MCE 2005: The Quick And Dirty Build Guide

The Quick And Dirty MCE2005 Build Guide

Distilled down to the very basics, after the rambling mess that was the original, for those that asked quick’n’dirty questions.

I use my MCE primarily as a DTV PVR (Personal Video Recorder), DVD watching/recording and music playing system, so I’m kinda biased towards a dedicated system in front of the telly. However, a Media Center PC is an extension of Windows XP, and people do run MCE as their "real" computing environment for home. It’s all good.


Recent-Spec PC

Anything built in the last few years should be fine. <=2Ghz is starting to push it, I would guess. Possible to cut corners, but keep IO performance in mind.

For SD, 512MB RAM and a 128MB video card (RADEON 9550) seems to be more than enough. For HD, consider at least a Geforce 6600+ or ATI 9800/X-series (>300), and jam 1+GB of RAM into the motherboard, just to be prepared for the future.

Athlon 64s are fine (Cool’n’Quiet clock throttling can be a useful benefit for a "quiet" PC), as are 64-bit capable Pentiums – but keep in mind that XP MCE is a 32-bit OS, and there’s not yet any real point to going 64-bit in 99.9999% of MCE installations.

You can buy HP Media Center PCs with loads of trimmings for around $AUD2000. Build Your Own prices range from about $1200 up, for a Good One. But there’s no shame in buying off the shelf.

If I had my time again, I’d not get as small a case for the MCE as I did last time. A desktop-sized system (eg, not MicroATX) would be better for expansion, and probably somewhat quieter and cooler too.

Fast Hard Disk(s)

I/O is critical. Can’t emphasise that enough: if you have fast hard disks with a big cache, life will be infinitely superior to life with a slow hard disk or limited cache. Do not skimp. If you can get 2 into the system without causing thermal or space problems, consider putting 2 drives in there on separate channels, and spread the content over both.

TV Tuner Card(s) and an Aerial

Includes USB Tuners. Must support BDA (Broadcast Driver Architecture, MCE 2005 standard).

  • Digital Tuners for Digital Free To Air/DTV (use in place of a Digital Set Top Box (STB))
  • Analog Tuners for regular non-Digital broadcasts
  • Analog Tuners for Foxtel including Foxtel Digital, and Optus Vision / other non-broadcast supplier – everything that isn’t Digital TV is just captured from the set top box output

Aerial: Reception is critical. DTV is typically all-or-nothing – if the signal glitches too much, you commonly lose a block (say, 1/2 second in a medium-severity case) or so of the show you’re recording.

Network Adapter / Broadband Connection

Without a network adapter of some form (Wireless/Ethernet) and preferably a broadband connection, well, it’s usable, sure, but it’s like owning a VCR. The really cool stuff requires some kind of internet connection, most importantly to download the Electronic Program Guide (TV Guide)!

MCE Remote and IR Blaster

An MCE-compatible remote is required. For $AUD77, you can have the "official" one, which comes with 2 IR blasters (for use with Analog tuners and Foxtel/Optus Vision/other STB).

Fast vs Loud

The primary tradeoff to keep in mind when choosing the hardware is fast vs loud. Faster components tend to be hotter, and the cooling required tends to be noisier. Higher-performance systems squeezed into smaller cases might be asking for thermal trouble. Underperforming components may cause distress.


MCE 2005

Purchasable with hardware. Should be fresh installed. Do not attempt to install MCE on an existing PC.

BDA Drivers for the TV Tuner

Sometimes included in-box, sometimes not – check with the manufacturer. These are critical.

DVD Decoder

Used to watch recorded TV. Popular choices are WinDVD, PowerDVD, Nvidia PureVideo. Expect to pay $20-40.

Electronic Program Guide (EPG or just "Guide")

MCE without an EPG is like a mildly more capable VCR. With an EPG, it’s like, um, well, something good. Just point and click to record a show. That’s cool.

I’ve gone into the Aussie EPG options previously: BladeRunner Pro, EPGRunner, IceTV ($). I currently use IceTV.


Xbox 360

Another reason for networking: XBox 360 can be used as a "Media Center Extender" across the network – which means it can act as a remote display for the Media Centre PC. Kids upstairs on the small telly with the Xbox 360 can enjoy the same MCE experience as someone sitting in front of the big-screen TV downstairs watching a DVD or a recorded show!

(I’ll be trying that out as soon as they’re available out here… tea leaves (eg, lack of any Australian launch announcement to date) say late Feb to March 2006).