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Build or Buy an HTPC?

Lil Frier

Platinum Member
Oct 3, 2013
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My cousin's got a friend who would like to have an HTPC for school. He said he JUST wants something that can record TV shows, and he wants to keep it under $500. I told him I'd ask around for some info on the matter, because I don't know much about:

1. TV tuner cards
2. What is needed (software/subscription) to record TV shows on an HTPC

He basically just wants something that will act as a DVR, no games or anything else. I was wondering if that's something to even consider building, or if they sell cheap, pre-built HTPCs to fit that kind of a need. In those instances, I figure all he'll need to run is Windows Media Center, and maybe VLC (if he wants to watch it on there).

So, what can people tell me about this?
 

Aikouka

Lifer
Nov 27, 2001
29,481
451
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What sort of setup is he dealing with at college? Does he just live in a dorm room where he would normally just hook the TV up to a coax connection and he gets cable? Does he live off-campus where he actually has a subscription and would normally use a cable box? The answer to this question can greatly affect what sort of tuner he would need to use. The prior should work with just about any NTSC/ATSC tuner, but the latter may require a CableCard-based tuner, which tends to cost more.

As for software, that also depends on the setup. If he needs to use a CableCard tuner and wants access to protected content, then he'll have to use Windows Media Center. Although, with simpler requirements, he could just use something like Linux + MythTV.
 

Lil Frier

Platinum Member
Oct 3, 2013
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I don't know him all that well, so I'm not too sure. I am pretty-sure he is living off-campus, meaning he'd have his own cable. However, I might be wrong on that. I'll have to get some info from my cousin (who could text him and ask) when I see him later this evening.

Regardless, what is the difference between the two? How do I recognize which is which, and are there different setups for each? I imagine he'd just want Windows (he mentioned 7 because WMC is included), and I was just curious as to whether there is any real savings to be had in building an HTPC. It seems that there are cheap pre-builts that could do the job, but I've heard people suggest buying one because of the low cost anyway.

Also, what kind of general hardware should I be looking out for here? I imagine an AMD APU would be perfect in this case, but how low can you go in buying one (I've seen them get as cheap as $50) before you have performance concerns?
 

nForce2

Senior member
Aug 15, 2013
285
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Find out what type of TV and sound system he has too.

There's a huge range of variables here... Using Linux/MythTV, you could put together a complete DVR-only HTPC for about $75 in used parts if you really needed to. But the costs grow as you add functionality. ;)

On a related but very important subject- are *YOU* going to be the one building (and supporting) this HTPC? :confused: If so, don't steer your cousin's friend into anything that requires a lot of effort to set up, maintain, or troubleshoot - it will only be a huge hassle for you in the end. $500 is a heck of a budget for a TV-only machine. A $200 TiVo, although definitely not the best option, might be where you draw the line. Particularly since you don't really know him and he isn't directly your family OR your friend. ;)
 

Lil Frier

Platinum Member
Oct 3, 2013
2,720
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If it was assembled, I'd probably be on the hook for that task. My cousin might do it (I helped him put one together a couple of weeks back), but he doesn't live close while at school, so it wouldn't be on me to do maintenance.

The TiVo thing is that he doesn't want to pay a subscription, can you get a TiVo box without one? I agree that $500 is way overkill for a TV-only device, he just gave me that number and that role for the computer--a DVR computer for $500 or less. I told him I wasn't well-versed on the subject of HTPCs (specifically, TV tuner cards). All I know is that he was asking about 7.1-channel audio, and I'd imagine 1080p is the output resolution desired.
 

Aikouka

Lifer
Nov 27, 2001
29,481
451
126
Regardless, what is the difference between the two? How do I recognize which is which, and are there different setups for each?
I'm not terribly knowledgeable in this area, but from what I recall, if the cable company is transmitting a ClearQAM (i.e. not encrypted) signal, then a normal tuner that supports QAM will work. Your usual Hauppage WinTV tuner usually supports it. However, I believe those are usually only a single tuner, which really isn't that great for a DVR as that only allows for you to watch/record a single channel. Tuners such as the HDHomeRun Prime or the Ceton InfiniTV 4 will provide multiple tuners (3 and 4 respectively), which means you can record up to that many channels at once. While there are cards with more tuners (Ceton has a six-tuner option), Windows Media Center will only use up to four tuners at once.

Also, what kind of general hardware should I be looking out for here? I imagine an AMD APU would be perfect in this case, but how low can you go in buying one (I've seen them get as cheap as $50) before you have performance concerns?
I've never used an AMD APU before, so I'm not sure how well they would work. I would imagine that if it works for a normal HTPC, it would probably be fine when used with a DVR.

The TiVo thing is that he doesn't want to pay a subscription, can you get a TiVo box without one?
No. You can get a lifetime subscription, so you don't have to pay a monthly fee, but it's $500. You can get $100 off using a code, but that's still $400 + $199/$399/$599 for the TiVo itself. Even though the TiVo is more expensive, I went with that for my mom. Frankly, I've used WMC for a bit, and I wouldn't really recommend it for anyone that isn't technically savvy. I've had issues in the past with things going wonky, and I wouldn't want to saddle someone with that situation. To give you an idea, Bitstreaming (sending unaltered Dolby/DTS to the receiver) was working fine on my HTPC, I started up WMC, went to check out a TV station, and I had no sound. Bitstreaming literally just failed and refused to work from that point on even though I had been using it in PLEX a few days prior. :\
 

Lil Frier

Platinum Member
Oct 3, 2013
2,720
21
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Yeah, I could see where the TiVo is a better option when the money is there to purchase it, especially if the technically-knowledgeable person cannot help out with issues (either due to lack of familiarity or geographical distance). With an older person who simply wants functionality, I agree that "reliable" can be preferable to "cheaper" or "more-flexible."

Here, I don't think that $600-$1,000 is in the budget, so the TiVo is likely not doable. If WMC isn't all that dependable or intuitive, are there alternatives that DO work well, and without confusion?
 

nForce2

Senior member
Aug 15, 2013
285
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76
ouch! I had no idea TiVo data subscriptions were that expensive. :eek:

Forget I mentioned it... Tell your cousin's friend to learn a bit about Linux and set up a MythTV build instead. ;)
 

Alan G

Member
Apr 25, 2013
127
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For HTPC you don't need a video card and can use on chip graphics whether it's AMD or Intel; video quality at 1080p will be just fine. I don't know about cable providers other than Verizon FIOS but I can tell you that renting a DVR enabled set top box from them runs about $20/month. A bare bones HTPC build using an Intel 3220 Pentium CPU will spec out roughly as follows:

CPU: $70
MoBo: $70
500GB HDD $60
4GB RAM: $45
300W PSU: $40
Windows 7: $90
Case: $40-80

which runs to about $425. Maybe as a student you can get Win7 at a discount. This does not include a CableCard setup which will add additional cost and I don't know what the DRM policy is for the provider in this case. I know for Verizon, I do need a CableCard to get HBO and I think they will be encoding other channels as well. Verizon charges $5/month for the CableCard and I had to spend $120 for a Hauppage CableCard tuner.

Lots of variables here and I hope this helps. It's also worth noting that if you rent a set top box from the cable company you don't need to worry about maintenance or trouble shooting problems. They take care of that.
 

waterchange

Junior Member
Jan 14, 2014
1
0
0
How about a used $300 Tivo Premiere that includes lifetime service from ebay? Lots of users selling their older units cheaply as they upgrade. An option for cheap, plug-n-play DVR w/ little work.
 

Zak_

Member
Dec 31, 2013
27
0
0
On a related but very important subject- are *YOU* going to be the one building (and supporting) this HTPC? :confused: If so, don't steer your cousin's friend into anything that requires a lot of effort to set up, maintain, or troubleshoot - it will only be a huge hassle for you in the end. $500 is a heck of a budget for a TV-only machine. A $200 TiVo, although definitely not the best option, might be where you draw the line. Particularly since you don't really know him and he isn't directly your family OR your friend. ;)
I'd find a pre-built solution or used Tivo, simply because of this. Setting up an HTPC for TV can get pretty complicated, and you don't want to be on permanent support.
 

pgreenwood

Junior Member
Feb 17, 2014
4
0
0
If this has already been mentioned, forgive me, but if you go the MythTV route (I just "finished" my first (Mythbuntu)) you'll need a SchedulesDirect subscription for $25 per year with trial arrangements available.
 

Fallen Kell

Diamond Member
Oct 9, 1999
5,409
104
106
Yeah, $500 budget is a little tight depending on what he wants to do and the cable/satellite system he needs to record from. While I love the idea of cablecard, just about everything is flagged copy once anymore, which means you can only watch it directly on the system that recorded it (or a media extender, which only the XBox 360 is qualified), so don't expect to put it on your phone or laptop to watch on a plane/trip.

I guess if you had another DVR you could record the playback from the HTPC... But that would be a real pain if you ask me.

Anyway, as said, the biggest expense is going to be the tuner. Many of them are going to be 1/2 the budget or more. If he has an old spare laptop already, you can look into just reconfiguring that and getting a USB or network tuner and a 2-3TB USB disk to store the data.
 

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