A traditional home theater used to consist of a TV-set, a receiver with speakers, and a dedicated DVD player. Later on, players of Blu-ray and HD DVD discs came to market along with those new formats. For all the advantages of such systems, particularly their relative ease of use, specialized players have one fundamental drawback. They are not truly universal. Modern models often support a variety of formats besides the official commercial DVD and Blu-ray but there are just too many combinations of codecs, compression settings and media containers in the world of modern digital video. As the result, there is always a high chance of encountering a file the ordinary home receiver cannot play back, especially if it is an open noncommercial format, for example Matroska (.mkv) which is so popular among anime lovers.
The solution came quickly in the way of Home Theater PCs. An HTPC is a typical x86-compatible computer running some popular OS like Windows XP or Vista. In order to easier control the system and optimize it for large TV-sets, you can use the OS’s tools (Windows Media Center) or one of numerous multimedia shells from third-party developers. The fundamental advantage of an HTPC is its absolute universality. If you find it not to support some audio or video format, you can easily add this support by installing appropriate software. Even though an HTPC is somewhat more difficult to deal with, it is gaining popularity among home theater fans.
The next question is whether a HTPC, which is in fact an ordinary computer, perhaps in a nonstandard form-factor and with special software, can be used as a replacement for a modern game console? There are a lot of games available for the PC platform and some game genres, for example real-time strategies, are rare on consoles. Playing a game on a large screen with hi-fi sound can be much more fun than on an ordinary monitor, even if the latter is 24 inches wide.
So, do you have to buy a game console if you’ve already got a HTPC? It depends on the latter’s configuration. HTPCs are usually assembled in a flat desktop case that can be placed under a TV-set or into a hi-fi equipment stand, and such cases often have limitations regarding the installation of top-end graphics cards because of the dimensions or PSU wattage requirements or ventilation, or all these combined. Therefore we decided to limit this review to inexpensive graphics cards that are sure to suit a HTPC and have some gaming capabilities besides just offering hardware acceleration for HD video decoding.
Since low level of noise is an important factor for a HTPC, we have selected an inexpensive version of Radeon HD 4600 that claims to be absolutely silent. It is the PowerColor SCS3 HD4650 512MB DDR2 graphics card. Besides benchmarking the card in games at display resolutions typical for modern TV-sets, we will also check out its HD video decoding capabilities.