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Home entertainment setup with a HTPC

I’ll get to a summary post or two about my India trip in upcoming days, but today I’d rather go on about my frustration with my auxiliary home theater PC setup.

Basic review: my main HTPC setup works great. I’m running Windows 7 on a tower with 2.5 TB of HDD and a Windows Media Center remote, and it all works very nicely, including the Netflix plugin for Windows Media Center. No complaints at all.

What’s driving me batty right now is my secondary setup up in my bedroom. For the last couple of years I’ve actually been pretty happy using Plex on my Mac Mini as the setup; it can playback recorded TV across my network from the HTPC, the Netflix plugin worked nicely, and there was even a HDHomeRun plugin so I can watch live TV streaming from my networked tuner.

But a few months ago the Netflix plugin for Plex broke – rather, Netflix updated their API and the plugin developer hasn’t been able to keep up. Which means the only good way to watch Netflix in that room (which the kids want to do nearly every morning) is to open up Netflix in the browser. Not such a good solution. So, I’m trying to figure out another solution that won’t cost me too much.

One option would be a Roku. It has a good Netflix app, a Plex app which in theory will connect right up to my existing Plex Media Server to watch recorded TV, and even has an app for Amazon Streaming Video, which we get with our Prime membership but have never really used. (Bonus!) Downside: HDHomeRun doesn’t work, and you don’t get a basic web browser, which means no watching live TV, and no streaming any other video off the net from more, um, dubious sources.

I know that XMBC is floating around out there with a Mac app, but it’s a pain in the rear to configure and not pretty at all, and I don’t know that it even supports Netflix. So that’s a non-starter.

A better option would be to buy a netbook computer (this 11″ Asus model has good reviews) for about $300 and hook it up in place of the Mini. I could get another Windows Media Center remote and just duplicate my main install (save for the big disk drives). That way I know I’d get Netflix, the HDHomeRun tuner would work, all the videos would playback (perhaps even without as much transcoding as I’m doing now), and I’d still have a browser. The downside: it’d cost me $300. Even if I could sell the Mini, I’d still be down a couple hundred bucks. That’s antihistamine money.

The other option that occurs to me is that I could do the same thing with the old Dell laptop that I’m typing this post on. It’s already got Win 7, and with a fresh Windows install it’d be plenty fast enough. The downside is that this is the PC that the kids now use for their computer time, and where we’ve got it setup isn’t conducive to switching it out with the Mini.

Guess I’ll keep thinking. Anybody have any good ideas?

After running through the options with my wife, she says “$300 for the best option? Forget it. For $300 I can get out of bed and open a browser if they want to watch Netflix.” Guess that answers the question.

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