How to build a 4K HTPC – Part Five: Software

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You should now have a fully functional HTPC. Congrats! But don’t crack open that High Life just yet. It’s time to get some media applications setup.

What you want your HTPC to do is up to you. There is no one-stop shop for everything you need/want your HTPC to do. Kodi, you might know it better by its former name XBMC, is a very nice all around software entertainment package, but it cannot do everything. But it might be perfect for your needs. More on Kodi in just a bit.

ETR How to Build a 4K HTPC

  1. PART ONE: GOALS AND CHALLENGES
  2. PART TWO: CASE, POWER SUPPLY, MOTHERBOARD, AND COOLING
  3. PART THREE: PROCESSOR, SSD, RAM, AND OPTICAL DRIVE
  4. PART FOUR: SETUP, TROUBLESHOOTING, AND QUIRKY 4K SHIT
  5. PART FIVE: SOFTWARE
  6. PART SIX: PERIPHERALS AND EVERYTHING ELSE
  7. PART SEVEN: GRAPHICS CARD – THE DEFINITIVE INSTALLATION/UPGRADE/HOW-TO GUIDE
  8. UPDATED PARTS LIST FOR 2016
  9. UPDATED PARTS LIST FOR 2017

Software

If you built your HTPC to closely resemble the rig we completed in parts 1-4, you should have quite the media powerhouse on your hands. Every bit as powerful as your normal, everyday workstation. Since we invested a little extra coin in our Core i5, we might as well not let it go to waste. Our HTPC is a very capable encoding machine. This is where you can really start to get into trouble. Ripping and encoding Blu-ray’s and DVD’s is not the problem, the problem is storage and accessing your new digital content.

If all you want from your ripped movies is to watch them in the comfort of your living room, you can just buy a few large internal hard drives (if you have the space inside you chassis) or external hard drives, and you are probably good to go. Blu-ray discs can take up a shit ton of space if you rip them at their native bitrate. You are looking at probably 25-40+ GB per disc. This will quickly drain your HDD of it storage space. So you will need to plan accordingly. If you find yourself running out of storage space, expansion space inside your HTPC case, or you would rather not clutter the outside of your HTPC with a bunch of external drives, you may want to opt for an NAS (Network-Attached Storage) server. I won’t go into detail here about how to build an NAS or how to set one up in this post, but an NAS can have many uses, especially if you have a large media library. For our purposes, we will just focus on our HTPC and its capabilities as a self-contained unit.

Ripping Movies and TV Shows

There is nothing better than having your favorite movies and TV shows instantly available. There is no need to find a disc, insert the disc, and wait for it to load. What a pain in the fucking ass. Wouldn’t you rather have instant access and the ability to skip all of that bullshit at the beginning of every Blu-ray or DVD? Yes? Then ripping your media collection might be for you. I am not going to get into the legality of the whole thing, just copy the shit you already own, and not what you pick up at the nearest Redbox. I know you are probably going to anyway, but whatever, I’m not your fucking daddy.

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There are several programs out there that you can use to rip protected Blu-rays discs (normal movies), but there is one in particular that hasn’t let me down yet. MakeMKV is a simple to use, no bullshit DVD and Blu-ray ripping program. It is very simple to use. Insert your Blu-ray or DVD disc, open MakeMKV, the program scans the disc for content, the disc’s contents are then displayed so you can pick what you want it to rip from the disc. Most of the time, it’s the largest file listed, if you are looking for only the movie itself. Check what you want, uncheck what you don’t, and rip away. It will do all of the hard stuff for you and save it into a directory of your choice. There is a lot more you can do before and after you rip, but for the sake of being an introduction only, I leave it at that. Oh yeah, MakeMKV comes with a no-limit 30-day trial, but after that you will need to shell out $50. Very reasonable for what you get IMO.

But in general, if you plan on copying your video library onto your HTPC or NAS;

  1. It’s going to take a long time (depending on the size of your library)
  2. It’s going to eat up a shit ton of storage space. Depending on how many Blu-rays/DVD’s you own and how much you rip from each disc.
  3. MakeMKV is a fucking fantastic program.

Watching Shit – Kodi, MakeMKV, and AnyDVD

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Now that we have our collection ripped and stored locally, its time to find a convenient solution to view all of our media, in one place. This is where Kodi comes in. You may know Kodi better by it’s former name, XBMC (Xbox Media Center). Same program different name. If you haven’t experienced Kodi before, you are in for a real fucking treat. Kodi is one of the best designed, and easiest to use media freeware programs on the planet. Seriously, it feels like you’re stealing when you get it up and running. Which is a fucking snap BTW. If you do feel guilty, feel free to donate here. Kodi can become the heart of your HTPC. You can use it to play virtually any video, any song, or display any photo. It will work perfectly with your ripped MakeMKV videos.

After the download and setup process, getting your media into Kodi is very easy. If you are well organized. Note: You are going to need to get your shit together or you are going to have a bad time. Just point to your collection, wherever it is located (make sure you appropriately name you media), tell Kodi to find cover art and info and it will download the appropriate artwork and descriptions for you. Auto-finding art to go with your media is not always perfect, but you can fine tune it later. But for the most part, it does a very good job and saves a shit load of time.

Let’s say you are “old fashioned” (or you have run out of storage space) and you want to use physical media to watch your movies. You are in luck, Kodi can do that too. Kodi (and almost every other media player) can playback DVD’s without an issue, however, pop in a Blu-ray and shit starts to get messy. Commercial Blu-rays disc’s feature a very different type of encryption. It’s much more complicated than your standard DVD encryption. I won’t get into the why or the how, all I’ll say is this, to watch encrypted Blu-ray discs on your HTPC you are going to need a little help. That’s where programs like AnyDVD, MakeMKV, PowerDVD, etc. come into play. If you purchased your PC’s Blu-ray drive and it didn’t come with any software (like the drive listed in Part 3) you will need another program so your can watch your protected Blu-rays, a program that can decrypt protected Blu-ray movies. Most of you are probably familiar with CyberLink PowerDVD, it’s a fine program for watching Blu-rays titles on your HTPC. There are numerous programs and setups for watching Blu-ray content within Kodi, each might require a bit of tweaking and research. Here is a good guide to enable Blu-ray playback using MakeMKV (link).

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If you want the easiest setup possible, but don’t mind shelling out a few bucks, you can just use AnyDVD. Simply install AnyDVD and pop in a Blu-ray disc. Kodi should be able to play the disc without any hassle. It’s as simple as it gets. AnyDVD is region free, and can play virtually any DVD or Blu-ray to any TV or monitor without needing to worry about any HDCP issues. It’s not cheap, but it fucking kicks ass. As I said before, there are numerous other setups, but it all depends on how streamline you want your media center setup.

PLEX

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You have finally have your entire video library ripped and stored locally. You now have instant access to all of your favorite media, all from the comfort of your living room couch. But what if you want to take your collection with you on vacation? Want to watch your media library from another room in your house? Or what if  you want to watch something on the train ride to work? What if you could get you child to stop screaming in the back seat if you just had their favorite movie available? If this describes you, you’re going to want to setup your own personal Plex server. It’s free, it’s (relatively) easy, and fun.

Like everything else we have been talking about, there are numerous ways you can set up a Plex server at your home. For our purposes, we will run our Plex server directly from our HTPC. It’s not an ideal setup, in a perfect situation our Plex server would be low powered. Our HTPC is not what I would consider to be “low power” and is probably overpowered for this task, but it will have to do because I have no other alternatives at the moment. My laptop is low power, but is constantly moving around, my gaming PC draws way too much power to always be left on. So our HTPC is the only logical choice at this point. The only problem is the “always on” portion. In order to have access to your Plex server, your computer needs to be on. You can turn it off if you don’t plan on watching any of your content, but I found this to be basically impossible to plan since watching content on a mobile device is mostly impulsive. So I just leave it on all the time, and I haven’t noticed too much of a hit to my electric bill. But low power is not always better, if your Plex server’s CPU is not powerful enough, it might suffer transcoding your content and it could negatively affect playback.

A couple of other things to consider before setting up your Plex server is your home internet connection and your wireless data plan. If your home internet is slow (particularly your upload speeds) you may have issues streaming your Plex content outside of your home, you may need to bump up your speed if you cannot stream at a decent bit rate, especially if you want to stream in HD. You will also need to consider your wireless data plan. If you watch your Plex content from your phone or tablet at a decent bit rate 720P and above, you are going to eat up shit tons of data. Just know that before you proceed.

Setting up you Plex server is fairly straight forward. Here is a simple step by step setup guide to get you started. Getting Plex up and running in your home network is very simple, but getting enabling remote access (so you can watch content away from home) can be a bit tricky. This can involve changing settings in your router and/or firewall. The setup process can vary depending upon your ISP and hardware, so you may need to do a bit of research to get everything up and running. This is by far the most difficult part of the setup process. Here is another handy guide for setting up remote access.

Once your Plex server is up and running, you can finally enjoy the benefits. You can now watch your content from any Roku device, certain TV brands (like the Vizio P Series), Android, and iOS devices. Depending upon your device type a subscription fee and/or flat fee may be required to use the app to stream content.

Gaming

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Gaming on my HTPC was never part of my plan. I already have a PS4 and a gaming PC that I am perfectly content with. I have no need for another gaming device, but that doesn’t mean you do not. If you followed my guide for building a 4K HTPC, you can game on your HTPC as it stands. You will need to game on very low resolution and settings to get anything I would consider playable. If you want to play PC games on your HTPC, you have a few options.

Option 1

Do nothing. As I said before, you can game on your current setup, but you results will vary. The integrated Intel HD graphics have come a very long way in recent years. But integrated graphics are still no match for a discrete GPU. Most newer games will struggle, but if you are a classic gamer or still enjoy older/dated games than you might be ok. Might as well do some testing before you purchase a discrete GPU.

Option 2

Purchase a discrete GPU. If you didn’t follow my guide, or you have a larger case to work with, then you can probably pick just about any GPU you wish. Check your power supply for GPU requirements. If you followed our guide, then you have a pretty limited GPU selection. You can forget about trying to fit a full-size GTX 9XX in this bitch, it’s not going to happen. Our case is too small, and our PSU is not nearly powerful enough to accommodate a mainstream or higher end GPU. You are going to need a low profile GPU. It’s still going to be a tight squeeze, but its low profile or bust. Personally I am holding out for a low profile GPU that sports an HDMI 2.0 port.

Option 3

Steam in-home streaming. If you already own a gaming PC, you are in luck. Steam in-home streaming will allow you to play your high-end PC games on almost any computer, including our HTPC. Setup is extremely simple. All you have to do is install steam on both machines and enable Steam in-home streaming. That’s about it. I have had mixed results using in-home streaming (audio and freezing issues) but, for the most part, it has been very smooth and it is a nice alternative for those who may already own a gaming PC.

Have questions? Feel free to drop me a line in the comments section. Check back soon for our sixth and final installment of ETR’s 4K HTPC build. See you then.

  • Sean Farrow

    Nice write up man.
    I’ve been toying with upgrading my HTPC for 4K (need a screen first though, and they’re huge $$$ here in oz).

    I too had the dreaded bios issue while using my TV last time I changed boards. Same thing, 2 days and finally plugged into my regular monitor, all good.

    I’ve been dabbling with Kodi, and I just can’t get it to happen close to 4% as good as plain old WMC does things. Drive mapping is stupid, it doesn’t recognize my libraries, rubbish to navigate, so I eventually ditched it due to the old WAF (she hated it… way harder to use than WMC).

    So hopefully I can afford a 4K panel soon without a mortgage to pay for it!

    Good work mate!

    • NotIntoTeaParties

      Hi Sean. You’ve probably way since moved on, but in my opinion, the Kodi experience can be wildly different based on which ‘skin’ you use. The default skin ‘Confluence’ is fine. But I really like one called ‘Mimic’. It is relatively intuitive to set up and once set up, it is very intuitive to use. Maybe give that one shot just for grins.

  • stan

    This is not a write-up for a 4k HTPC, as there is no way, currently, to decode 4k content to a PC.