Home Theatre PC Redux

A number of years ago I purchased my first barebones Shuttle PC.  At the time, it was about the size of two stacked shoe boxes, which was quite compact compared to the behemoth desktops circa 2005.  I had ideas of streaming media from it, using it as a home media center.  Microsoft even had a home centric OS, and attendant software.

It never really took off in that regard, and I ended up just using the machine as a standard browsing desktop for a few years.  Now, it finds itself in the garage, holding up various bits and pieces, not getting any action.

There has been a whole thing in the industry about creating quiet PCs.  From power supplies to fans, to specialized cases, motherboards, and the like.  All in search of that perfect PC that can sit in the living room, unobtrusively, serving up media to the giant glass TV monitor above it.

Then along came XBMC.  Oddly enough, first introduced on the Xbox to stream media content.  Soon enough XBMC found its way to the standard PC, and subsequently to Operating Systems other than Windows.  XBMC became Kodi, and here we sit today.

A couple of years back, I purchased a minix X8-H.  Again, for the day, it was quite a nifty little device, that could stream media.  But, ‘streaming media’, and servicing home media content needs has boiled down to a couple of things.  First of all, netflix, and thus a Roku or other standard media devices, are the norm these days.  For roughly $50 you can get a device that will stream all the standard network based streams that exist, from hulu, to netflix, TED Talks, NFL, or whatever.  Of course, these media devices are essentially the new “set top box” for the age where cable bundles are dwindling, and you get to pay $5-$10 per month per channel you really want.

Well, there you go, problem solved, we can all go home now…

In summary, media consumption has turned into an internet based thing, where the differentiators are things like 4K streams vs HD, amount of memory (to minimize stalls), and the quality of the sound output.  It’s no longer a question of CPUs (ARM is dominant), nor the OS (Android is dominant).  It’s not even a matter of the software (proprietary or Kodi, and that’s it).

There is a tributary off this main stream though.  That is, once you get into Kodi as your player, you’ve opened up a world of possibilities.  I can stream all of my DVDs that I backed up to my NAS.  I can get all the media content from the internet, I can stream live events, watch local television, etc.  This is even greater as I can watch whatever content I want, pay whatever price I want, and not have a single concern for the quality of the content, nor the cost of the device.  That’s all great.

So, I recently went back to the minix site just to see how they were getting along.  Lo and behold, the media players are no longer front and center, but instead, there are ‘miniature’ PCs, like the ngc-1.  This is a Windows 10 PC in the same form factor as those tiny media player boxes.  I found it on Amazon for $299.  Given the price of tablets and laptops these days, this is right in there with a typical low end machine.  It is loaded with features though, like dual-AC wireless, 4K video, 128Gb SSD, and the like.  It’s no slouch, even if it’s not the best bitcoin mining device.  This paired with a reasonable couple of monitors makes for a great interactive PC for toddlers (who destroy laptops in a second).

This is  a new breed.  I’m thinking of getting one to act as my desktop “command” computer.  You know, stick it on the top of my desk, or the back of one of my monitors, and just use it to remote desktop into other machines as I need to.

As a long time PC builder, my first reaction is, “I’m sure I could throw this together cheaper”, but the truth is I can’t.  I can even purchase the components any cheaper, and they put it in a nice solid metal case, which I could not manufacture.  I think we’ve reached the state where the PCs are almost commodity, and you can pretty much purchase one every year, and just attach them to whatever display you so happen to have.  Those 17″ displays that you find in your work room, put a media stick (roku stick or chrome cast or whatever).  For the bigger glass, like your Costco special 60″ tv, put one of the large media PCs that are capable of 4K display and have a bit more media handling capability.  For your main desktop machine, the one you use in your cave for viewing lots of different kinds of content other than movies, put one of these new nano scale PCs.  Stick a console gaming rig, or heavy duty PC on your midrange display for gaming.

My journey with media center PCs began roughly 12 years ago, and I can say, that journey has pretty much ended today.  I’ll still fiddle about with the likes of an Odroid C2 for media streaming, but really, when it comes time to watch football, or the latest netflix bing season watching thing, it’s going to be a standard media device (likely rook) on the 50″ in the living room.

Media PC pursuit, rest in peace, long live the media PC!

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