Aug 19 2013 - Home theater PCs were originally just standard desktops with some hardware used for video playback and recording of TV. Most have been discontinued except for extremely specialized systems with very high price tags. Most people now opt to use small form factor desktops to easily fit in with a home theater setup and just stream their video from the web, DVDs and Blu-ray or local digital files rather than other satellite, cable or over the air broadcasts.
Most people get their high definition TV content through a cable or satellite provider. Because of this, the ability of a home theater PC that supports CableCard is critical. Velocity Micro is one of the few companies that has built their system with a Cable Labs certified tuner to support such a card. This makes it the best choice on the market for those looking to get a system to use with a home theater system. RAID hard drive options and a powerful desktop processor lineup mean this system has plenty of space for storing video and transcode video with little delay.
Shuttle's XPC G5 case may not exactly look like a home theater piece of equipment, but the system offers a strong set of features that lets it integrate well with home theater systems. It is based around solid desktop PC technology that let's it provide a very fast overall computer experience. In addition to this, the system has built-in audio support for Dolby Digital Live so that it can output a 5.1 audio stream to an external surround sound receiver. An integrated HDMI connector allows it to connect into HDTV systems and the Blu-ray/HD-DVD drive allows it to play either of the two high definition video formats.
Alienware's Hangar18 is certainly the best integrated home theater PC both in terms of its looks and some of its features. The case design mimics that of most home theater components and it even has a built-in 200W amplifier that means it doesn't require an external home theater surround sound receiver to hook it up to a 5.1 speaker system. They have even upgraded the drive options to include Blu-ray unlike previous versions. Even with all of this, there are a few key missing items. With all its integration, it lacks the ability to have many external devices connected and still can't connect with a CableCard.
Some people may be taken aback by the VAIO TP's black hockey puck appearance, but it offers a very good home theater experience and at very reasonable pricing. Unlike many other home theater systems that are based around desktop PC components, the VAIO TP uses a mobile Core 2 Duo processor and optical drive. These mobile parts have the benefits of reducing the system size, using less power and producing less heat and noise. The downside is that it is a bit slower of a system than many other desktop based HTPCs. Sony also finally includes a Blu-ray based optical drive so that it can play the dominate high definition video format. On the downside, the system does have a limited amount of storage space.
What the PolyCenter i7150 may lack in terms of features, it makes up for in options. The system only offers a single digital and analog TV tuner configuration with no CableCard support. What it makes up for is a wide range of options including some of the best hard drive options with a total of three terabytes of storage space that provides plenty of hours of high definition video feeds. Polywell also made some smart decisions with the use of fanless components such as video cards and power supplies. This helps keep the system very silent. And while it does look very much like it belongs in a home theater setup, the case doesn't add much functionality.