HTPCs are for geeks
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.
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, 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, 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. Here are some tips based on posts by h4rr4r and others:
- 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.
- 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.
- Install Mozilla Firefox with NoSquint extension with 'Default full page zoom level' set to 150%.
- Install Adobe Flash Player. As of late 2010, not all video sites have added HTML5+WebM support, and even fewer have vector animations that play with an HTML5 Canvas.
- 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. Some consumers even throw up their hands in frustration when presented with just a choice of models with different size storage, 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.
- 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 Mac OS X focus the dock instead of the media player when coming out of sleep.
- Sell a remote and infrared dongle so that people can use Windows Media Center that comes with Windows Home Premium. Some such remotes even have a full alphabetic thumb keyboard that anyone whose phone has a QWERTY keyboard can figure out.
- 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 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.
- Partner with a PC game publisher to bundle some HTPC-friendly games with the PC.
- Partner with one of the major app stores (Steam or Impulse) to filter games by HTPC 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.
- Free software UI
- Let the flamewars commence on Not Always Right
- Set Up a Geeky Media Center that Non-Geeks Can Actually Use on Lifehacker
- suggested by Gravatron