I built a Media Centre PC earlier this year, so thought I’d share the experience. I know the Yanks call it Media Center, but I’m Australian, so please excuse my automatic “re”.
I write stream-of-coffee style (like stream of consciousness but more haphazard), so here’s a convenient ordered set of items to keep in mind as the overall plan:
- PC Hardware and MCE Remote
- Install MCE 2005 and HW Drivers (video, networking, audio, so on)
- Enable and Test S3 Suspend Mode
- Install Tuner(s)
- Install DVD Decoder Software
- Install EPG Software
AusPCMarket had a pre-configured system available with one of those fancy brushed-metal-and-faux-wood-panelling cases that’s designed to make a PC look tasteless enough to fit in with the rest of your stereo equipment, and I couldn’t resist getting one that clashed perfectly with all my other mismatched stereo gear.
I do end up with a net reduction in clash, as I get to replace a mismatched DVD player, VCR and Set Top Box with one unit, so it can’t be all bad.
The package deal of the day came with a P4P800-VMX (trimmed motherboard with PCI riser), a 3.0 Ghz HT P4, 512MB RAM, DVD burner and a 200GB disk. All I had to do was add the video card and the tuner.
For video, I went with an ATI Radeon 9550; figured anything higher-end would probably be wasted on my 10 year old 68cm telly.
Add the Official Microsoft MCE Remote, and that’s the basics taken care of (minus the tuners).
Then-prices on the basic hardware components were about $AU1350. Now, I reckon you could do it for $1200 or less, and you could probably skimp on bits and pieces to get it even cheaper.
Installing Media Centre 2005
This is the easy bit! It’s easy if you’re building a new box.
You can’t install MCE over Windows XP – you need to install with the Media Centre media, and use the specific Media Centre CD Key (as I found when I accidentally grabbed the wrong key and ended up with standard XP Pro). When it prompts you for the “XP Service Pack 1” CD or similar, you insert your MCE2005 CD 2 instead, and you’re away. Nice and straightforward.
WindowsUpdate it when done, and you’re ready to rumble.
Suspend To RAM
I was fortunate; the Suspend To RAM hacks listed at TGB Just Worked for me.
Microsoft get fairly stern about UsbBiosHacks though.
Why’s it important? With Regular PCs, when you hit Standby, you might notice that their fans stay on. I want the computer to pretend it’s actually asleep, and turn its fans off, like a faster Hibernate.
My Grand Plan was to replace an Opentel ODT4200PVR (it had started out pretty well, but successive firmware upgrades seemingly made it flakier and flakier) with the MCE box , so I needed dual tuners.
I randomly selected the AverTV A16A OEM tuners based on someone’s comment that they have “good channel change speed” (it’s about a second to switch), and I’ve been very happy with them for the most part. $147 each, two needed.
Why two tuners? Well, it’s like this: MCE has an attention span limited by the number of tuners available to it. If you have one tuner, it can only watch one show at a time, on one channel at a time. When you add a VCR to a TV, you’re actually adding a second tuner: the VCR can watch something, and the TV can watch something else completely independently of the VCR.
The second tuner on an MCE lets the computer watch (and record) something else, while the first tuner is busy watching whatever it is watching. My MCE is frequently used to record two tv programs while watching a recorded tv show. It’s great; I’m amazed it works so well (especially after that last PVR), but it works really well. I know other MCE owners that have told me that they never watch live TV any more – they only watch things that have already been recorded (and get away with a single tuner that way).
I went with twin digital tuners; I’ve been digital for a while now, and I’m not going back to grainy receptionsville (I’d rather have big blocky rendering artifacts at DVD-quality, thanks).
The Channel 9 And SBS Problem
While talking about tuners, it seems like a good time to mention that uhm, there’s a problem.
MCE 2005 in Australia doesn’t officially support digital television, only analog (or analogue if you’re into ue’s). So while it works out of the box for the most part, it wasn’t particularly well-tested with the Aussie digital TV market.
The upshot of this is, if you get a couple of vanilla TV Tuners, and they don’t implement hacks in the driver specifically for Australia that let them detect Channel 9 and SBS… you’ll need to edit PSISDECD.DLL, or find a ready-made version that’s been edited for you.
Hauppage’s MCE digital tuners reportedly implement this in their drivers for Australia, which is nice (if it’s true).
That is the suckiest part of the setup. Er, short of the EPG problem. More on that after a word about DVD decoders…
It’s Not Just A DVD Decoder
If you buy an off-the-shelf MCE machine, chances are the OEM will have preinstalled a DVD decoder package for you. If you build your own, it’s something you’ll have to buy.
Calling it a DVD Decoder is a little misleading, because it’s also used by MCE to view live and recorded TV. Without the DVD decoder, you can still record TV, because it records the data to disk in the same format it’s received, but you can’t watch it – the DVD decoder acts as a “stream interpreter” for the raw data.
Popular choices are Nvidia Purevideo, Intervideo WinDVD and Cyberlink PowerDVD. ATI have one too, but it’s not clear which cards it ships with (All In Wonders are a pretty good bet). Each have strengths, each have probably caused trouble in some iteration or another; find one you’re happy with, and stick with it. As a note, installing more than one at a time can cause weirdness, so don’t do it.
All I Want For Christmas: A Working EPG
Good grief. Australian TV networks’ recalcitrance to license data for EPGs is legendary. They know it would benefit consumers: they just won’t do it. So, the only solutions are lacklustre at best, broken horribly in places at worst. Hopefully Microsoft Australia work out a licensing deal to get reliable EPG data into the online guide, and enable the online service for Australia.
Still, these days, everyone and their dog has a solution, all of which work to varying extents:
We have, in no particular order: IceGuide (commercial guide data provider), EPG Runner (all in one), and most recently, Bladerunner Pro.
There’s been talk of a Media Center 2005 Update due sometime soonish; hopefully, it’ll be sooner rather than later. Hopefully, they’ll announce a working – free – EPG. And hopefully it’ll fix – at the least – the Channel 9 and SBS bugs.
Next Time Around
What would I do differently next time?
- I’d get a case with more space and capability for expansion. The case I have looks pretty good, and works reasonably well, but the fans aren’t particularly quiet, and the PCI slots are all used up now. If I wanted to add a third tuner (does such a thing even work?), I couldn’t. Pity me now, please. While People seem to like the idea of putting something that doesn’t look like a PC in the living room, I don’t care. I’ll take functionality over Feng Shui.
- I’d consider getting a dual-tuner card with an inbuilt antenna loop. My tuners don’t have a tuner loop output (eg, an In and Out aerial connection), so I have to use an aerial splitter and a couple of longish wires.
- I’d get a case with a slightly less bright LED for the hard disk, but I’m reasonably comfortable with the current one, even if it does light up the living room at night.
- Go Dual Core X64 with Cool’nQuiet. The CPU spends virtually no time maxed out, but when it does, I’d like the experience to be pleasant. And when the CPU is doing nothing, I’d like my power bill reduced, please!
- Research which tuners actively fix the SBS/Channel 9 issues with MCE, and buy two of them, rather than futz around with DLL editing.