Posted on Friday, October 20, 2006 at 9:02 am
Oh, man, seriously. I’ve tried to write this post like four or five times, and every single time something screws up when I’m like halfway through. Maybe this one will be the one that finally gets posted. Here’s hoping.
So, yeah, me and Scott forgot to take build pictures like I said I would. My bad. But if you’re actually reading and following this guide, my guess is you’ve already built a computer before, so it won’t be that troublesome for you not to have pictures. Anyhoo, this part will focus on some additional things I forgot to mention before, as well as the operating system woes I’ve experienced. And Part Three will discuss all the extra software you’ll need to install to actually have a fully-functional media center.
First and foremost, contrary to what I’d been hoping for, this computer was unfortunately inadequate to run Vista. There are a couple reasons for this, probably. For one, Vista (and its accompanying media center app) is very graphics heavy, but it’s also very memory hungry. When I allocated 128mb of the total 1gb RAM to the onboard video card (leaving 896mb for the rest of the system), the system itself ran fine, but the live TV feed in Media Center was choppy and stuttery, because the onboard graphics couldn’t keep up with everything it was trying to do. Then when I tried giving the video 256mb (768 left for the system), the video cleaned up to a degree, but the rest of the system was slow. What we learn from this is that, for best results, Vista needs a real, discrete video card, rather than an onboard chip with shared memory. And since our little barebones kit doesn’t have an AGP or PCIe port, a discrete video solution is not viable.
Another possible issue is that, when it comes right down to it, Vista in its current form is still pre-release. They haven’t gotten its performance to the point where it will be come January. And currently, there aren’t any decent tweak guides for it that I could find. It could very well end up being perfectly adequate once Vista goes RTM, but the version I’ve got just isn’t going to cut it.
So this leaves us with installing either (a) Linux, (b) Windows XP Media Center Edition, or (c) normal Windows XP with a third-party media center app. I chose the second option, since most of the third-party apps didn’t look nearly as polished and easy as MCE was going to be. You can pick up an OEM version of Media Center Edition 2005 from Newegg for about $110 (just remember that OEM versions require you to purchase some sort of hardware at the same time… if you’ve already bought the rest of your hardware beforehand, buy a cheap-ass mouse or a power cord or something and that will satisfy the EULA Nazis).
Now, before you start trying to install the OS, let me make one thing clear. Your life will be MUCH MUCH easier if you’ve got an actual computer monitor that you can plug this thing into during the installation process. Computers were not necessarily made to output to a TV screen. TV screens use rectangular pixels (as opposed to square pixels on actual monitors). This makes everything very distorted and blurry. MCE itself overcomes this limitation by purposely using a “10 foot interface” – that is, something visable and legible from 10 feet away. Huge text that is already optimized for a TV screen. But the installation process of Windows, and most of the other things you’ll need to install, are not built this way. Text is just about unreadable on a TV screen. If you’ve installed Windows as often as I have, you won’t have much of a problem because you already know exactly where everything is, and what everything says. But if you don’t have much experience installing an OS from scratch… please… get a real monitor for this part of the setup. It’s just that much less of a headache.
One thing to keep in mind when you’re installing the OS, is that it’s a great idea to split up your single hard drive into two partitions. While you’re in the pre-installer, it will give you a list of drives/partitions, with options to create and delete partitions and stuff. You’ll want to take advantage of this. I sized the first partition to 20gb (enter 20480 when it comes up, as 1gb in Windows-speak is actualy 1024mb, not 1000). This left about (effectively) 215gb for the rest of the hard drive. You’ll install Windows and all your requisite software on the first, small partition, and set up MCE to do all its recording to the large one. This will allow you to reformat the first part if necessary, without destroying all your recorded TV shows and any movie/music files you’ve uploaded onto the second part.
Now that you’ve got your partitions all set up, continue through the OS installation process as necessary. It will take awhile. This computer is not meant to be fast, so it’ll probably take you about 45 minutes to an hour from the time you press the power button to the time you actually get to a functional Windows desktop.
One more thing that I forgot to mention in my last post, is that you’re going to need some sort of network connectivity in order for MCE to download the TV guide listings – not to mention the myriad security patches that will take up several hours of your time when you’re first getting everything set up. The motherboard in the barebones kit does have onboard ethernet, so if this thing is close enough to your router (or if you’re alright with stringing a 50ft Cat5 cable across your house) you’re already good to go. But if it’s not, you’re going to need a WiFi card (and a WiFi router, obviously, if you don’t already have one). I had one sitting in a drawer somewhere, so I wasn’t expecting to need one, which is why I forgot about it earlier. As it turns out, it had been sitting in the drawer for too long, apparently, because it didn’t work – thus necessitating a quick trip to Fry’s. Given the intended purpose of this machine – not to mention its inherent limitations as far as gaming and everything goes – you don’t need a very good WiFi card. No need for anything fancy, you just need something that works. I found a D-Link card for $40, that came with a $20 mail-in rebate. Seriously, it doesn’t need to be good, it’s just gotta turn on.
Alright, well, I’ve gotten this far in the post without something catastrophic happening to my browser window, so I think it’s time I should probably quit while I’m ahead. Next time, like I said, I’ll talk about drivers and software and all that other fun stuff you’ll need to know to have an an actual functional replacement for TiVo. Till then…
Posted on Monday, October 16, 2006 at 12:31 pm
Due to a family emergency, I was MIA last week. I’d actually tried a couple times to post the second part of my DVR series, but my browser kept crapping out on me and after 3 attempts I finally just got sick of it and decided I’d wait till later. Anyway, yeah, I’ll get that out shortly, and things will return to normal. Carry on.
Posted on Tuesday, October 3, 2006 at 9:08 am
Yes, that’s right kids. For about the same price as the midrange TiVo plus 1.5 years worth of subscription fees, you can build your very own Digital Video Recorder with more capacity and the ability to play and burn DVDs of the shows you record. And by doing this, you won’t have to agree TiVo’s retarded terms of service, you won’t have to pay your cable company extra monthly fees to “rent” their co-branded DVR service, and you can probably even change the little “bloop” sound when you skip a commercial to something much more masculine – like, I dunno, a sound effect that says “FUCK THE MAN” or something. How cool would that be? Actually, that’s not a half bad idea. I think I’ll get on that…
Before we get into this, there are a couple issues that I should mention.
In order to cut costs (read: in order to get the expenditure approved by my better half), and so that the card will fit inside the small case without too much hassle, I’ve opted for a TV tuner card with a single tuner. This means that you get to watch and/or record only one show at a time. The workaround to this is to get a cable splitter (I’ve already got one floating around somewhere) – and send one cable line directly to your TV, and the other to your new DVR. So you can record a show on your DVR, while still being able to watch a second show through your TV itself.
Also, again to cut costs, the TV tuner I’ve chosen is a fairly basic 125-channel standard definition card. This means you’ll be able to use it flawlessly with a basic cable package (wherein the coax cable comes out of your wall and goes directly into the back of your TV), but it may take some extra work to make it compatible with a separate digital cable receiver box. Since I don’t have digital cable, nor the standalone receiver box associated with it, this isn’t a problem for me. And if at some point in the future I do end up subscribing to digital cable service, I can always upgrade the tuner later.
And finally, this guide assumes that you’ve already got an operating system to use with your box. I’m not going to overtly advocate piracy, so by this I mean you’re either going to use Linux, you’ve already got a copy of Windows XP floating around doing nothing, or (like me) you’ve got a copy of Vista RC1 that’s just itching to have its Media Center tested.
In short, the hardware listed below is meant to be an ideal setup for myself, but you may have other requirements that may alter the associated costs. With all that being said, let’s list the hardware you’ll need.
First, you’ll want a barebones kit. This comes with a case, and a pre-installed motherboard that’s made to fit the case. In my case, I’ve chosen the ASUS Pundit P1-PH1. There are three reasons I chose this: first, it’s one of the only barebones kits I could find that had onboard TV Out, which is important because it means you won’t need a separate video card or a more expensive tuner card. Second, it looks pretty. And third, it’s friggin’ cheap. $158.99.
Second, obviously, you’ll need a CPU and memory, since the barebones kit doesn’t include these. Given that we don’t expect to play games, and since the tuner card and the onboard video chipset will be handling the only resource-hungry functions we’re going to be using (namely, encoding and decoding a live TV stream), you can scrimp on these without too much trouble. I got a Celeron D 326 (2.53ghz) as my CPU, and a gig of DDR2 533 memory. I decided to go with a gig of memory, rather than a more paltry 512mb, because (a) I plan on putting Vista on this, and (b) the video card memory is shared with the system memory, so it needs a little more than the baseline so the onboard video can function. The processor and the memory cost $47.00 and $99.99, respectively.
Third, you’ll need a hard drive and a DVD drive. I chose a 250gb Western Digital hard drive ($67.99), and the NEC 3550a DVD/RW drive ($28.99). The barebones kit above has a nice drive cover that will go over the optical drive, so you don’t need to worry about the bezel color of the DVD burner. Typically beige drives are a buck or two cheaper than their black/silver counterparts, so here’s a way to save a couple bucks.
Finally, arguably the most important component given the intended purpose of this computer, is the TV Tuner card. I picked the Powercolor T55 tuner. It’s based on ATI’s Theater 550 Pro tuner chip, which has gotten excellent reviews, and at $69.99, it’s considerably cheaper than a card from Hauppauge with similar functionality. This card also has hardware-accelerated MPEG-4 encoding, which means it will record at a better quality. Gravy.
There’s only one thing left, and it’s little. For an additional $7.99, you should probably consider getting this audio cable, which takes the audio out from the back of your computer, and splits it up into the red and white RCA cords so you can plug it into your TV.
After shipping & handling, the total cost of everything comes to $506.24. Which ain’t bad at all, for a completely new computer built from scratch. Try going to Dell and seeing what you can get for $506. I bet it ain’t much.
If everything goes as planned, I should be receiving all these things on Friday or Saturday, at which point I will be enlisting the help of my buddy to put the thing together. We’ll take some pictures of the build process, and post them up here in Part Two. And finally, Part Three will encompass the software setup. So stay tuned.