Building an Entertainment PC: The Guts

The HTPC GutsFor Jess’ graduation, I told her I’d put together an entertainment PC for her so she could Tivo (that’s a verb now) shows, organize music, watch DVD’s etc. She graduated back in May and I’ve been putting off buying the pieces until just last week when Intel dropped their processor prices. Everything showed up via UPS last Friday so I starting putting the pieces together. At this point, the computer itself is functional, but the entertainment portion still needs a good deal of tweaking. I plan on updating my progress on the software side of things as they progress. I thought I’d start with laying out the hardware that went into this baby.

The Guts:
The guts are your pretty standard PC parts. I went with an Intel Pentium D 940 dual core processor. That processor was pretty much determined for me by the case that I chose (more about that later). Ram is 1Gb (512Mb x 2) DDR2 SDRAM (nothing special there). I grabbed a Maxtor 200Gb hard drive and an IO Magic DVD+-R DL burner at Staples earlier in the summer for a pretty good deal with rebates. Nothing too out of the ordinary there… just your everyday computer components.

Capture Card:
For the capture card, I went with the Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-150 l.p. card since the Hauppauge cards are usually the most recommended TV tuner/capture cards out there. I needed the low profile (l.p.) version of the card specifically for the case (again more about that later) that I chose.

Input:
For this computer to be functional in a living room setting, I needed to find a keyboard/mouse that was wireless and wasn’t too intrusive sitting on a coffee table. I did a lot of digging and found there aren’t a whole lot of options out there for HTPC keyboard/mouse combos. I ended up going with the Microsoft Remote Keyboard/Mouse for Windows Media Center Edition. I’m not planning on running Windows MCE, but really liked the layout of this keyboard. My favorite part (and the hardest thing to find in a keyboard) is the built in mouse button in the upper right. So, this is the only thing you need sitting in front of the TV. There is no need for a wireless keyboard and a mouse. I read some reviews about the mouse button being difficult to use, but wasn’t too worried since if things worked the way they were supposed to work there wouldn’t be too much need for mouse control. I’ll admit once I got it up and running it was a little awkward at first, but after a few days I’ve got it down. I did need to download the MCE Rollup 2 to get this working in XP Pro.

The Case:
rear leftThe case is the thing that makes this computer. I’ve been scouring reviews and HTPC sites all summer trying to find a nice case for this computer. There are a lot of companies out there that make HTPC cases. Some are nice, and some are just huge (definitely not something I’d want in my entertainment center)! I knew going into this that wanting a small case, might lead to sacrifices in other areas of the computer. The case I ended up going with wasn’t just a case, but a full bare bones system with a lot of bells and whistles. I chose the Aopen EPC945-m8 which turned out to be a really nice rig, though a bit of a bear to set up. The thing about the EPC945-m8 that sold me was the size and look. It really looks like it belongs in your entertainment center. It has a lot of nice features built in as well. Front of the epc caseIt comes with the IR port built in (no ugly USB ports to deal with) and includes an MCE remote control. It’s got on-case controls, along with an up-front display. There is a built-in flash card reader. Also the motherboard has a good number of built-in extras as well. It’s got surround sound audio with several optical out ports (in addition to your typical mini-plug ports). It includes several options for video as well with Intel cards. These aren’t your high end gaming cards, but I have a desktop for gaming and really wasn’t planning on playing games on this machine. The included cards provide standard vga out along with a DVI port, composite RGB ports, and an s-video port. That pretty much covered everything I needed for now.

As I put this together, I took a lot of photos that are available in a Flickr set with notes associated for more information. The problems I ran into were mainly due to the small size of this case. It’s not easy to stuff so much hardware into such a little space. It all fit, but there were some pretty tight areas. The drive cage that holds the optical drive on top and the hard drive on the bottom all the gutswas a bit difficult to get together. The cables (power and data) have to be stretched just right to make them reach the ports on the drives. It didn’t help matters that I had a bad hard drive to start things out and had to do an exchange to get one that worked. The included processor fan is another added bonus. It’s a heatpipe quiet fan system that is actually very quiet. You really don’t hear the thing at all. The only time I notice any real noise coming out of it is when the DVD drive is spinning and a little bit when the hd clicks. One other little issue has popped up has to do with how the machine handles video out. I started with it plugged into a standard computer monitor with the VGA port to get everything installed. Once the OS was on there, I moved it to the living room to hook it to a TV to make sure I could view it on the TV. It didn’t work at first, but all of a sudden I started getting a signal using the S-video out. Seeing that everything worked, I wanted to move it back to the monitor (since it’s a lot easier to see) to finish tweaking software etc. I couldn’t get it to move back to the VGA out. I found a little hidden entry in the FAQ that said you have to hit Ctrl+Alt+F1 to swap between the video ports (which wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the somewhat lacking documentation included with the case). Outside of a few difficulties due to the case size and routing stuff around the inside, and the video out thing (which works fine now) I’m very happy with this thing.

Check out my HTPC Flickr Set for more images and information.

Software:
For the software that runs on this baby I’m still playing around with a lot of stuff. I’m planning on going with Meedio which was recently purchased by Yahoo to control the HTPC portion. I’ve got Sage TV for the Tivo-like functionality, and probably some other odds and ends to be figured out later. There is still a lot of fine tuning to do with the software before this thing is ready to roll. I’ll post again down the road a bit when I’m able to get all that worked out.

11 Comments

gravatar Gary

Hey – randomly came across your blog and read this post. I’m working on my own PVR and would recommend MediaPortal (Open Source) (http://www.team-mediaportal.com/). Haven’t installed it yet, but I’ve ready many reviews. Only downside is its Windows requirement.

gravatar Scott

I looked at MediaPortal (and have been watching that project for a while). From what I’ve tried (and that hasn’t been the super-newest version), it’s still a bit unstable. I may move to MediaPortal down the road a bit when it matures. Especially with Meedio being purchased by Yahoo and (at least from their initial release) sending it downhill, it’s good to have a backup. 🙂

gravatar Scott

I just did some more looking and it looks like MediaPortal has matured a good deal since the last time I checked it out. It looks to be much more stable. The thing that I don’t like about MediaPortal is that (from what I can tell) you can’t customize the menus like you can in Meedio. Meedio lets you put whatever you want wherever you want it, MediaPortal seems to be locked down to their menu hierarchy only really allowing you to put extra modules into the “plugins” category which could easily get overcrowded. Still worth keeping an eye on though.

gravatar Matt Fiddelke

Hmmm, I can’t say that I’m shocked you went the windows route. The little while I used freevo I liked the layout. Everyone else in the world seems to use MythTV but from what I’ve heard the TV episodes are recorded in a less then standard format. As for your hardware choices I approve. Awesome case. Looks great. Only other gripe… I may of gotten a little better video card, if not for gaming for better decoding/encoding of H264 etc. Overall it looks good, and I would approve of having one in my house. My NEW house. How about it?! 🙂

gravatar Scott

@Matt: You write me a nice big check to pay for the pieces, and I’ll be more than happy to build you one for your NEW house. I’ve played with Freevo and MythTV too, but for simplicity sake, a Windows solution just works better (much easier to configure and get running). Plus it’s a lot easier to find software and plug-ins for a Windows machine. As for the video card, it could easily be an expansion down the road a bit. IF I ever switch/upgrade to HDTV (and get a TV that supports it) I’ll most likely upgrade the video card to something a little more powerful. So far it’s running pretty smoothly with what I’ve got.

gravatar TimothyP

I have the exact same case, but it’s anything but quiet 🙁

Haven’t been able to “control” the LCD under linux either.

gravatar Scott

@TimothyP
This case has actually done a nice job! It is pretty quiet most of the time. It only gets loud when there is heavy duty processing happening, like converting video formats, which I usually have it do overnight so I don’t even hear it. I’ve still not been able to control the LCD panel. From what I’ve read, the only hooks to it are through Media Center… which I’m not touching!

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