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Old 01-17-2008, 08:00 PM
Jeremy Charette
Editor Emeritus
Join Date: Dec 2004
Posts: 1,049
Default How to Build a Vista Media Center PC



Jason Dunn recently wrote an article on how to build a monster media editing machine, now I'm going to attack it from a different angle: how to build a Vista Media Center PC from scratch. My goals: lots of storage, dual HD tuners, quiet, and it has to blend in seamlessly with the rest of my home A/V system. Will it be a story of bliss, or an exercise in frustration? Read on to find out!
 

Work From The Bottom Up
Every great house is built on a strong foundation. In the same vein, every good computer starts with a great case. I opted to go with the Antec Fusion 430 home theater PC (HTPC) case. This case has so many neat little features it's hard to decide where to start.


Figure 1: The Antec Fusion 430 HTPC case. Doesn't look much like a computer does it?

With a sleek brushed aluminum front panel and a large volume knob, this case fits right into my A/V rack. It looks less like a computer and more like a piece of stereo equipment. An IR receiver is integrated into the front panel and works seamlessly with Windows Media Center Edition. The case also includes a two line vacuum fluorescent display on the front panel, which can display a variety of information such as date & time, CPU usage, or current song playing. Truth be told, the readout was too small for me to see at 8 feet, but it impresses visitors.

Living Room Enemy Number 1: Noise
This case is designed to be quiet. Very quiet. Mike Chin, editor of SilentPCReview.com, served as a functional design consultant on the project. His input helped make this one of the quietest cases you can buy. The enemy of every computer is heat. Heat has to be removed from any computer, and in the case of an air-cooled system, that means moving large quantities of air. Airflow usually means noise, which is something you don't want from an HTPC.


Figure 2: The inside of the Antec Fusion case. You can see the three distinct thermal zones: motherboard in the middle, hard drive on the top, and power supply on the right.

To combat this, Antec divided the Fusion into three distinct thermal zones. The power supply (which generates much of the heat in a computer) is relegated to its own zone on the left side of the case, along with the optical drive bay. It pulls in and exhausts air completely separate from any of the other components in the system. There is an adjustable pass-through divider between the motherboard zone and the power supply zone, allowing power cables to go through the bulkhead, but limiting airflow between the two thermal zones. The power supply itself is a very capable 430W unit manufactured by Seasonic for Antec. It also turned out to be very quiet.


Figure 3: The drive bay. Note the silicone grommets which isolate the hard drives, as well as the ample venting in the bottom of the bay to draw air past the hard drives. Thanks to this the hard drive is barely audible when running, yet stays cool.

The hard drive zone is fully vented on the bottom of the case. The wall between the hard drive zone and motherboard zone has a moderate gap at the top, forcing air to flow in from underneath the case, past the hard drive(s), and over the top of the baffle and out the case. The hard drives are mounted vertically, with silicon grommets to prevent vibrations from reaching the rest of the case.
 

Fans: Hear No Evil
The motherboard zone is completely separated from the hard drive and power supply, and has a few tricks of its own up its sleeve. There are two huge 120mm fans on the right side of the case, which exhaust air away from the motherboard and associated components. Each fan has a three-way switch to adjust the speed from low to high. This ensures adequate airflow while allowing you to decide for yourself how much noise you are willing to put up with.


Figure 4: The quietest fan I've ever used, bar none: the Noctua NF-S12-800.

While the included Tri-Cool fans are relatively quiet, they still made a bit too much noise for my taste, so I replaced them with two Noctua NF-S12-800 fans. They have a unique fan blade design created by the “Austrian Institute for Heat-Transmission and Fan Technology” which purports to generate greater airflow with less noise than competing “quiet” fans. These fans include silicone grommets to mount the fans with, which reduce the transmission of vibrations into the computer case. They also come with an Ultra Low Noise Adapter or ULNA. This consists of a wiring harness that includes a diode to reduce fan voltage, and therefore, fan speed.

These fans can be summed up in one statement: I couldn’t hear them. At all. Even in near total silence (every device in the house turned off), I couldn’t tell when they were on and when they were off. It was obvious that these two large fans weren’t going to add any noise to my living room.

Air is drawn in from a small vent at the rear of the case, and also from the aforementioned vents in the bottom of the hard drive bay. There is an adjustable baffle that extends from the rear of the case up against the CPU heat sink, ensuring that fresh air from the rear vent flows through the heat sink before being sucked out of the case by the side fans.

There are adjustable cable ties around the case to keep everything neat and tidy. A foam strip sits between the divider between the power supply zone and the rest of the case, so that any vibrations from the various fans and the hard drive aren't transmitted to the case cover. The DVD drive sits in a frame which isn’t hard-mounted to the case, and has a couple of rubber bumpers to keep vibrations to a minimum. All of these various tricks work in concert to ensure that the system as a whole produces as small of a noise footprint as possible.

Power, More Power!


Figure 5: Two cores running at 2.0 Ghz. More power!

I wanted to go with a CPU which would produce only moderate amounts of heat, but also have enough power to keep up with dual HD streams, as well as have zippy performance while encoding video files. That said, I didn't want to break the bank. In the end I settled on AMD's Athlon 64 X2 3600+ processor. It only consumes 65 watts of power at its maximum, but with dual cores running at 2.0 Ghz, it's able to easily satisfy all of my demands. Even more incredible is that street prices for this CPU have dropped to under $50.

Now, how to cool that fast CPU? The Antec Fusion case presents a unique challenge: height. Or lack thereof. A typical heat pipe cooler won't fit in the case, so a low-profile unit is required. I chose Thermaltake's Ruby Orb, a large air-cooled unit with 140 radial fins. It has a large, quiet 120mm fan in the center, which runs at a claimed 17 dBa. There's no way I can measure anything that quiet, but in "real world" testing, I can definitely say it's quiet. So quiet that from 3 feet away I couldn't tell when it was on or off.


Figure 6: It all squeezes in there, but as you can see, it's a tight fit!

My only issue was that the fins overhung the RAM sticks right next to them. In order to get RAM in or out of the motherboard, you have to remove the CPU cooler. Speaking of RAM, I installed two 2GB sticks of Kingston 800 Mhz Hyper-X DDR2 RAM. With the built-in blue anodized heat spreaders, overheating is a non-issue, and at 800 Mhz they can easily keep up with that dual-core Athlon 64 X2 processor.


Figure 7: 4GB of Kingston RAM. Shame no one will ever see those snazzy blue anodized heat spreaders!
 

Motherboards: One That Worked, One That Didn’t
For the motherboard I chose to go with an ECS RS485M-M. This board has an ATI Radeon X300 video chipset, more than enough for a Media Center application. In addition, it supports 4 SATA hard drives, for plenty of storage, and the DVI output will play nicely with the HDMI input on my TV with a DVI to HDMI adapter. The only thing this board is missing is Firewire, but for the price (I paid less than $50), it’s a small sacrifice.


Figure 8: The original Nvidia nForce based ASUS motherboard. What a Pandora's box that turned out to be.

I originally started this build with an ASUS motherboard based on Nvidia’s nForce chipset, but Vista compatibility issues caused a host of problems. iTunes caused the blue screen of death, and SATA driver problems (literally) fried the hard drive I was using. It was a great board with Firewire and HDMI output, but the complete lack of support from Nvidia has really caused me to lose faith in their products.

How to Get Content, and Where to Keep It


Figure 9: Hard Drive by Seagate, a 750GB Barracuda running at 7200 rpm. Plenty fast, and plenty big enough.

Speaking of storage…you can never have enough. Lucky for us, hard drive sizes keep going up and prices keep coming down. I opted for a 750GB Seagate Barracuda. It's in the current sweet spot of price vs. capacity, price competitive with most 500GB drives, but still cheaper per GB than the 1TB drives that are on the market right now. This particular drive runs at 7200 rpm, utilizes an SATA interface for up to 3.0 GBps transfer rates, and has a 16 MB onboard cache to keep things from bogging down. On the optical drive side of things, I just threw in an 8X DVD burner I had laying around. Nothing fancy, you can find them for under $30 these days.


Figure 10: Two cards, four tuners. These ADS Technology InstantHDTV cards have both analog and digital (HD) tuners onboard.

Next up: HDTV tuners. I decided to go with dual ADS Technology InstantHDTV tuner cards. They have both analog and HD tuners, and installed in two open PCI slots with no problems. Vista recognized them instantly, and automatically loaded the appropriate drivers.


Figure 11: In the future, people will get sharp, crisp, high definition tv from...antennas? Wacky but true.

TV tuners need antennas, and I tried a couple. Audiovox supplied their HDTVa amplified antenna, and Winegard sent along an SS-3000 antenna, also amplified. Both were easy and quick to setup, and provided a strong signal to the HD tuner cards. The Winegard SS-3000 was consistently about 20% stronger, and got the vote from my girlfriend as the more asthetically pleasing of the two. I did notice that both antennae had to be near a window facing Manhattan to get any signal at all. Other locations in the apartment resulted in dropped channels and lousy reception.
 

The Bind That Ties: Software


Figure 12: One of Microsoft's least promoted but most useful software platforms: Windows Media Center.

Of course this all has to be tied together with software, and for that, I chose Windows Vista Ultimate. It includes Windows Media Center, which allows you to access your music, TV, and videos from an easy to use interface. Vista MCE also includes some neat new features such as the ability to display live sports scores while you are watching a game, access to Microsoft's IPTV beta, and now the ability to play back Divx and xVid files. I've got my Media Center box connected to my Xbox 360 through my home network, so I can watch shows and movies from the other room while my girlfriend watches what she wants on the big TV.


Figure 13: The My Movies home screen in the Windows Media Center interface.

My new favorite add-on however, has to be My Movies, an application which allows you to catalog and organize your DVD collection. I use it to rip DVDs to my hard drive, and then play them back right in Media Center. You can search by actor or actress, director, sort by genre (including your own custom genre types); the features are nearly endless. My DVDs don't sit in a binder next to the TV anymore, they actually get watched for a change! It's as easy as sitting down, pulling up My Movies, and scrolling through the DVD cover art until I find a movie I want to watch. It also works with MCE-compatible DVD changers, which is something I may explore in the future.


Figure 14: My Movies displays thumbnails of the cover art for your entire DVD collection, whether on your hard drive or on an external disc.

 
Part Pleasure, Part Pain


Figure 15: Now I can watch Dr. No anytime I want, without ever leaving the couch.

In all, my build took about three hours, and a few more hours to transfer all my content and get everything organized. I had some difficulty getting the motherboard and components into the case, as it’s a very tight fit, but once in place, everything buttoned up very nicely. Between all of the noise reducing features of the Antec Fusion case, and the ultra-quiet Noctua fans and Thermaltake CPU cooler, the noise footprint is just as low as I’d hoped. From the couch, it’s inaudible, so goal achieved. My girlfriend loves it.

As I mentioned, I had tried an ASUS motherboard but it caused a host of problems, and after a month or two of messing around with it, I finally gave up - RMA’d the hard drive and put in the ECS motherboard. I had to re-install Vista and re-load all of my content, which ate up quite a few nights and weekends. On top of that, the ECS board wouldn't play nice with the Kingston RAM until I updated the Bios, which meant digging out a 3.5" floppy drive and heading to the office supply store for some floppy discs! For reference, I started this article over six months ago. Suffice it to say, building your own HTPC can be rewarding and fun, but it can also be fraught with peril and frustration.

Now I’ve got a very capable Media Center PC which I’ve been enjoying immensely. Total budget to build this PC would have been under $900, quite a bit less than it would have been off the shelf. If I had to do it all over again, I would only make a couple of changes. A black HTPC case would have blended better with the components in my A/V rack, and lo and behold, Antec now offers a black version of the Fusion case. I also would have gone with dual 750GB hard drives, as I’m quickly filling the one that’s in there. And of course, I would have equipped it with a dual-format HD DVD/Blu-Ray drive, and a video card with HDMI and the horsepower to match. That might be a good subject for a future article. I have to issue a huge thanks to the folks at Antec, AMD, Seagate, Noctua, Kingston, and ADS Technology for all of their help with this project.

Jeremy Charette is a Contributing Editor at Digital Home Thoughts, and also works in Procurement for one of the world’s largest banks. He enjoys reading, gaming, and watching James Bond movies. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, USA. He thinks Media Center is the coolest thing Microsoft has ever produced.
 
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