How to Build a Media Center Pc

By: DirectPC

Control all your media from one PC. Combine all media into one system: television, games, movies, music can all be watched and stored in one place.

A Media Center PC or Home Theater PC, or HTPC for short, is a personal computer connected to a television. It is often used as a digital photo, music, and video player, or as a Computer and video games device. Adding a TV tuner card allows an HTPC to record television as well. They may also be referred to as media center systems The general goal in a HTPC is usually to combine many or all components of a home theater setup into one box.

A Media Center PC is a convergence device that combines the functions of a personal computer and a digital video recorder. A Media PC can be purchased preconfigured with the required hardware and software needed to add television programming to the PC, as is commonly done with Windows Media Center Edition (MCE), or can be custom built out of discrete components.

Media Center PC - What do you need to know.

This isn't any typical PC that you're building. It's going to live in your family room (or wherever you have your TV and spend most of your time). That means, in addition to a PC, it has to look good, and run very quietly.

These are the most important components in your Media Center PC:

Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE)
TV or(and) HDTV receiver card
Sound card
CPU Cooler
Power Supply
Wireless Keyboard
Remote Control

Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition

Windows XP Media Center Edition (codename Symphony) is a version of Windows XP designed to serve as a home-entertainment hub. The latest version, Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, was released on October 12, 2004.

Windows XP Media Center Edition (XP MCE) is distinguished from other versions of Windows XP by an exclusive preinstalled application, Media Center, which provides a large-font, remotely accessible interface for TV viewing on the computer as well as recording and playback, DVD playback, video playback, photo viewing, and music playback.

Although MCE is based on Windows XP Professional, Microsoft has disabled its ability to join an Active Directory domain post install. This effectively precludes the use of Media Center in a corporate environment. Media Center still retains most other Windows XP Pro-specific features, such as Remote Desktop and the Encrypting File System.

Because of strict hardware requirements, Microsoft has opted not to supply Media Center as an independent retail version. Microsoft only distributes it to MSDN subscribers and OEM System Builders in certain countries. Consumers generally purchase Media Center preinstalled on a new computer, or from a reseller that sells OEM versions of Microsoft software.

Windows XP Media Center Edition (2005) Update Rollup 2 (codenamed 'Emerald') Released in late 2005, this was a collection of feature updates including support for DVD changers and to connect to the Xbox 360.

Windows Media Center in Windows Vista (2006) (codenamed 'Diamond'): Generally available to the public on January 30, 2007.

Media Center PC Case

The first hardware that you need to consider is the casing. Technically, any type of casing is acceptable, but since we are building a media center here, looks are important as it must look presentable when placed in the living room. More importantly, the ventilation system used in the casing should not be too noisy--you don't want it to sound like a vacuum cleaner when you are playing DVD, do you?

Media PC cases have been on the market for some time now. We generally referred to them as desktop cases instead of home theater PC cases. The design of each is just about the same - it's the features that set an Media Center PC apart from a desktop case.

Some of these features include simple hardware such as a smaller power supply or smaller case fans. Many desktop cases are smaller than mid-tower chassis, so hardware with smaller footprints must be used. Other features, which carry functions of a media center PC such as an integrated text display and infrared receiver, are some of the things that make an Media Center PC just that, an Media Center PC.

TV Tuner Card

When choosing how you're going to use your Media Center PC for viewing television, you have to ask yourself a few questions:
Do I have a single cable box? Or do I either have multiple cable boxes, or a cable box + sattelite box?
Can I get over the air HDTV reception where I live?

First of all, you really need to get a TV Tuner card regardless of the answers to any of the above questions. The only real question is whether or not to get a card that has one tuner, or two.

If you have more than one source for regular TV (from question 1 above) then you only need a single TV Tuner. If you either have 2 sources, or are even considering getting a second cable box or second source, you should get a card that has 2 tuners in it.

HDTV card and your Media Center PC

When you connect a high-definition TV (HDTV) antenna to a Media Center PC that is equipped with an HDTV tuner card, you can experience:
Digital-quality video with widescreen support: Watch local TV broadcasts in HDTV quality up to 10 times the quality of a standard TV signal.
Theater-quality audio: Enjoy the booming bass and crystal clear 5.1 surround sound that is available with many primetime programs.
HD personal video recording: Pause, rewind, and record local, over-the-air TV programs in HDTV just like you do with standard TV programs.
Digital TV Program Guide: Easily find listings for local HDTV channels that are integrated with the standard TV listings in the Guide on your Media Center PC.
Antenna signal strength: A built-in signal strength meter helps you tune your antenna to get the most channels possible.

Connect your Media Center PC to your surround sound system

No home theater PC is complete without good audio.

Depending on your sound card, you may need to connect the Media Center PC to your speakers using either a single digital connection or a series of multichannel analog connections.

You might need to connect digital or multichannel analog surround sound

Ultimately, both types of connections result in surround sound audio from the DVD or HDTV media you are playing. The main difference between the two is where the decoding of the surround sound signal takes place.

When using a single digital connection, the sound card in the Media Center PC passes the surround sound signal directly to the receiver to decode the audio and play it through your speakers.

With a multichannel analog connection, the sound card decodes the surround sound signal, and then passes the decoded signal to the receiver. The receiver then outputs the sound to the appropriate speaker for the surround sound effect.

Silent CPU Cooling

Equally important is the CPU cooler. Ideally, you want a CPU cooler that's very quiet but does a good job of keeping the processor cool.

The manufacture fan that comes with the original CPU sounded like a vacuum cleaner when running in full-speed mode (controlled by the motherboard depending on the CPU workload) and the noise is unbearable if you sit near the computer. This is definitely not an ideal situation for your media center PC.

Quiet CPU coolers are designed with the use of highly heat conductive copper and a larger, efficiently designed, heatsink surface area to radiate heat far more effectively than standard heatsinks. These coolers move heat away from the CPU with ultimate efficiency, in order that they can be paired with slower spinning fans. Truly quiet CPU coolers include following outstanding characteristics:

Large heatsinks which can radiate more heat away from your CPU
The use of high efficiency copper either in the base or throughout the whole heatsink
Large fans which move more air in relation to how fast they spin
Smoother fan bearings
Efficient, smooth fan design
Solid, smooth, quality heatsink
Inclusion of heatpipes to facilitate heat transfer

Power Supply for Media Center

As the digital world infiltrates the living room, silent operation becomes the key. More and more people are investing and building home theater PCs.

The quality of the power being supplied to the components in your system is more important than most users realize. A poor quality power supply can cause many problems and in some cases can even destroy system hardware. A PSU (Power Supply Unit) which under-volts either the 3.3, 5, or 12 volt lines can cause corruption of data, system locks, and program crashes. In more severe cases an over-volt can fry components.

Often one of the biggest noise maker in a PC, the Power Supply Unit delivers regulated DC voltages to various components. Computer PSUs are switching mode types, which provide relatively high efficiency at low cost. They utilize forced air cooling, usually an 80mm fan, and sometimes incorporate a second fan. The fan is the primary source of noise in a PSU. Coils in a PSU can buzz and hum, especially when pushed under high loads, but usually fan noise masks coil noise. Typically, the fan is rated for higher than the maximum airflow needed to keep the PSU cool.

The quietest PSUs feature either no fan at all or a fan that spins at low speed under most conditions. Keep in mind that components will tend to run a bit hotter than usual as a result of reduced airflow. This can be a concern if the normal ambient room temperature is high or if very hot components are used. The best fan-cooled models have low normal fan speed, and allow the fan to ramp up to full speed only when really necessary.

Fan-less Power Supply sets the bar high when it comes to power, efficiency, and silent operation.

Remote Control

Integrating a Media PC into your living room means that you will need some way of controlling the computer from the couch. While it is possible to use a wireless mouse and keyboard these devices are usually intended for close range use from a hard surface like a table.

Many TV tuner/capture cards include remote controls for use with the applications included with the card, but to integrate Windows MCE into your living room you will need a certified Windows MCE remote control.

Wireless Keyboard

For most things that you need to do with your HTPC, using the Windows Media Remote control will suffice. However, there are a few activities which are much more convenient when using a keyboard.

You need a wireless keyboard (preferably RF instead of IR so that you don't have a line-of-sight IR transmission restriction) that has an integrated mouse. Why? So that you can sit on the couch and type away. You'll really appreciate a decent keyboard when you're trying to correct the spelling of a CD Artist, or labeling a folder where you're downloading all of those pictures you took on your last vacation from your memory card into the PC.


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