Wednesday, January 23, 2008

How to build a Vista Media Center PC for $398 - ** UPDATE **

For almost a year I've been trying to find an elegant way to stream movies to my TV in the bedroom.

I started with what I thought was a simple solution. I have Vista Ultimate on the home PC and I said, "hey, I'll just go to Fry's and pickup a Media Center Extender". Well I didn't research it enough and bought something I had to take back because they only offered extenders that worked with MCE2005, not the Vista edition. Found out that Xbox 360 was the only available extender at the time. Thought to myself, "That's Great !! ... I can do the movie thing AND play Halo 3 !"

Luckily someone I knew had one for sale. I got the whole setup and 5 games for $300, I thought I was getting a great deal. Now of course I had to buy a wireless adapter because no network cable was dropped to the back of my TV.

I spent hours, days, and weeks, trying to tweak this thing ! ARRRGHHHH, I could get it to connect, but then it would drop all the time from weak wireless. Then after repositioning and getting it stable most of my media wouldn't play. WHAT NO DIVX support ?!?!?! ... what the heck do you mean I can't download an update to make it work ?!!??!? .... oh they make something that can transcode the divx on the fly and stream to the extender. Cool, let me try that out.

So I installed Transcode 360 on the home PC. It did what it said it would do, but lacked what I'll call the "Mother Test". You have to be able to hand the remote to your mother, give her a task, and have her complete it without any instructions. I've had a Phillips Pronto remote control for years now, and that passed the mother-test after all my programing. That thing has stood the test of time, I still use it for all the stuff upstairs. Go get one.

The mother-test with the xbox controller and telling mom to play a movie did not go so well.

  • "No, no, press the X button, NOT the A button"
  • "You have to select the media tab from the main xbox screen"
  • "Why are you logging in with my gamer tag ?!"
  • "STOP pushing the right trigger button!"
  • "No select MEDIA CENTER, not MEDIA PLAYER !"
  • "Why did you select the DVD on the xbox screen ? .. no no no, not that type of movie"
  • "why are you pressing the B button ? I told you the X button"
  • "Ohh wait the media center interface is coming up, oh joy"
  • "No, go to pictures and video, not TV"
  • "No, you can't click on it, you have to hit the info button"
  • "Ok, now press the transcode button"
  • - xbox loses connection, restart step 1
Mom says, "why can't we just put a DVD in ? Your DVD player is right THERE !"

My friend Jeff was doing the same thing at about the same time, he went down the Media Center PC route and has had great luck. So that was enough for me, too much trouble, and a guinea pig friend that did all my testing :-). The xbox was packed up and sold on ebay.

So here's what I finally built and I LOVE it.

Step 1 - Order a Dell Inspiron 531s from the Dell Outlet store. Get the cheapest one you can find with a wireless adapter and Vista Home Premium. Premium comes with Media Center. You can find some right now for $239. The case is awesome, really small and the white and silver look really nice. Doesn't even look like a PC.

Step 2 - Go online, or to you local computer parts store and get at least 1 GB more RAM, and a 500GB SATA drive. 500GB is the sweet spot right now. The Inspiron has room for two drives but you'll have to gut the drive that ships with it. I bought 2 for 89.99 at Frys. And another tip, check the jumpers and remove them if they are limiting the drive to 1.5Gbs, instead of 3Gbs. Jeff and I missed this at first.

Step 3 - Go on Ebay and order an MCE remote control and keyboard combo. I found a guy that has several new Microsoft logo'd ones for $49. Search ebay for "MCE Remote". These are the backlit ones and a great deal. The local stores sell just the logo'd remote for $39.99, and it is NOT backlit.

Step 4 - Wait for the parts to arrive - that's the hard part :-)

Step 5 - Assemble everything. Install a remote desktop control package so you can logon and control the machine from your main home desktop. I use UltraVNC. Also share the drives from the media center PC to the main desktop machine so you can easily copy new content to the media PC. You could also setup the Media PC to stream content from the main desktop machine. I'm against because of all the wireless problems I had. I don't want to be watching a movie and lose the connection. The added advantage is the Media PC machine is also now your remote backup machine. I use MS SyncToy to backup from one to the other.

Step 6 - Change the settings in Media Center so it autostarts when the computer starts and takes over. If you accidently setup multiple accounts and the computer starts at the logon screen, follow these intructions to fix it and make it autologon. With the remote connected, when you press the power button, the PC will go into standby. Shuts down the drive and everything, just like a laptop. Press the remote control power button again, and it wakes up. I thought you might have to manually press the button on the PC, but nope. Install DIVX and AC3 filter codecs to play 99% of the content out there.

Step 7 - Enjoy the out of the box experience, or tweak settings and see what others have done by following the users on The Green Button.

My parts list :
  • $229 - Inspiron 531s with AMD Athlon Dual core 2300 - 1GB RAM - 250GB SATA drive
  • $ 40 - 2 x 1GB DDR2 667Mhz dimms from Fry's
  • $180 - 2 x Maxtor 500GB SATA II internal drives from Fry's
  • $ 39 - 1 x Media Center Remote Control from Fry's
  • Total = $488 (do it with one drive for $398)
Hope this helps. If you're in town, come check it out with your own eyes.

ohhh BTW, passes the "Mother-test" with flying colors !

I love poker, paid for this experiment.

** UPDATE ** - Uninstall the codecs mentioned above and install FFDShow ... I started having problems with the videos. The audio was fine, but the video would start to stutter. Then in a few seconds the video would look like it was fast forwarding to catch up with the audio. Very annoying. I thought it was a problem with background processes in Vista. I stopped every unnecessary service and turned off disk indexing on the drives. Problem was still there. Several posts on the Green Button said it was most likely a codec problem. Installed FFDShow last night and problem solved.


Anonymous said...

This is a great post, thanks for documenting.

Anonymous said...

AppleTV. $229

Can even rent movies for $2.99 from it.

Passes mom test with a lot less work ;)

PrettyPokerBoy said...

Well this just has to be the Tom I know and love. Who else would spam me with Apple love :-) .... I love my iPhone.

Didn't like the reviews I was reading about AppleTV, and I'm still a PC guy at heart. We should make a commercial together !

How's life ?

JeeJoo said...

I got a 531s with the 256mb DVI/S-Video out video card as well as the wireless NIC.

I plan on buying a Half-Height tuner Hauppauge card for making into my DVR as well.

But how do I hook up the audio to everything!? Either my Onkyo receiver or to my ViewSonic HD LCD TV.

PrettyPokerBoy said...

My TV downstairs had VGS input as well as 1/8" input plug for audio, so I just did the 1/8" audio out to the input on the TV.

For the upstairs, I have a Sony receiver and went to Fry's and got a converter that converted the 1/8" plug into 2 RCA style jacks. So then I just ran that from the audio out of the PC to the inputs on the receiver.

I'm sure there are some fancier sound cards that might have optical output with 7.1 dolby surrond, but not necessary for my purposes.