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Old 02-22-2007, 04:00 PM
Jason Dunn
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Join Date: Aug 2006
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Default Building Your Own Media Center PC

I started working on this article back in 2005, but for a variety of reasons, never quite finished it. I decided to publish it today rather than delete it because the basics of building a Media Center PC are the same whether it's Windows Media Center Edition 2005 or Windows Vista Premium. Please ignore any time-based references where I'm talking about an old product as if it was new - back when I wrote this, it was. ;-) I've also added some comments in italics to reference where things have changed or I would have made a different decision if I was doing this project all over again today.

This article is a high-level step by step procedure designed to walk you through the decisions required to build your own Windows Media Center Edition 2005 computer – a project I recently completed. It also includes short reviews of the particular products I chose for this project, and why I chose them. Because this is a high-level overview, I won’t be covering any of the steps in great detail. Instead, this article is focused on the decision making process behind choosing the best components for the Media Center Edition 2005 (hereafter referred to as MCE 2005), putting them all together, and what I learned from the process. If you’re interested in building your own MCE, this article is for you.

If you’re interested in buying one pre-built, there are plenty to chose from. Let's get started!

Step 1: Decide What Kind of MCE 2005 You Want to Build
Where will your MCE PC be? Attached directly to your TV, or in another room? Will it be used as a computer, or strictly as a personal video recorder (PVR) attached to your TV? This decision greatly impacts the overall design of the MCE you’ll be building. In my case, I had several goals in mind.

My MCE would serve as a central repository of all my music, pictures, and video files. It would also have a low-volume FTP and Web server on it, and contain backups of all my data. These were all tasks performed by another computer that I wanted to retire – added to that, this computer would record and play back TV shows both locally and over my network to the TV upstairs. That’s a lot to ask from a computer, so the bar was raised fairly high regarding what type of computer I needed to build. I needed something with a lot of storage, sufficient RAM for multitasking, and a CPU powerful enough to handle it all without complaint.

Step 2: Picking the Case and Motherboard
Because my particular scenario was aimed at having a computer in my work area, and not beside my TV, I didn't need a home theatre-style case. I opted to use a Shuttle, the SN95G5. This was an AMD-based system with an nForce3 chipset, meaning it had onboard audio, Firewire, and all the goodies I needed except for onboard video (which is curious given we're talking about NVIDIA). In fact, that's one thing I would have preferred to see – an onboard GeForce GPU solution with DVI output. I'm a big fan of onboard video if the computer in question isn't going to be used for gaming, because it reduces the overall cost and complexity of the project.

2007 Update: I'd still pick a Shuttle today. The SN95G5, in retrospect, turned out to be fairly loud when compared to other Shuttle models I had. A good solution would be one of their models that has an external brick power supply - the power supply fan tends to be the loudest fan in a Shuttle.

Figure 1: The SN95G5 is a slick-looking machine. It boasts a high-gloss black plastic front, black aluminum case, and integrated buttons. The high-gloss finish does make it a magnet for fingerprints though, so keep a cloth on hand to polish it up now and then. Below the optical drive panel there's another panel that opens with a press, where you'd put a floppy drive or memory card reader if you weren't adding a second hard drive. Near the bottom of the front face, there's another access panel that opens with a finger press, behind which there's two USB 2.0 ports, a Firewire port, a headphone jack, and a microphone jack.

The visual design of the SN95G5 is excellent – it's the first Shuttle XPC unit I've owned that has used the stealth drive bay doors, giving it a uniform look. Doors covering the optical drive aren't anything new, but most are vertically hinged, requiring the user to open the door by hand before being able to access the drive. The SN95G5's door is horizontally hinged and spring-loaded; it's light enough to come down automatically when the optical drive opens, and is pulled shut when the drive closes. While the idea is great in theory, it gave me some grief – I installed the optical drive, adjusted the contact pad (see Figure 2), and screwed the drive in. I then powered up the system and pressed the drive door button – and nothing happened.

Figure 2: The small white pad is supposed to make contact with the open/close button on the optical drive.

Over the next 30 minutes I adjusted the pad and optical drive position a dozen different ways trying to get a solid connection, all to no avail. Ultimately by the end of the project, I had to settle for opening it via software – I had to right-click on the optical drive in My Computer and select Eject to get it open. Understandably, this was extremely frustrating. I did it this way for several months, cursing it all the while, until one day I opened the front optical by prying my fingers in and pushed the optical drive backwards without unscrewing it first – it didn't move by more than a mm or two, but that was enough to allow the button to magically start working, and it's worked ever since. Ultimately I think this is a flawed design approach from Shuttle and they need to re-think the entire way they approach this problem because it obviously doesn't work for everyone.

Figure 3: The rear of the SN95G5 has a serial port (why bother?), SPDIF in and out, the usual keyboard and mouse inputs, on-board 100 megabit Ethernet, one six pin Firewire port, analog audio line in, and several analog audio outputs, including a sub-woofer channel.

The SN95G5 boasts an on-board RAID controller, which for the purposes of this project isn't very useful – but I couldn't help but see what kind of screaming performance I could eke out of it. I happened to have two Western Digital 10,000 RPM Raptor drives on hand, so I put them into the SN95G5 and did some tests. Having RAID enabled slows down the boot time by six seconds, but the performance gains are worth it: using SiSoft Sandra 2005 I benchmarked the Raptor drives in a RAID 0 configuration at a blazing 99 MB/s. A single Raptor hit 55 MB/s, which is still impressive, but drives this fast truly shine when unleashed via RAID. Because capacity trumps speed when building an MCE computer, I ended up using different drives, and not in a RAID array, when building the machine.

In terms of expandability, the SN95G5 is better than most small form-factor machines; it has one AGP slot, and one PCI slot. The AMD CPU slides into a 939 socket, and presumably with a BIOS upgrade I'll be able to put a dual-core CPU in there at some point [fast-forward to 2006: I upgraded later on and put in a dual core 4800+ CPU in there]. Having an AGP and PCI slot gives me the bare minimum for an MCE machine: a graphics card and a TV tuner.

Step 3: Picking the Core Components
Once I made the decision on the Shuttle, it was time to pack it full of components. As is the case with most Shuttle XPC units, I needed to supply the CPU, RAM, hard drive, video card, optical drive, and TV tuner. Here's the logic that went into each of my decisions about the components for this particular project:

CPU: It had been a few years since I'd last used an AMD processor, but I've always liked their products. At the time I was shopping for components (early 2005), the most powerful AMD processor on the market was the AMD 64 FX55, but it was a whopping $950 CAN. Although I wanted some serious CPU firepower, I wasn't prepared to spend this much on a CPU since it wasn't a gaming or video editing machine. I looked at the more moderately priced AMD 64 series CPUs, which lacked only the massive 2MB cache of the FX series, and they seemed like a better fit for this project. The sweet spot for price/performance was the AMD 64 3500+. The 3800+ was a big jump in price, while the 3400+ was almost the same price for slightly less performance. Since the CPU is one of the most expensive components in your MCE 2005 computer, it makes sense to watch the market and not buy your CPU until you're ready to build the machine. High-definition content is also becoming more common, usually in the form of HD movie trailers, and these require a great deal of CPU power to decode, so it makes sense to go as fast as you can reasonably afford.

In terms of AMD versus Intel, while the AMD processor has a lot of bang for the buck, I do miss the hyperthreading available on my Intel processors. It's not a significant issue in most day to day scenarios, but when the CPU is focused 100% on a single task, it can make for jerky multitasking. As an example, I use an MCE plugin called dCut - I have it set to automatically take certain TV shows and transcode them into 640 x 480 WMV files for archiving. When dCut is transcoding the videos, the AMD CPU is firing away at 100% use, making using the computer useless for almost anything else. If the AMD had a second CPU thread, one would be devoted to dCut and the other to other tasks on the computer. This issue will vanish over time as the industry transitions to dual-core CPUs.

2007 Update: Intel's Core 2 Duo processor is what I would have chosen for this project now. Great performance, low thermal output, and easy to overclock.

Figure 4: The AMD 64 3500+ CPU.

RAM: A simple rule of thumb is that the most you expect your computer to do for you at once, the more RAM it should have. Since this machine would be running an FTP server, Web server, network backup software, the MCE interface and potentially two video streams at the same time (one local, one over the network), I knew I couldn't get by with a mere 512 MB of RAM. Since the Shuttle SN95G5 had two RAM slots, I wanted to fill them both. There are a lot of different types of RAM on the market, but since this machine wasn't being used for gaming, I was interested more in the quantity of RAM rather than how fast it was (no CAS2 bling-bling RAM needed). I found a good balance between price and performance in Kingston's ValueRAM series. 2GB of Kingson ValueRAM was $500 CAN, giving me a lot of RAM for a reasonable investment. I used to be partial to Crucial RAM, but after using several Kingston Flash cards for years, I knew they made quality components and have been pleased with the performance of the Kingston ValueRAM.

Over the past few months I've monitored the system's RAM usage, and it looks like 2 GB of RAM was overkill. Even with the unit doing quadruple duty (Web server, FTP server, TV recording, TV playback), RAM usage never went above 600-700 MB in total. I could get by with 1 GB of RAM quite easily, which would have saved me some money. On the plus side, however, I can push the machine hard and it remains responsive.

2007 Update: RAM prices being what they are, and the fact that Vista can take advantage of RAM better than XP, I'd say 2 GB is still a good bet.

Figure 5: Two gigabytes of Kingston ValueRAM. Tasty!

Hard Drives: There were three important factors for me when choosing hard drives for my MCE computer. Size, size, and size. Although it would be great to have a 10,000 RPM Western Digital Raptor drive in there, they top out at 73 GB and with only two hard drive bays in the SN95G5, I needed to focus purely on size. Thankfully, most modern hard drives are more than fast enough to dish up compressed video, even two streams at once, so I had some flexibility in my choices. I opted to buy a 300 GB Maxtor drive – it set me back $300 CAN, but I wanted to have gobs of storage. For the second bay, I had a fast 160 GB Maxtor drive that would make an ideal boot and backup/FTP drive. If you're building an MCE that will sit next to your TV, you may want to factor in the acoustics as well – though realistically, even the loudest drive would be hard to hear from ten feet away with other components active. If I were doing this project again today, I probably would have went for a Seagate drive – for the same amount of money I could have gotten a 300 GB drive with NCQ (native command queuing). NCQ may have helped in the instances when the system was performing several tasks at once.

2007 Update: I ended up putting in a single 500 GB hard drive to replace the above drives about a year after putting this machine into use. Doing this again today I might put in a 750 GB drive, or perhaps dual 500 GB drives in a RAID array for redundancy.

Video Card: This is one of the easiest decisions in the process: since I wasn't using the machine for gaming, almost any video card would do. The MCE interface uses DirectX, so if you want snappy and smooth performance, a card supporting a minimum of DirectX 8 is recommended. Because I was connecting a local monitor, I wanted a DVI port – but beyond that, anything would do. I had an ATI Radeon 9600 Pro card from a previous system, and while it was a tight fit in the SN95G5, from a performance standpoint it worked out fine. One thing to be absolutely sure about before buying a video card is the power supply requirements needed to run it. Since most small form factor computers use smaller power supplies, high-powered cards can easily overwhelm the whole computer. The SN95G5 has a meagre 250 watt power supply, meaning I was unable to use anything more powerful than an NVIDIA 6600 series card.

There's serious video problem that I've discovered after using this computer for a few months that made me re-think my choice of video card: Media Center 2005 requires a compatible MPEG2 decoder because Microsoft saw fit to not include one in the OS (which boggles the mind). At the time I was building this machine (early 2005), the only MCE 2005-compatible MPEG2 codec was the NVIDIA DVD decoder. The problem? I've never been able to play back DVDs on the MCE properly – there are constant visual artefacts and distortions. At first I suspected the optical drive was the problem, but after replacing it the artefacts were still there. I did some research and in the NVIDIA DVD decoder FAQ there's an entry stating there are compatibility problems between it and ATI Radeon-based video cards and that ATI was "looking into the problem". I upgraded to the latest ATI drivers, and the problem got much worse – before DVDs were mostly viewable, now the artefacts are so frequent and glaring it makes watching DVDs impossible. There has been no update to the NVIDIA DVD decoder in over nine months, which is extremely frustrating. I think this is a case of both NVIDIA and ATI not wanting to fix the problem with each other's software, and as a customer I'm caught in the middle – not a comfortable place to be. As such, my recommendation is now to use an NVIDIA-based video card if you're planning on using the NVIDIA MPEG2 decoder. I ended up replacing the ATI card with an NVIDIA 6600 card and, wouldn't you know it, the problem went away.

2007 Update: Today the machine is still running that nVidia 6600 card, with the fan un-plugged for silence. If the machine had a PCI Express slot, I'd put in an XFX 7600 GS, which is the most powerful passively-cooled card available today. Sure, DirectX 10 support would be nice, but it's not needed for a Media Center machine. The Media Center codec issue has been largely side-stepped because Vista Premium and Ultimate come with Microsoft's own MPEG2 decoder.

Optical Drive: Depending on what types of scenarios you see yourself in, the optical drive on an MCE can be anything from a lowly CD-R to a mighty dual layer (DL) DVD burner. Prices on optical drives have fallen drastically in the last year, to the point where it's commonplace to see 16X DL DVD burners for under $50 CAN. Because of this, I picked up a black LiteOn 16X DL multi-format DVD burner. Capable of burning either –R or +R media at 16x, and CD-R media at 52x, it's a very capable drive. If you end up using your MCE connected to a TV set and want to have it be as quiet as possible, you can use something like Nero DriveSpeed to slow the rotational speed of the drive and make it quieter.

Figure 6: The Hauppauge MCE500 dual TV tuner.

TV Tuner: The one piece of equipment that separates an MCE unit from a regular computer is the TV tuner. TV tuners are generally PCI cards with dedicated MPEG2 chips that offload the encoding/decoding from the CPU. With the current generation technology, HDTV isn't a viable option. There's no over-the-air HDTV in Canada, and there's no way for MCE 2005 to interact with my Motorola HDTV box from the cable company (I haven't tried that bizarre Firewire hack mind you), so I was stuck with analog. It wasn't much of a concern for me, largely because most of the TV shows I watched weren't yet in HDTV. Having the right brand and model of TV tuner is vital for having a properly functioning MCE 2005 computer. The list of compatible devices isn't very long – one of the reasons Microsoft hasn't released the OS at retail is that the only way Microsoft can offer a positive experience is by tightly controlling the hardware and software used. In this light, I picked a card that I knew would be compatible, the Hauppauge MCE500. Hauppauge cards have been used since the first MCE computers started shipping, and the MCE500 was the first dual-tuner model so I jumped at the chance to get it.

Overall, the card has performed magnificently. The MCE OS detected both tuners, and using them has been seamless – if you set it up to record two shows on at the same time, then try to change the channel manually, it will warn you that both tuners are in use and give you the option of which show to stop recording. Performance wise, the dedicated encoder/decoding on the card minimizes the impact of recording and viewing the massive MPEG2 files that are generated. A friend was playing Guild Wars on the computer, and when he finished and exited from the program we noticed that the machine was recording a TV show. He saw no sluggish performance from the machine, and indeed my tests have shown that when a TV show is recording the CPU time used is a mere 3-5%.

The only thing that hasn't worked for me with the MCE500 is the radio – it has an on-board radio, and MCE 2005 has an interface to control the radio, but I haven't been able to get it to work at all. It's not a big concern for me because I haven't needed to listen to the radio, but it's worth noting anyway.

2007 Update: There have been some interesting developments with external HD digital cable tuners, but it's a little too early to know exactly how all the pieces are going to fit together.

Step 4: Buying the Operating System
This is where things get interesting. When Microsoft first released the Windows Media Center Edition operating system, it was only made available to select OEMs: namely Dell and HP. In 2004, Microsoft broadened this to include "white box" vendors, meaning smaller companies that built their own machines and re-sold them. This also meant, somehow, that online vendors such as NewEgg and TigerDirect could sell the operating systems to end users – but only if it was purchased with a piece of hardware to fulfill Microsoft's distribution agreement. The net result of all this is that you can purchase Windows Media Center Edition 2005 with a mouse pad, and it's all legal. Although this likely wasn't Microsoft's intention when they made this change, it has expanded the user base amongst people who prefer to build their computer rather than buy them, and the end result is a positive one.

In my case, I happen to have access to the operating system through the Microsoft Developers Network, but you can buy a copy from most online retailers for as little as $179.99 USD ($242 CAN) in a bundle with a remote control and IR sensor.

2007 Update: Now, thankfully, a completely moot point. With the purchase of Vista Home Premium or Vista Ultimate, you get the Media Center software. Nice and simple. It's least expensive to purchase an OEM copy of Home Premium when you're picking up the other hardware.

Step 5: Picking the right TV
You may already have a TV set or LCD monitor you're planning on pairing with your MCE 2005 computer, but if you haven't yet made that decision, here are some things to think about. First, you'll want to make sure that the TV is a true HDTV set – don't settle for EHDTV or any other half-measure. You want a minimum of 720p, 1280 x 768 resolution, and a DVI connection on the TV set. 1080p sets have been announced and I expect we'll see them in the market this year. Do you need the extra resolution? Not really – Blu-Ray and HD-DVD specs are designed to support 720p because that's what most HDTV owners have now. But if you're the kind of person that likes to be as future-proof as possible, 1080p sets are worth looking at.

2007 Update: Ah, how times have changed. 1080p sets are much more common now, although there are plenty of 720p/1080i sets out there and are still likely the bulk of what people are buying. Which TV to buy is a whole different discussion, one I'll side-step for now.

Figure 7: The Dell W2600, a 26" LCD TV running at 1280 x 768.

Step 6: Installing it All
Shuttle has an excellent installation manual that comes with the SN95G5, so I won't rehash it again here. The assembly was very simple – this was the fourth Shuttle XPC that I had assembled myself, so I was familiar with some of the quirks. Everything is a tight fight in a Shuttle XPC, so assembly requires patience and a willingness to endure a few nicks and scratches on your hands as you insert the components. Because the Radeon 9600 video card was passively cooled, the heat sink was on both the front and back of the card – meaning it was butting up against the Hauppauge TV tuner. I was initially concerned about this, but it hasn't proven to be a problem over the past six months. All other components were a smooth install.

Figure 8: Assembling the Shuttle SN95G5.

Once I finished assembling all the components inside the Shuttle SN95G5, and struggled with the frustrating optical drive issue, it was time to install the operating system. MCE 2005 is no different than any other version of Windows when it comes to being installed: you put in the CD and boot from it, set up your partitions, and let the install proceed. In my case since I had 460 GB of storage, I opted to create several partitions to help manage things: on the 160 GB drive (150 GB usable), a 15 GB operating system partition, and a 135 GB FTP/Web and data backup partition. On the 300 GB drive, 280 GB is usable, so I left it as one giant partition specifically for storing my video and audio files.

Configuring and Using MCE 2005
When you first start up the MCE interface, it will walk you through a configuration wizard that allows you to adjust your display settings, set up your location for the TV schedule, and configure other basic settings. The video wizard in particular is useful because it allows you to optimize the brightness and contrast on your display to show as much detail as possible.

Figure 9: The finished product: my Windows Media Center Edition 2005 computer.

Wrapping it All Up
The machine I built in 2005 served me well as a dedicated Media Center PC. It served the dual purpose of allowing me to watch TV/DVDs in my home office, and allowing my wife and I to watch content upstairs on the big screen TV using the Xbox 360 as a Media Center Extender. The quality is surprisingly good, and being able to access all of our photos and music is an added benefit. Now that Windows Vista Home Premium and Ultimate allow all PCs to be "media centers" you have even more options when putting together your system.

Jason Dunn owns and operates Thoughts Media Inc., a company dedicated to creating the best in online communities. He enjoys mobile devices, digital media content creation/editing, and pretty much all technology. He lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada with his lovely wife, and his sometimes obedient dog. He continues to be a Shuttle XPC fan.
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