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post #1 of (permalink) Old 2006-05-11, 08:23 PM Thread Starter
que3jxp
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Join Date: Nov 2004
Location: Fredericton, NB
Posts: 3,185
Cool All About Building An HTPC (MoBo, CPU, Cards, Other Gear, Software)

Well, I have been dreaming of having a PC run my TV viewing for many years and for those same many years, I have been disappointed in either the costs or the lack of value in the products/software that was available.

In the last 3 years, a lot of that disappointment has been eliminated.

I am not the biggest M$ fan, but Windows is VERY "Wife Friendly", so I planned to build my setup around the latest MCE 2005 version of Windows. I have seen Myth and Sage and Beyond, but I have already built one full on HTPC for a client and it was a wonderful pleasure to use and I hadn't even had it hooked up to TV signal of any kind. The others are plenty fine and are generally just as easy to use, but that last little bit of "Wife Factor" kicks in and forces one to make sure that all of the money that is spent is "approved" after the box is set up.

A few other major issues that pushed me into the arms of MCE 2005 were:
  • Remote controls available and the quality thereof
  • Hardware compatibility

The first one is not too bad, but the nice thing with the MCE 2005 remote is that it is ALSO a 2 ended IR blaster. Always a nice bonus as it allows you to set up two STBs if you wish. Another thing that was nice was that the MCE2005 Remote reciever was also usable with the MCE 2005 keyboard that is available. I am still deciding if I need it but if I wanted one, it is an easy option for me.

The hardware compatibility issues were a little more problematic. Right out of the gate, Linux and ATI is just not a go. To add to that, the latest x1000 series ATI cards and the 5.13 and newer Catalyst drivers are the current reigning champions of video playback quality, so using Nvidia in a Linux box was a compromise that I was not willing to make. (To elaborate as to why, the original plan was to set this HTPC up in my main home theater and playback quality was an issue.)

So...

The first and I consider the most important decision/acquisition was the case. This is where the HTPC industry is just flat out smoking crack. The average case price out there is at least $300. Now understand that I understand how ornate and well crafted some of these cases are, but there are limits to how much one can charge for how small some of these cases are. The case that I was the most interested in was the SilverrStone LC04. It is an amazingly small case that is reasonably priced ($200 at NCIX). This case will hold any size mobo and will hold one full sized ROM drive and ONE hard drive. This could be an issue for some but with 250GB drives as cheap as they are, it should not be a "real" issue.

Well, time went on and I was just still not willing to shell out for the SilverStone case. I searched for almost 2 months and finally found a case that provided me all of the following:
  • Excellent space for cooling
  • Standard shaped power supply
  • mATX compatibility
  • Up to 3 hard drives can be installed
  • Up to 4 expansion cards can be installed without the use of any riser cards
  • Depth of the case is 15" or less
  • Width of the case is 17" or less

The case in question was this one: http://search.ncix.com/displayproduc...nologies%20Inc.

The case comes with a blank plate for the 3.5" floppy hole if you choose to not install anything external there. Myself, I bothered to put a black floppy in but plan on changing it to a multi-card-reader in the near future. There are front audio and USB connectors so my external reader will suffice for now.

One thing that is not shown in the pics on NCIX is that the top/side (Depending on your choice of orientation) of the case is perforated over the CPU and over the 4 expansion card area of the motherboard.

The only real problems I have are that the powersupply is not the quietest, but it is certainly not obnoxious. And the rear is cooled by 60mm fans of which it ships with one. The 60mm fan size is traditionally loud for the meager cooling that one gets. So I removed the 60mm fan for now.

I started this build based around the following hardware that I had kicking around:
  • P3 1GHz Socket 370
  • HP Vectra VL400 mATX board
  • 512MB PC133
  • Radeon 8500
  • Hitachi 80 GB drive
  • Lite-ON 16x DVD-ROM
  • Black 3.5" floppy
  • D-Link Wireless G card
  • Soundblaster Live 24 Bit
  • Microsoft MCE 2005 Remote/IR Blaster

So off we go. I assemble everything and prepare to install the O/S. Once I was ready to test, I had the following installed:
  • Microsoft Windows Media Center Edition 2005
  • AnyDVD
  • PowerDVD 6 Deuluxe
  • Nvidia PureVideo
  • DivX 6
  • XVid 1.1

The first thing I ran into was the fact that MCE "needs" a minimum of a DirectX 9 hardware compatible card. It is possible to make such a non-colpliant card to work, but it is not typically practical. (At this point in the "story", I need to remind you that this HTPC was to be set up in the HT and hooked up to a projector. It was also not supposed to to TV tuning) To rectify the problem, I bought a Sapphire Radeon X1600 Pro AGP. It worked very well and was VERY quiet.

The next issue I ran into was what caused the HTPC to move up to the bedroom. I was unable to get the component video to properly overlay on the projector. It insisted on about a 7% underscan in all directions. (In the end, I realized, after the fact, that I had forgot to install the ATI MCE tools that would have corrected the problem. Oh well.)

To elaborate on why I was so quick to just move the system upstairs, the ATI cards are very reliable for s-video output and the picture stays right in the viewing area of most, if not all, CRT TVs with s-video. With this new change, I decided that the X1600 was overkill for the system so I moved it to my gaming system and took the 9600XT out of it and put it in the HTPC. I also quickly ordered up a Hauppauge PVR 150 MCE and prepared the system for full PVR duty.

5 days later...

The TV guide setup on a MCE 2005 HTPC is quite straight forward and worked well. The very first new issue I ran into was the storage capacity. It seems that an analog feed from a STB into a Hauppauge card does not compress very well. It ammounted to 1 hour of video taking about 3.25 GB of space. So next problem, the drive is no longer truly big enough. A week later and I had a 250 GB Samsung in the box.

At this point, I could have left well enough alone but a 1 GHz box using PC133 is modest to moderately laggy on some of the commands from the remote.

So time to rip it all apart again...

I got truly lucky and found an ASUS A7N8X-VM with a XP 2000+ and stock AMD cooler at the local buy-sell-trade. I had been running 1.5 GB RAM in my gaming system so I pared out a stick of 512 PC3200 for the cause and reused the bulk of the rest of the parts. I had, at this point, decided that the noise level from the 9600XT was too much. So to combat this, I ordered an ASUS 6200 that is passively cooled.

Well, I got everything all reinstalled and switched around and the new 6200 installed and boom, more problems. The ASUS 6200 only has composite and as such, has poor TV out capabilities. The AMD stock cooler is quiet under PC use, but it is too loud for HTPC use. To combat these new problems, there are some inevitable and a not so cheap solution.

First, the noise level, as it is the easiest problem. Zalman Fanmate 2. I ordered up two for duty. One for the CPU fan and one to let me put the 60mm exhaust fan in or to populate the 80mm blowhole.

The video problem was a bit more annoying. I could put the 9600 back but the volume comes back. I could get another X1600, but that is $180 delivered. The only right fix is to ditch the 20" CRT TV and replace it with an LCD monitor or TV. This will not be happening right away due to the cost, but if one thing can be learned by my mistakes, DO NOT use a CHEAP card that has sub standard TV out.

Otherwise, I decide to run the Hitachi 80 as the boot drive and the 250 Samsung as the data, recording and pagefile drive. The performance of the Athlon XP 2000+ configuration is substantially better and the system is able to play HDTV quality clips without much trouble. Where the system now has a Nvidia card, I stuck to using only PureVideo and did not install PowerDVD at all.

So at the end of the day, I can easily make the following observations:
  • Never use a CPU slower than 1 GHz. If you can't do this, then just don't bother.
  • PC133 RAM is just not up to the task. It will do it, but not well.
  • A 2 GHz or equivalent is actually more than enough for regular single tuner duty. (Can't say for dual as I do not have another 150 around)
  • MCE uses a TON of space for recorded TV if it is recorded off of the analog s-video input.
  • Zalman Fanmate 2's are your friend
  • NEVER cheap out on the video card.
  • My wife loves it to death, so the WAF is very high on this setup.
  • Remember to install the ATI MCE extras or you may not be able to fine tune your display if you are using an ATI display card.
  • You don't have to blow megabucks on the case.

I am sure that there are other things that can be learned but that is the list of the big things that jump out at me.

If I were to do it all over again for another HTPC, I would definitely go with a dual core setup as it would smooth out a few things that no amount of single core speed would probably ever smooth out. OF course, spending that kind of money on the next one would be fine with me as I would integrate it with my HT setup to the point of hooking up my 6208 so that the HDTV could be recorded to the MCE box. That would also mean TONS of disk space would be necessary. Can you say Seagate 750 GB
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