Building a Windows Media Centre system – any advice to share?

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  • Building a Windows Media Centre system – any advice to share?
  • Premier Icon el_boufador
    Subscriber

    Our freeview / hdd recorder box is about to give up the ghost (very flaky, won’t start sometimes, won’t record programs more than 1 hour ahead).

    Rather than just going and buying another one I’m wondering whether building a media centre PC might be a better solution, both in terms of the features it would have (e.g. managing a whole media collection inc music, pictures etc; internet tv and so on) and also its future upgradeability to cover technology progressions.

    Due to limitations of space in our lounge, and also to consolidate kit where possible I would be looking to replace an ageing windows XP desktop-based file/print/IIS web/SQL database server which lives in a kitchen cupboard with a more up-to-date windows 7 machine. I would then have an xbox 360 in the lounge to act as an extender to stream content to.

    My biggest uncertainty at the moment is in what I would need to buy/build to replace the desktop machine in the cupboard, and how much this would cost. I think it needs to have the following:

    * Enough beef (processor / memory) to run media centre streaming duties and also cover existing file/print/web/database server duties (web/ db processing is all lightweight stuff – I can’t remember the spec of the existing box but it must be 6-7 yrs old now and handles everything fine)

    * at least 2x internal 3.5″ sata bays (preferably more).

    * as it will always be on, as low a power consumption and heat output as possible.

    * as small a case size as possible.

    * Support wake-on-lan. I.e. hibernate when not being used, then automatically wake up when a client tries to connect to it.

    * plenty of PCI slots to expand the system in future.

    * TV card (dual tuner) to allow viewing / recording of TV. If the base build didn’t have one I could always add this.

    * Obviously as cheap as possible!

    Anyone have any experience / advice to share? Any desktop machines which fit the bill to recommend?

    Oh and please don’t say buy a mac!

    gonefishin
    Member

    My advice would be buy a dedicated server with media streaming built in for all the media stuff and buy a dedicated HDD recorder for the TV stuff. Are you sure there is anything actually wrong with your freeview recorder? Mine was playing up (freezing every day, generally being unresponsive) until I moved it so that there was better ventilation and it’s been perfect since.

    Premier Icon mboy
    Subscriber

    as small a case size as possible.

    Conflicts nicely with

    at least 2x internal 3.5″ sata bays (preferably more).

    and

    plenty of PCI slots to expand the system in future.

    Personally, with all the requirements you’ve listed above, I think you’re going to struggle unless you can compromise somewhere… Might just be easiest to buy a big tower, so it’s more upgradable in the future… Or have a small box, but no extra HD spaces, and run external HD’s via ESATA or USB for backup media.

    Oh, and I know you don’t want to hear it, but the obvious answer for a small, low power consumption media server, that’s on all the time and does exactly what you want it to do, is a Mac Mini!

    But seeing as you don’t want a Mac Mini, I’d build your own… You probably won’t get the power consumption down as low as on a Mac Mini, but if you go for one of the newer Mini-ITX motherboards, a low power consumption Core i3 or i5 processor (dual core will be better than quad in this respect), 5400rpm HD in stead of 7200, and a high efficiency Power Supply, then you’ll get pretty close to achieving what you want I’m sure.

    Premier Icon el_boufador
    Subscriber

    Thanks chaps,
    Yes mboy you’re quite correct it is a conflicting set of requirements – but I am prepared to compromise. If anything I can budge more easily on case size (within reason, e.g. slimline / mini tower) than on the other requirements.

    My difficulty is I’m really not to up to speed on the hardware technology which is available and I’m looking for hints / inspiration to get me going.

    uplink
    Member

    I’m normally the last one to recommend Linux but …………..

    I’ve been playing with my brothers Mythbuntu Multimedia Server & so far I’m very impressed

    http://www.mythbuntu.org/

    Premier Icon molgrips
    Subscriber

    If space is a premium, you could have the PC elsewhere in the house and operate it via a Media Centre Extender. You need either a very good N wifi link though or a wired connection to stream HD stuff. Best bet is a Powerline network adapter thing.

    You can buy very nice ready made media centre PCs mind, which are stashed in nice cases and so on, so they look like home entertainment equippment instead of PCs. You can also buy the nice cases on their own.

    I’d consider reliable wake-on-lan working as more important than power consumption when on, since you shoudl be able to have it wake up when you want to use it or record something. That way, it won’t really be on all that long.

    Premier Icon richmars
    Subscriber

    I’ve been running XP Media Centre for the last 5 years (about)and it works pretty well. I currently have a small Atom based pc which replaced a larger pc. When I built the current hardware I looked at MythTV and Linux and it looks very impressive. You can have a back end server (with lots of storeage and noise) stuck away somewhere, and a front end under the TV (this could be diskless, boot from a USB stick). I did install MythTV and it works (at least with front and backend on the same hardwhere) but it was very complex to set up (at least compared to windows) so I went back to Windows.
    It works well, turns off when not in use, wakes up to record etc. Nice looking case looks ok under the TV but you could use extenders etc.

    IA
    Member

    Mythbuntu and an Ion based system. Cheap, works well, quiet and good enough for HD content.

    Some tips for an aspire revo on my blog here:

    https://doitdifferent.wordpress.com/category/mythtv/

    Premier Icon beamers
    Subscriber

    I know you said don’t mention Macs but I kind of have a media centre based on one which I could extend. Here’s what I’ve got.

    iMac with EyeTV installed on it. EyeTV is essentially Freeview on the computer. You plug the co-ax feed into a USB adapter. It allows you to record to programmes at once and watch a third recorded programme or watch one programme and record another.

    The iMac has iTunes on it with all my music.

    EyeTV will export recordings to iTunes at a click of a button so that you can out them onto and iPad, touch, phone, pod or you can burn them to CD.

    Using Apple TV (which I don’t have as I don’t currently have a TV to which I could connect it) you can also stream the programmes from the iMac to a TV in a different room.

    It’s a pretty cool set up which works for us but it very Mac-centric so fails your criteria.

    I’ve ran a media centre for the last 7 years. Never had a TV or video, sky etc in all that time. I would never change it.

    I’m going to sort an upgrade soon and have a server in the attic so I can run a laptop in the bedroom etc but for the last 7 years I’ve had the main PC under the Monitor.

    Silverstone do some lovely cases. My currant one, although quite old now, holds 3 x sata Hdds, dual graphics cards and up to 5 pci cards. As much expandability as any normal desktop pc but in a lovely case the same size as a regular amp

    http://www.silverstonetek.com/products/p_contents.php?pno=cw02&area=

    Milkie
    Member

    If it was me, I would get a seperate Freeview HDD box, it can be a right bitch when the server goes down and then you have nothing.

    I’ve just put Cat6 LAN cable throughout the whole house, you’ll need that for streaming video & other things.

    I’ve gone with a ReadyNAS for streaming Video & Music (has an iTunes server), also acts as a backup device, DNLA server and network storage.

    Living room we have a PS3 for surfin net, watching video & music, you could use your 360 for the same thing, if it connects to a DLNA server.

    Dining room I have an Xbox to go in there, which should connect to the ReadyNAS, but will also be able to hook up to my Windows 7 PC that has a TV Tuner, so can watch liveTV.

    Then all you need is a massive highly powered PC to run all the servers, mine is kept in the games room, as its not exactly a quiet computer!

    Premier Icon molgrips
    Subscriber

    I am going to put in either Cat5 or a powerline adapter between the two rooms.

    I’ve had problems using a PS3 as a media consumer – it picked things up, but almost everything I had was in an unsupported format.

    Media centre extender is better, and you can then use media centre plugins like sky player and 4od etc (in theory)

    ericemel
    Member

    I have just gone through this process – I weighted up the pro’s and cons of building an ion/atom machine – I have a Acer Revo already and its pretty awesome but just doesn’t have the horse power.

    So I built a machine around one of these cases – altogether stoked with it. I have full specs if you want – but you probably have a good idea what you want. A streamer/nas/Xbox etc all have advantages, but I think a proper PC sitting there with full functionality can not be beaten.

    Premier Icon el_boufador
    Subscriber

    thanks all,
    would be very interested to hear the specs ericemel

    SamB
    Member

    Ericemel I’d be keen to hear the specs too – I’ve got a media centre system sat in the front room that’s missing a few key features. If I can add a tuner card and some other bits to get it 100%, I’d be very pleased 🙂

    Doug
    Member

    Why a media center PC if your going to be using an X Box. Just run a DLNA server on one of these. Mirror a couple of 1Tb drives for redundancy. Add an auto logon and lockout script and your away. Second the seperate tuner, we’ve got a Samsung LE40C650 with built in DLNA/iplayer client so no XBox plus Sky so lots of bases covered.

    Added bonus is I can access it all from my lounge PC/laptop so SO can watch one thing whilst I watch another plus my parents living next door can access it and if we ever decide to put a TV in upstairs it will be easy to run some cat6.

    IA
    Member

    I have a Acer Revo already and its pretty awesome but just doesn’t have the horse power.

    For windows, maybe. With VDPAU support in linux plays back 1080p HD content fine, even the infamous “birds” from planet earth which is a bit of a torture test.

    Premier Icon blaggers
    Subscriber

    My about to get the latest Acer Revo r3700, Dual core atom and ION2. Is anyone running a previous generation r3610? Was that able to cope with most content?

    I built one a while ago!

    My requirements were:
    – 1080p capable
    – Optical out for 5.1 surround sound
    – low power
    – internal 3.5″ HDD (cheaper and bigger capacity)
    – 5.25″ external drive (again, cheaper and easier to get blu-ray)
    – internal HD Satelite tuner (using a PCI card).

    I ended up ordering..

    1TB Hitachi HDD
    Zotac IONITX-F-E, NVIDIA ION motherboard (PCI slot, wifi, optical out)
    Aplus CUPID-3, Black/Silver Mini Case
    Samsung SH-D163C Black, 48x CD-ROM (will upgrade to blu-ray later)
    1GB, DDR2 PC2-6400 (800), 240 Pins *2

    Tuner was a hauppauge 4400. Tried a cheaper satellite card but it was rubbish so sent it back.

    Anyway, it all works really well together, plays 1080p in 5.1 just fine and i can watch BBC HD, ITV HD, as well as iPlayer etc.. Windows 7 Media Center is pretty good as well, though there was a slight faff to get ITV HD to work.

    I had to get a resister to reduce the fan speed on the motherboard, but now its pretty much inaudible.

    Mine acts as a HD satellite recorder, movie and music collection, bluray player; serves my son’s xbox in his room, the music streamer in the family room which is hopefully to be joined with a an xbox so I can stream movies and HD tv to the projector. Cost £335 in total, the case isn’t cheap…

    I’ve just put Cat6 LAN cable throughout the whole house, you’ll need that for streaming video other things.

    No you won’t

    Silverstone do some lovely cases

    Indeed they do, I built my mediapc using one a black of these looks great under the telly http://www.silverstonetek.com/products/p_contents.php?pno=lc04&area=

    Waderider
    Member

    I’ve been resisting the urge to comment on a few of these threads today, because for some stupid reason operating systems are so divisive. But as someone has mentioned Mythtv and linux already, thats what I’ve been running for a few years, and my honest non-blinkered score is about 8/10.

    System is a P5N Asus mainboard, three hard drives, Hauppauge Nova-T 500 dual tuner, 1.86Ghz dual core Celeron, 3GB RAM. Three desktop clients, two laptop clients. Wireless N router can handle three normal definition Mythtv Frontends streaming at once. As well as mythtv the server handles files using samba and printing duties – easy as pie to set up in linux.

    Best strength is the ability to record up to 10 channels of television at once on one dual tuner card. Okay, that’s a theoretical number depending on what transports are used first, but it is certainly not unusual to have three or four channels recording at soap opera times (four adults including two females (!) use the system).

    Downsides are the need to get your hands dirty when silly things happen, like an update breaking something. But then I like messing about with computers….

    I’ve never tried Windows Home Server, and my experience with linux has given me no reason to want to try it 😀

    I know this post doesn’t really answer anyones question, I just wanted to express my happiness.

    I know this post doesn’t really answer anyones question, I just wanted to express my happiness.

    tis coming over in waves, great when these work init 😀

    ericemel
    Member

    @el_boufador & Sam_b

    My setup is ver specific for my needs – which was basically:
    Output audio via optical and coax outputs simultaneously
    Video only via HDMI @ 1080p
    Hifi sized component
    Silent therefore low power

    What I didn’t need is Bluray (I have an OPPO bluray player) or recording facilities.

    So my spec is:
    Intel Wolfdale E8400 3.0ghz @ 65w (I’d consider an i3 now @ 73w)
    Asus matx mobo
    4gb Ram
    60gb SSD (for OS)
    2TB HD for storage
    A few silent fans from SiletnPc
    ESI Juli@ Soundcard (2x digi outs and v.decent quality)
    Logitech Minovo Keyboard
    Case as above

    I also run a Acer h340 Home server with 3TB

    Basically it works a treat, perfectly silent (and I am really picky about this…), sounds fantastic, looks fantastic and has plenty of grunt, for me is a much better option than my ion unit (Acer Revo).

    Premier Icon TPTcruiser
    Subscriber

    Work colleague has two dual tuners to make sure they can record multiple channels while watching.

    IA
    Member

    My about to get the latest Acer Revo r3700, Dual core atom and ION2. Is anyone running a previous generation r3610? Was that able to cope with most content?

    Are people just ignoring my posts? feels like it some days.

    I run a r3600. Does fine. Read my previous posts and links. In linux though, which is a *lot* better at media/HD playback than windows oddly (never thought I’d be saying that, but it’s true).

    Been running mythtv for 4 years, i’d give it about a 9 once you buy hardware to work well with it (my revo). Passes the “girlfriend test” fine. She has no bother using it. Seems simpler to set stuff recording than on sony HDD recorders I’ve used. Plus I love having the web interface to it and setting recording rules so it auto-picks up stuff I like.

    As above though, helps to have the linux skills to get it going (good time to learn) but seems stable once going.

    Premier Icon turboferret
    Subscriber

    Not necessarily 100% relevant, but you may like to have a look at Boxee as a front-end. I have it running on an old Macbook and it’s great.

    Only a playback device, no recording, but works really nicely. Yet to find a format which it won’t handle, unlike my old media box which wouldn’t handle lots of things.

    One thing I like about it on the mac is using the tiny little remote, which is very simple.

    What sort of remote controls do people use with their Mythboxes?

    Cheers, Rich

    sl2000
    Member

    Are people just ignoring my posts? feels like it some days.

    @IA I’ve just had a quick peek at your blog. I was going to buy a PVR but I think I may try using a Revo instead, and it looks like your blog will be most useful. So I’m just saying ‘thanks’ 🙂

    I run a r3600. Does fine. Read my previous posts and links. In linux though, which is a *lot* better at media/HD playback than windows oddly (never thought I’d be saying that, but it’s true)

    Windows 7 plays everything fine too once you’ve installed the latest drivers.
    Video processing is offloaded to the GPU so processor is hardly doing anything. This is on an Atom 300/nvidia Ion based system (like the 3600)

    i couldn’t get anywhere with MythTV, looked a lot more ‘techie’. Might give it a go in the future though. Would it be easy network a linux pc with a Windows 7 laptop to share files etc.?

    Premier Icon blaggers
    Subscriber

    Cheers all,

    IA, wasn’t ignoring your post, but I’m going the windows7 route as it’ll allow better integration with my other software and I cant be arsed with learning Linux

    Ordered basic level r3700 (linux,2Gb,120Gb HDD) with 500GB Momentus Xt hybrid drive, and already have a copy of win7, so I’ll have fun setting it up tomorrow.

    IA
    Member

    i couldn’t get anywhere with MythTV, looked a lot more ‘techie’. Might give it a go in the future though. Would it be easy network a linux pc with a Windows 7 laptop to share files etc.?

    It is more techy, kinda. I could set up a windows (smb) file share on it in about 30 secs, from my desktop (or on it directly). It’d probably take me about 5 minutes on a windows box. But that’s cos I’m less familiar with it.

    So yes, it’s easy, if you know how. And a common thing to want to do, so easy to find out how.

    If you don’t “know” linux already though, you have to want to learn and be prepared to fiddle though.

    Biggest tip I having setting up a mythtv box would be: get compatible hardware, especially the tv tuner.

    If it’s USB, be sure the exact variant you’re getting is well supported. All in one boxes like revos have a massive advantage over build your own, in that if it is supported, there will be plenty others out there that know how to make it work! So it’s easy to find config info etc etc.

    FWIW I set mine up with VDPAU was in its infancy, which involved compiling pre-release versions of stuff etc etc – it’s all a lot better integrated now and should be much easier to set up. I’d not be surprised if it worked “out the box” with mythbuntu (or similar).

    Waderider
    Member

    What sort of remote controls do people use with their Mythboxes?

    You can use the remote that came with your tuner card, but this will only work on the machine with the backend (I think). My frontends use wireless keyboards as remotes – bulky, but there Mythtv is so powerful that a ‘traditional’ remote doesn’t work beyond basic functions. That might be enough for most though.

    IA
    Member

    I use a windows media centre remote. Looks pretty much like any TV/HDD recorder remote. I could setup my receiver to use whatever remote I wanted though.

    TBH I only use a few buttons on it: up/down/left/right, enter, play/pause, back. (then 2 or 3 shortcut keys).

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