Does the HTPC still have a place?

Once upon a HTPC

It doesn’t seem so long ago that I built and hooked up my first HTPC (Home Theater Personal Computer). At the time, it added an unprecedented level of capability to my media center.

That HTPC supported 1080p, played DVDs, Blu-ray, streamed Netflix, Youtube, surfed the web, showed pictures of my kids, and played background music at parties when we had company.

At the time, it delivered capabilities that most people’s entertainment centers couldn’t come close to matching. Today though, those same features can be had in the form of a $35 Chromecast.

In a sea of smart TVs, and cheap streaming devices, does the HTPC still fit in? I recently found myself faced with the decision of either upgrading my old HTPC, or abandoning it altogether. Ultimately, I did decide to build a new computer for my entertainment center, but that approach may not be the best for your own media needs.

Video

If you prefer video format over written documentation I discuss this topic in the following TechThoughts video:

Reality Check – are you just streaming?

A HTPC is a full blown computer, and is priced accordingly. You can buy one pre-built or customize your own. Budgets vary wildly as you shop around with around $1,000 sufficiently satisfying a variety of entertainment needs.

If your goals are to stream a bit of Netflix and Hulu that makes your comparison $1k vs a sub $80 streaming device like a Chromecast, Roku, AppleTV, or Firestick TV.

That isn’t even a comparison. Those streaming devices are built for a singular purpose. They’re cheap, don’t consume a lot of power, and don’t have any of the complexities that come along with a full blown PC. If you’re just trying to stream content to your TV, get a streaming device, or if you have a smart TV, leverage its native capabilities.

When you want to do more than just stream

While great at what they do, streaming devices break down in capability pretty quickly. Want to play local content files? Looking to do some gaming? Do you need some type of application outside of the devices ecosystem? A generic streaming stick can’t tackle these tasks.

That doesn’t necessitate an immediate jump to a full blown HTPC though. There is an emerging middle ground. The NVIDIA Shield in particular is doing a fantastic job of serving as a singular device that can do far more than a simple streaming stick. You can do quite a bit of gaming with the shield while still maintaining a lot of quality 4k streaming capabilities. The shield also has a plethora of storage options allowing you to source a variety of local content.

Gaming consoles too continue to step up their game by offering a lot of streaming capabilities beyond their singular gaming purpose. While this middle ground does step up in price (typically $200-$400) it’s still far below the price of a HTPC.

When does a HTPC start to make sense?

Put simply, the HTPC still makes sense when you want to have it all. The personal computer is still one of the most versatile and capable pieces of technology created to date. Every other media solution has some form of limitation. If you’re primary media device is a smart Android TV, you may not have access to Amazon Prime Video. You may be a YouTube music subscriber, but your device of choice may only support Spotify.

HTPC Build Case

A dedicated media PC is capable of doing nearly anything you throw at it:

  • VIDEO – Any video streaming platform (Amazon Prime video, Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, YouTube, CBS All Access, Disney Streaming, iTunes + your local video files)
  • MUSIC – Any music streaming platform (Spotify, Google Play Music, YouTube Music, iTunes, Pandora, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio + your local music collection)
  • GAMING – All PC game titles, Steam games, all web games (and while I don’t condone the use of emulators you can theoretically emulate any console platform)
  • WEB – full browser access to any website with full download and interactive capabilities
  • RECORDING – with additional components a wide variety of sources can be recorded, antenna, cable, satellite, etc for future playback
  • COMPUTER – fully capable computer capable of installing any additional software which can extend the capabilities of the device as needed

While the HTPC remains firmly the more versatile device, its price and complexity have to be weighed against your desired use case. For example, you aren’t having to worry about installing antivirus on your Roku stick, while your HTPC will require some form of protection.

Streaming devices and consoles have streamlined menus that are typically simpler to navigate. They are low maintenance typically requiring only a wi-fi connection and a remote control.

RIP HTPC, hello PC

From the perspective of a device that supports photos, video, and audio playback, the HTPC is dead. We’ve reached the point where other technology devices can perform those functions for a fraction of the cost.

While it may be gone the PC remains a powerful device providing unparalleled capability when paired with your TV. That said, you’ll have to carefully evaluate your current and future media needs and weigh those against the cost and added complexity of a full computer.

Ultimately, I decided to replace my aging HTPC with a new computer build. Here are a few factors that led to that decision:

  • I have a large, local media library stored on NAS (Network Attached Storage)
  • Wanted to do some light 4K, kid friendly platform Steam games (Ori, etc)
  • Google Play Music is my primary music source – not often included in many media devices today
  • I like having the unrestricted capabilities provided by a full computer
  • My kids are learning how to use a computer, instead of how to navigate a streaming menu.

My media center computer build

HTPC Build

3 Responses

  1. hellowalkman says:

    How about a super-cheap HTPC that houses something like an Athlon 200ge with no separate video card ? Does a Smart TV still make more sense ?

  2. Woo Park says:

    Given the recent release of AMD CPUs like the Ryzen 5 3600, how would you utilize one in an updated HTPC build around that chipset? Especially for optimized 1080p gaming?

  3. Nathan says:

    In 2020 I decided it was time to upgrade to an HDR 4K UHD TV which necessitated upgrading my Onkyo AV receiver so that it could passthrough this video with the lossless audio signals in blu rays and streaming services like Dolby Digital Plus, DOLBY TrueHD Lossless 24bit, and DTS-HD Master Audio DTS-X. To save money I went with a Samsung QLED instead of an OLED display, and I got a gaming computer with an RTX-2070 nVIDIA GPU, and AMD Ryzen 7 3800X 8-Core Processor at 3.90 GHz, with a CLX SET case and 32 GB of DDR4 – 2 x 16GB DIMM RGB RAM modules that light up and I am concerned I should learn how to turn the lights off because where I placed it I can’t see the lights anyway, (it has a glass side panel so you can see the internals of the PC, they are proud of their work). Newegg can get them made to order from CybertronPC and shipped to your home from CybertronPC, assembled in the U.S.A. I haven’t needed support from them yet, there is a phone number in the About PC area of Windows 10 control panel, and accompanying pamphlets where a buyer can get support from CybertronPC, the people who assemble these computers, buy the parts, the motherboard chipsets, GPUs, CPUs, DIMM RAM modules, hard drive storage of every sort, and everything you want to make a gaming (or home theater, all around entertainment, home office PC it does everything), then they assemble them and make sure they power up and work properly, and load it with the latest build of Windows 10 Home Premium. I enjoy watching all of my favorite TV shows without commercial interruptions, just like the Netflix or Prime experience, but with tv series of every source and age.
    There are apps and support forums that show you how to get the the HDR working with your GPU, gaming platform, and UHD HDR TV, or video app for Windows 10, I know there are similar for Mac, but I am not familiar with the Apple mac experience.
    With a HTPC I can play Spotify (although it is already installed in my Onkyo AV receiver and Samsung SmartTV, as are Apple Music and Amazon Music), and there is just so much more I can do than with a mere streaming box or dongle. I have an xfintiy flex that my internet provider gave me, and I watch it sometimes, but I am almost always watching content stored on devices attached to my HTPC gaming computer, or bought from the virtual video store, and stored on NAS (Network Attached Storage). Because I am at my sofa rather than my desk, I use a cordless Logitech keyboard and trackball rather than a mouse, and I have a video monitor on the desk facing the sofa so I can do office tasks while it sends video signal and sound to my receiver and TV. People who find TV and films this way learn it is so much more unrestricted than other entertainment options. There might be a short learning curve for many people, and they might need to ask for help from people online who have more experience. Signal, picture quality, and audio quality are superb, and exceed what you will get with easier media consumption devices. I appreciate that Jake Morrison took the time to write an article about this topic to help normalize this experience, which so many people are unaware exists as a home entertainment option. It changed my life, literally (HTPC did) a little bit. thanks

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