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How To: Build An HTPC (With Windows 7)

Conclusion

Even if you’ve built 100 desktop PCs, piecing together and installing a truly effective HTPC will make you smile. I’ve toyed with the idea for the better part of eight years, leaving a PC next to my A/V equipment on four or five separate occasions. But not once has it given me that feeling of satisfaction until now.

Coming to the table with a system able to output to the latest connectivity standards, able to support the latest content types, and able to play the latest games (with the help of a reasonable graphics upgrade, of course) makes a strong case for rolling your own HTPC. And it’s no longer just about showing off, either. Now there are functional and practical reasons to take the plunge. After all, with a five-channel amplifier onboard, the need for a stereo receiver is diminished if you don’t have one already.

Media Center recognizing the inserted movie and pulling down related information from the Web

Then again, most folks with networked storage and large television probably already have their own amps too, in which case, it makes sense to employ the digital audio output on MSI’s Media Live DIVA motherboard, as we’ve done here. It’s only a shame that there’s no way to play back SACD content on an HTPC—that’s the only capability we gave up in swapping in AMD’s Maui box and shipping out the Philips DVD 963SA that populated the machine’s spot only days before.  

Lastly, now that this HTPC system is set up and running in a “production” environment, we’d love to get some input from you. What sort of media center-related content would help in your own living room? What sort of follow-ups to this fairly simple build would answer your outstanding questions? Let us know in the comments section and we’ll be sure to plan our upcoming A/V coverage accordingly.

Parting Thought

Throughout this first-look at Windows 7's Media Center software on our shiny new HTPC, I kept thinking back to Microsoft's demonstration of remotely controlling the suite at CES. "How cool would it be," I asked, "if the next generation of remotes included touch screens for navigating the interface, since this is something Windows 7 will support?"

This is, in fact, something I'm hoping to see. Until then, though, it's worth noting that you can navigate your A/V library on the couch using a diminutive nettop and "Play To" your HTPC, just like you'd copy a file to a flash drive using the popular "Send To" shell functionality in XP or Vista. In a way, that's a very similar way to manipulate the HTPC without having to get up off of the couch or fiddle with a vanilla remote control. 

  • wmt
    Nice review. Part of my problem with DVR's is limited storage and no way to save to a disk/tape (think vhs replacement). I've solved this with the HD PVR. Seems to work great with a good quality capture, reasonable editing to create DVD or BluRay without ads for those of us who want to archive something for personal use. So I record with the DVR and during off times record to my HTPC with the Happauge.
    Reply
  • ravenware
    My main reason for wanting to build is to eliminate the stack of DVDs on either side of my television.

    Not sure what software will actually allow me to copy the Media to hard drive to copyright protection bs.
    Would be nice to rip all of my simpsons DVDs and shuffle the episodes up. :)
    Reply
  • JeanLuc
    ravenwareMy main reason for wanting to build is to eliminate the stack of DVDs on either side of my television.Not sure what software will actually allow me to copy the Media to hard drive to copyright protection bs. Would be nice to rip all of my simpsons DVDs and shuffle the episodes up.
    Well that's exactly what I done with my DVD's. However ripping DVD's to an ISO file will soon fill up a hard drive, especially if you have box sets of TV programmes like I have (I have Deep Space Nine Season 3-7 ripped from DVD and each season weighs in at 58Gb's each). I got around this by encoding all my movies to a high quality XVID format (bar DS9) which has worked quite well. So far I have around 70 movies backed up onto my external Western Digital My Book hard drive, so when I get around to building my HTPC I can watch my movies right of the hard drive without having to worry about find the discs.

    The only draw back with this method is that you will lose some picture quality and the ripping and encoding process can take about 1/2 an hour per disc.
    Reply
  • suhail_th
    This is still where it was in 2008, Power DVD doesn't play nice with Microsoft MCE Remote, not all keys are mapped... so playing Hi-Def is of not much Joy.

    Playing a Blu-Ray or HD-DVD using Integrated 3200 using Arcsoft TMT Produces Stutter.

    Ripping these disc's to Hard Drive in ISO is the only viable solution, if we talk about media arrangement.

    Also, 3200 IGP doesn't support 7.1 over LPCM.

    Not sure how even after so many hurdles, i am still hanging onto the though of a quiet full functional HTPC.

    NOTE: using NGRC on iphone is a DREAM for 10 Foot Interface.
    Reply
  • rtfm
    if you have vista/mce, check out the my movies add on http://www.mymovies.dk/ its free :-) I have around 380 movies in my collection and this allows you to sort through by genre, rating, title etc and download covers and other info for the films
    Reply
  • LuxZg
    OK, I do have a few questions.

    First is - total price for hardware? I know it's from AMD, but I'm wondering if this Maui is anywhere to be seen as a complete platform, or do we have to hunt for individual components by ourselves.

    Second is - how about satelite cards? Technisat SS2 cards are very popular in my country, but there's no PCI slot on MSI board. So what can you suggest here as an addition to Maui HTPC so we can watch satellite channels as well?

    And last but not least, have you even tried using a discrete graphics card? Power supply from article is plenty even for HD4870 card (since this is almost all-ATI/AMD setup) which would alow for a good gaming session on big screen and surround, even on FullHD resolution. Problem is in dual slot cooler and how much would it interfere with rest of the add-in cards. It looks as a no-go because of MSI soundcard, right? So what could you suggest than - that's better than onboard, single slot, HDMI ready, not noisy when in 2D or playing DVD/BluRay etc. HD4850 maybe? Would it be good for HTPC setup in this platform?

    As for comments above regarding ripping collections of optical media - with 4 empty slots for 3.5" drives in that HTPC case, RAID support on MSI board, and 1.5TB drives out there - only problem is how deep are your pockets. Not to mention that you can always go the ways of NAS box in the other room with several more HDDs.
    Reply
  • chovav
    can the new media center play/sort .mkv files? used to be a pain in the butt with the last version... and is that phenom processor strong enough to play 1080p .mkv files through media center without any lag? I used to have to use windows media player to be able to do that without any lag...
    Reply
  • rlevitov
    chris one thing i dont get. whats the differance? i have HTPC for almost 3 yrs now (with VISTA) and i have all above functionality... (minus the Dual Tuner cause in israel we have to use set top BOX to see HD and Cables) i also have a remote and so on and with my old pvr150mce i can also record while playing games and such...

    what does windows seven and all above gives beyond the old vista???
    Reply
  • lillo
    try WDTV is the best solution and the cheapest

    http://www.westerndigital.com/en/products/products.asp?driveid=572
    i bought it last friday and now 2 of my friend also bought one this is a HTPC killer paired with AT&T UVERSE service
    Reply
  • BBFATTS
    You mentioned the Playstation 3 in your article, but have you ever tried the Xbox 360? It can connect to your PC too and the Windows Media Center interface that you love so much will come up right on your Xbox allowing you to browse and stream all your pictures, music, and videos as if you were on your PC. The only catch is that it doesn't support all file formats although it does support the most poular ones. The currently supported formats are: WMV, WMA, MP3, MPEG2, MPEG4-Part 2, Simple Profile, and Advanced Simple Profile (Xvid)(DivX). I have 11,000 Mp3s, about 30 T.V. seasons, and a gazzilion photos on my PC, and I 'm able to watch/listen to them all on my Big Screen through my Xbox. I can even open up my pre-made music playlists. I have never experienced any lag and I stream full 1080p video and HD audio which is supported through the Xbox's HDMI and Optical audio outputs. If your looking for a cheap solution to bring your computer's media to your front room try the Xbox for $199.99. Just beware of those high hardware failure rates... For more information go to: http://www.xbox.com/en-US/hardware/windowsmediacenter.htm
    Reply