Set-top boxes, games consoles and dedicated streaming appliances have their charms. But with a media PC you can watch, record and pause live TV; maintain a huge local library of movies and music; access email@example.com services such as iPlayer, YouTube and Spotify; play DVDs and CDs; and enjoy all types of games and applications on the big screen.
In this feature, we’ll guide you through the process of assembling – or buying – a media centre PC, and choosing accessories. We’ll also explore the various software packages on offer.
REPURPOSING AN OLD PC
If you’re a computing enthusiast, you may have an old desktop PC that can be turned into a media centre. Even a laptop might do, so long as it has a graphics connector that will plug into your TV. You don’t need a powerful specification: an old Core 2 Duo processor with 2GB of RAM is ample. Your old PC may even already have Windows Media Center installed.
Repurposing, however, raises several issues. Old hardware is likely to draw more power than a dedicated appliance or a custom-built media PC. Desktop PCs can also be intrusively big and noisy, and even a laptop may have a very audible fan. On a desktop system, you can reduce noise by investing in a third-party CPU fan; disabling case fans; and, if you have a powerful graphics card, replacing it with a passively cooled model.
On the subject of graphics: HDMI conveniently carries audio and video in one cable. However, you may get a better picture if you set your television to “PC” mode or enable one-to-one pixel mapping – if it’s supported by your TV. On some televisions, this is available only over an analogue VGA connection.
You’ll also want a TV tuner and a remote control, and if you plan to build up a large local library, you may want to upgrade the storage. We’ll discuss accessories and upgrades below.
BUILDING A NEW MEDIA PC
If you want to build your own media centre, you can use generic parts to produce a cheap, expandable system; or you can invest in a system designed to be compact and quiet.
A microATX motherboard provides all the necessary connections, and can be used with an affordable mini-tower case. A few manufacturers, including Antec and Silverstone, make cases designed to look like hi-fi components or set-top boxes, often with integrated low-noise power supplies.
Unless you want to play 3D games on your media PC, there’s no need to spend more than $150 on a processor and motherboard. A low-end AMD “Llano” chip, such as the A4-3400, has more than enough graphical power for smooth video. Intel’s dual-core Celeron G540 is equally capable of everyday media tasks, thanks to its integrated HD graphics. We’d steer clear of the bottom-end Celeron G440, though: its single-core architecture could leave you with sluggish performance and stuttering video.
If you want something more compact, manufacturers such as AOpen and Shuttle specialise in small-form-factor chassis and motherboards, into which you slot your choice of components. This costs a little more, though: Shuttle’s SH61R4 is an attractively diminutive cube, but it costs $230 without a CPU.
Alternatively, you could assemble a compact system based on a mini-ITX motherboard with an embedded processor. A miniature board with one of AMD’s dual-core E350 processors costs around $150: it isn’t as powerful as Llano, but the onboard GPU can cope with HD video.
Intel’s Atom processors lack these video capabilities, so we recommend you pick an Nvidia Ion model, which adds a discrete GPU. But such boards are typically more expensive than AMD models, and desktop performance is worse, making the E350 a better fit.
Whichever you go with, there’s a range of cases on offer, from manufacturers including Lian Li and Thermaltake. Pick a case with an integrated power supply, as it may be difficult to find a supply to fit a compact case.
Besides the core components, you’ll need memory and a hard disk. 2GB of RAM is ample, although it doesn’t cost much to upgrade to 4GB. When it comes to storage, ordinarily we’d recommend a 2TB internal drive, to hold the OS and a generous media library. However, prices have spiked recently, after flooding in Thailand last October caused a serious interruption in production. It might make sense to start with a small disk (or a repurposed one), and add a second in a few months’ time when prices fall. To keep noise to a minimum, consider a low-speed drive, such as a Western Digital Caviar Green model. For absolute silence, choose an SSD – but that’s a very expensive way to store large video files.
You can also add external storage: if your system supports it, we recommend a USB 3 drive, as USB 2 can be sluggish when it comes to finding and previewing media files.
Lastly, an optical drive makes sense for a media PC. Blu-ray drives are available for around $50, but you need additional software to watch Blu-ray discs on your PC: look for a drive that comes with a player application.
NEXT PAGE: Media accessories, dedicated media centres, media centre software, operating systems.
You’ll probably want a TV tuner for your media PC, and it’s also worth investing in a Windows Media Center remote control. The control unit and receiver together should come to less than $50, and will work with almost all media software – not only Windows Media Center – enabling you to navigate menus, change the volume and play, pause and skip media from the comfort of your armchair.
If you want to use sites such as YouTube, however, the Media Center remote is no substitute for a real mouse and keyboard. Several companies sell convenient wireless keyboards with built-in touchpads.
Finally, if you really want the “home theatre” experience, consider an external speaker system. Even cheap motherboards support 5.1 audio, if not 7.1. If you’re using HDMI, go into the Control Panel and manually switch to the right audio output device.
DEDICATED MEDIA CENTRES
If you’re willing to pay, there are once again two approaches you can take. One is to invest in a lightweight nettop-type system; the other is to spring for a full-powered media PC.
Nettops have never been overly popular in Australia, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with the basical concept. Desktop performance won’t be super-snappy, and optical drives and additional storage will probably have to be connected externally; but the overall package should still be compact and quiet. Again, an AMD E350-based system is the obvious choice. Steer clear of Atom-based designs, unless they’re supported by a discrete GPU.
At the other end of the scale, chunky Core i3-based media centre PCs are usually solid pieces of hardware, if a little space intensive.
Sometimes a compact business desktop can make a good media centre: just plug in an external TV tuner and you’re good to go. But the priorities of the office and the front room aren’t exactly identical. For example, we’ve found that certain compact desktop systems look nigh-perfect on paper as the core of a media centre, but in use the fan can be quite noisy.
A more persuasive candidate is the Apple Mac mini, which is compact, powerful and almost silent. Frustratingly, though, the latest model lacks an optical drive – and Apple has discontinued its Front Row media centre application. The Mac mini isn’t cheap, with prices starting at $699. But this isn’t unusual for this corner of the market: there are a few dedicated media centre PC offerings that cost distinctly more than that.
MEDIA CENTRE SOFTWARE
Regular desktop media applications such as Windows Media Player and iTunes aren’t designed to be used from the comfort of the sofa. What’s wanted is a media manager with a so-called “ten-foot” user interface.
The obvious choice is Windows Media Center, although this is only available in the Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate editions of Windows 7, plus the Home Premium and Ultimate editions of Vista.
JRiver Media Center is a commercial alternative that matches Windows Media Center’s features: download a 30-day trial from www.jriver.com; if you like what you find, you can buy a licence for US$50.
There are free options for Windows too. The open-source XBMC and MediaPortal can be downloaded from http://xbmc.org and www.team-mediaportal.com respectively. These packages do everything Windows Media Center does and more, thanks to the skins and plugins available, but neither feels as polished. For example, XBMC requires a separate TV server to be installed to support live TV; and when we tried to install MediaPortal, the installation failed with a cryptic MySQL error.
Another free option was Boxee (www.boxee.tv), which could be used with dedicated hardware or installed on your PC as a standalone application. Boxee now is only available on the D-Link Boxee box, which is certainly an excellent option for people looking to buy a media device rather than build their own.
OTHER OPERATING SYSTEMS
If you want to run a media centre in OS X, you don’t have many options. If your Mac is running Snow Leopard or an older version of the OS, you can stick with the discontinued Front Row application. Otherwise there’s Boxee, XBMC or the free Plex application, available from www.plexapp.com. Plex has some neat features, including the ability to stream video to iOS and Android devices; but it’s currently in beta, so expect buggy behaviour.
It’s also possible to run a media centre entirely on open-source software. Linux is a particularly good choice for a repurposed PC, as it runs smoothly on older hardware. And there are numerous free media managers available, including a Linux version of XBMC.
Linux has limitations as a media centre OS. There’s no native support for Blu-ray discs, so HD media must be ripped to your hard disk before it can be played. Driver support is more limited than for Windows, so you may not get the best from your graphics, audio or TV tuner hardware. And Flash for Linux isn’t as stable or mature, which can cause difficulty with services such as ABC iView.
The good news is that you can try out a Linux-based media centre painlessly, by downloading a “live” media manager distribution that runs directly from a CD or USB stick. The XBMC website offers a downloadable ISO to try: it’s based on Ubuntu, but the operating system is kept entirely in the background, so in use it feels like using a set-top box. It’s terrifically slick, but to set up advanced features such as live TV you’ll need to install the system to your hard disk and configure a separate live TV server.
Another option is Mythbuntu, another distribution based on Ubuntu – but this one only supports viewing and recording live TV, and not local media management.
NEXT PAGE: Speed & Security tips, tweaking Windows Media Centre, TV on your PC.
SPEED AND SECURITY
To help your media play smoothly, you want as few background processes running as possible. If you’re repurposing a Windows PC, uninstall unnecessary applications and use the msconfig.exe tool to disable unneeded services and startup items.
On OS X, go to the Users & Groups preferences and untick unwanted Login Items. On Ubuntu, open the Dash and type “Startup Applications” to find the relevant settings. Don’t skimp on security, though. Install an antivirus package and allow Windows Update to run automatically. Pick a time like 5am, so it won’t interrupt your TV viewing, and schedule security scans for similar times, so they won’t interfere with video playback.
You could also turn UAC to its highest setting, and log in under a standard user account, rather than an Administrator account. This will make it more difficult for unwanted software to inveigle its way onto your system without your knowledge.
TV ON YOUR PC
If you want to watch TV programmes on your PC, there are several web-based catch-up services. The MSN Video Player, built into Media Center, offers a wide range ofon-demand episodes. Other media centre applications offer their own libraries. However, if you want to watch, pause and record live TV on your media centre you’ll need a TV tuner. This can be external – a small stick or box connected via USB – or internal, in the form of a PCI or PCI Express card.
Some tuners come with a miniature antenna; for best results opt for a rooftop aerial.A DVB-T (Freeview) tuner should cost less than $50; some internal cards feature dual tuners, so you can record one channel while watching another. Or, you can get the same effect by installing more than one tuner.
Some modern tuners support DVB-T2, also known as Freeview HD. This supports five free-to-air, high-definition channels, with more to come over the next few years. The amount of data being processed is much greater than standard DVB-T transmissions, but the first DVB-T2 devices give smooth, sharp video even on AMD and Ion nettop hardware.
TWEAKING WINDOWS MEDIA CENTRE
Media Center works out of the box, but a few tweaks can improve the experience. For a start, Media Center doesn’t recognise the popular Matroska Video (MKV) format. You can fix this by installing the Shark007 codec pack from http://shark007.net. This will also install some configuration tools: you can normally ignore these, but if the sound on your videos is too quiet, you can apply extra gain here.
Another free update worth installing is TunerFree MCE, from www.tunerfree.tv. It’s set up with UK and US users in mind, but New Zealand and Australian users can make use of TunerFree MCE by installing plug-ins to add support for domestic TV channels, including ABC, TVNZ and RTE.
Lastly, if your HTPC is configured to share files with your home network, you’ll probably have a password set, which means each time your PC starts up you have to type in your credentials. To log in automatically to Windows 7, open the Start menu and enter “control userpasswords2” to open the window shown below (if this doesn’t work, enter “netplwiz” instead). Select the account that you want to log in by default, then untick “Users must enter a username and password to use this computer”. Click OK and confirm your password. In future, your PC will boot straight into Windows