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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  • Alreyouano - Monday, January 1, 2018 - link

    Sir, good day, im new in the home theater field. May i know what kind of speakers and how many do i need to buy to set up a 7.1.2 home theater at home. Thank you.
  • Reflex - Monday, January 1, 2018 - link

    Well to start the number you listed there actually tells you the total. 7.1.2 = 7 surround speakers (two front left/right, one center, one on each side, two behind), 1 subwoofer and 2 upwards firing drivers or ceiling mounted speakers for the space above the viewer.

    As to brands and so on you need to make certain your receiver or soundbar supports Dolby Atmos, I suggest for more info and user preferences.
  • Golgatha777 - Monday, January 1, 2018 - link

    That would be 10 speakers if you include the subwoofer.

    5 up front (R,L,C, RP, LP), 4 in the back (RS, LS, RSB, LSB), and the subwoofer.
  • Reflex - Tuesday, January 2, 2018 - link

    I think that's what I said? You included the RS/LS as 'back' and I listed them separately as "one on each side" in my description. One question I would have for you though: The upwards firing ones, if you only have 2 of them should they be front or back?

    I'm using a Samsung HW-K950 so it has four upwards firing drivers, but in a 7.1.2 you'd only have 2 presumably unless you drop the sides...
  • Alreyouano - Tuesday, January 2, 2018 - link

    Thank you.
  • kallek - Friday, January 5, 2018 - link

    My biggest problem with HTCP's is the stutter from playing 23.976 clips. Using Reclock helps but it only works with some programs and I haven't got it to work well with DTS HD Master Audio and Dolby True HD
  • Vorl - Monday, January 15, 2018 - link

    So, I haven't read all 18 pages of comments, so if this has been mentioned already, sorry.

    Why a 4k tv? They are a gimmick. If you sit more than a couple feet from your 55' TV, you can't see the difference. Here is a good link to explain it.

    Sure, you can see the difference if you were gaming, and sitting NEXT to your monitor, but most people sit several to many feet from their TV, so even a big tv at 4k isn't something you can see. A lot of extra cost for no real gain.
  • mikato - Thursday, January 18, 2018 - link

    Fun time reading the comments :) I’d just like to say that I came here and read it for the HTPC info. I would like to make a (better) HTPC but I won’t be upgrading my old home theater setup, so I wasn’t looking for stuff about receivers, TVs, etc. Doesn’t matter to me, but just figured I’d throw in my perspective. If I bought a new house or something, then I might be interested in that stuff. But as it is, I’ll be using what I have now for those items which work pretty darn well.
  • iescheck2 - Wednesday, January 24, 2018 - link

    It is not clear to me if the ASRock Beebox-S 7200U or Intel NUC7i7BNHX can stream Dolby True HD and DTS-HD MA through the HDMI to the AV receiver. Comparing those setups to a i5 notebook, what would be the advantages and disadvantages of each, since they may be similar in price?
  • prateekprakash - Saturday, July 21, 2018 - link

    Greetings @ganeshts .
    It would be great if you did a follow-up article, now that HDR & wcg mode works much better on windows 10.

    I have a query: does the HDMI out of the pc go into the AVR, and the 4k60p out of the AVR goes to the TV?

    I am asking this because I have my Sony x800d TV connected to my GTX 1060 HDMI out, and the windows sound icon shows only stereo and 5.1 as available options (the 7.1 option is greyed out).
    Does that mean GTX 1060 HDMI out is limited to 6 channels only? Or is it somehow related to my msi b250 Mobo?
    If I routed
    GPU HDMI out>>AVR source in>>AVR>>AVR HDMI out>>TV
    Would it then show 7.1 option?

    I am new to home theatre space, and I intend to set-up my first home theatre, so I thought it would be wise to learn about it.

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