HTPCs are for geeks

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This is a mini-rant, a short essay refuting a common misconception among users of an Internet forum. If you think this essay is FUD, feel free to explain why on the essay's talk page.

Home theater PCs are for geeks. Ars agrees.

The following is a draft of a post that I'm preparing to put on the major HTPC forums once I have refined it.

A computer connected to a television is called a home theater PC. (Some people call it a "media center PC", reserving "home theater PC" for such PCs with 5.1 channel audio output, but here I use HTPC generally.) It can play movies, TV shows, and home video from the Internet as well as DVDs, video from your camcorder, and a wider selection of video games than any console, all on your TV. And it's expandable: with a TV tuner, it can record TV shows; with a BD-ROM drive, it can play Blu-ray Disc video. (See also Dell's HTPC page.) But as I've gathered from a more general-interest forum, home theater PCs are a tiny niche compared to dedicated home theater appliances. As a PC game developer, I wish it weren't so, but I'm starting to learn why it is the case.

Contents

Challenges

A PC made for the living room would have to overcome the five C's of why most people don't have a computer in the living room: cost, consumption of electric power, cooling noise, case style, and complexity of operation.

With ordinary PCs, the user chooses to build or buy. Building a PC for the first time requires hours of research. Not everybody has the inclination to do this,[1] which is why the majority tend to buy a PC from a major manufacturer such as Dell or HP. But whether one builds or buys, one still ends up with a PC that can run any PC application.

Home theater PCs, on the other hand, aren't as easy to find ready-made. The majority of PC users have a conception of a "PC" as a tower with noisy fans that sits at a desk in another room and is connected to a small (by TV standards) monitor, and putting a PC like this in the living room has a low spouse acceptance factor due to poor aesthetics. So an HTPC needs either A. a special HTPC chassis designed to look no less out of place next to a TV than a DVD player or a cable box, or B. a cabinet with adequate ventilation to hide a tower-style PC. Special HTPC cases are available,[2][3] but not usually for ready-built PCs from the major PC makers. I guess that's why most guides about getting started that I've found on HTPC forums talk about building your own.

Well-known electronics store chains like Best Buy are more likely to carry home theater appliances such as Blu-ray Disc players, upscaling DVD players, and video game consoles, which are locked down to do only the things that the manufacturer wants. I visited a Best Buy store in early November 2010 and asked about media center PCs or home theater PCs. The sales associate in the PC department explained to me that the vast majority of the public use appliances such as Sony's PLAYSTATION 3 for such things. Though some video game consoles are promoted with catchphrases like "it only does everything", they all have restrictive developer qualifications so that only established companies can develop software for them, not hobbyists or microbusinesses.

An appliance typically costs substantially less than a PC for a few reasons: 1. economies of scale, 2. an operating system cheaper than Windows Home Premium, and 3. a pricing strategy based on expected attach rate. One can repurpose an existing PC as an HTPC, and the cables to connect it to an HDTV shouldn't cost more than $20 at Monoprice. But someone who doesn't own more than one PC will end up doing homework and Facebook on a TV. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

Ideally, I want to be able to recommend a make and model with easy-to-learn media discovery and playback (the "HT") but still capable of doing everything a computer can do (the "PC") to friends and family. Is there a home theater PC that is as easy for an end user to assemble and use as an Xbox 360, PS3, or other set-top appliance, yet can still be used as a PC for surfing the web or playing PC games? Are these goals in some way mutually exclusive, or why else is the market not there?

End of post.

Marketing HTPCs to everyone

Perhaps the reason why HTPCs haven't taken off is that not enough work has been put into usability. It's a hard job, taking skills that not a lot of programmers have. If you want to try to sell HTPCs to the public, you'll first need to make them as easy to use as dedicated appliances. This includes a 10-foot user interface that even a computer novice can figure out.

Perhaps part of the problem holding up development of a proper interface is that a lot of HTPC fans overestimate the intelligence of the general public. Some people are too stupid to figure out how to open the packaging that a PC comes in, let alone hook it up.[1] They think a TV with glass on the front can't be liquid crystal because pressing on it doesn't make those funny colors.[2]

Here are some tips based on posts by h4rr4r and others:

  • Start with a small form factor PC such as the Zotac ZBOX.[4]
  • Provide an application launcher similar to Apple's Launchpad (formerly At Ease) or Nintendo's Wii Menu for quick access to tasks from a remote control. Despite all the hate that the new Start Screen in Windows 8 got from mouse-and-keyboard users, it should work well on a TV, and it'll be familiar to anybody who has used an Xbox 360 console since the December 2011 "Metro" Dashboard update.
  • Make it easy for the user to increase the window system's DPI according to seating distance and screen resolution. For example, 1080p will need a higher DPI than 720p, and 3 m away will need a higher DPI than 2 m away. As of version 22 released in June 2013, Mozilla Firefox respects the window system's DPI,[3] and extensions such as NoSquint are no longer needed.[4]
  • Install Adobe Flash Player. As of late 2010, not all video sites had added HTML5+WebM support, and even fewer have vector animations that play with an HTML5 Canvas. Even in 2014, some web sites such as The Escapist are charging extra for HTML5 access because it's harder to skip advertisements with Flash.
  • Add bookmarks to web sites that are popular when the PC is shipped, such as Facebook, Twitter, Dailymotion, YouTube, film review sites, and PC game review sites.
  • Don't overload the user with preferences. Having too many preferences makes each of them harder to understand, harder to find, and harder to test.[5] Some consumers even throw up their hands in frustration when presented with just a choice of models with different size storage,[6] but that's probably an extreme case.
  • Choose the operating system wisely. Linux can be easier to bend to the will of media center use, but Windows lets a manufacturer claim gaming as a bullet point because as of 2013, far more games work in Steam for Windows than in, say, Steam for Linux.
  • Don't put pop-ups over the movie or game. Operating system updates can wait until the movie or game has ended. Nor should it pop up notices about a missing keyboard or mouse.
  • Don't steal focus. Make sure the operating system doesn't steal focus while a movie or game is playing, causing movie or game controls to become unresponsive. For example, some versions of OS X focus the dock instead of the media player when coming out of sleep.
  • Sell a remote and infrared dongle that work with Windows Media Center.[7] Some such remotes even have a full alphabetic thumb keyboard that anyone whose phone has a QWERTY keyboard can figure out. And for those who dislike thumb keyboards, Microsoft makes a $40 wireless keyboard with a trackpad at the right side.[8]
  • Bundle a game controller with your PC, and somehow convince video game developers to support its button layout out of the box.
  • Commit to providing specific support for developers of software for its PCs[9] beyond the support that Microsoft already provides to developers of Windows applications through MSDN. For example, provide a system-level library that looks up the connected gamepads in a big table and converts their button layouts into some standard format. (For example, see SDL 2's Game Controller API.)
  • Partner with a PC game publisher to bundle some HTPC-friendly games with the PC.
  • Include a console emulator with homebrew games. FCEUX with the Streemerz bundle is a good starting point.
  • Preinstall the Steam client with Big Picture, which can filter games by controller capability.

So I guess the problem is that no PC maker both feels willing and has the financial wherewithal to spend enough marketing dollars to establish itself as the preeminent HTPC provider.

List of HTPC fans

A product targeted at HTPC users may still be viable if there are enough geeks in the population. Admitted HTPC users, who are presumed geeks because they post on Slashdot, include Penguinshit, TemplePilot, CidHighwind, exomondo, mcgrew, Anonymous Freak, Praetor.Zero, vlm, Belial6, Fishchip, Charliemopps, vux984, Omestes, h4rr4r, mjwx, stoolpigeon, dcherryholmes, VortexCortex, DKlineburg, Megane, sjames, Pubstar, 0100010001010011, jonbryce, somersault, Endo13, David_Hart, Ironhandx, Vanderhoth (who pulled HDMI cable through a wall), gl4ss, bfandreas, Cwix, AdamThor, Antipater, ls671, cusco's neighbors, Farmer Pete, GameboyRMH, lgw, msobkow, Obfuscant, a bunch of people who replied to this topic and this topic and this topic, and the customers of hairyfeet and yoshi_mon. Others like Jethro are considering it. Some have an HTPC but acknowledge that most people are unwilling to buy one, such as mcl630. Others have had poor experiences at building one, such as twistedsymphony.

References

  1. "Unable To Think Outside The Box". Not Always Right, 2013-08. Accessed 2014-04-21.
  2. "Modern TV’s Have A Solid State". Not Always Right, 2013-08. Accessed 2014-04-21.
  3. Text is too small on hidpi displays. Bugzilla at Mozilla.org. Reported 2013-02-24. Resolved as fixed 2013-03-14. Accessed 2013-06-26.
  4. jfkthame. "Zoom levels should adjust for Hi-DPI support in Firefox 22. GitHub, 2013-04-13. Accessed 2013-06-26.
  5. Free software UI
  6. Let the flamewars commence on Not Always Right
  7. Set Up a Geeky Media Center that Non-Geeks Can Actually Use on Lifehacker
  8. Dana Wollman. "Microsoft's new keyboard is meant to be used with Smart TVs". Engadget, 2014-04-16. Accessed 2014-04-19.
  9. suggested by Gravatron
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