Saturday, December 29, 2012

Lessons Learned: Media Center PC

A few years ago I built a media center PC. Yesterday I replaced it with a new one, and in the time between I made notes.

The biggest mistake, and the root of almost every issue with the first media PC, was buying into the small form factor hype. I will say it is interesting, a little fun, and in some geeky way ITX is cute (those little DC-DC power supplies mashed into the 24-pin ATX plug get me every time). Like everyone else building a media PC I wanted small, powerful, and quiet--and maybe cheap. For some unknown reason the VCR set the standard for media appliance size.

I believe the focus on a small form factor misses the spirit of do-it-yourself. It limits options, and standard size parts yield standard size repair costs. If I was really focusing on size I'd get a Roku or buy a smart TV. I'll list component by component my frustrations with my old media PC and how it affected the parts chosen for version 2.0.

Part List for Media Center PC 2.0

Case: SILVERSTONE Grandia Series GD05B-USB3.0
Power Supply: PC Power and Cooling Silencer MK III
Motherboard: ASUS Maximus V Gene
Memory: 2x CORSAIR Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB)
Storage Drive: Western Digital WD Green WD20EARX 2TB*
Optical Drive: LITE-ON Black 4X BD-ROM
Tuner: SiliconDust HDHomeRun DUAL HDHR3-US

These parts worked well for me, and they were chosen after many years and many frustrations  Hope this helps someone. Details and reasonings below.

*not new, from old media center pc
**network device, also not new

Two tools.
One of the best things about standards on modern PC's is things go together easy. I only used two tools to put this together, and one of them was an optional box opening aid.

The old case was too small, wires crapped into every available space, doesn't vent well, the list goes on. The only good thing about it was the power button. It was the perfect size to be operated by a big toe. Bottom line I bought a bigger case this time around--SILVERSTONE Grandia Series GD05B-USB3.0. Sad but true fact, this is the most expensive computer case I've ever purchased for myself. Of all the cases I considered this one was the shallowest (measuring front to back) that would fit a mini-ATX board. It felt like a mansion compared to the one replaced. Some wires had tight turns, but over all very roomy. The drives mount on removable frames so you can access the power supply and main board. This is a pain compared to a traditional case, but it saves room. In theory it shouldn't have to be opened up much.

Power Supply
The first media center PC I put together was a small case which came with it's own power supply. I hate cases that come with their own power supply--or to be more specific I hate the low quality crap power supplies that come with cases (newegg lets you sort cases by a power supply included option, choose no).

For as long as I've been in the PC building/repairing/hobby business, I've been telling people not to over look the power supply. It's the most critical component. It can fry everything! Cheap power supplies shouldn't even be legal to sell. Non-standard shapes should also be illegal (guess what the choices were for my small case?).

So about a year ago I had to replace the crap quality, misshapen, power supply that came with the case. The one I bought was a decent brand (Antex I believe) but the screw holes did not line up. For the past year the power supply in my media center PC has been sitting there not screwed down--irksome.

Media Center PC 2.0 has a PC Power and Cooling Silencer MK III. I love PC Power and Cooling, but I swear somewhere I read they'd never make modular power supplies.

Funny story: The power supply mounts about a half inch off the bottom of the case to allow for air flow. While screwing it in place I propped it up with my finger. When the screws clamp down, they hold it stout, trapping my finger between the power supply and the case. I was unable to remove my hand without loosening the screws.

The first motherboard was chosen because it was on a short search result list of ITX boards that supported AMD CPU's and had an HDMI port. I remember it was not a Jetway. It might have been an Asus or MSI. Over all it was a good board. My only complaint was the TV had to be on and looking at the PC input when it booted up or there would be no sound (I do not know if this is true on the new one).

The new board might be the most expensive motherboard I've ever purchased too: ASUS Maximus V Gene. Hands down the most beautiful motherboard packaging I've ever seen. I had a minor problem getting it to see two hard drives and the optical drive, but I refused to look at the manual. Eventually I found the plug combination that worked.

I almost went with an add in video card, but the on board video cards have really stepped up to the plate. As long as it's not a gaming computer the integrated Intel 4000 whatevers seems okay.

Old media center use SO-DIMMs, this one does not.
Also, 16GB trumps 2GB in every way.

This is the first computer I've ever built for home use that was not AMD. Every computer I build at work is Intel. As much as I love an underdog, I have to admit Intel has become impressive. The Intel Core i5-3570K accounted for about 25% of the whole rig cost.

Hard Drive
The new media PC has two hard drives. A 2TB Western Digital green I took out of the old media PC (hey all the recorded shows were already there), and a solid state drive. I've never had one before. It's a safe bet my future desktop will boot from one. What it lacks in size it makes up for in 11 second boot time.

Optical Drive
Lots of firsts with this computer; another one is a blu-ray drive. Never had one. Not really impressed. The mechanics and over all structure of an optical drive haven't changed since the CD-ROM.

TV Tuner
The new media PC does not have a TV tuner card in it. The old one did, but a while back I picked up a SiliconDust HDHomeRun Dual and it has been one of the coolest little network add on's ever. My only regret is not picking up a second when I saw them on sale. It might not be possible to have too many of these on a network.

Still Windows 7, same license even. Windows is family friendly, and Microsoft did well with Windows Media Center. It's just a shame they don't do much with it these days. I did install XBMC too, it's great for Internet shows. This is a nice simple tool to swap between WMC and XBMC. If XBMC could do live TV without the hassle of a TV server back end, no doubt it would replace WMC. This is a good place to note the XBMC Android remote is one of the coolest things I've done with my smart phone since I got one about a week ago.

Someone please tell Asus the difference between a driver and an application. I understand they can make a dollar packaging software with products, but come on Asus you market to Enthusiast. The cleverly named Asus InstAll will install Chrome along with the drivers by default--lame.

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