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.