Your PC into a Home Theatre
Sublime? Or Ridiculous?
By Jim Bray
I've found a new way
to avoid doing any work!
Thanks to the technological
convergence of audio, video, and computers, you can now turn your PC into
a credible home theatre, and thereby waste what would otherwise be productive
time spent in front of your monitor.In
fact, your movie enjoyment factor is limited only by the size and quality
of your equipment - including, of course, your monitor.
The heart of my "home
office theatre" was a selection of delightful stuff from Creative
Labs. The system incuded their PC-DVD Dxr2 DVD, coupled with the spectacular
Sound Blaster Live and Cambridge SoundWorksPC Theatre 5.1. I also tried
ATI's software-based DVD player, which can eliminate the need for an MPEG2
decoder board, and Cambridge Audio's FourPoint Surround speaker system,
which is the PC Theatre 5.1's little brother.
All of these marvelous
toys were stuck or plugged into a 300MHz AMD K6-powered computer and displayed
on a gorgeous 19 inch Sony monitor (the
Multiscan 400PS) that just happens to live at my place.
I know, it's a tough
world. But somebody has to do this job
The Cambridge SoundWorks
DeskTop Theatre 5.1 (about $300US) is a lovely Dolby Digital unit that
consists of five main speakers (left and right front, centre front, and
left/right surround) and a subwoofer to add the "ooomph" necessary
for explosions, crashes and more mundane things like music. There's also
a six channel control unit with a built in Digital-to-Analogue converter
that accepts digital and analogue inputs. It also comes with the normal
array of volume controls and the standard test tone generator that helps
you set the speaker balance throughout the system.As
if that weren't enough, the DeskTop Theatre 5.1 also works with Dolby
Pro Logic and PCM digital audio, as well as 4 channel and stereo audio
all this means is that, if you have an audio source, the Desktop Theatre
5.1 will play it. And play it very well.
Each of the main speakers
is a tiny cube, with the centre channel speaker a bit larger than the
rest. A set of tripods about two feet high raise the rear speakers more
or less to ear level if you have the space to mount them on your desk.
Mounting them on the floor makes them virtually useless (they're too low),
so if you don't have the desk space find some other way to hang them where
they'll do the most good.
The control unit
has front and rear inputs, so if you're lucky enough to have a four channel
sound card like the Sound Blaster Live, and run software written with
Microsoft's DirectSound 3D or that use Creative's Environmental Audio,
you're in for an aural treat. If you don't have such a Lexus-like sound
card, you can only use the front inputs on the control unit, but the results
are still remarkable.
The Sound Blaster
Live is one heck of a sound card! This PCI "audio accelerator"
can handle up to 64 output channels at a time and features a built in
effects generator that would do an audio engineer or recording artist
proud. Creative Labs' "Environmental Audio" is a neat trick
that delivers "real world audio experiences."
More than just surround
sound, Creative says it actually models an environment that supposedly
takes into account things like room size, acoustic properties, and effects
like reverb and chorus. I dunno about all that, but sounds are definitely
positioned all around you in space. This also makes the SB Live an outstanding
system for games, and it comes with an array of built in settings for
I tried its marvelous
3D sound setting for LucasArts' Jedi Knight, for example, and it positively
blew me away. I discovered that it definitely helps if you pay attention
to all those sounds emanating from the space around: not only do doors
whoosh open in front of you and shut behind you, but time and again I'd
hear some suspicious noise behind me and whirl around to discover some
bad guy taking a bead on me to do me in. Spectacular!
Not only that, but
(though it doesn't really have anything to do with the "home office
theatre" focus of this piece) the SB Live and its accompanying cornucopia
of software actually gives you a complete, polyphonic synthesizer (with
an onscreen virtual keyboard) with which you can create your own symphony
or rock opera. It's really quite outstanding, though it's probably overkill
for the average consumer.
Sound Blaster Live
is pretty expensive, but it's a lovely product - and it contributed to
the best sound I've heard on a PC, even when I only used it for playing
DVD is arguably the
most exciting product of the late 1990's. The discs' ultra high storage
capacity allow for unprecedented quality video and audio - and that's
just the beginning!
While PC software
for this next generation optical disk format is only slowly trickling
out, the number of movies, concerts, and other entertaining tidbits that
have been "DVD-ized" is growing by leaps and bounds. And once
you've watched a movie on DVD, you'll never be happy with VHS (or even
DVD players comes
as standalone, home theatre units and as DVD-ROM drives for your computer.
The latter are often packaged with MPEG-2 cards, and the ones I've tried
have TV output jacks with which to plug your computer into your home video
system. You may need a really long cable, though, if your computer's in
a different room! Still, it's a way to kill both DVD birds with one stone.
The $375US Creative
PC-DVD Encore comes with the PCI-based Dxr2 MPEG-2 decoder card and gives
high resolution video and Dolby Digital sound. I watched a number of movies
- from Stallone's "First Blood" and John Carpenter's "Village
of the Damned" to "Contact" and "Starship Troopers"
(note: see TechnoFILE's DVD section
for features on these films). All were very enjoyable on the 19
inch Sony, which in my office is close enough (and good enough) to be
reminiscent of a larger screen TV in the family room."Starship
Troopers" is an especially good example of a high quality DVD
pressing, and makes a great test disc.
I don't think the
PC picture is quite as good as I get from the "conventional"
DVD player in my home theatre, but if I hadn't seen them virtually side
by side I don't think I'd have known the difference. In fact, after my
movie watching marathon it took three washings to get the drool out of
The PC-DVD Encore's
software offers an assortment of features and aspect ratios, and is controlled
via an onscreen "remote control" panel. On the whole, it works
like a standalone DVD player, and it performs very well.
DVD drives are backward
compatible, so they play today's CD's (both audio and CD-ROM) as well
as the new disks. The drives are priced fairly reasonably, too, considering
their technology, so if you're looking for a new optical drive, this format
is definitely worth a look.
An alternative to
the Creative drive/MPEG card combo is video card maker ATI Technology's
DVD software. ATI's RAGE Pro-based AGP products have a coupon for the
software in the box, your only financial requirement being a nominal shipping
and handling charge. ATI RAGE 128-based products ship with DVD player
software CD in the box. You still need a DVD-ROM drive, but you can theoretically
get away without the MPEG card.
Creative argues that
such software solutions eat up resources, and they may be right. It worked
well on my reasonably hefty system, though - as long as I wasn't trying
to use both systems at the same time.
marches on. In the early 90's, CD-ROM drives and sound cards brought audio,
music, and limited video to computers. Then, a couple of years ago, add-on
TV tuner boards and video cards like ATI's All-in-Wonder/Pro made TV available
on the desktop. The introduction of the type of DVD, high end sound cards,
and top line speakers and monitors featured here have resulted in a blurring
of the line between home office and home theatre.
Toys like these can
hardly be considered necessary for the average consumer. However, if you
have limited room or funds, or want a single solution for all your productivity
and entertainment needs, you can get extraordinary results by stocking
your computer with the right equipment.
Between TV, movies,
music, and the Internet, there's a whole world of information and entertainment
only a few mouse clicks away. In fact, if my office had room for a fridge,
stove, bed, and Port-a-Pottie, I'd never have to set foot out of it again!
This would probably please my kids
The other side of
the convergence coin is digital television, which
is marrying the computer monitor with the TV, while products like WebTV
and WebSurfer bring the Internet to the idiot box. Adding a soon-to-be-widely-available
TV-PC - a real computer that displays on your TV - will complete the other
side of this convergence.
What this means is
that before long you'll have the same abundance of "infotainment"
choices regardless of whether you're hunched in your office, peering at
a 13 inch monitor or sitting in your family room, watching a wall-mounted,
ten foot flat screen.
Tell us at TechnoFile what YOU think