Wednesday, May 19, 2010

HTPC Software

Here is the software you need to run Windows Media Centre PC.
You don't need much software, and it is important you install as little software as possible. That means no games, no crazy video format decoders (Windows should be able to do almost everything, and some decoders will interfere with the smooth running of the stock decoders).
but you will need at least....
Windows 7 Home Premium or Ultimate edition - A$150
Home Premium or Ultimate versions are the only ones with Windows Media Centre
That will give you HDTV, recording and half decent DVD playback/upscaling as well as upscaling of DIVX/whatever files

Windows Security Essentials - $Free
Basically it is the Anti virus system available for free from Microsoft.
It rates well in the defense ratings and most importantly has the smallest performance footprint (ie it has the lowest load on the system). Download it for free (assuming your windows is "authentic").

Those were the bare minimums, these are the things you will need as you move on up.

AnyDVDHD - 79
This is the most useful utility for a media centre. It is central to converting DVDs or Blurays to ISO images, as well as performing the automounting of ISOs etc etc...
The lttle red icon sits on the task bar, you will find you use it again and again.
It is a great engine for mounting ISOs as well.
They are constantly updating and upgrading, so the price is justified for the free updates..

Arcsoft Total Media - US$89

Essential for the proper playback of Bluray.
Essentially Windows media centre can't play Bluray because of all the rights and security bullshit, so you have to buy player software. There are others like powerDVD, but TotalMedia Theatre 3 is the one I am used to, and it does a great job..
A license fee needs to be paid to legally play a bluray - and thats part of the cost.
Having said that,This has a bunch of extra features that allow your PC to behave like a proper Bluray player. Its a pretty good product, and if you buy it, you get upgrades and the like...

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Full Spec HTPC

Based on the previous HTPC posts, here is a current fully specced out Windows Media Centre Home Theatre PC. $1099.50

ASUS M4A785TD-M EVO mATX Motherboard

Same motherboard as the sub $500 version.
this one ticks all the boxes.

AMD Phenom II X2 550
I was tempted to use the slower colder X2 235e, there will be some minor advantages to this chip, such as encoding, also there may be some upscaling advantages...

OCZ Vertex 30GB SSD
Ideal for a media centre OS disk. Makes the whole system snappy, runs cold and absolutely silent.

Western Digital Green 2TB WD20EARS
Still from the Greenpower range, run cold and quiet, and only $170
Enough space for 220 DVDs. Enough said.

Seasonic M12 II 520W Power Supply
Legendary Seasonic. Silent, Stable, reliable.
Modular version to keep cables in the case to a minimum, 570 watts is probably twice the required power, especially at this high efficiency rate, but this model has the smallest size.
At $99 its a bargain.

SilverStone GD02 Black
Cases are quite personal, so check out the one you want.. there are reports that this is a bit cramped inside, but remember there is no Graphics card required.
This one is looks nice, and definitely has room for an optical drive and and two 3.5" Hard drives, and I'm hoping enough room to sneak the SSD in there also.
If you want a full size media centre PC in your living room, thats up to you, but I find them a bit imposing... the GD02 is a nice size.

Samsung SH-B083A Blu-ray DVD Combo Drive
This is the model I have, it can read DVD or Bluray.
It is very quiet, and does the job nicely for $120.
It it not a burner, but I cannot imagine any scenario these days which would require me to burn a Bluray (at $10 for the blanks as well)

GeIL GV34GB1600C9DC 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3
I went for the 1600 as there are some (upscaling) advantages that are available at 1600 on some CPUs. I would check around for price on the day, as memory prices change with the weather.

Nexus Real Silent 120mm Case Fan
Maybe it is a bit slack, but I use these as CPU fans.
The AMD fans are completely useless. I simply rip them off and put a large silent fan over the top. It puts about 6 times as much air over the CPU and the RAM, and makes hardly any noise.
Sometimes I get one or two screws in... sometimes I use gaffa tape :)
Truth be told, Arctic Cooling make the best fans, their PWM range are awesome. PWM enables better control of the fan from Software.
If I was getting serious I would look at a Scythe Low profile CPU cooler ($70), but you really should not be stressing the CPU that much.

HTPC Extras

This is all the bits you will need apart from the PC, "outside the box" as it were

Technically you can get away without any of these parts, but sooner or later you will want to upgrade...

Logitech Anywhere mouse mx
You will need to use a mouse, and a wireless is the best for a media centre.
The new "darkfield" technology from Logitech works on glass (and other stuff also).

Microsoft ARC wireless Keyboard.
For some reason every decent wireless keyboard was either too big (why do they all have numeric pads?) or too expensive ($300 for a diNovo - really?).
In a stunningly rare example of picking the niche, Microsoft made the ARC keyboard which is small, functional and looks nice.
Amazingly, it can be found for as little as $50 on (a meta price searcher in Australia).

Media Center(sic) Remote
Microsoft make a good one, although they are getting hard to find, there are many third party ones. Media Centre will suck without a remote.

Windows 7 Home premium 64bit OEM
No one really buys a new version of windows, but Microsoft goes out of their way to make an in place upgrade virtually impossible.
The OEM version costs the same as an upgrade, but can be installed in one go.
Yes Microsoft suck, but this is actually good software, and at the cost of slightly more than the mouse, you may as well buy it.
Home premium is the ideal version. Remember - the "Professional" version does not have Windows media centre.
64 bit is necessary if you ever want to use more than 4GB of RAM.
both 32 and 64bit versions run MCE equally well, there is some software that does not run so well on 64bit, but in the long run, 64bit is the best choice.

HTPC Cheap version

Hi Guys,

Here is the skinny on building a decent HTPC (Home Theatre PC) based on Windows 7 Media Centre.
Thanks to Brucey for many of the technical details, and bringing it up from "really good" to "outstanding".
Prices and cart screenshots are from They have the best range, really good stock and great support. They do not sponsor me at all BTW (but are welcome to if they want to).

THE BASIC UNIT - around $500
This is the cheapest I can make it, with absolutely minimal cost, It will not have all the features out the box, can be upgraded to the big daddy eventually.
If you want to try and source all these parts from different places on the web, you could save another $50, but you will probably lose that in separate postage, as well as wasting alot of time...
If you dont mind waiting in a queue for 30 minutes, then in theory you could get all these bits MSY for around $425 (based on their parts list), however they often don't have the parts you want, and you end up buying not quite the right stuff

Rundown on each part

AMD Athlon X2 235e
I don't recommend AMD unless there is a really good reason to (in this case the 785G chipset). So this is praise indeed. This is their weakest CPU, but gets the nod as it uses the least power (45W), so will be the quietest and coolest. Remember that most of the work will be done by the ATI 4200 GPU on the motherboard, most of the CPU work is just "directing traffic" and "house keeping". Myself I use an Athlon X3... but this is for the cheapest version of the HTPC, and its $10 cheaper, and until I see evidence to the contrary, there should be no real disadvantage to using this CPU. Indeed the heat issue could make this preferable.

ASUS M4A785TD-M EVO mATX Motherboard
This is $8 more than the Gigabyte version, but it supports Sideband (SBA710), which is a way for the GPU to get better performance by going straight to the RAM rather than through the main BUS. SBA may not be available with only one memory module installed (you need an even number I think).
The AMD785G chipset is the core of this entire system. It is the one part of this system that is not negotiable.
There is a more recent verion (the AMD880) but until I use one of those, I am sticking with these.
The key to the 785 is the ATI 4200 embedded GPU. It looks great, and with the correct software will outperform just about any hardware BluRay player on the market (certainly ones that cost less than $2000 anyway).
Anyone who wants to argue that point, I simply say "x.v. color?".

Corsair VS2GB1333D3 2GB (1x2GB) DDR3
Really any single DDR3 chip that can do at least 1333 will be good, 2 x 1G would actually be better since you could get SBA running, and WM7 should manage (just!) on 2GB of RAM (althoug it will be less since the GPU will be using some of it).
Go to 2 x 2GB as soon as you can, although thats an extra $75.
Faster ram (1600, 1800 whatever) is fine as well, as long as it does not run too hot.

Thermaltake SD200 with 270WTT FTX PSU
This could be any one of many generic Micro ATX cases. I have not chosen this one for any real reason. I use an Antec minuet 300. The main criteria is it looks OK, can take a M-ATX Motherboard, an optical drive (DVD, or Bluray) and fit a couple of 3.5 HDDs as well.
It has an 80mm fan which is a good size for a tiny case. To me the main challenge for the case is to be small and silent as possible.
If you ever notice noise from it, during normal use, then its too noisy in my opinion.

Western Digital GreenPower 1TB
WD Greenpower drives run at 5400 RPM rather than the standard 7200RPM.
This makes them a little slower, but cooler, quieter, more reliable and they use less power - all important characteristics for an HTPC.
I currently run my OS on one partition of a 2TB GreenPower, and can copy large files to a separate partition on it, while playing a bluray file from another partition without issues.