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How To: Build An HTPC (With Windows 7)

One Small Hawaiian Island At A Time...

I’ve been trying to build great HTPCs for several years, and several generations of PR folks at AMD (formerly ATI) have tried helping me piece together the right components to make my theater room shine. Incidentally, this is one niche where Nvidia has historically had little impact. Of course, those efforts have forever centered on All-in-Wonder graphics cards, which integrated 3D, OTA television reception, time-shifting, and video playback.

Not that anything was wrong with the AiW lineup—the cards demonstrated tremendous engineering prowess, as ATI managed to fit all of its multi-media strengths onto boards that didn’t compromise 3D viability. The AiW boards simply didn’t break down all of the barriers to getting PC technology into the living room, as attractive as they were.

Pardon the cabling mess; this project required a little re-wiring.

Ironically, now that the All-in-Wonder family is all but deceased (with one lonely model representing), the age of the HTPC is arguably upon us.

You see, previously, incorporating an HTPC into a home entertainment rack almost felt like showing off, since much of its functionality would be redundant. Yeah, you could get a PC wedged in between the stereo receiver and the standalone DVD player. But so much of the concept’s functionality still depended on other components in the rack.

You’d run video from the graphics card out to a DVI input, ideally, or a component input if your TV didn’t have the digital connection. You’d run optical or coaxial audio to a stereo receiver, which would be responsible for taking that sound signal, decoding it, and outputting to the non-powered speakers typical in a theater.

Adding an HTPC just seemed superfluous. And with a Playstation 3 in the loop, sporting its almost instant-on and rich audio/video playback (plus wireless network connectivity), there’s almost no reason to power-on a PC and wait for it to boot up into a Media Center environment—until now.

Maui Makes Nice With The Living Room

AMD recently (actually, not so recently—it was late last year) sent us an example of its Maui platform, a collection of hardware that, put together, achieves a remarkable degree of living room functionality despite its desktop PC pedigree. We’ve had the hardware in an HTPC role for a few months now and recently shifted the system’s software environment from the Vista Ultimate/Media Center/TotalMedia Theatre configuration that AMD shipped to a more streamlined (at least we think so) Windows 7/PowerDVD build.

In this How To guide, we’ll explain why the HTPC now makes so much sense, we’ll show you the hardware that goes into our test platform (and how it all fits together), and we’ll walk you through using it with Microsoft’s Windows 7 beta, which should be shipping by the end of the year. Truly, this is the hardware/software configuration for which we've been waiting.

  • 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