The days of bulky HTPCs with built-in optical drives, massive internal storage arrays, and integrated TV tuners are long gone. The advent of over the top (OTT) online streaming services has moved a lot of functionality to the cloud. As NAS units become more powerful, it has made sense to move local media files to a central repository. All these have enabled the TV-connected PC to become more compact. Unless the consumer has specific requirements (like, say, high quality gaming), even ultra-compact form factor (UCFF) machines such as the Intel NUCs can fit the bill.

Home Theater Components: Keeping up with the Times

The primary functionality of HTPCs has evolved to become one of a powerful and versatile media player. However, recent advances such as 4K and high dynamic range (HDR) videos, as well as stricter DRM requirements such as HDCP 2.2 for premium content have made the perfect HTPC platform difficult to achieve. Before delving deeper into these new advances, it is helpful to have some insight into how the landscape has changed over the last decade or so. The advancements in that timeframe have meant that next attractive home theater feature was always around the corner. In the initial days of 720p televisions and other home theater equipment, it was Full HD (1080p). As 1080p became widespread, it was HD audio bitstreaming. After that, 3D support was sought after. A brief lull ensued before the market started slowly getting ready for 4K.

Over the last year or so, we have seen the appearance of displays and audio/video receivers (AVRs) supporting HDMI 2.0 / HDCP 2.2 along with HDR / Dolby Vision. Despite the announcement of HDMI 2.1, I believe that we have reached a point where it is possible to purchase a relatively inexpensive home theater and HTPC configuration without worrying about it getting obsolete within the the next 3 to 5 years.

On the media side, OTT streaming services have become popular to the extent that Netflix and YouTube moved to offer 4K videos to consumers ahead of Blu-rays. Fortunately, many modern PCs are capable of 4K Netflix playback, though HDR is available only on a subset of those configurations. UHD Blu-ray playback support is available through CyberLink PowerDVD 17. However, the hardware requirements are a lot more specific compared to premium OTT services. UHD Blu-ray playback with HDR requires that the home theater components fulfill additional requirements.

Building a Home Theater on a Budget

I started work on this home theater piece back in June 2017. The aim was to present a setup (TV, AVR, and HTPC) with all the bells and whistles, yet light on the wallet. While the TV (TCL 55P607) and the AVR (Denon AVR X3400H) were easy to narrow down based on the feature requirements and budget, the PC side proved to be more challenging. Our core requirements (compact form factor, 4K Netflix support, and HDR capability) narrowed down the choices to a NVIDIA Pascal GPU-equipped PC or a Kaby Lake PC with HDCP 2.2 capabilities. UHD Blu-ray support further narrowed this down to certain Kaby Lake PCs with a HDMI 2.0 / HDCP 2.2 display output.

In the course of our evaluation, we found that consumer electronic (CE) equipment almost always received features ahead of HTPC platforms. Keeping this in mind, we ended up evaluating a number of options for the fulfillment of HTPC duties

  • Roku Smart TV platform in the TCL 55P607
  • Zotac ZBOX MAGNUS EN1080K
  • ASRock Beebox-S 7200U
  • Intel NUC7i7BNHX

Prior to looking at the performance of these options, it will be of interest to readers to delve deeper into our choice for the other home theater components. Earlier this year, I happened to embark on a house remodel, and I took that opportunity to revamp the HTPC test components used in our system reviews. Our choice of components is geared towards a typical family room (15' x 15') home theater.

The Display: TCL 55P607
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  • Golgatha777 - Tuesday, December 26, 2017 - link

    It doesn't even make financial sense to try and do 4k Blu-ray on PC. The optical drive is $117 and the playback software, PowerDVD 17 is $40 currently. Add to this the requirement for specific motherboards and CPUs for the DRM chain, and you've more than paid for an XBox One S.

    Not to mention from my anecdotal experiences during the Bluray days, the software will be buggy as hell, the audio will be a pain in the ass to configure correctly, and you'll need to update the software (in this case PowerDVD) to the newest version down the road to keep up with the DRM key refreshes.

    I built a HTPC years ago, and it's only still useful because I also use it to game on, and because of software that strips DRM off my discs. Now that commercial playback software must support Cinavia, it's useless to me as well for playing back ripped ISO images and media files; so I turn to open source programs and will keep my old hardware that ignores Cinavia, etc. for playback. For streaming and 4k discs, and XBox One S is much more cost effective, and the playback software will get updated for free going forward (support for new DRM keys, Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos, etc.).
  • Golgatha777 - Tuesday, December 26, 2017 - link

    Forgot the $26 for a SATA breakout drive enclosure for the 5.25in optical drive.
  • edzieba - Tuesday, December 26, 2017 - link

    For regular BD playback, by far the most painless experience is to just use AnyDVDHD and play the movie file directly off of the disc. No mucking about with menus (and waiting for a Java VM to load up just to RUN the menus!), no dealing with the steaming pile of garbage that is PowerDVD, no worrying about having to have an obtuse HDCP compatible chain, etc.

    Recent developments have shown HDCP 2 is on the way to being broken in a similar way, so soon the only practical requirements may be a BDXL capable drive and a HDR capable monitor/TV.
  • Fujikoma - Thursday, December 28, 2017 - link

    I rip everything to an NAS and strip the Cinavia out of it. It also saves me the hassle of getting off my lazy butt and I can just stream anywhere in my house without a problem. My 4k BD drives cost me less than $70 (LG) and they both work fine for ripping (1950X TR with NVidia 1080). I can use my XBoneS for the odd video files (format, audio and sub options) I have and the Roku (boxes and the t.v. built-ins) work just fine for my h265 MP4s. I think you're right that the XBone platform would be a better option for 4k at this point. I'd use a 4k dedicated player for family, if no one games because it's less complicated. With family, fewer remotes and components has been the way to go. That's why I keep the amps and pre-amp setup in my computer room.
    The article, itself, doesn't really make any sense because there's too much skimping on the home theatre. Just easier to start with a good t.v. and audio setup with front speakers only, then add in the extra bells and whistles later. The list doesn't even contain a sub... which means a decent sound bar would be viable option to ceiling speakers as the surround setup isn't even in the cost breakdown.
  • rapster - Sunday, December 31, 2017 - link

    How do you strip out Cinavia? Last I heard there still wasn’t a viable solution and would be very glad to hear that the situation has changed.
  • Fujikoma - Sunday, January 7, 2018 - link

    I'm not going to list the software, as it already had a run-in with the U.S. govt. and I don't feel like causing myself more hassle again even though I have a legal right to rip my own BD/DVD collection. Considering I (as does everyone in the U.S.) pay a 'fine' to the recording industry every time I purchase recordable/storage media for potential pirating/format change of stuff I own, my attitude towards it is even more jaded. Needless to say, the software was worth the money.
  • Aikouka - Wednesday, December 27, 2017 - link

    I wouldn't just flat-out recommend the Xbox One to anyone as a UHD BR player. The Xbox One's biggest problem is that it's far too noisy when playing UHD Blu-rays (disc noise), and it's quite easy to hear during quieter parts of a movie. I went that route to start with, and it only took me one movie to start researching alternatives. Unfortunately, most alternatives have issues too. Sony's player is arguably the one that has the least amount of awkward teething issues, but it'll never support Dolby Vision. (TCL's P605/P607 supports Dolby Vision.) LG was supposed to add it, but they pulled the update. I've also heard complaints of noise from other players. The only player that seems to get decent praise is Oppo's 203, but it's also over twice as expensive as the others (~$500).
  • edlee - Thursday, December 28, 2017 - link

    I understand the superiority of Dolby Vision, but the fact that its not widely supported in the tv market, only LG, roku tv, and vizio support the feature. All the support is going to the forthcoming HDR10+, i know its difficult to review right now, but its an open standard and royalty free. You will see support for it from more tv manufacturers as well. It has streaming support from Amazon on over 100 titles, and support is mostly coming from Netflix in the future.
  • Reflex - Thursday, December 28, 2017 - link

    And honestly until you get to 80" or higher projector style setups DV is unlikely to make a noticeable difference in image quality. DV is a nice to have, but not at all mandatory for a first class experience, at least not yet.
  • HStewart - Friday, December 29, 2017 - link

    I actually have Xbox One S and primary used it for UHD Blu-rays. There is difference in having it on PC then on Xbox - because you can also used it as 4K Monitor which is good fro graphics programs.

    I would agree for low cost it best to go for Xbox One S ( or X ).

    I would think with this Pioneer drive - you should be able to get HULU in 4k on PC - but even with the Xbox you will need 13 megabit Internet connection to run 4k HULU.

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