Media Center PC Part I

While this was meant to be another addition to the Big Update(s) series, I decided for archival purposes it would be better to give it a more descriptive title.

So far I’ve covered ATV’ing, Airsoft and the Job.  In the intro update I mentioned something about computer stuff, but I can’t specifically remember what I was thinking of at the time.  It may have had to do with the GeForce 8800 GTX and 850 watt power supply I put into my main PC, which are sweet btw, but I’m gonna guess it probably had something more to do with the Media Center PC I built.  You all have probably heard of Windows XP Media Center edition and if are up to date with the latest Windows offerings, know that Media Center is included in both Home Premium and Ultimate editions of Windows Vista, but chances are you don’t really know what it is or at least had any experience with it.  Basically Media Center allows you to turn your PC into a DVR box/media playback device.  You can record and playback television shows with it and use it to playback movies (DivX, DVD’s etc), pictures, and music all from an easy to use interface that was specifically designed for use on a television rather than on a computer monitor (although it looks just fine on a monitor as well).  There is a fairly cheap remote control that goes along with it as well to make it as much as possible like using a TV device and not a computer.  After some time playing around with Media Center on my whoopty computer I decided to finally build a system specifically for it.

For a while I had wanted a DVR box and multimedia playback device to use with my TV.  When my buddy got a DVR for his cable I saw the convenience a DVR box could offer and I wanted one.  On screen TV listings with select and click recording, no tapes to mess with, instant fast forward and rewind, pause and rewind live TV… It was pretty nice.  I had two problems with it though; there was a subscription fee to go along with the box and the only way to get the recorded content off the box was through an analog output to a VCR or some other analog recording device.  While this isn’t a huge problem with standard def analog content, it is a major problem with any kind of digital/high def content as you are forced to lose quality when you transfer the video off the device.  I did know of something though that could alleviate both of these problem; a Windows Media Center box.

I had bought an HDTV turner card for my main system some time ago and used it with Windows XP and the included playback software with no problem.  It worked well enough to watch TV, but scheduling recordings only worked so well and the interface wasn’t the greatest.  It definitely wasn’t setup to take the roll of a DVR box.    I knew about Media Center and thought that may be a good solution so I loaded up a spare hard drive with a trial of XP Media Center Edition and gave it a whirl.  It worked, but it wasn’t that great.  The interface was kind of weak, it was fairly buggy and had a tendency to crash.  Some time later Vista came out and I knew specific editions included a new version of Media Center so I decided to give that a try.  The new Media Center in Vista was great!  They cleaned up the interface, killed the bugs and added a lot of features.  Best of all; it didn’t crash!

From what I saw it looked pretty promising so I decided to pick up the Microsoft Media Center remote off Newegg and see how well it worked.  I plugged the IR receiver into the USB port and immediately Vista recognized it and installed some drivers for it.  I pressed the Green Media Center button in the middle of the remote and Media Center started right up.  The remote worked perfectly with it!  Every button was functional and did just as it was labeled.  The system just worked!  I had found a great solution to my DVR box woes.

Of course this great working system was setup on my spare gamming PC which isn’t exactly geared for the Media Center roll.  The system has plenty of processing power to be a Media Center box, problem it also sucks up a lot of power and is fairly loud.  For a box that would be right next to the TV and on a lot this is definitely not ideal so I’d really need to build a system specifically for it.  This meant buying new parts which isn’t exactly cheap.  It took me a while, but after missing a ton of HDTV shows I had wanted to see I finally convinced myself to spend the cash and build it.

It cost a bit to build it, but I got some pretty good stuff for it too.  I picked up an MSI motherboard with the latest Intel P35 chipset, Gigabit LAN, and an HD audio chipset.  I made certain to get a board with optical audio out so it would be an easy hook up into the surround sound system.  I picked up a 3.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, put that into my main system 😀 and took the 2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo  from my main system and put that in to the Media Center.  I picked up a GeForce 8400GS graphics card for the system.  I could have cheaped out a bit more here as I don’t need even this much graphics power since it isn’t a gaming system, but the GeForce 8400GS has full hardware h.264 video decoding  which means it’ll be perfect for down the road when I put a Blu-Ray drive into the system and is great now for high def h.264 encoded videos downloaded off the web.  I finished off the system with 2 gigs of ram, a DVD burner, a 500 gig hard drive and a copy of Vista Home Premium.  With 500 gigs I should be able to record about 80+ hours of 1080 HD video.  In the future I may pick up a second 500 gig drive and put the two into a RAID 0 array creating a single high speed 1 terabyte drive giving me over 160 hours of recording time, but it probably won’t be necessary.

So the box is now hooked up to the HDTV and running full time as a Media Center box.  I’m really liking the thing.  The guide in Media Center works great, makes it easy to find and record your favorite TV shows and looks way better than the guide on that crappy time warner DVR box.  The recorded shows listing is way better looking in Media Center as well and shows a lot more listings on a single screen making it much faster and easier to find the specific recording you’re looking for.  The controls for rewinding and fast forwarding work just like the time warner box, but the Media Center remote also includes a an additional two buttons labeled skip and replay.  A single press of skip jumps the video ahead 30 seconds while a single press of replay skips back 10 seconds.  This makes skipping commercials a lot easier than hitting fast forward and trying to hit play at the right time before your show returns.  If you’ve ever used a DVR box and tried this you know what I mean.  You fast forward see your show on and hit play, but then you have to hit rewind because you already passed up a minute or more of it since the commercials ended, but of course on the rewind you end up going too far so you have to fast forward again and so on.  The skip and replay button adds granularity to the process.  With the skip button you won’t go any farther past the start of your show than 30 seconds and with the replay button you can easily get within no more than 10 seconds of the start.  Sounds complicated, but compare the two methods and you’ll see how easier the skip replay method is.

What’s really great about the box though is that since it is a PC, it’s so much more than just a DVR.  Beside just being able to record and playback television shows, I now have an easy and convenient way to get my entire music collection playing on the surround sound stereo.  I also have a great way to show people pictures and videos when they come over.  This Christmas I ripped a bunch of Christmas CD onto the box and had the music playing on it over the stereo while a slide show of old Christmas photos played on screen.  My family really seemed to enjoy it.  It really is a pretty slick setup.


In the post following this one I’ll have a list of the parts I used and some comments to help you get setup if you’d like to build your own Media Center Box.

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