Building A Home Theatre PC For The Complete Beginner, Part III: OS and HTPC Software

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In the second part of our series on building your own HTPC, we talked in some detail about installing your components in a way that’d keep all the whole affair as quiet as possible. In this part we will look at installing your operating system to get the best out of your new setup. If you haven’t read any of this, you can find the very first part here.

You have a few options here depending on your own personal preferences. We did take the time to tinker with a few different options so we could offer some advice on each of the different OS situations you might encounter. We tried out three different options in the form of Windows Vista, Windows 7 (RC) and Linux (Ubuntu).

For our media centre software we’re running with XBMC (that is, Xbox Media Centre). The biggest reasons for making this choice were that fact that it’s open source on both Windows and Linux OS and it boasts the pleasant bonus of having a rake of pretty skins/themes to choose from. Normally the number of skinning options won’t be a pronounced part of a reasonable person’s OS decision-making process; but in the case of a HTPC, you’ll want the whole affair to be as smooth, seamless and personalised as possible.

We’re going to go right ahead and advise against running with a Linux installation. This is mainly because of the fairly awkward fact that that, once XMBC was installed, there were some pronounced sound issues that caused a crop of problems. This meant the whole affair required more and more tweaking just to get things rolling. In short, it just wasn’t conducive to the kind of easy-living situation you’d like to find yourself in with a HTPC. So we went ahead with a Windows installation; there was more support and an easier experience overall.

Next we ran with an install of Windows 7. It’s important to note that install process is identical to the installation of Windows Vista and XP. Make sure you have a product key and a ready supply of patience ready when installing a new operating system and keep a close eye on all the on-screen instructions.

 

Installing the OS – Windows 7 RC

We chose windows 7 RC for this build as it’s relatively stable and due for release soon enough; however this section will be much the same if you’re installing Windows Vista.

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Step one of the installation is the usual – primary options, keyboard and language.

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Once you’ve selected your install language you’re ready to move on to actually installing the OS itself.

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If you’ve been building your HTPC from scratch, you’d do best to format the whole hard drive. After this has been completed, select “New” (as highlighted above). In Windows 7, the system will partition the hard drive as required for its system and leave the rest as normal HDD space to be used as usual. You can see this from the above screenshot.

 

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After the hard drive options have been selected windows will begin the long and tedious business of actually installing itself. At this point you’re faced with a choice; you can either watch the install, or go get yourself a cup of tea or coffee even a quick beer. Windows should happily continue to install as normal without further intervention.

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Windows has now completed its install. At this stage you may enter any username and PC name you desire and then click next

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As Windows 7 has detected a network it will ask what type of network it is. It is best in this situation to select Home network as it will allow network permissions to be set with the click of a button.

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By the time you’ve seen this screen you’ll know that all is well and your desktop will be prepared for its first use.

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After the installation this is what you’ll see as your standard desktop and layout. Since this is Windows 7 you’ll notice that a few things are different. However, the layout will roughly be the same in Windows Vista.

 

Installing XBMC

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We chose XBMC due for many reasons, one reason that stuck out was that it plays virtually all formats without any major issues and is very flexible and (above all) very skinable. There are plenty of themes etc. out there for those interested.

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In order to obtain XBMC, you need to point your browser to www.xbmc.org and follow the download instructions for Windows. Above is a screenshot of the downloaded installer. Once downloaded, click Run as highlighted in the image above.

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You’ll be presented with a completely normal install screen, if you wish to install XBMC you click Next. Obviously enough.

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You can blindly click next throughout the whole install process without any worry, we used all default settings.

On your first run of XBMC you’ll be greeted by the screen shown above. This is a very clean and simple layout and many will prefer it to some of the other options. However the end user has endless options and one of them is themes. We used a theme called Aeon, which we’ll show you in more detail shortly.

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Shown above is the Videos screen.

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There’s also a nice music screen.

Adding folders that contain media

Adding media folders is nice and easy too.  In order for XBMC to see media, you need to add a source. The source can be local, or shared on a network drive or another PC connected to your home network – which means you’re not limited to internal storage on your nice, quiet HTPC box.

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This is just what the “add source” button looks like.

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As you can see we have a variety of options, we can browse for files on local disks and add folders, or on a network share. We selected Windows network share for this example to add some folders from a PC connected to the same network as our box.

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You can see from the above that once we had selected the Windows network share that we’re presented with a list of PCs on the network that we can connect to and browse for media that we might want to add.

Note that you might well find PCs on your network that aren’t sharing by default. You will be prompted for a username and password for a machine in order to allow your HTPC to connect to it.

In our case the media shared on each PC is viewable by any PC connected to the network for example purposes.

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Above is an example of some of the media to be found on a machine. In this case we are viewing the “Movies” folder of a machine on our local network.

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Above is a quick example of how the share path would look before we click on OK. Since we’ll want to browse all the shares from this PC rather than just the Movies folder, we have selected the root folder of the shared PC.

Once all that’s done you will need to do the same for any other media you wish to add to XBMC. Remember that the media is on a network share in this example, so the host PC would still need to be on, as the media is being streamed from the networked PC to XBMC. It seems obvious now, but it’s the biggest reason for “half my movies are GONE!” syndrome.

We like the standard interface a lot, but we wanted to highlight another interface that will turn your HTPC into something a little different and (depending on personal tastes) perhaps more attractive.

Before we begin, the theme can be downloaded from www.aeonproject.com

Below is some screenshots of the interface.

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If you have any questions or are just looking for more information about the project and interface in general then feel free to ask us on our Boards.ie forum, or follow us on Twitter or on Facebook.

If you already have computer components that you would like to add to your PC, why not register for and bring them along with you to one of our Build your own PC classes and we’d be happy to show you how to do it! Visit http://www.komplettblog.ie/events/ for location and dates.

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