Often times, one of the suggestions of what to do with older PC components is to dedicate it to a Home Theater PC. While in concept this might seem like a great idea, you can do a lot of things with full control over the box hooked up to your TV, I think it's a flawed concept.
With a HTPC, some of the most desired traits include low power consumption, quiet operation, all while maintaining a high performance level so you can do things like transcode video quickly. Older components that you have outgrown don't tend to be nearly as efficient as newer components. To have a good HTPC experience, you really want to pick components from the ground up, which is why I was excited to take a look at the Steiger Dynamics Maven Core HTPC.
As it was shipped to us, our Maven Core is equipped with an Intel Core i5-4690K and an NVIDIA GTX 980. By utilizing two of the most power efficient architectures available, Intel's Haswell and NVIDIA's Maxwell, the Maven should be able to sip power while maintaining low temperature and noise. While a GTX 980 might be overkill for just HTPC applications, it opens up a lot of possibilities for couch-style PC gaming with things like Steam Big Picture mode.
From the outside, the hand-brushed aluminum Steiger Dynamics system takes the form of traditional high-end home theater gear. At 6.85-in tall, or almost 4U if you are comfortable with that measurement system, the Maven Core is a large device, but does not stand out in a collection of AV equipment. Additionally, when you consider the standard Blu-Ray drive and available Ceton InfiniTV Quad PCIe CableCARD tuner giving this system the capability of replacing both a cable set top box and dedicated Blu-Ray player all together, the size becomes easier to deal with.
Digging deeper into the hardware specs of the Maven Core we find some familiar components. The Intel Core i5-4690K sits in an ASUS Z97-A motherboard along with 8GB of Corsair DDR3-1866 memory. For storage we have a 250GB Samsung 840 EVO SSD paired with a Western Digital 3TB Hard Drive for mass storage of your media.
Cooling for the CPU is provided by a Corsair H90 with a single Phanteks fan to help keep the noise down. Steiger Dynamics shipped our system with a Seasonic Platinum-series 650W power supply, including their custom cabling option. For $100, they will ship your system with custom, individually sleeved Power Supply and SATA drive cables. The sleeving and cable management are impressive, but $100 would be a difficult upsell of a PC that you are likely never going to see the inside of.
As we mentioned earlier, this machine also shipped with a Ceton InfiniTV 4 PCIe CableCARD tuner. While CableCARD is a much maligned technology that never really took off, when you get it working it can be impressive. Our impressions of the InfiniTV can be found later in this review.
Subject: Systems | September 26, 2012 - 01:00 PM | Tim Verry
Tagged: synergy, maingear, Ivy Bridge, gtx 680, cablecard, AIO
Custom PC manufacturer Maingear took the wraps off of its latest all in one computer today, and it features some impressive specifications for an AiO system. As the release of Microsoft’s upcoming Windows 8 operating system approaches, Maingear is gearing up support by introducing a system with desktop specifications and a large 24” touchscreen display with the new Alpha 24 Super Stock.
On the outside, the matte black Alpha 24 all in one has a prominent 24” glossy touchscreen display running at 1920x1080 resolution. Above the screen is a webcam. There are ports along the left side of the bezel and ventilation slits for the HSF on the back.
What makes the Alpha 24 interesting is all the hardware that the company has managed to pack inside the monitor-sized form factor. Internally, you will find a mini-ITX motherboard with Intel Core i7 3770K Ivy Bridge processor, and up to 16GB of DDR3 laptop RAM, 256GB Crucial M4 mSATA SSD, 3TB mechanical hard drive, and a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 680 graphics card (GTX 650 and GTX 670 GPUs are also options). The Alpha 24 also features 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support, with an optional Bigfoot Killer Wireless add-on card. Not bad at all for an all in one system!
Maingear is further pushing the multimedia and home theater PC aspects of the Alpha 24. An internal DVD or Blu-ray optical drive can be added, for example. Also interesting is the inclusion of an optional CableCARD tuner that will allow the Alpha 24 to tune into encrypted cable TV stations and act as a DVR using software like Windows Media Center. Unforunately, details on the specific tuner they are offering were not given in the press release. The Alpha 24 can also act as a monitor for external video sources connected over HDMI, such as a game console or another computer.
Maingear did not skimp on the I/O either for the claimed “no compromises” Alpha 24. Internal expansion slots include two mini PCI-E and one PCI-E x16 slot (for the GPU). External connectivity options include three USB 2.0 ports, a SD card reader, mic in/audio out jacks, and space for a single slim optical disc drive along the right edge of the display. Ports along the left edge of the display include the graphics card's video outputs – 1x DVI, 1x HDMI, 2x DisplayPort – two S-Video connectors, power jack, Gigabit LAN, HDMI output, two USB 2.0, two USB 3.0, optical audio output, and analog audio jack. The back of the Alpha 24 hosts a VGA and HDMI input along with antenna connectors.
Also, the internals are user serviceable and things like the GPU can easily be upgraded, according to the company – allowing for future upgrading to keep the system relevant. Maingear CEO Wallace Santos stated the following in the company's press release.
“In this day and age, there shouldn’t be a reason anyone would need to compromise for an all-in-one performance PC. Other all-in-one PC solutions pale in comparison to the ALPHA 24 and can be summed up with just a few words: 1080p gaming set to Ultra, maxed anti-aliasing and tessellation.”
Currently, the Alpha 24 has an MSRP starting at $1,349 for the base model. It will ship with Windows 7 x64, however it should be available pre-loaded with Windows 8 later next month following the Windows 8 release.
All in all, the Maingear Alpha 24 looks like a decent computer for the price, though you are paying a bit of a premium for the all in one form factor versus going with a traditional desktop – and building a PC yourself by following the PC Perspective Hardware Leaderboard. So long as the reviews come back stating that build quality is good, it is definitely an interesting machine if you are limited to OEM options and don’t want a tower sitting under your desk – the CableCARD tuner option is also a nice touch.
You can find more photos of the Alpha 24 over at the Maingear website.
What do you think about this system, enough future upgrade-ability to sway you away from a traditional tower PC?
An HTPC Perspective on home theater PC technology
We conducted a reader survey a few weeks ago, and one of the tech topics that received a surprising amount of interest in was HTPC coverage. You, our awesome readers, wanted to know more about the hardware and software behind them. I’ll admit that I was ardent about the prospects of talking HTPCs with you. As a relatively new entrant to that area of tech myself, I was excited to cover it, and give you more coverage on a topic you wanted to see more of!
Today we won't be talking about home theater PCs in the sense of a computer in the living room AV rack (Ryan covered that earlier this week), but rather a related technology that makes the HTPC possible: the CableCARD-equipped TV tuner.
I will forewarn you that this article is quite a bit more informal than my usual writings, especially if you only follow my PC Perspective postings. In the future, it may not be that way, but I wanted to give some backstory and some personal thoughts on the matter to illustrate how I got into rolling my own DVR and why I’m excited about it (mainly: it saves money and is very flexible).
Despite my previous attempts to “cut the cord” and use only Internet-based services for television, me and my girlfriend slowly but surely made our way back to cable TV. For about a year we survived on Netflix, Hulu, and the various networks’ streaming videos on their respective websites but as the delays between a shows airing and web streaming availability increased and Netflix instant Streaming started losing content the price of cable started to look increasingly acceptable.
She was probably the first one to feel the effects of a lack of new content – especially with a newfound love for a rather odd show called True Blood. It was at some point thereafter, once she had caught up with as many seasons offered on Netflix of various shows as possible that she broke down and ordered U-Verse. U-Verse is an interesting setup of television delivery using internet protocol (IPTV). While we did have some issues at first with the Residential Gateway and signal levels, it was eventually sorted out and it was an okay setup. It offered a lot of channels – with many in HD. In the end though, after the promotional period was up, it got very expensive to stay subscribed to. Also, because it was IPTV, it was not as flexible as traditional cable as far as adding extra televisions and the DVR functionality. Further, the image quality for the HD streams, while much better than SD, was not up to par with the cable and satellite feeds I’ve seen.
Being with Comcast for Internet for about three years now, I’ve been fairly happy with it. One day I saw a promotion for currently subscribed customers for TV + Blast internet for $80, which was only about $20 more than I was paying each month for its Performance tier.
After a week of hell Therefore, I decided to sign up for it. Only, I did not want to rent a Comcast box, so I went searching for alternatives.
Enter the elusive and never advertised CableCARD
It was during this search that I learned a great deal about CableCARDs and the really cool things that they enabled. Thanks to the FCC, cable television providers in the United States have to give their customers an option other than renting a cable box for a monthly fee – customers have to be able to bring their own equipment if they wish (they can still charge you for the CableCARD but at a reduced rate, and not all cable companies charge a fee for them). But what is a CableCARD? In short, it is a small card that resembles a PCMIA expansion card – a connector that can commonly be found in older laptops (think Windows XP-era). It is to be paired with a CableCARD tuner and acts as the key to decrypt the encrypted television stations in your particular subscriber package. They are added much like a customer-owned modem is, by giving the cable company some numbers on the bottom of the card that act as a unique identifier. The cable company then connects that particular card to your account and sends it a profile of what channels you are allowed to tune into.
There are some drawbacks, however. Mainly that On Demand does not work with most CableCARDS. Do note that this is actually not a CableCARD hardware issue, but a support issue on the cable company side. You could, at least in theory, get a CableCARD and tuner that could tune in On Demand content, but right now that functionality seems to be limited to some Tivos and the rental cable boxes (paradoxically some of those are actually CableCARD-equipped). It’s an unfortunate situation, but here’s hoping that it is supported in the future. Also, if you do jump into the world of CableCARDs, it is likely that you will find yourself in a situation where you know more about them than the cable installer as cable companies do not advertise them, and only a small number of employees are trained on them. Don’t be too hard on the cable tech though, it's primarily because cable companies would rather rent you a (expensive) box, and a very small number of people actually know about and need a tech to support the technology. I was lucky enough to get one of the “CableCARD guys,” on my first install, but I’ve also gotten techs that have never seen one before and it made for an interesting conversation piece as they diagnosed signal levels for the cable modem (heh). Basically, patience is key when activating your CableCARD, and I highly recommend asking around forums like DSLReports for the specific number(s) to call to get to the tier 2 techs that are familiar with CableCARDs for your specific provider when calling to activate it if you opt to do a self-install. Even then, you may run into issues. For example, something went wrong with activation on the server side at Comcast so it took a couple of hours for them to essentially unlock all of my HD channels during my install.
Subject: Systems | September 9, 2011 - 05:54 PM | Jeremy Hellstrom
Tagged: htpc, cablecard
One of the HTPC builders best friends is the CableCARD, something that was supposed to be available a long time ago and is finally hitting the market. It is a replacement or addition to the set top box or cable box that subscribers to cable TV are familiar with and once you install it and register a CableCARD with your cable provider it will receive the proper signal from them and allow you to view your cable channels. Some CARDSs now support multiple streams, allowing you to record a program while watching a different one or recording multiple streams simultaneously. Missing Remote breaks down the current market, describing the features and limitations of the various models available today as well as offering guidance on setting up your CableCARD.
"At a higher level, the technology was developed to protect consumers from being forced into having to rent set top boxes (STB) at increasing fees from cable companies (or MSOs) without an alternative. From a home theater PC (HTPC) perspective, it meant the ability to natively tune high definition programming from a cable provider (previously the options were only analog cable, or digital over the air broadcasts)."
Here are some more Systems articles from around the web:
- Ceton InfiniTV 4 USB CableCARD Tuner Review @MissingRemote
- AVerMedia HomeFree AVplus TV and iPad Streaming Box @ Tweaktown
- AVerMedia AVerTV USB HD DVR @MissingRemote
- PCTV Systems NanoStick T2 DVB-T2 USB Tuner Review @ Real World Labs
- Hauppauge WinTV-DCR-2650 USB Dual CableCARD Tuner Review @MissingRemote
- Elgato EyeTV DTT Deluxe TV Tuner Micro-Stick Review @ Real World Labs
- AverMedia Deluxe Hi-Gain DTV Antenna Review @ Real World Labs
- How-to: run new media center software on your original Apple TV @ Ars Technica
- Apple TV Review 2011 @ Tech-Reviews
- ASRock CoreHT 252B @ AnandTech
- Fractal Design Define Mini Micro-ATX Chassis Review @ MissingRemote