System Builder Marathon (Media PCs): Day 1

Today we build a low cost ($886) Media Center PC and cut corners to reduce its price to under $700. Tomorrow we'll do a top of the line model.
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  1. On the top of page 4 I think you left the price of the CPU out of the components :roll: and in the section below where the price got under $700 :?:
  2. Just a thought, and I have not looked... but are there tuner cards that combine HD and standard TV so you could free up a slot for better sound in a dsp card? Seems like there should be.

    Also, if you bought this and were waiting on an HD optical drive wouldn't it be better to get the much cheaper burner you used for the last marathon builds and keep the money saved to put to an HD format drive (or a better video card) later? Not meant as an argument against what you chose, just thinking "out loud".

    Good stuff overall though.
  3. I say use the 360's HD-DVD drive
  4. A much better article than your other HTPC articles. This is because in this article, you actually focus more on what is actually required for the task, than getting the best overall gaming performance from a HTPC. A dedicated non-gaming HTPC does not need to be exceedingly powerful. Most people already know how to build a gaming box. If you do not game from your HTPC, then external graphics can be a costly, and hot addition to a HTPC, and little attention is paid to the lower end onboard graphics and budget graphics cards. Most are quite capable of advanced video performance. I'm a little dissapointed with the interlacing artifacts from HD and I wish you went into more detail on them. The 690 is designed to drive a 720p TV so you monitors presented a little more load and might have resulted in some tearing on fast motion scenes. Was this what you saw or was it feathering from improper deinterlacing? Also, did you turn on 3:2 pulldown in the ATI driver? It looks like you did from the pulldown tests.
  5. I built a low cost HTPC last year to replace the buggy Dish Network's PVR508 receiver and been happy with it ever since. I took me a couple of months to tweak and update several pieces of hardware to get everything working right. I am using standard Windows XP SP2 with all the updates running BeyondTV V4.6.1 and have been for several months without issues. It's running two tuners Hauppauge PVR-350 and 1600 along with 1GB of memory, AMD 4000+ single core processor, Pioneer 16x DVD DL burner, AGP Radeon Pro 9800 card and 320GB SATAII Seagate hard drive. I am using a DVI to HDMI cable hooked up to my LG 37" HDTV.

    Overall I love the ability to have full control over the recorded content as opposed to what is being stored on the closed system such as Dish Network's PVR. This gives me the ability to burn shows on DVD for storage along with skipped commericals markers (the commericals are still there but it's been marked for quick skip). Or I can edit it with Pinnacle's Studio 10 to remove the commericals and then compress it with Divx.

    My HP laptop does have Windows Media Center 2005 edition installed but I never used it. Wish it came with standard Windows XP Pro but the addons don't bother me.

    It's nice to know that we do have options to build these things the way we want and whatever our budget allows us to do.

  6. Heres a picture of my current media PC thats a *work in progress* for me:

    Media PC

    AMD 3500+
    2 Sony DVD Burners
    SB Audigy 2 plat
    2 x 76 gig WD Rapter 10K RPM drives
    Geforce 7600 passively cooled video w/ Dvi to hdmi converter.
    Asus MB
    2 x 1 gig Kingston HypeX DDR400 RAM

    *Things I still am working on

    * Need a better case.
  7. I'd like to see you guys try the new LinuxMCE. It's based on Ubuntu so it's ridiculously easy to set up (for linux), I think you'd be able to relax the hardware requirements and have a nicer interface.
  8. Hi

    I built an MCE PC with the following:

    Antec Fusion Case (very nice for the price)
    Foxconn 6150 based MB (due to cost and includes on board IEEE-1394)
    1 GB Corsair RAM
    320GB HDD
    Panasonic DVD-RW (I think they are very quiet as is this case)
    ATI Theater 550 Pro tuner card from MSI
    ATI 1650 Pro video card (will use the onboard as back up but I wanted to game a little)
    Linksys 54G wireless card (did not want to run wires)
    Media center 2005

    The problems I have a range for my logitech mouse and keyboard and the remote that came with the MSI TV tuner does not work with MCE. I think I spent about $800 with the software but I think it is worth it. I never watch TV on it or even DVD's but use it to record shows and burn to DVD. That is really it so maybe not worth that but playing sports games on it is pretty cool on a 65" TV.
  9. Is that a pvr 250 or a 500? The picture is a 500 and the description is pvr 250.

    If it is a 250, the 150 is a better card(and cheaper as far as i know).
  10. I built the exact same system, except for the AVerTVHD MCE 180 and used an add in 7600 GT.

    I found that when using MCE, if I paused Live TV then tried to fast forward, I would get a lot of stuttering, even if I changed channels. I would have to close MCE and then reopen it and everything would be fine.
    You guys have the same error?

    Apparently it might be something with AMD dual core chips (yes I applied the AMD patch)...

    I got around this simply by not using the Fast forward option in Live TV in MCE and just changed channels to get back to live TV, but still it was annoying :?

    I tried Nero Ultra Edition and tried the same thing (paused live TV then Fast Forwarded) and did not have the same problem.

    EDIT - I also tried putting in 2 GB of ram, problem persisted in MCE
  11. Wow, in the high end system you actually changed nothing! Way to go! what insight! You could have added that same 8800 and gotten the same performance from the low end build. In fact, a 7600GT would get you the same HQV scores but you didn't investigate that! Nice job, now everyone knows you can throw a powerful graphics card in a HTPC and get decent gaming scores! Why did you upgrade to a full ATX board that doesn't overclock, AND doesn't have any more usefull ports than the mATX board? Just goes to show how worthless ATX boards are now that PCIe x1 slots are everywhere, yet so worthless.

    400GB on a $3000 media center out of 2 drives? Come on guys, put some more effort into your articles. There is no work done on trying to make this thing quiet, no work on trying to measure the temperatures of the system while sitting in yout AV rack with a 8800 running full bore. No insight at all in this article. At least the low end system was something people actually want to build and showed HQV scores for the 690, which has rarely been reviewed.
  12. That's a bit harsh, but sort of deserved. The selection of the power-hungry 8800 instead of an 8500 or 8600 made it evident you guys are still thinking like gamerz instead of HTPC builders.

    The game with home theater is quiet and cool and low power; to that end, you get passively cooled equipment whenever possible and keep the CPU as inactive as possible through the use of hardware acceleration. A high-end HTPC would have more money spend on quiet cooling solutions and less on ZOMG k00l grafix, d00dz!

    The worst case (processor intensive) stuff nowadays is high bitrate (Blu-ray) H.246 and deinterlacing 1080i. For that, you want the hardware accel from the 8500/8600 or equivalent: the 8800 is useless without H.264 accel! VC-1 is secondary, as it's not very processor intensive, but it's still way more important than how many FPS you'll get from HL-2.

    You were on the right track with the usage of HQV, but your systems need more work. Try getting some pointers from silentpcreview and you'll start to approach a decent high-end HTPC solution. For $3000, I could build an absolutely silent system that cratered yours both in terms of looks and functionality... but it wouldn't play Doom 3 as well. What's more important?
  13. I have a similar setup as the Day 1 configuration. Same CPU and motherboard. I have 3GB RAM (minus 256MB for the on-board video). It is connected to a 60" Sony TV via HDMI in 1080p I am quite satisfied with the setup except when I run 1080p video files (like those in the Apple QuickTime website). The video playback is a bit jerky. 720p files run smoothly. Wonder if anyone else has come across that?
  14. Day 2 and we are now getting a 6000+ free! :?: Is no one else noticing this? :?: ?

  15. Maybe this is stupid but can someone explain if there is a point for me to get a media pc if i have a dvr cable box?And what is exactly the advanced of media pc is it just that you can record stuff.Is like the picture better if you have a better graphic card?
  16. bk, I just read the Day 1 article and noticed the same thing. The CPU was conveniently left out of the cost table! They really must have been doing these articles on no sleep! OTOH, having no CPU in the system will definitely cut down the power consumption! :wink:

    Current price for an x2 4600+ is $115 (retail box) at newegg, so their total cost should have been $1001 instead of $886 for Day 1, and $773 instead of $658 for the cost-cutting version.
  17. For Day 2, they need to add $230 to their numbers for the x2 6000+ CPU.
  18. What happens when you fill up your dvr's hard drive? Well, in my case, i have to start deleting recorded HD shows :cry: , but why have a media pc when you can't record cable content? I am waiting on those ATI Cable Card Tuners before I will ever get rid of my HD-DVR.
  19. These guys must be livin on red bull and grey goose 8)
  20. uh oh, hell yeah 100+ post. time to represent my Rams!
  21. mondo, is your NI8-SLI C2D compatible?
  22. Yeah, sorry for being a bit harsh but yeah, I almost feel dumber just reading this article. I actually gave some decent advice in my first post about the first system, but then they totally screwed the second with no attention paid to anything that actually improved the HTPC experience.

    WacoTaco, people build HTPCs because they are much more versitle than a DVR. I can watch any show I record on any TV or computer in the house, I can play any music I want to on all my TV's, I can play some games on the big screen, though I rarely do this because gaming is a lean forward experience while TV is a lean back experience. I can also download any content I want from the web and play it on my TV. I can put in any amount of harddrive space and I can burn backups of my shows. I can play DVD-audio disks. I can bypass the crappy built in scaling in my TV and use the advanced scaling and deinterlacing in the best graphics cards (not the fastest and hotest, a 8600GT is perfect) to output a better upscaled image for DVDs, or I can get advanced 3:2 pulldown and Inverse Telecine for 1080i broadcasts and get full 1080p picture from a 1080i source instead of dowrezzing the 1080i signal to 540p then scaling to 1080p like most built in TV processors.

    And of course, I can spend countless hours troubleshooting my system when it doesn't work, and I can never use any of the advanced processing I just mentioned because website reviewers never publish articles that tell you how to turn on pixel adaptive deinterlacing, 3:2 pulldown, and Inverse Telecine (or what cards can support them at HD resolutions). I can also have a loud and hot and really good looking HTPC because I don't know how to build a decent system with componts that are not overkill for my application. I can use a crappy case with 60mm fans and not spend any time on trying to properly cool my components by paying close attention to targeted airflow and large slow spinning fans. For most, a HTPC never is what it could be while with a DVR you get exactly what you paid for. For most, the limitations of a DVR are well worth it over trying to understand everything I just said.
  23. Sadly, it does seem as though the quality of articles here is on a downward slide (as other discussions have noted). Besides the obvious and not-so-obvious stuff in these HTPC articles, in the recent gaming build articles I was surprised to note that the author(s) didn't even know that on PC power supplies, it's the +12V2 rail, not the +12V1 rail, that supplies the CPU. A newbie mistake like that never would have happened in Tom's day.
    Oh well, life moves on.
  24. Nope, not C2D compatible, and it's not the most stable MB in the world. However, I got it new for only about $40 on closeout, and all the red and blue LEDs make it look nice at night!
  25. :idea: lol, i bet it looks like a landing strip at night :idea:
  26. I have an HTPC using an Asus P5B-VM (P965 chipset). There is a Prolink ADD2 card that supports HDMI plus HD audio (not S/PDIF), and the MB has an internal HD audio header. Right now, I am just using the DVI ADD2 card because I don't have the equipment to support HDMI video or audio. I have no problems with 1080i signals output to my 1080p monitor. I'd love to see some testing with this IGP to see how well it can handle HD-DVD and BluRay. I'm hoping that I can just upgrade my optical drive when there are some more to choose from, plug in the HDMI ADD2 card, and not have to overhaul the whole system. Any chance a configuration like this could be benchmarked?
  27. Here's a list of gear I'm planning for a "Gaming HTPC" build:

    Silverstone GD01B-MXR case $250
    Gigabyte GA-965P-S3 mobo $105
    Intel core 2 quad Q6600 cpu $535
    Kingston 2GB ram $140
    EVGA 8800GTS 320MB video card $295
    Three Seagate 400GB drives $360
    Dual Plextor DVD burners $138
    Hauppage 150 tv tuner $68
    Dual Kworld HDTV QAM tuners $154
    Enermax Liberty 620W psu $140
    Zalman cnps9500 cpu cooler $50
    DVI/DVI cable $13
    audio cable $3
    MS MCE keyboard/mouse $57
    MS win xp MCE 2005 sp2 $110
    Westinghouse 37" 1080p LCD TV $1,000
    TOTAL: $3,418 plus tax+shipping =~$4,000

    Keep in mind the major requirements that I'm looking for in this particular setup are: 1.) Big screen gaming performance 2.) fast HD encoding ability 3.) HDTV record/playback 4.) 1080p output 5.) heavy DVD burning and 6.) large hard drive space with room for additional drives.

    I'm not interested in burning HD video to blu-ray, but I will be editing HD footage from camcorder and storing it on hard drive.

    The target budget is $4,000, 1080p display included.

    I would be glad to hear any comments if anybody with better knowledge thinks this is a doable project, or if I should change/add anything here.
  28. Thanks for pointing out the new combo cards, which I didn't have a chance to lay hands on for this build. To my current knowledge, the best of that bunch is the new AverMedia M780, which combines an SDTV tuner with an HDTV tuner on a single card, offers improved noise, edge, and comb filtering, and costs $90-100. If I'd been able to put one of those in the boxes, I surely would have done so.

    As for using the Microsoft Xbox USB-attached HD-DVD player, indeed that would be a better (and in fact, workable) choice for the build, as I believe I suggested. The issue on the Blu-ray side is that the cheapest drives are still in the $500 range, but prices are coming down (and have come down by $100-200 since the beginning of this year, when I really started paying attention).

    Thanks for your great suggestions and input: it's always welcome.

  29. Yes, indeed there was tearing in fast motion scenes. 3:2 pulldown was OK, but not perfect, as our HQV results indicate. In general, the low-end rig did reasonably well with SDTV, and had some noticeable (but not horrible) problems with DVD playback, mostly related to fast motion. My gut feel is that boosting RAM in the system to 1.5 GB or better, and then letting the Radeon chipset have 256 MB of RAM for its exclusive use would help with that, but I didn't have time to test that scenario.

    Thanks for your input, which is very welcome, and may help to clarify some of my analysis of the systems.

  30. I've never dug deeply into Beyond TV and am grateful for your information about it: it looks like something I should get to know. What I have done, however, is to dig into the Linux-based MythTV, which offers a lot more flexibility and open-ended hardware support (subject, of course, to the "second-class citizen" nature of finding good stable drivers for various versions of Linux, and explains why our book focused on Fedora and Debian more or less exclusively). That architecture separates media clients from media servers cleanly (though you can run both on a single box, you can run either on multiple separate boxes), and allows you to install up to 6 TV tuners on any single box.

    It's always nice to remember that there are options for media PCs outside the Microsoft umbrella, but these generally appeal to a much smaller audience than MCE for all kinds of good and interesting reasons.

    Thanks for your feedback on the article, and for sharing your own experiences with us.

  31. A great suggestion. We'll look into it, and I'll try to sell the site editor, Barry Gerber, on doing a story if we like what we see and learn (as I suspect we will). Thanks!

  32. As for your (no doubt wireless) mouse and keyboard, if range is a problem (as it can be in big or noisy viewing rooms), you might think about trying an RF-based mouse and keyboard, or combination set. RF tends to support more distance between device and receiver than either Bluetooth or infrared (IR). In addition to numerous RF models also available from Logitech (I've tried their diNovo RF keyboard with pretty good results) you can also find RF products from companies such as IOGear, Belkin, Interlink, XGene, and many others.

    HTH, and thanks for posting.

  33. We put a 150 in the low-end build. The 500 went into the high-end build. Must have been a mixup with the photos! I agree that the 150 is a better deal than the 250, but am inclined to recommend the next-generation of TV tuner cards even more highly (such as the sweet AverMedia M780, which plugs into the seldom used PCIe x1 slots found on so many motherboards, or the newer Hauppauge HVR 1600--see Matt Wright's recent review of both on The Missing Remote at

    Thanks for pointing this out. I'll see about getting it fixed.

  34. I've also encountered this same problem in Intel based systems, and it appears to be a (mal)function of the basic video driver. I've yet to find a fix for this other than to switch to a different viewer, but so far nobody's reported this same phenomenon in Vista. I'll do some digging around and see if there are any other known fixes.

    Thanks for posting,

  35. Running with the 8800 was more a matter of curiousity, to see what impact it would have on overall graphics performance. I agree 100% that the noise level is unacceptable, and tried to underscore that in my reporting at the end of the build-a-thon, in the summary and conclusions part. FWIW, the best bet for graphics would be a passively cooled 7600 or 8600, which should offer the same (7600) or improved (8600, thanks to more capable video processing circuitry) HQV scores. I hope to get a chance to report on this again soon in another article.

  36. See my reply to the previous posting as well, please, but FWIW I agree completely that the 8800 is not an appropriate card for an HTPC system, owing to noise (and its lack of HDMI support, and HDCP in only the newest and often most expensive models). The 8600 does appear to be the card of choice for high-end builds, but despite begging and pleading with Asus, Gigabyte, eVGA, and others, I was unable to obtain that hardware in time for the article to be posted.

    My own personal systems are one generation back (socket 939 and older AMD dual core CPUs, or socket 775 and 915 or 945 chipsets, and even one Pentium M system with 915 chipset as well) and all feature passively cooled 6600 256 MB boards. When I go to replace those systems, I will probably skip the 7600 cards and go straight to the 8600s, even though I have a couple of 7600s installed in other machines.

    Thanks for the feedback, though: positive or negative, it's always appreciated. We'll try to follow the dictates of common sense more closely in future build-a-thons: I take full, personal responsibility for deviating from same in the high-end version of this latest story. If apologies are needed, please consider them tendered as well.

  37. My gut feel is that this is where the X1250 starts to experience difficulties in handling the data volume, even with the largest amount of "borrowed" RAM. I can try plugging an HD-DVD or Blu-ray drive into that build and see if similar problems also occur. Should I go ahead and do that? However impractical that might be for a "low-end" build, I think it would help to resolve the issue one way or another.

    PLMK (you can e-mail me directly at etittel at edtittel dot com, or post here, as you like).

  38. How astute of you to conclude I was turning this work in on no sleep. I submitted the low end build story at 4 AM, and left the CPU line out of my spreadsheet (then repeated the error the next day by using the same template to create that system budget). My apologies! We've since repaired the error, which was completely my doing, so now we're dealing from a full deck of costs.

    Again, sorry for the foul-up.

  39. Alas, my information on the ATI cable card tuners is that you will only be able to buy them pre-installed in a complete system, because the hardware requires a license from Cable TV Laboratories (it's printed right below the Windows Vista license on the OEM license sticker, in fact) and can't be moved from one computer to another, either. What a drag for those who like to DIY media systems!
    See Microsoft's Matt Goyer's blog on this subject to get the bad news from the source:, from July 2006!
  40. Good question: I'll bounce this off Barry Gerber (the site's editor-in-chief) and see if there's some interest in benchmarking such a system. Clearly, lower-end mobos with only S/PDIF or 5.1 analog outputs have some issues here, especially for those targeting 7.1 decodes and output from their high-def drives.

    Let me see what I can find out...

  41. Unfortunately, you'll have to wait until the HD DVD/Blu-ray playback software supports Intel IGPs. The ADD2 cards are cheap and capable ($20-45) and, as KarylFStein points out, sometimes even HDCP-protected, but Cyberlink has yet to release a version/patch of PowerDVD Ultra which will permit the G965 to play the damned disks, even over an HDCP-protected interface.

    AnyDVD HD is not helpful, because PowerDVD Ultra requires:

    1) an HDCP-protected card
    2) an "approved" driver

    Currently, only Nvidia and ATI drivers are "approved" by Cyberlink, and AnyDVD HD only removes the need for 1).

    If Barry has some pull with the software vendors and can get a beta (rumor has it there are versions coming which will play on Intel IGP), we'd all be eager to see them.
  42. I'm working on getting the hardware, and will start banging away at the software vendors, too.
    Thanks for the heads-up.
  43. HDMI ADD2 card (works with G965, 945G, and supposedly even 915G):

    (high-def audio is broken due to a design flaw-- needs a minor cable fix, PM me if you want to make it work properly)

    Gigabyte is providing their own brand of HDMI ADD2 card (the GC-HD01) for Intel's new 3-series IGPs; no word yet on cost or whether it only will be bundled with motherboards:

    so if you can get one of those you probably won't have to contend with the audio flaw on the Prolink.
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