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Build Your Own Media Center PC, Part 1

by Wei-Meng Lee
11/28/2006

Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is an enhanced version of Windows XP that turns your ordinary PC into an all-in-one home entertainment center. By using the Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, you can watch and record TV programs, play DVDs, listen to music, share your digital photos, and more. Best of all, you can continue to do your work on the same computer.

In the past, you couldn't really build a Windows Media Center yourself because the list of compatible hardware was very limited and Microsoft did not sell the OS directly to end users. However, things have changed and you now have a wider choice of hardware that works with Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. In addition, you can now buy the OS through system vendors.

In a two-part article, I will show you how to build your own media center PC for around $1,500. In this first part, I will walk you through the steps in choosing the hardware. In the next part, I'll show you how to get started in using your newly built media center PC.

Choosing the Hardware Components

The first step toward building your own media center is to select the appropriate hardware based on your budget constraint. Of course, if you have the cash, you can always go for the latest components that money can buy. However, most of us usually have to compromise and decide the best value for whatever budget we have. In general, the hardware requirements for Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 are similar as that of Windows XP. Below is a list of minimum requirements that I feel you should have to enjoy the fun provided by Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005:

If you wish to watch TV programs on your computer, then you need a TV tuner card. Also, a remote control that works with Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 will greatly enhance your usage experience.

In the next couple of sections, I will walk you through some of the components you can buy and show you what I have selected for my project.

Casing

The first hardware that you need to consider is the casing. Technically, any type of casing is acceptable, but since we are building a media center here, looks are important as it must look presentable when placed in the living room. More importantly, the ventilation system used in the casing should not be too noisy--you don't want it to sound like a vacuum cleaner when you are playing DVD, do you?

When it comes to media center casing, you have quite a few choices:

Figure 1 shows some of the models you can choose from.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Some media center casing offerings

For my project, I have selected two casings:

Antec

The Antec Fusion ($219; see Figure 2) is the newest member of the LifeStyle family of enclosures from Antec.

Figure 2
Figure 2. The Antec Fusion

The Antec Fusion is a very solid and beautifully crafted enclosure designed for those who want to integrate their media center with the audio systems. It features the following:

Figure 3 shows the three chambers that house the different components of the system.

Figure 3
Figure 3. The triple chamber of the Antec Fusion

Due to the design of the Antec Fusion, adding or removing drives (DVD or HDD) is very easy. However, do note that only micro-ATX motherboards are supported.

Thermaltake

If you are looking for a slimmer casing for your media center, then the Mozart SX VC7000 series from Thermaltake ($250; see Figure 4) is a good candidate.

Figure 4
Figure 4. The Mozart SX VC7000 series

The Mozart SX has the following features:

The Mozart SX supports both full-size ATX as well as micro-ATX motherboards (see Figure 5).

Figure 5
Figure 5. Internals of the Mozart SX

If you are using a micro-ATX motherboard, you need to purchase the optional upgrade kit A2423. This kit contains a PCI-E riser card and PCI riser card (see Figure 6).

Figure 6
Figure 6. The optional upgrade kit A2423 for micro-ATX motherboards

Due to its slim design, Thermaltake recommends that you use the CL-P0220 CPU cooler ($23; see Figure 7) for your CPU. Some CPU coolers are too tall and may not fit into the slim Mozart SX casing.

Figure 7
Figure 7. The CL-P0220 CPU cooler

Also note that the Thermaltake Mozart SX does not come with a PSU, therefore you need to purchase one separately. You should be able to find a standard PSU easily in a local computer shop for about $34. I went for the Coolmax 400Watt ATX power supply with 120mm fan ($40; see Figure 8)

Figure 8
Figure 8. The Coolmax 400Watt ATX power supply with 120mm fan

Processors and Motherboards

Once the casing is selected, the next step would be to choose the appropriate CPU and motherboard.

CPU

With dual-core processors becoming mainstream, it really makes sense to go for a dual-core CPU. Unless you have the financial muscle (this may change as Intel Core 2 Duo processors become cheaper), you can probably go with the Intel Pentium D Processor (see Figure 9).

Figure 9
Figure 9. Intel's Pentium D processor

Note: If you are an AMD fan, you can also go for a dual-core AMD processor.

I chose the Intel Pentium D 830 (3GHz), a dual-core processor. One important consideration you need to factor in is the choice of cooling fan for the CPU. The fan that came with the original Intel Pentium D sounded like a vacuum cleaner when running in full-speed mode (controlled by the motherboard depending on the CPU workload) and the noise is unbearable if you sit near the computer. This is definitely not an ideal situation for your media center. For a cost-effective to cool my CPU, I opted for the Samurai Z CPU Cooler ($25; see Figure 10).

Figure 10
Figure 10. The Samurai Z CPU Cooler

Note: The Samurai Z CPU cooler does not fit in the Mozart SX case due to its height. For the Mozart SX case, I had to change the CPU cooler to the CL-P0220.

The Samurai Z CPU Cooler spins at a maximum speed of 2,000RPM, generating only 23.5 dBA of noise. In actual testing, the fan is virtually silent.

Best of all, the Samurai Z CPU cooler can be installed over your CPU without needing to remove the entire motherboard, making it very easy for those of you who have already mounted the motherboard onto the casing.

Motherboard

There are several brands and models of motherboards in the market. I used the MSI 945GM2 (HF) series ($109) for my Intel Pentium D. This is a micro-ATX motherboard.

Note: If you need more PCI slots, you should get an ATX motherboard instead.

Figure 11
Figure 11. The MSI 945GM2 series

The MSI 945GM2:

Since the MSI 945GM2 comes with several components built-in, it saved me quite a bit of money since I don't have to spend extra money on network card and sound card.

Memory

Memory is one critical component that you should not skimp on when building a media center. For this, I went for two pieces of Corsair's 1Gb PC4200 DDR CL4 Value Select DDR2 memory modules (see Figure 12; $100 per piece), for a total of 2GB of memory.

Figure 12
Figure 12. The Corsair VS1GB533D2

DVD Writer and Hard Disk Drives

If you plan on watching DVDs or saving TV programs onto DVDs, you need to have a DVD writer, or a DVD ROM drive. But with the price of DVD writers dropping so rapidly, you really should buy a DVD writer. Selecting a DVD writer is a straight-forward affair--I went with the Pioneer DVR-110DSV ($69; see Figure 13).

Figure 13
Figure 13. The Pioneer DVR-110DSV DVD writer

Like DVD writers, hard drives are also getting cheaper and bigger. When it comes to buying hard drives, always go for one with the fastest spin rate that you can afford. Today, almost all new drives spin at 7,200RPM, so don't settle for anything less than that. For my hard drive, I got the Seagate Barracuda ST3250824AS (model 7200.9) ($96; see Figure 14), a 250GB SATA II drive. It spots an 8MB cache and spins at a 7,200RPM.

Figure 14
Figure 14. The Seagate Barracuda ST3250824AS

TV Tuner

One of the important ingredients of a media center is the TV tuner card, which allows you to watch receive TV signals and watch programs on your computer.

When it comes to a TV tuner, I turned to Hauppauge, which is one of the leaders in bringing TV functionality to the PC.

Hauppauge has a series of TV tuners that you can choose from:

The product names that end with "MCE" are designed specially to work with Windows Media Center Edition. Both the WinTV-PVR-150 MCE (see Figure 15) and the WinTV-PVR-250 MCE allow you to watch TV and listen to radio on your PC, while the WinTV-PVR-500 MCE has dual TV tuners that allow you to watch one channel while recording another. The WinTV-PVR-500 MCE uses dual hardware MPEG-2 encoders, so it frees your CPU while you are recording TV programs.

Figure 15
Figure 15. The WinTV-PVR-150MCE

Note that the MCE products previously mentioned do not include a remote control. If you want a remote control, you can buy any of the following MCE kits:

For my project, I selected the WinTV-PVR-500 MCE-Kit ($170; see Figure 16), which can be plugged into a PCI slot on the computer.

Figure 16
Figure 16. The Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-500 MCE-Kit

Figure 17 shows the inputs accepted by the WinTV-PVR-500 board. Besides the connectors on the board itself, the package also comes with another connector that contains a similar set of connectors (minus the FM and TV connectors). This allows you to connect two separate video/audio sources to the WinTV-PVR-500.

Figure 17
Figure 17. The connectors on the WinTV-PVR-500

If for whatever reasons you do not have a spare PCI slot on your computer, you can opt for the WinTV-PVR-USB2 MCE-Kit (see Figure 18), which connects to your computer via USB.

Figure 18
Figure 18. The Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-USB2 MCE-Kit

So, which one is suitable for you? It all depends on your budget. For the best performance and features, go for the WinTV-PVR-500 MCE. If you are cash-strapped, the WinTV-PVR-150 MCE is good enough. Finally, if you want to watch TV while traveling, then the WinTV-PVR USB2 is probably the best option.

Note: Another popular TV tuner card is the E-HOME Wonder (see Figure 19) from ATI.

Figure 19
Figure 19. The ATI E-HOME Wonder

Graphics Card

The graphics card was optional for me because the MSI 945GM2 motherboard already contains a built-in graphics card. However, I want my system to support dual monitors so I looked for an affordable graphics card that supports dual monitors. My hunt stopped at the Asus Extreme N6200TC TOP/TD/128M ($55; see Figure 20), which has a DVI and VGA output.

Figure 20
Figure 20. The Asus Extreme N6200TC TOP/TD/128M

The Asus Extreme N6200TC TOP/TD/128M has the following specifications:

Graphics engine NVIDIA GeForce 6200 with TurboCache
Video memory 128M/64 bit DDR2 onboard
Effective memory size 256MB
Engine clock 400MHz
Memory clock 700MHz(350MHz DDR)
RAMDAC 400MHz
Bus standard PCI Express 16X
Max resolution 2048x1536
VGA output Standard 15-pin D-sub
Video output Composite
DVI output DVI-I
Second VGA output Yes

If you plan on putting your media center in the living room, you should equip it with a remote control. Until recently, Microsoft did not directly sell the Windows Media Center remote control to end users , they were only available to system vendors. Fortunately, you can now get one from a hardware retailer (see Figure 21).

Figure 21
Figure 21. The Microsoft Windows Media Center remote control

Of course, if your TV tuner comes with a remote control (like the Hauppauge's WinTV-PVR-500 MCE-Kit), then you don't need to buy the additional remote control.

A better option is to buy the Remote Keyboard for Windows XP Media Center Edition ($80; see Figure 22), which is a wireless keyboard/mouse. It has a stylish look and can be used in a 30-foot radius.

Figure 22
Figure 22. The remote keyboard for Windows XP Media Center Edition

Monitor/TV

If you already have an existing monitor, you can skip this section. However, if you have the budget to splurge on a new display, you have a couple of options. First, if the primary use for your media center is 80 percent work and 20 percent watching TV/DVD, I suggest you buy an LCD monitor. Figure 23 shows the Dell 2407WFP 24" UltraSharp wide-screen flat panel LCD monitor, which sells for about $750 (I think it's a pretty good buy).

Figure 23
Figure 23. The Dell 2407WFP 24" UltraSharp wide-screen flat panel LCD monitor

Alternatively, if you are mainly using the media center as your living room entertainment device, then I suggest you buy an LCD TV. In this case, the Samsung LN-S1951 (see Figure 24) is a good choice. The Samsung LN-S1951 is not only a TV, but is also PC-compatible (you can connect your PC to it via the D-Sub VGA connector). The 19" screen size supports maximum resolution of 1440 x 900 pixels, which is a good resolution even for computers.

Figure 24
Figure 24. The Samsung LN-S1951 19" TV with PC-support

A typical TV has the connectors shown in Figure 25.

Figure 25
Figure 25. Typical connectors found at the back of a TV

Note: Figure adapted from the LN-S1951W/ LN-S1952W Owner's Instruction Manual (PDF).

If your graphics card has DVI output, you can connect the PC to the TV using a DVI cable. Or you can connect via the D-Sub connector (labeled as PC IN).

Wireless and Sound Options

Depending on where your media center is located, you may need to buy an optional wireless adapter card (assuming you have a wireless network at home). If you have a spare PCI slot to spare, you can add a Linksys WMP54G Wireless-G PCI Adapter (see Figure 26).

Figure 26
Figure 26. Linksys WMP54G Wireless-G PCI Adapter

Alternatively, you can add a USB wireless adapter such as the Linksys Wireless-G USB Adapter WUSB54G (see Figure 27).

Figure 27
Figure 27. Linksys Wireless-G USB Adapter WUSB54G

For a speaker system, if you are connecting to a TV, you can use the sound system in your TV. However, if you have the budget, you can go for the ultimate--Creative GigaWorks S750. However, this is will set you back a whopping $500. In any case, you can always use your existing speaker system.

What's Next?

Now that you have all your hardware chosen, what do you do next? In my next article in the series, I'll show you how to build the system, and begin using it.

Wei-Meng Lee (Microsoft MVP) http://weimenglee.blogspot.com is a technologist and founder of Developer Learning Solutions http://www.developerlearningsolutions.com, a technology company specializing in hands-on training on the latest Microsoft technologies.


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