Front-end HTPC hardware: No perfect solutions

March 3, 2011 Comments

I've been searching for a while for a perfect front-end for my home automation and entertainment system. In my setup, the front-end system needs to do the following

  1. display media on the tv over HDMI
  2. send digital audio to the receiver
  3. accept input from a remote control
  4. handle HD content streamed over the network
  5. run quietly and use little power

The front-end doesn't need to have any storage, TV tuners, or DVD/Blu-ray drives. That is all handled elsewhere in my setup. My perfect front-end system would have these features

At least four USB ports
I have two RF remotes and one Bluetooth adapter plugged into each of my front-ends. My primary RF remote is a media-center type remote - with a numeric keypad and play/pause style controls. My secondary remote has a QUERTY keyboard and a touch pad mouse - used when surfing the web. I also have a USB Bluetooth adapter. I'd like to have at least four USB ports to support these devices and anything else I need to add in the future.

Suspend to RAM with USB wake-up
On average, I probably only watch about an hour of TV a day. That means twenty-three hours of the day the front-end system is sitting idle. I'd like to be able to put the computer into a low power mode (S3 - suspend to RAM) when it is not being used. I'd also like to be able to wake-up the computer with a remote control rather than needing to push the power button. In my setup, I have an RF remote control with a USB dongle plugged into the front-end. I need the USB port to stay active when the computer is suspended so that it can wake-up when a button is pressed on the remote.

NVIDIA GPU powerful enough to de-interlace at 1080p
My home automation and entertainment system is running Linux. Today, the only graphics card vendor to fully support hardware acceleration under Linux is NVIDIA (see VDPAU). Not all NVIDIA GPUs are created equal and I want one that supports de-interlacing at 1080p resolutions.

HDMI and digital audio out
My TVs have HDMI connections for video, but I don't necessarily want the audio to go to the television. Rather, I'd like the audio to go to my receiver. The front-end system needs to have both an HDMI port and a digital audio out port. I'd prefer a coax audio out over a fiber-optic audio out because I don't have to worry about pinching and breaking a coax cable.

Network booting and Wake-on-LAN
I don't want to have hard drives on my front-end systems. I'm not doing any recording on these systems and a hard drive contributes to power use - and it needs to be backed up. The network card in the front-end needs to support PXE booting. This way I can store the OS on the back-end and easily update it and keep proper backups. I'd also like the network card to support wake-on-lan (WoL). If I ever upgrade the software, or lose power, I need my back-end server to start first, then send the wake-on-lan packet to each of the front-end computers.

Gigabit Ethernet
I'm streaming HD content from the front-end and also booting over the network. I don't want to slow down my wireless network with this traffic or have wireless interference disrupt my media. I'd like to have a Gigabit Ethernet card in the front-end.

At least 4GB of RAM
I'm not putting a hard disk into my front-end system. There will be no swap space and everything will need to be stored in RAM. I'd like to have at least 4GB of RAM in a front-end system.

I have Bluetooth USB dongles already, but it would be nice to have Bluetooth integrated right on the computer to I don't have to have yet another USB dongle sticking out of the comptuer.

Serial port(s)
Yes, serial ports are old technology, but my television and receiver can be controlled over a serial interface. In my experience, this is much more reliable than IR. I'd like the front-end to have at least one serial port. Two would be preferred.

IR Output
Several HTPCs come with an IR input and a media center remote. I'd rather use RF for input so the PC can be out of sight. IR output is what I'd really like to see on an HTPC. This is needed to control DVD players/gaming consoles and every other device that cannot be controlled via ethernet or serial.


I haven't been able to find any retail HTPC computers that have everything I'd like in a front-end system. The NVIDIA Next Generation ION (aka ION2)based computers from Asus and Zotac come close, but most lack bluetooth, serial ports, and IR Outputs. It is also hard to tell which motherboards support network booting and wake on USB/LAN. Hopefully the next generation of HTPC systems will have more of what I'd like. For now I'll stick with the Zotac ZBOX HD-ID11 and add a bluetooth dongle and the GC-100 for serial and IR.

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