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Building a Media Center

Over the last couple of weekends I’ve cobbled together a Media Center PC out of spare parts that I had lying around the house. It’s been in my head that I’d like to have one for a while, and I decided to see if I could do it on the cheap. My objective was to be able to play music, videos, and show photographs on our big screen HDTV.

The PC I chose was a two year old Compaq Presario SR1810NX, that I picked up in 2006 for $399 on clearance at Staples. With a Sempron 3200 processor it’s no speed demon, but I rationalized that for video playback I wouldn’t need a dramatically fast processor. Previously I had upgraded this PC to 2G of memory in order to run Windows Vista. Plus it had an 80G hard drive. I augmented that with:

  • an additional 200G hard drive and another 250G hard drive that had come out of my home server a couple of weeks ago as a result of another upgrade.
  • an Nvidia 8500GT card with component video out. I looked at buying a DVI to component video converter, but the cost of the conversion unit was actually more than the price of a new 1G PCI Express video card.
  • The Microsoft Wireless Entertainment Keyboard and Mouse combo. My goal was to tuck the PC out of site in a closet behind the television, and simply have the mouse and keyboard sit out on the coffee table. The Microsoft kit was about the same price as the equivalent Logitech keyboard / mouse combo, but came pre-configured with keys for Windows Media Center. That’s a plus in my book, because I wanted Janice to have a good experience with it, and she’s already got remote control fatigue.

In all, I shelled out about $300 to upgrade my old PC.

I’d love to tell you it was a smooth and easy upgrade that went like silk, but that would be a lie. I actually bought all of the required hardware on Saturday May 24th, and assembled it all the evening of May 25th. I then reinstalled Windows Vista, and … well, it’s taken until now to actually get it working, and I can’t say that I’m completely pleased with it yet.

Some of the obstacles I encountered:

  1. My HDTV is an older unit that only supports 1080I. Plus, there’s no way for the video card to detect the capabilities of the television, since it’s connected to the TV using analog component video. At first, the video card produced no image at all. In order to diagnose the problem, I had to attach a second monitor to the graphics card, and extend the desktop onto the HDTV. Then once the HDTV was configured correctly, I used the configuration software to designate the HDTV as the main monitor — reversing the configuration so that the secondary monitor was desktop extension. Finally, I instructed the software to stop extending the desktop onto the secondary monitor.
  2. NVidea’s software for this card is junk. It simply wouldn’t hold the settings at 1920×1080, even after I clicked apply. As soon as the dialog box was dismissed, it reverted to 800×600, which the HDTV didn’t support. The solution is to set the video resolution using Windows Vista’s control panel, and then use the NVidea control panel for other settings.
  3. The video card projected a screen image that was much larger than the actual screen. NVidea anticipated this, however, and provided control panel settings to correct this by sizing the monitor properly.
  4. The Bluetooth keyboard and mouse combo operated in software mode at first. What that meant was that until the OS was booted, I had no keyboard or mouse. Worse yet, when the PC went into power saving mode, it couldn’t be woken up again using the keyboard or mouse, necessitating a trip to the closet each time. The solution was to instruct the bluetooth dongle to operate in hardware mode, which turns it into a USB device in so far as the OS is concerned. Even so, during the repeated reboots required while I added all of the Windows updates, periodically the bluetooth support just disappeared again. In the end, I attached a regular mouse and keyboard while I was configuring it.
  5. I foolishly put the PC in the closet where in its final spot in the closet while I was configuring it. In part this was because when we designed the media room, the shelving for the components was cut into the wall so that the backsides of the components would be in the closet, hiding all of the wiring. In order to hook the PC to my receiver, it had to be behind the receiver. This meant that each time the resolution on the HTDV changed I had exactly 15 seconds to roar out of the closet into the media room, check the image, and then hustle back in order to say “yes, I’ll keep it”. It would have been smarter to have put it in the media room while I was configuring it. DSC_0363
  6. The SPDIF digital audio out on the PC didn’t work. I was hoping to be able to take advantage of the 5.1 surround system we’ve got in the media room by piping the SPDIF feed into the Marantz SR4000 receiver in the room. I still don’t know why it didn’t work, but in the end I attached a mini-plug to RCA adapter, and contented myself with stereo sound. Until I figure this one out, however, we’ll be playing our DVD’s on an old fashioned DVD player.
  7. 1080 interlace is fine for watching movies or sports, but it’s a lousy way to read computer text. Moreover, although I instructed Windows Vista to increase the font size to a readable size, many applications do not reset the font size correctly on exit. As a result, you can be working with a very screen, enter video playback mode, and then discover on exit that the fonts have all reverted to small size.
  8. And finally, although one of my objectives was to be able to play all of the high definition movies I’ve been shooting, on the big screen, the PC I chose for this project is incapable of doing this. It’s simply underpowered. Bummer!

On the plus side:

  1. It’s wonderful to be able to scroll through our music collection on the big screen, and select anything to listen to.
  2. Adding another 1/2 terabyte of storage to the network is never a bad idea. I’ve got it configured to back up to the home server as well for extra safety.
  3. Viewing photographs in slide show format is a real pleasure. A 6 megapixel image blown up to 61 inches is pretty cool.

DSC_0371

Building a Media Center PC is more work than I thought it would be, and I’m still not done with the project. For a computer hobbiest, like myself, this is a fun and enjoyable project. But if you just want a Media Center that will work out of the box, you would be better off buying it pre-configured.

Stay tuned as I investigate how to get podcasts, and YouTube videos onto our new Media Center.

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Kareem Sultan June 4, 2008, 4:40 am

    Very nice home setup. What are you using for software?
    I tried a front end called Media Portal a while back when I built one of these. It was a pretty mature project then, so I'm sure its tip top now. It'll let you lose the keyboard and remote and use a media center remote instead. That's key for a good WAF rating(Wife Approval Factor). http://www.team-mediaportal.com/

    After going down that path though, I decided to go the modded xbox route. Original gen used modded XBox would cost under $200. Install XBMC and keep a file store on another PC to stream videos and music from. http://xbmc.org/

    Once they have XBMC ported to Mac OSX, I think I'm going the apple mini route. The XBMC interface is just stunning.

    Glad to see I'm not the only one with a birds nest of wires hidden behind a wall.

  • Cacasodo August 8, 2008, 7:17 am

    Nice write-up, Alec.
    I'd be interested to hear an update on your progress, as you mentioned you were going to post regarding podcasts and YouTube.

    'sodo

  • Lucy Ross January 26, 2010, 3:09 am

    XBMC is by far the best media centre, it is so customisable and powerful.

  • Katheleen Chudzik July 10, 2010, 5:57 pm

    Does anybody have any encounter with the Philips MC235B Flat Wall Mountable Micro Shelf System I was thinking about acquiring it and just wasn't certain if its the most effective one to purchase.

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