Building an HTPC (part 1)

I’ve owned a Topfield TF5800PVR PVR for some time, it’s been great, dual tuner, 160Gb drive, easy to use and you export the files via USB which can be burnt to DVD. Recently I have come across two problems:

1. I keep filling up the hard disk

2. Even though I export the files, they take so long to convert and burn to DVD I rarely bother, so I have GBs of external HDD space taken up storing programmes I may burn to DVD at some point

I also have a NAS (network attached storage) with some ripped DVDs, my photos and music on which no one else can really access, so I was thinking of creating/buying something to allow the rest of the family access these things from the TV. As I realised my problems and the device I was thinking of could both be solved by a media centre PC I started researching the options.

I had an old PC lying around anyway, and getting rid of old PCs is always a chore (for my last two I contacted a local IT charity that specialises in taking old hardware and re-using it, but never heard back from them, in the end they went to a friend’s son), so it seemed to make sense to convert it. I was aiming to make this on the cheap, to show you didn’t need a top-notch machine, to test the concept ahead of possibly building a top-of-the-line machine using all-new parts. My initial research suggested it was probably powerful enough, despite it’s age. Part of this desire to build a media centre PC (or an HTPC as they’re more commonly known, which stands for Home Theatre PC) was having not long had a copy of Vista which comes with Vista Media Centre (on Home Premium and Ultimate only). It was a great app and whet my appetite, although I knew Vista would not run on my old machine, so I went looking for alternatives.

As it turns out, there are plenty of media centre apps out there, some free and some commercial. Early on I decided I wanted to stick with Windows, as much as I have have heard good things about MythTV, I just wanted ready to spend time learning a new OS and run Linux. I was fine with buying some software, I figured it would be better quality. So my research led me to the likes of BeyondTV and SageTV, as well as free software like GB-PVR and Media Portal. At this point I came across a realisation, while I had read a lot of sites, forums, posts and blogs regarding what people had done with their media centres and what they recommended, they were overwhelmingly US-centric and dealt with analogue TV. Being based in the UK, naturally I wanted Freeview (free to air digital TV), which very few of the projects I saw did, so the cards they used and, as it turned out, most of the software, did not mention or support digital cards. The good news is that both of the free options did, so I was down to GB-PVR and Media Portal for the software.

Initial Setup and Testing

I figured I’d start simple to test the water, keep most of the existing hardware and just supplement it with require components so I could see if the project was feasible. The hardware I started with was:

  • Generic tower case
  • ATX motherboard (Asus A7N8X-X Socket A/462 – £54 back in 2003)
  • Quiet PSU (Zalman ZM300A-APF – £47 back in 2003)
  • Sound card (from an even older machine)
  • Processor (AMD “Barton” Athlon XP 2500+ 1.8Ghz – £66 back in 2003)
  • RAM (512Mb Crucial 184-pin DIMM – £54 back in 2003)
  • IBM Deskstar HDD (40Gb)

Checking the tuner card compatibility of both bits of software I settled on a Hauppauge Nova T 500 Dual Tuner (partly as Hauppauge seems to be used for many HTPC projects), to give me the option of recording two channels as with my existing PVR, I figured I could always add more later should I wish (most media centre software will support a number of cards, 11 is the highest number in any project I saw). The other benefit is this offer two tuners on one card, which means only one aerial lead and one PCI slot used. Freeview has the benefit of being transmitted in MPEG2, the same format used on DVDs, and the format most TV cards record in, so it saves having expensive hardware and load on the machine encoding the TV signals.

Next I needed a new graphics card as my existing one didn’t have a TV out. I figured I’d output to an HD TV, so something capable of supporting 720p or higher, with a DVI or HDMI output. I didn’t need anything too fancy, it wasn’t for games, so I settled on an XFX Geforce FX5700 Ultra 128MB with a DVI out as a cheap, capable card. Unfortunately, that went out of stock, so I changed to an Asus Nvidia FX 6200 (Nvidia seemed to edge out the ATI’s for cost and performance, plus my options were limited as I needed an AGP card).

I also wanted a remote and a wireless keyboard as I wanted this to be used by the family and they would want a remote. They keyboard would mean we could surf the internet or whatever from the couch too. I opted for the Microsoft MCE 2005 Remote and IR receiver, partly as it was quite cheap, partly because I figured it would have good support (both of the packages I would be using support it) and a Microsoft IR Media Keyboard, which makes use of the same IR receiver and looks pretty good, again, good value too. Worth noting is that the TV card came with a remote, which is also supported by both bits of software.

When they arrived I started putting it all together and that’s when the fun began.

Find part 2 here and part three here.