC platform difficult to achieve. Before delving deeper into these new advances, it is helpful to have some insight into how the landscape has changed over the last decade or so. The advancements in that timeframe have meant that next attractive home theater feature was always around the corner. In the initial days of 720p televisions and other home theater equipment, it was Full HD (1080p). As 1080p became widespread, it was HD audio bitstreaming. After that, 3D support was sought after. A brief lull ensued before the market started slowly getting ready for 4K.

Over the last year or so, we have seen the appearance of displays and audio/video receivers (AVRs) supporting HDMI 2.0 / HDCP 2.2 along with HDR / Dolby Vision. Despite the announcement of HDMI 2.1, I believe that we have reached a point where it is possible to purchase a relatively inexpensive home theater and HTPC configuration without worrying about it getting obsolete within the the next 3 to 5 years.

On the media side, OTT streaming services have become popular to the extent that Netflix and YouTube moved to offer 4K videos to consumers ahead of Blu-rays. Fortunately, many modern PCs are capable of 4K Netflix playback, though HDR is available only on a subset of those configurations. UHD Blu-ray playback support is available through CyberLink PowerDVD 17. However, the hardware requirements are a lot more specific compared to premium OTT services. UHD Blu-ray playback with HDR requires that the home theater components fulfill additional requirements.

Building a Home Theater on a Budget

I started work on this home theater piece back in June 2017. The aim was to present a setup (TV, AVR, and HTPC) with all the bells and whistles, yet light on the wallet. While the TV (TCL 55P607) and the AVR (Denon AVR X3400H) were easy to narrow down based on the feature requirements and budget, the PC side proved to be more challenging. Our core requirements (compact form factor, 4K Netflix support, and HDR capability) narrowed down the choices to a NVIDIA Pascal GPU-equipped PC or a Kaby Lake PC with HDCP 2.2 capabilities. UHD Blu-ray support further narrowed this down to certain Kaby Lake PCs with a HDMI 2.0 / HDCP 2.2 display output.

In the course of our evaluation, we found that consumer electronic (CE) equipment almost always received features ahead of HTPC platforms. Keeping this in mind, we ended up evaluating a number of options for the fulfillment of HTPC duties

  • Roku Smart TV platform in the TCL 55P607
  • NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV (SATV)
  • Zotac ZBOX MAGNUS EN1080K
  • ASRock Beebox-S 7200U
  • Intel NUC7i7BNHX

Prior to looking at the performance of these options, it will be of interest to readers to delve deeper into our choice for the other home theater components. Earlier this year, I happened to embark on a house remodel, and I took that opportunity to revamp the HTPC test components used in our system reviews. Our choice of components is geared towards a typical family room (15' x 15') home theater.

The Display: TCL 55P607
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  • soper8 - Tuesday, December 26, 2017 - link

    I would also agree that some AV forums have a more robust inventory of options but if sites like Anandtech others don't bring more into the fold of HTPC the community had less opportunity to grow.

    On the term "budget" used in the article: I think there some perspective on what could be spent on a HTPC setup vs the relative low cost of this setup.

    My setup...

    Server:
    HP DL380 Gen 7 8 core 128gb ram
    40TB+ RAID6 storage (72 TB raw)
    Runs Windows 2012 R2 with Emby, Plex, Kodi backends
    Provides iSCSI drive support for client recording

    "TV" clients
    1 Intel NUC 5ppyh
    1 Zotac CI325
    1 home built i5 4560T mini itx
    1 home built i7 2600k atx
    all have 8gb ram, 250ish SSD, Windows 7 or 8.1
    last two have blue ray and amd discrete video
    (I haven't jumped to 4k so I will have to swap out video cards on those two.)

    Streamers
    Microsoft wireless video adapters on all screens (supports windows, mac, and android)

    TV tuners
    Centon infinity 6 for cable card
    HDHomerun Prime OTA

    My point to basic/budget is all in the eye of the beholder and I haven't even listed tvs, amplifiers, tuners, etc.
    Reply
  • we - Tuesday, December 26, 2017 - link

    Retailers in the UK advertize the RRP of the Denon AVR-X2400H as £499, and it is easily obtainable at various retailers for £399, which is budget territory. How is it possible that the same product has a RRP of $999 in the US (according to the article)?? Reply
  • we - Tuesday, December 26, 2017 - link

    My mistake (ist a X3400H, not X2400H). Apologies. Reply
  • thestryker - Tuesday, December 26, 2017 - link

    I do think that this article does fulfill the goal of explaining the current state of htpc and giving options. I'd like to think people are capable of reading the conclusion setting forth several option, but given a lot of the comments that doesn't seem to be the case.

    No matter how average the playback may be not mentioning the xbox one s/x as playback options is a missed opportunity as they're both cheaper than htpc for uhd blu-ray.

    For many years I've had a pc connected to my tv for playback, but now I've switched to using the plex tv app on the tv and xbox one s for blu-ray playback. The draconian approach to drm drove me away from the htpc and I don't see that changing. Most good 4k tvs have netflix/amazon built in and many have hulu support. There's really not much to be gained by using a htpc anymore unless you have very specific needs.
    Reply
  • darckhart - Tuesday, December 26, 2017 - link

    I think this article was fine; it provides a starting point. HTPC crowd is far too opinionated to ever have consensus on "budget" and certain requirements (whether video or audio) preclude "budget." To do a comprehensive selection and review would be ridiculous. This article was, if you have a TV that supports X, and you want audio that supports Y, and you want to have a PC in there, here's a rough setup and the limits of it.

    That being said, this article convinced me that the htpc space for video is definitely not "it just works" and it seems like they're making it difficult because no one cares to play well with each other. This leaves the consumer having to juggle every piece of equipment and make sure they're updated for this or that.
    Reply
  • Golgatha777 - Tuesday, December 26, 2017 - link

    Even dedicated AV equipment is getting really bad as of late. Does it support Dolby Atmos and Vision, is it HDCP 2.2 compliant, what about when HDMI 2.1 comes around, does it support all HDR standards, will it have a firmware update for any of the aforementioned and at what date, etc.? Reply
  • Kevin G - Wednesday, December 27, 2017 - link

    The HTCP market is in a bit of shock as 'standards' have been rather fluid of late, something you never want a true standard to be.

    HDMI and HDCP are the two big factors as to why things have been so dynamic. The transition from HDMI 1.4 to HDMI 2.0 went rather well from a high level stand point and everything nowadays has going to pure HDMI 2.0 (there are still a few pieces of electronics that mix HDMI 2.0 and HDMI 1.4 ports). The complicating factor is that HDCP versions haven't been tied down to HDMI versions. So a HDMI 1.4 port could support HDCP 1.4 or HDCP 2.0. Similarly HDMI 2.0 can have either HDCP 2.0 or HDCP 2.2 support. Right now the coming HDMI 2.1 equipment is based around HDCP 2.2 but I fathom there will soon be a new version of HDCP announced for 8K content making the first wave of HDMI 2.1 gear useless outside of a glorified PC displays.

    On the PC side of things, that requires OS updates to support the new versions of copy protections and hardware to enable it too. There appears to be active disdain by media companies to actually permit 4K disc playback on PC's, hence why it has such a long chain of requirements.
    Reply
  • Reflex - Tuesday, December 26, 2017 - link

    Ganesh -

    There is literally no way you could have wrote this that would have satisfied even half the home theater crowd. That entire space is full of opinions. I didn't really agree with your decisions either, but I don't have to because you aren't really telling anyone what to buy, you are documenting what you built and providing it for others who may wish to have a good starting point. And that is all you needed to do.

    My own setup was recently rebuilt. I finally ditched the receiver concept and went with a soundbar.

    LG OLED65B7A: $2049 via Amazon as a certified refurb (Beach Camera is reboxing non-refurbs to avoid the MSRP)
    Samsung HW-K950 Sound Bar (open box special from an Amazon reseller, $760)
    Awake Lion 5 port HDMI2/HDCP2.2 switch ($50)

    Connected to that I have a FireTV, Xbox One S, a SteamLink (wish they'd do a 4k version) and a few older devices as well. It all works, including HDR and Dolby Atmos from devices that support it. By watching for open box or refurb marked items I saved around a grand from the price and this should last me for a long time. I do not miss the receiver, the sound bar I chose is the top rated in the space and has actual back channels and separate sub, it is fantastic with Atmos content. Plus my wiring is much simpler.

    TV: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B074QQZ9VJ
    Soundbar: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01I0HW12O
    HDMI Switch: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06WV5YJ6H
    Legacy device Switch: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B072F6XJHL
    Network Switch: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01AX8XHRQ

    Total devices connected -

    Xbox One S
    Xbox 360
    Xbox
    Amazon FireTV2
    SteamLink (connected to a gaming PC somewhere where I don't have to hear it)
    Dreamcast
    Reply
  • Golgatha777 - Tuesday, December 26, 2017 - link

    For my own setup:

    $200 - XBox One S - Use it for all optical media and streaming. Supports HDR10, bitstream output of Dolby Atmos, and HDMI 2.0 for 4k@60Hz. It handles all my optical disc and Internet streaming needs.

    $1000 (video card is $500 of it) - HTPC - has a GTX 1080, i7 3770k from an old build, and 16GB DDR3 memory. Plays back media files and ISO rips from a home server very nicely with 7.1 surround sound support built into the OS. I call this good enough for the convenience factor because setting up Dolby Atmos has proven to be a nightmare on Windows 10 so far.

    $1200 - My receiver is a Yamaha RXA-3060 9.2 channel hooked up in a 7.1.2 configuration with HDCP 2.2 and HDMI 2.0a on all ports. It also supports HDR10 and BT.2020 out of the box. For the money, I figure this is about as future proofed as I can get on a receiver. I can also turn the last dot 2 (7.1.(2)) into a 7.1 and stereo set of speakers for a 2nd zone on the back, outdoor patio.

    $1400 - LG 55EG9100 1080p TV - I'll worry about 4k discs once the powers that be sort out the standards for HDR, or all TVs start supporting both HDR10 and Dolby Vision (and the XBox One S gets Dolby Vision support); until then, so sale. For now, I'll buy a handful of 4k Bluray discs since I know I'll upgrade at some point, and I can enjoy the Dolby Atmos soundtracks now.
    Reply
  • fallaha56 - Tuesday, December 26, 2017 - link

    Sorry but very poor advice here(!)

    A good AV receiver lasts more than 4(!) years and here you are recommending someone buy one just as it becomes obsolete

    HDMI 2.1 is future-proof for years, 2.0 is about to flop with HDR

    Did you also say that Denon were sponsoring this article?!?
    Reply

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