First, the upfront facts. I built this computer for a couple of reasons. I noticed that my wife and I were watching more and more content online via the Internet. Sites like ABC.com, NBC.com, etc. where we could watch the shows that we missed from the prior week. Also, Netflix introduced its online movie streaming and we were watching quite a bit of content from there as well. I stopped and thought to myself, why do I have a TV sitting here in front of me when I ended up watching more on the laptop sitting on the coffee table.
Also, as you probably are aware, digital tv is here and soon, February, it will be the only option. Analog tv signals will go away and I only had an analog television. I needed to do something if I wanted to use my television for more than a place to set today’s mail.
The last thing that made my mind up was that I wanted more content than just the local network stations. I’m too smart (my wife would say cheap) to pay for cable or satellite services. Call me crazy, but I don’t like paying for television that just repeats all month long. I had hear rumors that the Microsoft Windows Media Center offered the ability to work with a tv tuner (for local channels) and provided additional Internet content. Add that to the services I mentioned before (ABC.com, NBC.com, netflix) and more, and I had all of the content that I could stand.
So, off to building a computer.
The main steps:
1) Get the computer. In my case, I bought all of the parts to build a computer. I work with computers for a living so I know my way around the insides of one. Certainly, you can choose to purchase a media capable computer from any of the popular vendors. You can also purchase a regular computer and then add the missing parts to make it a media capable pc. I chose to build my own because, first, I think it is fun to build computers. Second, I wanted to make sure it was capable of doing many things and expandable for the future. Lastly, I wanted to obtain a specific look from the computer, so that it didn’t just look like a computer sitting in my living room.
2) Install the software. I used Microsoft Vista Ultimate as my operating system. Many others will tell you that Linux is the way to go for this type of a computer (and many other types of computers) but I’m not too comfortable with the Linux Operating System. Some people will tell you that if you go with Linux, once you have it up and running, you don’t have to be familiar with it, but, that is a load of junk. Computers have problems. They are made by people and therefore are not and never will be perfect. You need to be comfortable enough with the computer that you can work on troubleshooting the problems and to customize functionality and add new functionality. I wasn’t going to be able to do that with a Linux computer. Another important point here is that, with the Windows Vista operating system, you need to have the Windows Media Center. The Media Center is only available in the Ultimate and the Home Premium flavors.
3) Connect your antenna to your computer and setup Media Center. Here, I say to connect your antenna because I opted not to have cable or satellite service. You can also use Media Center with these services, if you so choose. However, doing this would require additional configuration which I’m not familiar with. It may also require different or additional hardware to get everything to work.
Here are the parts that I used to build my computer.
* Antec Fusion v2 Media PC Case ($159.99) – I love the look of this case, although, if I had it to do over, I probably wouldn’t buy it again. The case is well designed and high quality materials. It includes a digital LCD display on the front as well as a built in IR receiver. It also includes a volume knob that makes it look more like a stereo receiver rather than a computer. These are the reasons I bought the case. The reason I probably wouldn’t buy it again is that 1) I’ve only used the volume knob once and that was just to see if it worked. 2) I have yet to get the IR receiver to work with my remote (included with the tv tuners). It just says that every button is an unrecognized command. 3) The data display is too small to read from across the room and is therefore about useless. 4) the case fits a microATX motherboard. This worked out ok for me, but I would have liked to have gotten a full ATX board so that it could have more internal room and the ability to expand in the future.
* Western Digital Caviar GreenPower 500GB Internal SATA ($99.00) – very nice hard drive. Haven’t had any problems with it and I like the fact that it is “green” since I leave the PC on all of the time. Only thing here is that I ended up having to add another once shortly after getting the box up and running. This thing fills up hard drives very quickly if you are using the PVR features (personal video recorder, AKA, modern day VCR).
* Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 ($213.00) – This is a great processor. A coworker recommended it to me and after researching it, I couldn’t find another processor (at the time) that provided better performance for the price.
* ECS G33T-M2 Motherboard ($65.92) – This motherboard worked out very well. It had just about everything I was looking for (except firewire support). I’ve been very happy with this board.
* LG GGW-H20L Blu-ray drive ($288.00) – This drive is capable of playing HD-DVD, BluRay, CD, and DVD. It is also a burner which will burn DVD, CD and BluRay. I haven’t used it to burn BluRay yet, but hope to in the future. I’ve been pretty happy with this drive.
* HIS Hightech H260XTP512DDN-R Radeon HD 2600XT Video Card ($115.00) – I chose the ATI chipset because it is supposed to be better for HD displays. I haven’t compared it to a GeForce card so I can’t really say that it does better, but it does do a nice job. I chose this specific card because it is fan-less. One less fan means lower noise, a common concern with HTPC’s. But, not having a fan comes at a price. This thing has a huge heat sync on it. It actually takes up two slots in the PC. I had to reposition the memory in the computer because it was resting agains the heat sync of this card.
* AData 4GB DDR2 800 Memory ($69.00) – this is memory, and it was cheap. It is pink, but you can’t see it with my case, so who cares.
* Logitech Dinovo Edge Bluetooth Keyboard/Mouse ($152.00) – I splurged on this and I’m so glad I did. This thing is great. Incredible battery life. Thin and light. Great “click” response. Cool effects when using the mouse or function keys. Has complete video/music controls and is customizable.
* VisionTek TV Wonder 650 HD PCI TV Tuner ($120.00) – I bought this card by accident. I meant to get the one below, but ordered this because I wasn’t paying attention. Instead of returning it, I put it in the computer too. With this, I can watch one digital channel and record a different one.
* VisionTek TV Wonder 650 Combo PCIe HDTV Tuner ($110.00) – This is the one I intended to get, although I wouldn’t buy it any longer. It supports both analog and digital signals. Since analog is going away, why bother. I chose this card because it is ATI technology which was the same as my video card. It shouldn’t really matter, but I didn’t want to take a chance with the tuner(s) not liking my video card.
With all of these parts, my total price ended up being about $1,400.00. This includes all of my shipping costs and any rebates that I got. It doesn’t include the operating system or the $2.000 TV that I ended up hooking this thing to.
Ok, here are some things that you need to keep in mind when buying a pre-built or building your own HTPC.
1) HDCP (high bandwidth digital content protection) – this is the copy protection that is built into BluRay. It is terrible to work with since it requires every piece of hardware to be compliant before you can play a BluRay movie. For me, that meant buying a TV that was capable, using HDMI cables, making sure the motherboard, the video card and the operating system were all capable. It is difficult to understand this all, but you should take the time. If everything isn’t compatible, you don’t see the picture.
2) Time – this will take a lot of time. Building the actual computer is the quick part. Getting it all setup and running will take several days. Getting it the way you want it will take a lifetime. I’ve had mine for about 8 months and there are things that I’d still like to change and play with.
3) Expect problems. Remember, this is a computer and people hate computers. This is running on Microsoft Vista and it has problems. That doesn’t mean use XP because, guess what, it has problems too. They all do. Just don’t expect to never have a problem with the thing.
4) Air flow. I paid special attention to all of the components making sure they used less power or operated quietly. The case has two fans with different settings. The low setting is just about completely silent. When I was finished building it, I was successful too. I could run the fans on low and I wasn’t having a heat problem…UNTIL, I put the pc in my entertainment cabinet. There just wasn’t enough air flowing through the cabinet to keep it cool. I ended up doing two things, 1) I bumped up the fan settings to medium. I can now hear the PC running when the TV isn’t on. Kinda bugs me, but not enough to be a real problem. 2) I cut a whole in the side of the cabinet to allow for more airflow. Now air flows in the back and out the side. I bought a floor vent from Lowes and fitted it into the hole that I cut to give it a nice finished appearance.
5) Storage. I mentioned it before, but this machine will be capable of eating through some storage. I added two 500GB drives to this machine. One is dedicated to the Media Center PVR functionality. Recording shows and live tv for pausing, rewinding and replaying. The other is where everything else goes. I also attached a RAID1 USB drive for the really important stuff. Ask yourself, would it hurt if you lost this data. If it will, then you need to look at a way to safeguard and back it up now instead of waiting till it actually happens.
What to Watch:
Ok, so you got it built, now what do I watch? Here are some things to look into.
1) Media Center’s Internet TV – surprisingly, there is a lot of content (and free) in the Internet TV section of Media Center. I was quite surprised. Concerts, news sports, weather and more. There is stuff in there from the big network tv providers as well as some other well known folks like National Geographic and A&M, but most of that is just clips instead of full episodes. None the less, there is a lot there.
2) Online Network TV – ok, fire up the internet browser and go to the big networks (ABC, NBC, FOX, CBS, etc.). Almost all of them are now putting their shows online. You have to wait till after they air, but it is great if you miss a show.
3) Hulu.com – This site provides tv shows and movies. A lot of their content is clips as well, but there are some shows on there that have full episodes. Well worth taking a look.
4) Joost.com – I haven’t really used this but the idea is the same as hulu.com. TV shows and Movies. Lots of clips, some full episodes.
5) Netflix.com – This is actually my favorite. It requires a subscription, but it is well worth it to me. Their streaming movies is great. Of all of the sites that steam content, netflix seems to do it best. Only issue I have is that they force you to use Internet Explorer. Their content is growing constantly, but, be careful because some things will disappear on you as well.
6) Youtube.com – I’m not a huge youtube fan, but, it seems to be the biggest hit when people come over and see my setup. The first place that everyone goes to is youtube and they start looking up videos of all kinds of stuff.
7) TVTonic – not sure if this is still out there or not. I got a notice that it was shut down or something. TVTonic downloads some pretty fun and unique content. it also plugs right into media center giving you one less app to fire up. I still have downloaded content on my computer, so it still works. I don’t think new content is coming down though.
There is so much more out there, and more popping up all of the time.