Building a Media Center – Part 1

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The core mantra I try to stick to when building a Media Center is: KEEP IT SIMPLE. If something goes wrong, its likely to happen when you’re watching something you want to or when you’re showing off your cool Media Center to friends/family/spouse/potential-girlfriend/boyfriend.
Another secondary (But crucial!) rule I have is what I refer to as the ‘WAGs Test’ (WAGs meaning ‘Wives And Girlfriends’ for those who may be unaware). This isn’t meant to be a negative thing, but something I discovered when I handed the remote to somebody else (Not only women). I found that people got confused when faced with a device when they need to do more than just choose a channel feed.

With Media Centers, navigation can be confusing for those not used to the interface and/or system and the concept of browsing directory structures and/or folders, having ‘Apps’ in the Apps section and web feeds in the feeds section etc, can sometimes seem bewildering and overwhelming. This need not be so, as it provides a separation of the functions that a Media Center experience provides. You also don’t need to use all the features included, they’re just there if you want them. At the end of the day, we’re human beings and in being so we’re creatures of habit; We’ll boil our activities down to a few things we do well and often and sometimes try new things.

With those words in mind, lets begin!

Note: HTPC stands for Home Theatre Personal Computer (PC), which is basically more or less the same as what I and many others refer to as a Media Center PC. I thought I’d mention this as I use this term a few times, and it is often used in details on other sites (Shopping sites especially).

Build/Buy PC for use as a Media Center/HTPC:
I think this is the single most important decision to make when planning and building your Media Center. Why? Well the size, capability and even aesthetic of the PC that you physically use for the Media Center will determine where, what you can do with it. I’ll break this down further down but for example, there are many considerations when choosing the hardware. An ultra low-power machine with not-so-great integrated graphics will be able to drive different quality displays and file formats (Dont expect to play 1080p content from some old PC you had laying around for 5 years, unless you’re willing to invest a little into it).
Size: Remember that this is a PC that will be sat nearby your TV for some time and will be a lot more ‘visible’ than your desktop gaming system. Flashing lights and LEDs tend to be a no-no here as they get very distracting, especially when the lights are off and you’re watching an epic movie. It’s also worth considering buying or building a PC in a SFF (Small Form Factor) case. These can be the same size as an Xbox or PS3 and will slot neatly in between your current set top boxes and consoles if you have any. As an example, I currently use a HP dc7800 Ultra-Slim desktop (Details here) which fits perfectly under my TV, next to my Xbox. Its unobtrusive and blends in well, but an important consideration when choosing is the computing power required for your media.
Capability: This is where you want to consider a few other things like what formats of media you have or will have, what you’ll be watching and how its all hooked up to the Media Center system. The important things I personally look for and remember would be the format and capability of your TV. This is important, because I personally prefer use a 720p TV (Sony Bravia S Series) which I bought a few years back and serves me well even now. Why not 1080p? Its a personal choice; I find 1080 panels a little distracting because I focus on the detail rather than what I’m watching. Also if you watch older TV shows or media that has to be scaled upto 1920×1080 resolution, sometimes it can look odd (Which, again, is distracting to me) so I prefer a 720p panel for my personal use but its a personal choice. However, the glory and satisfaction that can be had from watching a Blu-Ray or 1080p media file on a 1080p TV is something that inspires awe in me. Remember that higher resolution requires higher bit-rates also, which in turn require a more powerful Processor(CPU)/Graphics(GPU) combination as well as more RAM. My current HP system has a Core2duo 2Ghz CPU, an Intel x4500 Integrated GPU as well as 3GB RAM, which I would consider a bare minimum unless you are recycling older hardware in which case your mileage may vary. Anything with an AM3 AMD processor or Intel Core i3/i5 is more than capable. I wouldnt say lots of RAM is required, but 2GB would be a minimum for any Media Center.
Aesthetics: Aesthetics are important due to the simple fact that you’ll be staring at the Media Center quite a lot. To most consumers, a Media Center gets lumped in with set top boxes and other ‘under-TV’ devices. Again, going back to the issue of size, a tower PC stands out and spoils the living room aesthetic. It very much depends on the individual preferences, mainly if you care about having a tower PC sat next to your TV.

Building a PC for use as a Media Center/HTPC:
Building a Media Center from parts can be a very rewarding but expensive process. Considering much of what’s important as when buying a PC for Media Center use, the basis of your Media Center build becomes the case to put it all in. Here there are a lot of options, like some cases that have integrated LCD panels in the front or others that have enough space for multiple TV cards and full-size optical drives.
As with building any PC, the most important thing to consider is what you want to do with the machine when you get/build it, so it’s not really a ‘one size fits all’ situation, but it is made easier if you consider that we’re looking at building a Media Center which is specific enough considering everything else.
The basic components to consider when building a Media Center:
Case: There are many cases in this category, but the general running theme is that they are small-form desktop format boxes. Manufacturers have clearly gotten the hint that Media Centers are to be sat in a cabinet with the rest of the set-top hardware connected to a Television. Good examples of a HTPC case include the Antec Fusion & Antec Micro Fusion, Akasa Crypto ITX, Lian Li PC-C50B, Silverstone Sugo and the OcUK Phoenix 910 to get you started. There are many others.
Motherboard: It’s a given that if the case will be small, the motherboard will be smaller. The cases that I’ve mentioned above accommodate the Micro-ATX or Mini-ITX sized boards, depending on the particular case and model. Check carefully before buying.
Discrete/Onboard graphics: I’ve thought to mention this separately. When considering Media Center hardware, the graphics card can be crucial to the overall experience. This is due to certain cards providing video acceleration for video playback, allowing for weaker processors to be used. A good example of this would be the various motherboards that use the nVidia ION and ION2 chipset and the Intel Atom CPU (which is a very weak CPU in comparison to any standard desktop CPU). I also thought to mention this separately partly because some of the cases I have mentioned, and many other HTPC cases are designed in a way that will allow add-in graphics cards to be used. This can often be a more flexible and rewarding choice.

Sound device: The vast majority of onboard sound cards support the main audio standards that may be used, but again it is worth considering your realistic intended usage of your HTPC. In terms of connectivity, if you are outputting to 5.1 or 7.1 speakers you may be using optical, phono or triple mini-jacks. You may also be outputting via HDMI using PCM, DTS or a host of other formats. The truth is though that most people output to 2 or 2.1 speakers (2.1 = 2 speakers + subwoofer) and therefore this should not be an issue. Unless you are a real audiophile (In which case you’ll know exactly what your audio requirements are), it is not worth worrying about a separate/discrete sound card.

Remote/Keyboard: The amount and selection of remotes and keyboards available for HTPC use are vast and very varied.
I’ll try to update this with more keyboard recommendations.

Systems to consider if buying a PC:
Acer Revo series (Using nVidia ION graphics, cheap and effective)
Zotac ZBOX series (Also using nVidia ION, cheap and can be had with integrated Blu-Ray drives)
HP Ultra-Slim series (As I am currently using)
Dell Optiplex Ultra Small Form Factor

Other Systems to consider:
Boxee Box (Should be available now!)

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