How To: Build An HTPC (With Windows 7)

The Experiment Gets More Experimental (Enter Windows 7)

When AMD sent us its Maui platform to test, it had preloaded Windows Vista Ultimate, ArcSoft’s TotalMedia Theatre, its own AMD Live Explorer software, and TVTonic’s control panel. We used the hardware and software configuration for a little while and it worked as advertised. But, after sitting down with Microsoft at CES in Last Vegas and getting the full preview of Windows 7’s Media Center interface, we hurriedly chose to shift focus and give the Maui box a spin under new management.

Getting the operating system installed (after downloading it from Microsoft’s site, which you can’t do any more) was a breeze. Most of the hardware was detected automatically, and the components that weren’t were summarily brought up to speed after a round of Windows Update. We’ll refrain from making any speed comparisons, since Windows 7 was loaded onto an OCZ Apex-series SSD rather than the PipelineHD magnetic drive provided by AMD. With that said, the Windows 7/SSD combination was smoking fast.

From there, setting up the included Windows Media Center only took a couple of steps.

Up And Running With Blu-ray

We had ArcSoft’s TotalMedia installed in Vista—and it worked well—but we wanted to try out Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 8, which is also optimized to take advantage of AMD’s Avivo decoding technology.

Gladiator playing seamlessly from the Media Center interface

Our initial install enabled DVD playback right away, but we weren’t able to get Blu-ray content working. A subsequent patch, which the app automatically prompted us to download, rectified the issue. We were disappointed, however, in how PowerDVD handled Blu-ray content versus standard DVDs. With a regular DVD inserted, playing through Media Center is seamless. Playing Blu-ray content, you get kicked out to the Windows desktop, where PowerDVD fires up in its own window. It’d be nice to have the experience similar in either case.

Media Center minimizing to open PowerDVD for Blu-ray playback

Aside from that one snafu, movie playback is as easy as clicking a button in Media Center.

Turning On The TV

Getting television up and running under Windows 7 was a little more complicated, but very much a rewarding experience (minus one small technical hurdle left to overcome). And it’s worth noting that the process absolutely demands that you have an Internet connection already up and running.

Start of the TV Setup wizard

With the analog cable line and ATSC antenna connected to their appropriate coaxial inputs, we began the TV signal setup process. Media Center correctly identified both attached devices and began downloading programming information for a two week span. After detecting available channels, we were able to see the analog and digital options available in one EPG--a task that had vexed Media Center editions prior.

From there, bringing up live and recorded content was simple. If you wanted an individual show, right-click and Record. To save an entire series, right-click and choose Record Series. If a given time slot was scheduled to be in high definition, it'd sport an HD tag. Otherwise, the digital channels were easily identifiable by their x.1, x.2, etc. designations in the EPG.

We'll get into our tuner-switching issue on the following page.

It's also worth noting that Microsoft is counting on an always-on Internet connection here. Company representatives made it a point to show off the growing list of Internet television offerings. And although there is limited content available during this beta period, Microsoft seems determined to get very Hulu-like with on-demand content delivery.

Listening To Some Tunes

After all of the new (to me) functionality, it was nice to wrap up with my good old fashioned music collection. Whereas I'd persistantly fought with the Playstation 3 in order to get my library to display in some logical fashion (who has time to organize tens of gigabytes of music files these days?), Media Center dove right into the shared music folder on my NAS and created entries in its music library with album covers--where available--to make navigation easier.

If you don't want to browse album names alphabetically, Media Center gives you a handful of other sorting techniques, though you're best off if you have put some thought into organization before-the-fact.

Chris Angelini
Chris Angelini is an Editor Emeritus at Tom's Hardware US. He edits hardware reviews and covers high-profile CPU and GPU launches.
  • 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.
  • 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. :)
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • rtfm
    if you have vista/mce, check out the my movies add on 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
  • 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.
  • 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...
  • 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???
  • lillo
    try WDTV is the best solution and the cheapest

    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
    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: