Controlling your Home Theater PC

Last year I converted one of our PCs into a Home Theater PC (HTPC). We had moved to a rural location that didn't offer cable, and I didn't want to pay a monthly subscription to Tivo just to be able to record Over The Air (OTA) television broadcasts. I purchased a Silicon Dust HDHomerun Dual Tuner unit and connected the PC to our television using an HDMI cable. This worked really well for setting up recordings of broadcast television for later viewing. One of the hurdles that limited use of the HTPC in our household was how to control the HTPC. Using a television or DVR is fairly straight forward. Most people are familiar with a remote control and will intuitively understand how to use them. What do you do when someone hands you a keyboard and mouse instead? I made several attempts at finding a good control solution that everyone could understand.

Attempt #1 - Wireless mouse + wired keyboard

Mouse - Logitech MX Revolution

Keyboard - Logitech Wave Corded Keyboard

These were already in the house, so it was the first thing to try. It worked ok, but there were some major annoyances. The range on the wireless mouse was terrible. The mouse was very touchy about detecting movement on fabric. It either wouldn't move, or it would jump all over the screen. We didn't need the keyboard often, but it was an irritation to have to get up to use it.

Attempt #2 - Wireless Multimedia Keyboard

Keyboard - BTC 9019URF

I also had this keyboard, which I'd picked up at Fry's on sale for $40 a few years back. It is a wireless keyboard that includes a joystick for moving the mouse as well as mouse buttons (right, left, click wheel). When I originally bought it, my intention was to strap it to my treadmill so I could get some exercise while doing my regular browsing, e-mail, bills, etc. It uses some custom RF protocol for communicating back to the USB dongle. It worked fairly well when sitting close to the receiver, but the range is really poor (less than 15 feet in my experience). It also chewed through batteries like mad. The mouse would tend to drift, as the joystick sometimes wouldn't right itself. Typing was painful, as it often missed or doubled keystrokes. I wouldn't recommend this keyboard.

Attempt #3 - Windows Media Center Remote + wired keyboard

Remote - Siig Vista Media Center Edition Remote

Keyboard - Logitech Wave Corded Keyboard

After the batteries died on the wireless keyboard, we ditched it and went back to the corded keyboard. Fry'shad the Siig Vista MCE remote available for $30, so I picked it up. Like the wireless keyboard, it uses a usb dongle, but is IR rather than RF. This worked really well on our Win7 HTPC. All of the buttons on the remote work as expected within Media Center, and the family felt comfortable using the HTPC this way. It was familiar, and it was a lot less like using a PC and a lot more like using a DVR. The remote also worked within the Hulu and Boxee interfaces to some extent. The only negatives were the need to get up to use the corded keyboard, and the slight ugliness of an IR dongle at the front of our media cabinet.

Attempt #4 - Logitech DiNovo Mini

HTPC Keyboard - Logitech DiNovo Mini

I received this as a Christmas gift and it is *awesome*! The DiNovo Mini is a very small form-factor wireless keyboard with a touchpad that can be toggled to either act as a trackpad for moving the mouse, or as a D-pad. The keys on the keyboard are about twice as big as on most cell phone keypads, which makes it easy to type with. The keys are also backlit, which is great when watching something in the dark. It uses a rechargeable battery, so no stocking AAs or AAAs. It has a hinged cover so that when it is not in use you can cover the keys to keep dust and other couch detritus out. The form factor is great. Traditional wireless keyboards are pretty big, and it is awkward to keep them on the couch or endtable. This little guy fits right along side my other remotes. I only have one minor quibble with it. The record button doesn't work. There is a driver hack to get it working in WMC, but by default the record button is mapped to Windows Media Player, and will launch it rather than setting the currently selected show to record. You can either use the driver hack or manually select record to work around this, but it was a point of confusion when we tried using the remote to schedule recordings. Aside from this minor issue, I can't recommend this device highly enough. The $150 MSRP is a little salty for a keyboard (you can find it for closer to $110 from Amazon) but in my opinion it is totally worth it for making the HTPC more useful.


Jade Mason