HTPCs (Home Theater Personal Computers) are gaining in popularity as people spend more time and money getting comfortable in the living room, and as the availability and understanding of the technology becomes more user friendly. An HTPC can be used for a variety of things, including video/audio playback, streaming online media, big screen gaming, and watching/recording television, all of which make them quite appealing devices to have.
HTPCs don't have to be much different than your typical computer, but a few key areas do need to be addressed. Just as with a typical desktop computer, there are limitations to what certain configurations can achieve, but customizing the hardware and software can enhance the experience to the point where it may threaten the existence of some of your more traditional home electronics components.
This two-part series of Tech Tips will cover a few pointers related to getting started with your own HTPC. There are obvious considerations that will be different from person to person (such as budget and existing home theater components), but in general, there are a few things that should be addressed by any prospective HTPC builder. In this part of the series, we will take a look at the two biggest things to consider: video and audio.
If this is a "theater" you had better be able to see something! Most graphics cards come configured to display on monitors using either a 15-pin VGA cable, or using the newer DVI cable. Although many new televisions, specifically HDTVs, have a DVI connection that may accept the signal from your computer, other models may require an alternative connection.
Most graphics cards with "TV-out" connections are capable of sending signals out over a variety of different interfaces, so choosing the right card can provide greater compatibility as your system is upgraded. The typical connections include VGA, DVI, composite, S-video, and component, and if you look around, you can find cards that support all of these interfaces.
On the end view of this GeForce 6600 card, you can see a typical TV-out connection. The round port to the left of the DVI and VGA connections accepts a "video breakout cable" which allows the signal to be transmitted over either an S-video or composite cable. The combination of S-video and composite is the most common offering on graphics cards, as many televisions (even much older models), can accept these cables and will allow the computer’s signal to be displayed on screen. The issue with S-video and composite is that they do not provide the best video quality, and the home theater experience may suffer. Regardless of resolution, text may be hard to read, the screen may flicker, the images look slightly skewed, and overall, you will be wishing for something better.
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