How I integrated my streaming computer into my home theatre system for not much money
I am retired and I do not have a lot of money. Years ago I was able to buy a Yamaha receiver that was state of the art at that time. It still works fine but it is now considered obsolete as it does not have HDMI inputs. My streaming computer is an old Compaq dual core PC running 32-bit Win 7. Someone gave it to me for free. I added a 512 MB HDMI card and 4 GB of RAM. This is more than adequate for streaming from the Internet. I could have installed 64-bit Windows and added more RAM, but I didn’t think that would make any difference for this purpose. 32-bit Windows cannot address more than 4 GB of RAM and 512 MB of that is taken up by the graphics card (which is also why I didn’t get a bigger one), so the computer is actually using 3.5 GB of the installed RAM, which is adequate for streaming.
The TV is a Sony Bravia, apparently one of the few that is capable of extracting Dolby 5.1 audio from the HDMI connection and passing it through to the amp via an optical digital output. I used it that way for awhile but now no longer need it.
I also have an old Harmony One universal remote to control all my devices. But when I added the streaming computer, it couldn’t control that. Also, the computer browser was difficult to navigate from the couch with an air mouse. I wanted a better solution. But it had to be cheap.
The first problem, though, was getting surround sound from the computer. Whatever I did, it would only send 2-channel stereo through the HDMI or the internal sound card. I found an s/pdif connector on the motherboard and added an optical output to it. I then located some hacked Realtek drivers and after a lot of fiddling, was able to get 6 channels on the digital audio, but the quality was terrible. I finally bought a $20 sound card with digital optical out on Aliexpress and that worked perfectly after I found the right driver for it (not easy).
I use a Hauppauge HD PVR2 for recording. It has both HDMI and optical audio inputs. Initially my set-up used both HDMI (via the TV) and s/pdif for audio, depending on which connections were most convenient for a particular device. But the computer would only output 6-channel sound through s/pdif and it is awkward to switch the inputs on the Hauppauge. Since the receiver also did not have any HDMI inputs, this forced me to standardise all the audio to s/pdif. Fortunately the receiver had just enough digital inputs and I could use the Harmony remote to switch between them. The Harmony also controls an IR HDMI switch (another $10 on Aliexpress). Essentially I have two separate systems running in parallel, one controlling the audio and the other, the video. The Harmony switches both simultaneously.
All this works fine, except the Harmony cannot control the computer. But I found a cheap IR remote that can. It is widely sold under different generic brands, all of them identical. One is called Sanoxy. The firmware is Chinavasion. The actual remote is a piece of very cheap and nasty plastic with a bizarre design but the IR receiver offers a very inexpensive way of getting some mouse and keyboard codes into the computer. Once these were in the Harmony database I put the original remote away and forgot about it.
The original remote works in a peculiar way and does not generate many standard keyboard codes, but it does have a few, as well as all the mouse movements. I programmed the mouse into the Harmony’s number keypad on the lower part of the remote. This is very convenient as the number layout corresponds to the different mouse directions, including diagonal ones.
The other buttons were trickier. First I had to figure out what I wanted them to do. Then I had to find ways of making the IR receiver think it was seeing codes it understood. Then I had to use AutoHotKey to remap the codes to functions I actually wanted. One example is the Windows zoom function. I use this all the time when I have to read something on the screen from my position on the couch. I’m not talking about subtitles but sometimes there are browser or Windows messages that are otherwise difficult to see properly. I use Win + a lot for this. Since I control volume through my HT receiver, I didn’t need the volume control functions on the remote, so I assigned those to the Harmony channel changer (also unneeded), then used AutoHotKey to make the computer see these as Win + and Win Esc. Later I had to use another key for Win + because the volume control kept repeating the command and pushing the magnification too high. Figuring out the interactions between the keys on the Harmony, the commands the IR receiver would accept, and the hot key remapping on the computer, was a real brain-breaker but I got everything to do what I wanted in the end.
I have looked at various media centres on different occasions, including Plex and Kodi, but none of them work for me. They all seem to be mainly focussed on media libraries or cable providers as sources. This is not how my set-up works.
First, my main TV provider, which is a satellite service, is completely controlled from my Harmony. There is nothing that any media centre adds to this. Second, I don’t view my video archive very often, but when I want to, it is all on an external USB drive, neatly organised into folders and accessible with just a few mouse clicks. No media centre software I have tried does that any better, but it does make mess of my own organisation whenever I install one. I just don’t see what it adds to what I already have. Also, I tend to stream from many different sites, rather than just two or three. The main thing I need is a good way to navigate my browser, and no media centre software I have tried does that, either. So I have built my own system, mainly using URL and keyboard shortcuts and macros. It works pretty well for most of the things I want to do. I have two input devices for the computer, one being the IR remote programmed into the Harmony, the other being a wireless mouse and keyboard. I now mainly use that when I have to enter text for something, as it is far easier from the physical keyboard than any virtual one. But I don’t have to type text very often. Nearly everything I need can now be done from the Harmony.
I don’t know if my solutions are any better than other ones, but they work pretty well for me. Mainly, they give me complete flexibility, coupled with ease of use. And they didn’t cost very much! I hope some of the information I have presented here may be of use to others in a position similar to mine. There is wonderful hardware to be had if money is not an issue, but for those trying to put something usable together on a tight budget, a little creativity can take you a long way.