Linux Home Theater Personal Computer Part 1: Introduction

Discussion in 'X org / Desktop' started by ryanvade, Jun 16, 2014.

  1. ryanvade

    ryanvade Administrator Staff Member Staff Writer

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    This is the first of around 6 articles I will be writing on the HTPC topic. Enjoy.

    Home Theater Personal Computers are dedicated to providing the user with instant access to all their movies, TV shows, Music, Pictures, and more. GNU/Linux is the perfect operating system to use when building your HTPC, and I am going to show you how to do it.

    Pros and Cons of using GNU/Linux on your HTPC:
    There are, of course, both pros and cons to using GNU/Linux which include:
    1. Lack of BluRay support. As of right now, GNU/Linux does not officially support BluRay playback. The OS can both read and burn the disks but the encryption on BluRays you purchase prevents Linux from having playback ability. I would also have to mention that Windows Vista/7/8/8.1, and OS X also DO NOT support BluRay playback by default. You have to purchase additional software to play BluRays on Windows and Mac.

    I do not see this lack of BluRay playback as a problem since the idea of a HTPC is to play back your digital media, not the physical copies. I will show you how to take those physical copies and make them digital later in the series.

    2. Netflix/Amazon Instant Video lack support on GNU/Linux. I have no idea why Netflix and Amazon continue to ignore GNU/Linux. They claim the issue is licensing but I don't buy it. Hulu Plus has Linux support though. HTPCs are for playing back your personal media, not streaming. However, this can can be avoided in one of the situations I talk about later in this article.

    1. Cost. Using fOSS (free and open source software) can save you hundreds of dollars. To compare:
    Using Windows 8.1 would cost at least $119.99 (from the Microsoft Store). If you want the full suite it would cost you $199.99. Not to mention Windows Media Center, which is the media center designed for Windows, is not included with Windows 8.1 standard. To add Media Center to Windows 8.1 it costs an extra $99.99, to 8.1 Pro $9.99

    Using Arch Linux with either Plex or XBMC costs nothing.

    2. Performance. GNU/Linux is well known for being a light system. And if the only software you are running is Plex or XBMC you can expect memory usage of under 1 GB. Windows requires at least 1 GB by itself by default. This means that you can use lower spec hardware for a better experience. You can recycle those old parts in the closet.

    Choosing a Linux Distribution:
    There are a few Linux distributions that are designed strictly for the purpose of being a HTPC. Mythbuntu, Mythtv, and Linux MCE come to mind. LinuxMCE even has home automation if you are interested in that kind of thing. But I want something a bit different. Just the basics, with all the control I can get.

    This article will cover installing and running HTPC software on an Arch Linux installation.

    Choosing the hardware is the fun part, well besides enjoying your movies. Depending on what your computer preferences are and how you want to setup your system I can give a few basic recommendations.

    Scenario 1: A media server with at least 1 networked client. In this situation you have a server sitting in your closet and HTPCs connetced to your TVs. For the Server hardware I would recommend at least 4 Gb ram, a Gigabit ethernet card, at least a dual core CPU, and enough hard drive space for all your media. The OS itself will fit on a 30 GB HDD just fine so that does not matter but where you keep all your movies, TV shows, Music and Pictures does. Just for a comparison I have 182 Movies, 436 TV show episodes, and around 12 GB worth of music which is taking up 566 GB worth of storage on a 750 (688) Gb drive. I hate to admit it, but it is not backed up either. Hard Drives are really cheap at the moment and speed does not matter as much for a storage drive. I also recommend setting up the drives in a RAID array in case of emergencies (like drive failure).

    Now, the actual client HTPCs will be bit more complicated to recommend hardware. In the current scenario PLEX media server with PlEX home theater is the best option. This means that the number of options is huge. For example, if you want to also stream Netflix or Amazon Instant Video you can go with a roku, Amazon Fire, or Chromecast, or even a Samsung smart TV since they can stream and have a Plex app. But if you want to build your own:
    At least 2 Gb ram, Intel Pentium D or newer (or AMD equivalent), and a dedicated graphics card with at least 1 GB ram (for 1080p or better play back), again the hard drive does not need to be huge on the actual client HTPC since no media will be stored on it so a 30 GB drive will be fine.

    Scenario 2: Stand Alone HTPC
    This situation is what most people think of when they hear the word HTPC. A single computer that both stores the media and plays it. A stand alone HTPC combines the server and client from Scenario 1 into a single machine. This implies that a stand alone machine will need all the hard drive space of the server, as well as a good CPU/GPU combo to keep it all running:
    at least 4 GB ram, Intel Core 2 Duo or better (or AMD equivalents), 30-80Gb space for OS + HDD space for the actual media, a graphics card with at least 1 Gb ram (for 1080p or better playback).

    For an awesome HTPC you could go with an Intel Core i3 or better, 6+ Gb ram, an Nvidia GTX 500 series or better, an intel SSD for the OS and 2 4TB drives in a raid array (or more if needed), Gigabit Ethernet networking, and bluetooth for a wireless keyboard.

    In the next article I will be showing how to install a very basic Arch Linux system plus scenario 1 that was described above.

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    Last edited: Jun 16, 2014
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  2. arochester

    arochester Well-Known Member

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    I tried a few Media Servers after I bought a Sony Network Media Player for $50. Started with Logitech Media Server. Tried Plex, Mediatomb and others.

    Finally settled on, and like, Serviio -
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  3. DevynCJohnson

    DevynCJohnson Well-Known Member Staff Member Staff Writer

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