Thursday, May 04, 2006

Using a laptop as a Home Theater PC

This is a copy of a review I did for my new laptop on avsforum.com:

I recently was in the market for a new Laptop PC. I wanted something fairly powerful but reasonably light for my software consulting business.

As I did my research I discovered that several notebooks are now shipping with Windows Media Center Edition. Some notebooks are advertised as Media Laptops and this got me thinking as to what would constitute a minimum requirement for a Home Theater Notebook PC.

Here are my conclusions:

A Home Theater laptop needs to be able to do more than just play DVDs.

Notebooks can be upgraded somewhat to support HTPC features, but to be called an HTPC a laptop must have these features 'out-of-the-box':

  • It should be bundled with common media software, such Windows Media Player, Quicktime/iTunes, and a DVD Player. Ideally it should be bundled with XP Media Center Edition if it's a Windows-based laptop.
  • It must be able to output to an external display device at its native resolution. (DLP TV, Projector, Plasma, etc.) Most laptops these days are capable of that.
  • It must be able to play back DVDs without stutter, and ideally have enough juice and RAM to playback using post-processing software like ffdshow.
  • It should support digital audio passthrough at the hardware level. (Note that there are SP/DIF digital audio USB 2.0 devices available which can upgrade the HT capability of a notebook.)
  • DVD drive (of course) and ideally a DVD-Writer. Front-slot loading style would be a definite advantage.
  • It should be able to store digital media content on it's internal hard drive, and optionally be capable of recording TV content for later playback. (Again USB TV Tuner devices can be added on to give a notebook this capability. I don't consider this an essential feature for a portable HTPC, since you are tied to plugging it in to getting a decent TV signal. This could change as services offering streaming TV over a (wireless) internet connection are now coming online.)
  • It should be capable of being controlled remotely and wirelessly for playback, and also ideally should have special functions on the keyboard for media playback.

From this definition, many modern notebooks could be used as an HTPC. For notebook to be advertized as a Media Center Laptop, however, the majority of these features would be included in the purchase package.

The Candidates

I found a few notebooks within my budget (~CDN $1500) and feature range that I considered candidates:

  1. ACER 5672WLMi - Intel Duo 1.6GHz, 2Gb RAM, 120Gb 5400rpm HD, ATI x1400, XP Home
  2. HP Pavilion dv5040us - AMD Turion64 2.2Ghz, 2Gb RAM, 100Gb 4200rpm HD, ATI 200m, XP MCE 2005
  3. Gateway MX6750 - Intel Duo 1.6 Ghz, 1Gb RAM, 100Gb 4200rpm HD, ATI x1400, XP MCE 2005

All these PCs are in the same price range, footprint (15.4" screen) and weight class. (Around 3kg, 6.5lbs)

I wanted a notebook that needed as little upgrading as possible.
For my purposes, a notebook is first and foremost a portable device and so I didn't want to have too many things to plug in when using it in my Home Theater setup.

Other manufacturers (such as Toshiba, Sony and Fujitsu) offered similar featuresets in a higher price range.

The ACER was pretty much fully loaded feature-wise, with optical digital out and a faster 5400 spin hard drive. For HTPC it lacks a remote control device in the bundle. Based on the 1.6Ghz Core Duo processor it was plenty powerful, and a juicy ATI X1400 card was clearly adequate for all HTPC video processing and modern gaming. Reviews I have read have complained about the general build quality of the ACER machines. I have also heard that the visual quality of the built-in screen has a lot to be desired. The biggest drawback for me was that it was a media center capable laptop but bundled with XP Home. Adding MCE and a remote control to the deal brought the cost too close to $2000.

The Gateway, advertised as a Media Center laptop, comes with Media Center edition, and also an ATI X1400 graphics card. Curiously missing from the feature set however, is any mention of digial audio output. Apart from the fact that sales reps recommended that I take a look at the Gateways, I would not have normally looked at a Gateway. Probably just personal bias.

I went for the Hewlett Packard for several reasons, but mainly because the build quality is reported to be better than the ACER and it comes with Media Center Edition. This means that support for Media Center issues would be part and parcel of the deal. Personally I like the design and robustness of this laptop, and the quality of the brightview widescreen display is truly excellent. (And I got a good deal on it - $200 off the regularly posted price.)

The HP Pavilion dv5040us was advertized as a Media Center laptop. It comes with MCE 2005. It has 2Gb RAM and a 2.2 GHz AMD Turion 64 bit processor, integrated ATI XPRESS 200M graphics and a 100Gb hard drive. One of the major plusses for HTPC use was that it features S/PDIF passthrough as a mini-Toslink optical connection through the dual function 3.5mm headphone jack. When HP also bundles a mini Media Center remote control which slots neatly into the PCMCIA slot, you know that they designed this laptop with Media Center in mind.
By my standards, it pretty much meets the minimum requirements for a portable HTPC. One limitation is the lack of a DVI output port. This may or may not be a problem for you, depending on the inputs of your Home Theater display.

On the slight downside the drive is only 4200rpm (capable but not performant - in a laptop there's usually a trade-off between dirve performance and battery life). The ATI graphics is capable of DVD playback and is fine for HTPC use, but it is a little underpowered for my other hobby: gaming. A more powerful X700 or X1400 chip would have made a lot more sense in a notebook with these specifications. But not a show-stopper, since I play games on my main desktop PC.

Another consideration for a Notebook HTPC is form factor. The placement of the connector sockets can make a difference as you will be connecting and disconnecting the device quite often. The form factor of a laptop is significantly different to a PC, and it can actually have a larger footprint than your typical HTPC.
In the case of the dv5040us, the connectors are all at the sides. I like this for when I'm plugging the PC into the external monitor for work requirements. However, when hooking it up to the Home Theater components, it offers some new challenges. The laptop is about as wide as the other components in my media stack. Inserting a DVD into the laptop is impossible with out moving the laptop to get access at the pop-out drive tray. This could definitely be improved with a front loading drive - ideally slot loading. Plugging in the VGA cable at the side is pretty tight in my cabinet. One criticism here is that the VGA port fit is not snug and there are no screw holes to make it secure. Even though I have not had any serious connection problems, it concerns me a little that the cable does not quite fit properly. Making matters worse, the audio output is on the other side of the laptop, meaning that my footprint is extended by an inch or two on each side, making it a really tight fit in my media cabinet. The fit could be even tighter when adding on dongles into the USB ports, so consider this if purchasing a media center laptop to fit in your rack. Perhaps investing in a docking station might solve some of these issues providing rear connectors, and reducing the need for multiple cable plug-ins when setting up the laptop for HTPC use. (You might even get DVI and coax digital audio outputs to round out the availiable connectors?)

Out of the box, I had a few issues with the software. WinDVD was not properly integrated with MCE and threw out errors on DVD playback, even though it worked fine when launched as a standalone app. The optical digital sound worked fine with no configuration necessary - fine, that is for two-channel sound only. When switched to streaming Dolby digital/DTS 5.1 channel sound it was awful with sound-popping and constant dropouts.
Contacting HP support to get the latest WinDVD oem support download and the latest sound drivers has fixed most of these problems, but I still have detected the occassional sound dropout through my Yamaha receiver. I am confident that this can be fixed through software updates, and I hope they will be forthcoming in the near future.
The ATI drivers are fine for my Home Theater display, which is not as advanced as some of the latest hi-rez TVs and projectors, having only a capability for 800x600 resolution. The laptop worked fine with my borther-in-law's brand new Samsung DLP TV through the VGA input, recognizing its resolutions and looking GREAT.
However, with only a VGA output on the laptop, I could not test the true digital DVI connection to the Sammy.

Overall, I think the dv5040us is adequate as an HTPC. I had a couple of quibbles with the software drivers which are pretty much sorted now. To truly take advantage of MCE you should add a USB2.0 tuner/capture card if you're into PVR, but other than that it's pretty much a full package, which isn't bad for a mid-range, mid-sized laptop. (Incidentally, HP provide a TV capture card as an optional extra for this model. You can also purchase a full-size remote control and a 'car-kit' for strapping into a vehicle for long journeys.) It almost passes on all counts for what it is advertized to be - a Media Center Laptop.

6 comments:

Home Theater Furniture said...

Stories that are simple enough for children to understand. Stories that are set to music. Stories that involve fantastical elements and make me giggle.

Angel Garcia said...

Using laptops as part of the home theater is quite efficient. However, the downside here is the output for both audio and video. The video card for laptop should have HDMI or DVI output in order to maximize the video quality. Having VGA alone is pretty much decent. But compared to others, it may look far different. For the sounds, laptop should be compatible with digital audio. Overall, laptop can be your all in one package – gaming, movies, and music.

Louisa Hemstreet said...

Angel here does have some points. Using a laptop as a home theater pc requires high-end specs to fully support everything. Nowadays, technology truly is rising to a peak. It’s the reason why many people are upgrading their system just to meet the requirements. Having a laptop to serve as a home theater is quite complicated if you don’t know what you’re doing because there are important things that needs to be considered before doing so. Know if your laptop can handle the frequency load that you’re about to use such as speakers and other compatible gadgets.

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Jackie O'Brien said...

Great post, although now I think you could accomplish this an iPad!

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