Section 6.4. Component Considerations


6.4. Component Considerations

With our design criteria in mind, we set out to choose the best components for the media center PC system. The following sections describe the components we chose, and why we chose them.

6.4.1. Case and Power Supply

Antec Fusion or Antec NSK2400 (http://www.antec.com)

You can, of course, build a media center PC in a standard mini-tower case. But the critical Spousal-Unit Approval (SUA) criterion (otherwise known as, "You're not putting that in my den!") demands a case that matches standard home-audio components in size and appearance as closely as possible. Barbara has a sense of humor about these things. Many spouses do not, so it's worth checking before you purchase a case. As we learned, there are a lot of media center PC cases available, but most have one or more drawbacks.

Silverstone (http://www.silverstonetek.com) is perhaps the best-known maker of media center cases. We looked at several of their LaScala-series media center cases, but found none that we considered ideal for our media center PC. Some were too cramped, others too expensive, and still others had inadequate power supplies or insufficient cooling.

We also looked at media center cases from Cooler Master and several other manufacturers. Some were very nice cases, but all had one or more drawbacks. We found several models we'd love to have useduntil we saw the price tag. Budget was not a high priority for this system, but we had no intention of paying several hundred dollars for just the case and power supply.

As usual, Antec came to the rescue. We initially considered two Antec cases, the Fusion and Overture II models, both of which Antec positions as media center cases. Fortunately, as we were browsing the Antec site, we happened across their NSK2400 case. Antec classifies the NSK2400 as a desktop case, but its appearance and features make it an obvious choice for a media center PC.

We soon eliminated the Overture II from consideration. Although it's an attractive, reasonably-priced case, its only real advantage relative to the Fusion and NSK2400 is that it accepts full-size ATX motherboards. Two or three years ago, that would have been a key consideration. The selection of microATX motherboards was quite limited, and they often lacked important features that were present on full-size ATX models. Nowadays, many microATX motherboards are functionally identical to their larger cousins, differing only in having two or three fewer expansion slots.

That left us with the Fusion, shown in Figure 6-1, and the NSK2400, both of which incorporate design suggestions from Mike Chin of silentpcreview.com. Either is an excellent choice for a Media PC case, but there are differences. The $100 NSK2400 is an entry-level case. Although its fit and finish are up to Antec's usual high standards, few costly features are present. The $219 Fusion is a premium case, and it shows. The fit and finish are as good as we've seen with any case, including models that sell for much more. The included 430W power supply is a good step up in capacity and quality from the 380W unit included with the NSK2400. The Fusion also includes a large volume control knob and an expensive VFD (Vacuum Fluorescent Display) that is compatible with Windows MCE and some other PVR applications. If you're on a tight budget, choose the NSK2400. But if you have a bit more to spend, the Fusion won't disappoint you.

Figure 6-1. The Antec Fusion media center case


6.4.2. Processor

Intel Core 2 Duo E6400 (http://www.intel.com)

Dedicated PVRs like the TiVo or the set-top PVRs rented by cable companies use very slow processors. Playback (real-time video decoding) places little burden on the processor. Recording (real-time video encoding) requires substantial processing power, but a dedicated PVR offloads that task to a specialized co-processor that is optimized for video compression. As a result, dedicated PVRs consume little power, generate little heat, and require few or no fans.

Dedicated PVRs also have very limited functionality; for example, being limited to recording one SDTV stream. Our media center PC is different. We expect it to juggle many tasks, to handle difficult tasks like encoding HDTV or playing and recording multiple streams simultaneously, and to do all that without ever dropping the ball even momentarily.

Drive It Until It Drops

A subtle point is that a media center PC is likely to be upgraded much less frequently than a desktop PC. Once a media center PC system is built, configured, connected, and tested, it should reasonably be expected to live quietly in the home-audio rack for several years between upgrades. Accordingly, when the choice is between "just enough" and "more than I'll ever need," we suggest you choose the latter.


That means our media center PC needs a serious processor, one with horsepower to spare. Because heavy multitasking is common on a media center PC, we need a dual-core processor with excellent support for multimedia functions. Our media center PC is an appliance that sits in our entertainment center, so we'd like the processor to consume little power and generate little heat.

Based on those requirements, one desktop processor immediately comes to mind. The dual-core Intel Core 2 Duo is fast, has excellent multimedia support, and has low power consumption. Even the entry-level Core 2 Duo E6300 is more than fast enough to handle all of the demands of the media center PC, but we decided to do a little "future proofing." On that basis, we chose the Core 2 Duo E6400 for our media center PC.

ALTERNATIVES: PROCESSOR

We think the Intel Core 2 Duo is the standout choice for a media center PC. If you prefer to use an AMD processor, we recommend the Athlon 64 X2 4200+ or faster. AMD offers low-power variants of some X2 models that consume much less power than the standard models. Although they are more costly than the standard models of the same speed, we recommend using the low-power variants in a media center PC.


6.4.3. Motherboard

Intel D946GZIS (http://www.intel.com)

Our choice of the Antec Fusion case dictates a microATX motherboard. Core 2 Duo is a Socket 775 processor, but not all Socket 775 motherboards are compatible with Core 2 Duo. At the time we built this system, microATX motherboards with Core 2 Duo support were thin on the ground. Fortunately, Intel offered a microATX Core 2 Duo motherboard that was nearly perfect for our purposes, the D946GZIS Isleton. The D946GZIS supports up to 4 GB of DDR2 memory in two slots. It includes embedded GMA3000 video, but also provides a standard x16 PCI Express video adapter slot. The integrated 5.1 audio and 10/100 Ethernet are sufficient for our purposes.

The only minor drawbacks of this motherboard are its lack of integrated IEEE-1394 (FireWire) and that it provides only two PCI expansion slots. The lack of FireWire isn't a major issue. If we want to watch raw camcorder video, we can plug the camcorder into one of our DVD recorders or PCs. We're unlikely to want to edit video on the media center PC. Having only two PCI expansion slots was more problematic. We originally planned to install three tuner/capture cards in this system, one HDTV and two SDTV. As it turned out, that problem was easily solved. We simply installed one dual-tuner SDTV card instead of two single-tuner cards.

6.4.4. Memory

Kingston KHX6400D2LLK2/2G 2GB PC6400 DDR2 Memory Kit (1 GBx 2) (http://www.kingston.com)

The Intel D946GZIS has two DDR2 memory slots and supports dual-channel memory operation with PC2-4200, PC2-5300, or PC2-6400 modules in capacities up to 2 GB. When we built this system, PC2-6400 modules were selling for far more than PC2-4200 or PC2-5300 modules. We decided to use the faster memory anyway, mainly because we were concerned about the demands that HDTV recording and playback will place on the system.

ALTERNATIVES: MOTHERBOARD

For a microATX Core 2 Duo system, there were no other motherboard choices when we built this system. By the time this book reaches print, there will likely be numerous choices. Any microATX motherboard made by Intel or ASUS with a suitable feature set should work fine. For a microATX Socket AM2 Athlon 64 X2 system, choose any compatible ASUS motherboard based on an nVIDIA chipset.

If you build your media center PC in a full ATX case, your motherboard options are much broader. For a Core 2 Duo or other Intel processor, choose any compatible motherboard made by Intel or ASUS with the feature set you need. For a Socket AM2 Athlon 64 X2 system, choose any compatible ASUS motherboard with the feature set you need.


Obviously, we wanted to populate both slots for better memory performance, so we checked the prices of paired PC2-6400 memory modules. We didn't attempt to analyze the actual memory requirements of the media center PC. A pair of 512 MB DIMMs "felt" too small. Even with a dual-core processor, the media center PC would certainly have been fully functional with 1 GB of total memory, but that would have left little spare memory for running games and other secondary functions. As much as we'd have liked to install 4 GB of memory, at the time we built this system, a pair of 2 GB modules cost $1,600, and they were available only in PC2-3200 speed. A pair of 1 GB PC2-6400 modules cost only $325, so that's what we chose.

6.4.5. Media Center Video Components

A media center PC system requires four separate video functions:


Display

The media center PC must display computer output on a television. That requires a standard PCIe or AGP video adapter or a motherboard with embedded graphics that is capable of outputting a video signal that can be displayed by a television set (rather than a computer monitor). Depending on the type of connector used by the television set, you will need one of the following output connectors on the video adapter, listed in order of increasing video quality:

ALTERNATIVES: MEMORY

Any compatible name-brand memory modules. Memory from different companies can vary dramatically in quality and reliability. For 20 years, we've depended on memory from Kingston and Crucial, and have never had cause to regret that decision.



RF

Older televisions and inexpensive current models may provide only an RF input, the familiar F-connector to which you connect the cable TV feed. If your television has only an RF connector, you will need to use a video adapter that provides an RF-out connector. Such connectors can generally be configured to output on TV channel 3 or 4. To receive the signal from the adapter, you tune the television to whatever channel the adapter is configured to use. If you want to watch TV from both the cable and the PC, you'll need a splitter to allow the TV to accept RF input from both sources. Note that many RF splitters, particularly amplified models, are designed to accept one RF input and split it to two or more devices, and do not necessarily work "backward" to allow two sources to be delivered to one device.


Composite

A composite video-out connector supplies an analog video signal and connects to the television using a standard RCA cable. All video data is transferred on a single cable. Conventionally, a yellow cable is used for video. Most analog television setsat least those that are likely to be used in a home theater setupinclude an analog video-in connector. (You can use a set that does not provide analog video-in by connecting the video-out connector on the PC to an RF modulator and thence to the RF-in connector on the television.) Some PC video adapters provide an RCA video-out connector or a VIVO (Video-In Video-Out) connector. You'll need one of those if you intend to connect your media center PC to an analog television that has only a composite video input.


S-Video

An S-Video-out connector (Separate Video) supplies an analog video signal, and connects to the television using an S-Video cable. S-Video devotes separate wires to luminance (brightness) and chroma (color), and so offers better video quality than a composite video connection. Use a video adapter that provides an S-Video output if your television has an S-Video input. S-Video connectors are notoriously fragile. If you use S-Video on your media center PC, be very careful not to put any undue pressure on the connectors.


DVI

A DVI (Digital Visual Interface) connector supplies a digital video signal, and connects to the television using a standard DVI cable. Most older digital television sets and some current models provide a DVI connector. Many current PCIe and AGP video adapters provide a DVI connector, which is used by many digital flat-panel computer displays. You'll need a video adapter with DVI output if you intend to connect your media center PC to a digital television, either an EDTV or HDTV model.


HDMI

The HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) connector is the latest standard for connecting a digital signal to a digital television. HDMI is essentially DVI with the addition of HDCP (High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection) DRM. For unprotected content, HDMI works just like DVI, with which it is backward compatible. For protected content, at the option of the content owner, HDMI can enforce a protected signal path. If the HDMI source is connected to a DVI display that does not support HDCP, the HDMI source may refuse to display the content or display it at low resolution. At the time we built our media center PC, there were no PC video adapters available that supported HDMI output with HDCP.


TV tuning

A television signal can originate from many sources. The original signal may be analog or digital. It may arrive at the media center PC as an over-the-air (OTA) broadcast signal, analog or digital, or via cable or satellite. The original signal typeanalog or digitaldoes not determine the signal type you receive. For example, we have analog cable television service. Some of the channels we receive originate as analog signals; others originate as digital signals, but are converted by our cable television company to analog before it retransmits those signals to us. A satellite receiver receives all digital signals, but may provide an analog output, a digital output, or both for your television.

The type of signals you receive determine the type of tuner card you need. If your signal is delivered via satellite or digital cable, your options are very limited. There's no convenient way for a PC to tune the raw signals provided by these types of services, so the only alternative is to use the cable or satellite box to choose the channel you want to record. Fortunately, that process can be automated by using an IR Blaster or similar device to change channels on the cable/satellite box under the control of the media center PC. Conversely, for OTA (analog and/or digital) or analog cable, tuner cards are available to process these types of signals, which means the media center PC itself can change channels directly as needed to record the programs you specify.

"HDMI-Ready" Does Not Guarantee HDCP Support

In 2005, some video adapter manufacturers began advertising their video adapters as "HDMI-ready" or "HDMI-capable" or "HDMI-compatible." Those adapters were in fact HDMI-ready, but only in the sense of being physically and electronically compatible with HDMI televisions. These adapters do not support HDCP, and cannot be upgraded to support it, short of being returned to the manufacturer and having new chips soldered onto them.

Needless to say, many of the people who bought these video adapters with the understanding that they would be capable of displaying HDCP-protected content at full resolution were not amused to learn that these adapters could not and never would be able to display HDCP-protected content. ATI in particular earned the ire of many customers, who believed it had misrepresented its products. nVIDIA never claimed that its chipsets offered full support for HDMI/HDCP, although some nVIDIA OEMs did make such claims. The result has become a gigantic mess, and we expect class action lawsuits to result from it.

At this point, it is unclear to us whether PC video adapters with full HDMI/HDCP support will ever be available. The movie studios intensely distrust PC technology, and it is possible they will block any attempt to bring full HDMI/HDCP support to the PC platform.



Video capture

Television video uses standards and protocols that differ from those used by PC video. The media center PC must have the ability to capture a television video stream and process it into a form that can be stored and played back by the PC.


Video encoding/decoding

A raw, uncompressed video stream would fill even the largest hard disk very quickly. All practical video storage methods use some form of compression, such as MPEG-1, MPEG-2, or MPEG-4, to reduce the size of stored video data. In order to make playback practical in devices with limited processing power, such as DVD players, MPEG compression algorithms place the processing burden on compression (encoding), while making decompression (decoding) as easy as possible. So, although even a slow processor can decode and play video without straining, the process of capturing, encoding, and storing video requires a lot of CPU ticks.

Some adapters simply deliver a raw video stream to the main system processor, which must compress the data itself. Because real-time video compression is extremely demanding, using such an adapter means the media center PC must have a very fast CPU, and even the fastest CPU may drop frames during real-time encoding. Other adapters include special MPEG compression hardware that delivers a precompressed video stream to the media center PC for storage. Still other adapters use the video GPU to encode the video stream. Adapters with MPEG compression in hardware place very little burden on the main system CPU, which allows you to use a slower, cooler, quieter CPU for the media center PC.

Adapters may provide any combination of these functions. For example, some adapters provide video capture and TV tuning functions, but require a separate graphics card to display the video. Other adapters provide display and capture functions, but have no tuner, and so are useful only for capturing direct video signals such as the output from a camcorder. Still other adapters may provide display, tuning, and capture functions, but offload encoding functions to the main system processor. Choosing the proper adapter(s) is a major consideration for any media center PC.

6.4.5.1. TV tuner/capture card

Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-150 analog tuner (http://www.hauppauge.com): pcHDTV HD-5500 Hi Definition Television digital tuner (http://www.pchdtv.com)

We want our media center PC to handle two signal sources, analog cable and OTA digital. We decided that the ability to record one digital channel at a time was sufficient, but wanted the option to record two analog channels simultaneously, or to watch one analog channel using "live pause" while recording another analog channel. That means we need three tuners, two analog and one digital.

For the analog tuners, we initially decided to use a pair of Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-150 cards, shown in Figure 6-2. The PVR-150 offers the best video quality available, has excellent hardware-based MPEG encoding, and is supported by nearly every PVR application. The retail-boxed PVR-150 includes an IR remote control with receiver and an IR Blaster (transmitter) that can be used to control a satellite or digital cable box. (We don't need to do that right now, but that may change shortly, and it's always best to be prepared.) With two PVR-150s, we have a remote control for each of us, which is no small aid to domestic tranquility.

Analog TV tuner cards have been available for years, but digital TV tuner cards are a relatively new product category. HDTV tuners are available from several companies, including ATI and AVerMedia, but most have only Windows drivers, and some work only under Windows MCE. We consider Windows a poor choice of operating system for a media center PC, so we continued our search for a Linux-based HDTV tuner card. On the recommendation of our technical reviewer Brian Bilbrey, we chose the pcHDTV HD-5500 Hi Definition Television digital tuner card, which offers full Linux support.

The HD-5500 supports all 18 ATSC-compliant digital formats. It also supports unencrypted QAM 64 and QAM 256 cable signals; that is of little use to us, because we plan to capture only OTA HDTV signals. The HD-5500 also supports capturing NTSC (analog) television signals. We won't use that capability, because our HD-5500 card will connect only to an OTA HDTV antenna.

The HD-5500 does not have onboard compression hardware, but it can offload compression tasks to an nVIDIA video adapter. For that reason, we'll install an nVIDIA video adapter in our media center PC.

As you might have noticed, we had a slight problem. We planned to install three PCI tuner/capture cards in our media center PC, but it has only two PCI slots. Hmmmm.

Figure 6-2. The Hauppauge WInTV-PVR-150 tuner/capture card


Instead of using the WinTV-PVR-150 single-tuner card, we could use the similar Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-500 dual-tuner card. With two PCI slots available, we could use any one of the tuner/capture card configurations shown in Table 6-1.

Table 6-1. Possible tuner/capture card configurations

Total tuners

Analog tuners

Digital tuners

Hauppauge PVR-150

Hauppauge PVR-500

pcHDTV HD-5500

1

1

-

1

-

-

1

-

1

-

-

1

2

1

1

1

-

1

2

2

-

2

-

-

2

2

-

-

1

-

2

-

2

-

-

2

3

2

1

-

1

1

3

3

-

1

1

-

4

4

-

-

2

-


Remote Controls and IR Blasters

Hauppauge sells their tuner/capture cards in various bundles. Some include only the bare card and drivers. Others include a remote control and receiver, some also an IR Blaster. The IR Blaster connects to the media center PC, and can output infrared signals that mimic those produced by a remote control. By pointing the output of the IR Blaster toward the remote receiver on a set-top box or similar device, the media center PC can send commands to that device.

For example, if you receive your television signal via a cable or satellite system that requires selecting the channel via a set-top box, you can point the IR Blaster at the set-top box. To schedule and record a program, you set the media center PC to record whatever signal is present on the wire at the required time. Under programmatic control, the IR Blaster sends a signal to the set-top box at the appropriate time to turn it on and change to the proper channel. It's a kludge, but it generally works pretty well, or so we're told. We have analog cable, so our analog tuner cards can select the proper channel directly. Similarly, we use OTA for digital reception, so all available digital channels are on the wire simultaneously, and can be tuned directly by the pcHDTV tuner card.


We decided to install one Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-500 tuner/capture card to provide two analog tuners, and one pcHDTV HD-5500 tuner/capture card to provide one HDTV tuner.

6.4.5.2. Video adapter and capture/tuner Card

Gigabyte GV-NX73G128D-RH (http://www.giga-byte.com)

Although we list the Gigabyte GV-NX73G128D-RH video adapter we used, we won't recommend a specific video adapter for your system, because so much depends on your own situation and needs. Consider the following factors when you choose a video adapter:


Internal interface

The first consideration is the internal interface. If your motherboard has an AGP slot, you need an AGP video adapter. If your motherboard provides a PCI Express slot, you need a PCIe video adapter. We chose a PCIe model for compatibility with the motherboard we selected.


External interface

Make sure the video adapter you choose provides external interface(s) that match your television. Video adapters are readily available with a DVI connector, composite video connector, S-Video connector, or some combination. We chose an adapter that provides DVI and S-Video outputs.


Performance

For simple TV playback and basic computer functions, any current video adapter is sufficient. If you plan to use your media center PC for serious gaming, you'll need a fast video adapter. We don't plan to use our media center PC for gaming, so we chose an inexpensive PCIe video adapter.


Noise level

Many low-end video adapters use passive cooling. Most midrange and high-performance video adapters use cooling fans, which may be too loud for a media center PC. If you install a fast video adapter for gaming, give preference to one of the fanless models.


Compatibility with tuner card(s)

Nearly any video adapter is compatible with nearly any tuner card, in the sense that the two do not conflict. However, some tuner cards (such as the pcHDTV model we are using for HDTV support) do not have on-board hardware video acceleration, but instead depend on the video adapter GPU to accelerate the video stream. If your card is one of those, make sure that the video adapter you choose can provide hardware acceleration support to your tuner card.

We chose the Gigabyte GV-NX73G128D-RH video adapterwe'll call it the GV-RH for shortfor the following reasons.

  • Obviously, we needed a PCI Express model to fit the PCIe slot in our Intel D946GZIS motherboard.

  • We needed a video adapter that provided connections for video-out and HDTV-out, which the GV-RH does.

  • We wanted a passively cooled video adapter, both to avoid the noise of a video adapter fan and to increase reliability. When a video adapter fan fails, the results are not pretty. Realistically, a media center PC stuffed into an entertainment center is unlikely to get much in the way of periodic maintenance or cleaning, which makes a fan failure more likely.

  • The pcHDTV HD-5500 Hi Definition Television digital tuner can use an nVIDIA video adapter as a co-processor to accelerate HDTV streams.

  • We wanted a video adapter with enough graphics processing power to support Vista and for casual gaming. The GV-RH uses the nVIDIA GeForce 7300 GS chipset, which, although it is no speed demon, is perfectly adequate for Vista and light gaming.

  • We wanted to keep the price below $100, and ideally below $50.

We chose the Gigabyte GV-RH based on those criteria. (Note that the RH on the end of the product number is significant; Gigabyte also sells a GV-NX73 model without the RH postfix that lacks HDTV support.) Your priorities may differ from ours. Choose accordingly.

6.4.6. Hard Disk Drive

Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 ST3750640AS 750GB (two) (http://www.seagate.com)

Hard drive capacity, performance, noise level, and reliability are critical for a media center PC system.


Capacity

The most obvious consideration is capacity. Depending on the characteristics of the video stream and the compression type used, standard-definition video eats disk space at a rate of 700 MB to 5 GB per hour. At the low end, 700 MB/hour stores only VHS-quality video. We'll probably want to store most of what we record at DVD quality, which means we have to plan for the 2.5 to 5 GB/hour rate that typical DVD-quality SD video streams require. That means 100 GB of disk space translates to only 20 to 40 hours of video storage. Recording HDTV is even more demanding. Depending on capture resolution and compression method, one hour of HDTV may consume up to 30 GB of disk space.

We also need to store more than just video. The media center PC will also store and serve CD audio discs ripped and compressed in OGG or MP3 format at a high-quality setting or FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec). OGG and MP3 use variable bit-rate compression, but it's safe to assume that an average audio CD will require at least 150 MB of storage space when compressed at a quality level acceptable to us, and FLAC requires even more disk space. Barbara has several hundred CDs she'll want to rip, which may require another 100 GB or more of storage space.


Performance

Hard drive performance is another important criterion. The media center PC will spend much of its time idling, but at times it may need to do many things simultaneously, such as record one video stream while playing back another while also serving an audio stream. Accordingly, large cache and fast rotation rate are important. On that basis, we concluded that we needed a 7,200 RPM hard drive with an 8 MB or larger buffer.

SLOW AND STEADY

Dedicated PVRs like the TiVo often use 5,400 RPM drives with small buffers, but they're able to use such slow drives only because they are doing a limited number of things simultaneously.



Noise level

Modern 7,200 RPM hard drives differ greatly in noise level. Seagate Barracuda models are the quietest drives available that have acceptable performance.


Reliability

Seagate drives are extremely reliable, but even so we were concerned about the possibility of drive failure. As Barbara sometimes points out, Robert has to sleep sometime, and the thought of losing a week's or a month's worth of stored programs to a drive failure was not a pleasant one. Our first thought was to install two Serial ATA drives and mirror them using RAID 1. The obvious downside to that is that mirroring cuts drive capacity in half, and we need all the capacity we can get.

Then we realized we already had a solution. The media center PC system will be connected to our internal network and, via our firewall, to the Internet. It has to be connected so that it can download program guide updates, periodically reset its clock against an SNTP time server, and so on. We have literally terabytes of disk spinning elsewhere on our network, so it'd be easy enough to set up a cron job to periodically check the media center PC hard drives and copy any new files to a hard drive elsewhere on the network. Problem solved.

ALTERNATIVES: HARD DISK DRIVE

None, really. The Seagate 750 GB drives are huge, fast, quiet, and extremely reliable. At the time we built this system, there were no other drives available that came even close to matching the combination of desirable characteristics of the Seagate Barracuda drives.


We concluded that we wanted at least 1000 GB (1 TB) of available drive space on the media center PC system, and more would be better. The Antec Fusion case we chose has two hard drive bays, so the obvious decision was to install two of the largest high-performance hard drives available. On that basis, we chose two Seagate Barracuda SATA 750 GB drives.

RAID 0

With two hard drives, we have the option of using RAID 0 striping for increased disk performance. We don't expect to need it, but many commercial Windows MCE PCs use RAID 0, presumably for good reason. Our testing has shown the RAID 0 has little or no real performance benefit on typical desktop systems, but is useful on servers that experience heavy disk access. In some respects, the disk access patterns of a media center PC more resemble a server than a desktop PC, so we'll leave the RAID 0 option open.

At first glance, it might appear that we can't use RAID on this system. The Intel D946GZIS motherboard does not include Intel Matrix RAID, and we have no free slots to add a RAID controller. Fortunately, both Windows and Linux provide software RAID 0 support. Software RAID is a bit slower than Intel Matrix RAID or RAID implemented with a dedicated RAID controller, but it should be more than fast enough for our purposes.


6.4.7. Optical Drive

NEC ND-3550A DVD writer (http://www.necam.com)

At $35 or so, DVD writers are so inexpensive nowadays that it's senseless to install any other type of optical drive. The optical drive in the media center PC is used for everything from loading software to watching DVDs to writing recorded programs to a burnable DVD for archiving, so it's important to choose a reliable model that supports all of the types of media you want to read and write.

We chose the NEC ND-3550A DVD writer for the media center PC, but any similar model from BenQ, Lite-On, NEC, Pioneer, or Plextor would serve as well. The Antec Fusion case has a universal optical drive door that hides the front bezel of the optical drive, so there's no need to match the color of the optical drive to the case.

WHAT ABOUT HD-DVD OR BLU-RAY?

We considered installing a high-capacity HD-DVD or Blu-Ray optical drive in the media center PC, but decided to bide our time. This system has the bandwidth and processor power to handle these new-generation drives, but the drives are still extremely expensive and there are few titles available on HD-DVD or Blu-Ray discs. Also, there's the small matter that when HD-DVD or Blu-Ray wins the war, the other will be orphaned. We have no intention of spending $1,000 on an optical drive that may become useless in a year or two.

Also, it's unclear to us at this point exactly what DRM hardware would be required to allow a PC-based media center system to play high-capacity discs, if indeed that is possible at all. Presumably, a PC-based media center system would require at least full HDMI/HDCP support, which is not yet available on the PC platform. It may also require Trusted Platform Module (TPM) support "married" to the optical drive and video subsystem.

So we decided to ignore high-capacity DVD for now. Eventually, the price of HD-DVD and Blu-Ray optical drives will fall into the $50 range and blank discs to $0.50 apiece, by which time "DVD Jon" Johansen will have cracked the encryption used by HD-DVD and Blu-Ray discs. We'll wait until those things happen before we install any type of high-capacity optical drive in this system.


6.4.8. Keyboard and Mouse

Logitech diNovo Media Desktop (http://www.logitech.com)

The type of keyboard and mouse you need for a media center PC depends on how you use the system. If you don't intend to use it as a standard PCfor example, for checking email, browsing the Web, or playing gamesyou need a keyboard and mouse only for initial system configuration and infrequent changes to the system. All other functions are handled with the remote control via the "10-foot interface" of MythTV or whatever PVR application you're running.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Many media center PC owners leave an inexpensive wired mouse and keyboard connected to the system, stored on top of or behind the case. Alternatively, you can temporarily connect a keyboard and mouse to front-panel USB ports when you need them, and store them elsewhere when you don't.


Although we won't do much serious gaming on our media center PC, we do intend to use it for browsing the Web, checking email, and similar tasks. That meant we needed a cordless keyboard and mouse that would work reliably at across-the-room distances. Most cordless keyboards and mice have very short range, a meter or so at most. There are some long-range keyboard/mouse combos available, intended for corporate presentations and similar functions, but those we looked at cost several hundred dollars.

The best option we found was the Logitech diNovo Media Desktop. At $140 or so street price, this isn't an inexpensive desktop combo, but it is ideal for a media center PC. Logitech claims a range of up to 60 feet. We didn't test at anything like that distance, but the diNovo Media Desktop does work reliably at the 10- to 15-foot ranges typically needed for a media center PC.

6.4.9. Speakers

Home audio speakers: Logitech Z-5500 speaker system (http://www.logitech.com)

Most people who build a media center PC install it in their home entertainment center and connect the PC audio outputs to their receiver or amplifier. Obviously, if you already have a good receiver and speakers, you might as well use them.

Of course, not everyone has a suitable receiver and speaker set. When we built the Home Theater PC system for the first edition of this book, we'd decided to move our elderly JVC receiver and speakers to the downstairs guest suite and replace them with a high-power PC speaker system. At that time, the best PC speaker set available was the Logitech Z-680 5.1 speaker system, which we used.

Logitech has since replaced the Z-680 with the Z-5500, which has similar specifications and equal sound quality. The street price of the Z-5500 is $260 or so, about half the price of a traditional home audio receivers and speakers with comparable power and sound quality. The Z-5500 incorporates four satellite speakers for left/right and front/rear audio, a center-channel speaker, and an LFE (low-frequency emitter) subwoofer. The satellite speakers are rated at 62W RMS each, the center-channel speaker at 69W RMS, and the LFE at a massive 188W RMS, for a total RMS output of 505W.

PEAK VERSUS RMS

Two methods are commonly used to specify the output power of amplifiers. Peak Power is often specified for computer speakers, particularly inexpensive ones, but is essentially meaningless. Peak Power specifies maximum instantaneous power an amplifier can deliver, but says nothing about how much power it can deliver continuously. The RMS (Root Mean Square) Power rating is more useful because it specifies how much power the amplifier can deliver continuously.


The Z-5500 speaker system includes Dolby Digital and DTS hardware decoding and is THX certified. We confess that we don't understand what all that means, but our audiophile friends tell us those are Good Things. And, although admitting it may label us as audio barbarians, we have to say that the audio from our older Z-680 speaker system sounds as good to us as anything else we've listened to, and the Z-5500 audio quality is just as good. If the Z-5500 speaker set is a bit expensive for your budget, consider the Z-5300e, which costs less than half as much, provides 280W RMS total power, and has very good sound quality.

YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY

One of our technical reviewers makes a good point. He writes:

"Speakers are probably the most subjective elements of the system. While I certainly have no argument with your selection there are many fine alternatives in the same price range. It's also an area where more dollars doesn't always mean better performance or better sound. I think it appropriate to urge readers to make the effort to personally audition speakers where possible rather than rely solely on reviews and recommendations... and given that room interactions play such a major role in speaker performance they should buy from an outlet with a liberal return policy."


Table 6-2 summarizes our component choices for the media center PC system.

Table 6-2. Bill of materials for media center PC

Component

Product

Case

Antec Fusion

Power supply

Antec 430W (included)

Processor

Intel Core 2 Duo E6400

Motherboard

Intel D946GZIS

Memory

Kingston KHX6400D2LLK2/2G 2GB PC6400 DDR2 Memory Kit (1 GB x 2)

Video adapter

Gigabyte GV-NX73G128D-RH GeForce 7300GS

SDTV tuner card

Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-500 (dual tuner)

HDTV tuner card

pcHDTV HD-5500

Hard drives

Seagate ST3750640AS Barracuda 7200.10 750 GB Serial ATA (two)

Optical drive

NEC ND-3550A DVD+R/RW writer

Keyboard and mouse

Logitech diNovo Media Desktop

Speakers

Home audio speakers or Logitech Z-5500 speaker system


When we built this system in August 2006, the total component cost was under $2,000, excluding speakers. Every commercial Windows MCE system we looked at in the $2,800 range had specifications that were noticeably inferior to our configuration.

A typical $2,800 commercial MCE system used a Pentium D processor rather than a Core 2 Duo, had half as much and slower memory, and only a fifth to a third as much disk space. Most $2,800 MCE systems had dual tuners, usually two analog models, but sometimes one analog and one digital. Eyeballing it, we concluded that we could have effectively matched the performance and functionality of a typical $2,800 commercial MCE system for about $1,400. Clearly, MCE systems are high-margin products.

Those systems did, of course, come with Windows MCE preinstalled and pre-configured. For someone who wants a turnkey system, it may be worth paying the 50% to 100% price premium for a commercial MCE system. But if you're willing to get your hands dirty, you can build your own media center PC for a lot less money, and end up with a better, more flexible, and much more reliable system.




Building the Perfect PC
Building the Perfect PC, Second Edition
ISBN: 0596526865
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2006
Pages: 84

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