How to build the ultimate media centre
21st Aug 2010 | 09:00
Put together a PC for recording and playing media
Build a media PC: choosing components
There are a scary number of ways of playing back your library of movies and music through a TV screen. You can stream them over the LAN via a games console, play them directly from the cloud on an Internet ready TV or simply hook up your laptop via an HDMI cable. You can even play directly off of your iPod.
Many go down the route of least resistance and opt for a do-it-all entertainment on demand set-top box, such as Sky+ or BT Vision, paying a monthly subscription so they never have to get their hands the slightest bit dirty with an extra cable or two.
Nothing, however, has yet displaced building your own media centre to sit at the side of your TV as the ultimate symbol of home hackery. Since the days when phrases like 'digital home' still sounded far reaching, we've been inundated with devices that are supposed to make media streaming easier, but they all add either an extra layer of complexity or force you to relinquish some important level of control.
In the case of a set-top streamer, for example, you still need a separate server, running up your electricity bill and presenting a low to medium fire hazard, somewhere in the house or garden.
Set-top PVRs such as Virgin's V-Box are great, but they are limited for storage space and there's not a lot you can do with recordings once they're made.
No, the only truly efficient, flexible way to get the right setup is to put together a tiny PC to sit by your TV and make it the centre piece of a hi-def audio and video set-up that puts you in complete control of what you watch and listen to. Just don't be surprised if friends call you a geek, because you have to wait for it to boot before they can watch the footie.
So you've decided to build a media centre? Where do you start? It's fairly obvious that your first decision is going to be the case. There are few lounges that have room for a PC tower, even a diminutive mid-rise one, and any large chassis that runs quietly enough is going to be huge.
At the other end of the scale, small-form factor Mini-ITX cases aren't just for low-power Via CPUs any more, you can squash a top-end system into one if you try. Gigabyte even has a board based on Intel's H55 chipset for Core i3/i5/i7 processors that includes USB 3.0 support.
Barely the size of a Nintendo Wii, it gives you the potential for putting a supercomputer in a matchbox. Unfortunately, you'll still need a full-size ATX power supply for the desktop chip, and there's not a lot of room inside a Mini-ITX for a graphics card and internal TV tuners.
For the heat issues alone, we're going to avoid them. Instead, we're sticking with a full-size ATX case, but one of the many that have been designed for living room use (in this instance by Zalman). That means it looks good and some thought has been given to keeping it quiet too – although we're going to improve its acoustics by replacing the two small case fans with a 12cm one.
Kitted out with components
The Zalman case means is that we have plenty of room for extra storage, a twin-tuner TV card and a discrete graphics processor to speed up video encoding. Even with the quad core Intel i5 750 CPU that we've chosen as our processor, it can take a long time to rip a DVD to file using Handbrake.
If you're looking to save money, a dual-core i3 CPU and integrated graphics will still outperform many media centres of yesteryear and is more than capable of pausing live TV and recording two streams at once.
In our extravagance, we've added a small SSD drive to act as our system disk. That should help our media centre boot up or restore from hibernate quickly, and keeping a separate drive for our recordings makes it easy to swap in or add extra capacity later on.
There's a terabyte and a half in there to start, mounted in a silent hard drive from Quiet PC. An alternative option would be to forgo a large internal drive altogether and dump all your audio and video files onto a NAS box for easy streaming anywhere. You'll still need some space for working with video files locally, just not as much.
Inside the media machine, you'll also need an optical drive. We've gone for a combined DVD and Blu-ray burner, which means HD movies and lots of back-up space. It's a corner you can cut by just going for a regular DVD-RW if you like.
Quiet your noise
The final internal component worth noting is the power supply. In the last few PC builds I've put together, the power supply has consistently been the noisiest component, while at the same time being the one you can't do anything to shut up (I'm not brave enough to go prodding around the capacitors inside a 700 to 1,000W PSU).
Silent PSUs, on the other hand, are notoriously unreliable. There's no way you can run a large transformer without generating heat – so we've opted for an intelligently cooled Zalman model, which should provide enough juice for the other components without drowning them out.
Outside of the case, Logitech is the undisputed master of living room peripherals with its awesome, yet relatively inexpensive, Z5500 surround sound system and the excellent Dinovo Mini keyboard controller.
The obvious temptation is to go for a traditional looking remote control, rather than this tiny Bluetooth keyboard with built-in mouse pad, but the thinking here is that if you plan to use your media centre to do anything other than watch TV – such as surf the web or read an email – then a remote won't be enough.
The Dinovo Mini is a gorgeous compromise that does keyboard, mouse and remote in one and folds up to a discrete compact style when not in use. Again, though, it is pricey so if you want to shave £50 or so off of our build price any wireless keyboard and mouse will do.
As far as software goes, the main choice concerns what operating system to use. Windows 7 is excellent for a media centre box, not just because it has good driver support and a TV-style menu screen built-in, but because it's just about the only OS that has effective DPI scaling.
Having a 'ten foot interface' so that the main media menu is usable from the couch is one thing, but in Windows' Display control panel you can compensate for the lack of pixels on a large TV screen by scaling the desktop rendering up so that web pages and dialogue boxes are visible too.
Bill of materials: Cash or card, sir?
Zalman HD501 - £115, quietpc.com
Asus P7P55-M - £66, uk.asus.com
Intel Core i5 750 - £157, www.intel.com
Arctic Cooling Freezer Pro 7 - £18, quietpc.com
4GB Patriot DDR3 - £90, www.patriotmemory.com
Zalman ZM500-ST - £51, quietpc.com
Kingston SSDNow V+ 128GB - £210, www.kingston.com
Samsung Spinpoint Eco Green F2 1.5TB - £80, quietpc.com
Plextor PXB940 - £170, www.plextor-europe.com
HIS HD5550 Silence - £60, www.hisdigital.com
KWORLD PCI-E PE355-2T - £50, www.novatech.com
Logitech Dinovo Mini - £100, www.logitech.co.uk
Logitech Z5500 Digital - £235, www.logitech.co.uk
Build a media PC: how to put it together part 1
1. Debox the motherboard
We're going to assemble some basic components before we put them inside the PC case, because it's a hell of a lot easier to do it now before things start to get cramped.
2. Slip in your CPU
Open up the processor socket by lifting the metal retaining arm and folding back the rectangular cover. Hold the CPU by its edges, there are two notches on the sides.
3. Easy tiger, don't force it
The notches on the CPU match up with the shape of the plastic socket. Sit the chip gently on the pins, taking care not to bend any, so that the notches on the socket and processor match up. It should ease neatly into place, allowing you to fold over the metal cover and push the retaining lever back without exerting any pressure.
4. RAM it in (gently now)
Memory modules use the same method of matching up notches to make sure chips can't be inserted the wrong way round. Align the notches and open up the clip on the edge of the port.
5. The second channel
As you gently push the memory module into place, the clip should slowly lock down on itself securely, holding the chip down. To ensure that you get dual channel performance, you'll need two sticks of RAM, in this case they are slotted into similarly coloured ports – although be aware not all motherboards use the same colour coding.
6. Get primed for the heatsink
Before we fit the motherboard into the chassis, we need to attach the plastic mounting bracket for the heatsink. Use a pair of long-nose pliers, if you have them, as you will need to push the white plugs into the middle holes and lock them in place with the black pins.
7. Two fans – bad, one big'un – good
Now you need to open up the chassis. Make sure you put the lid to one side where it won't get scratched. We're going to remove the two small fans located at the back of the case. We're going to place one much larger 12cm fan in the side mount above the CPU, which will provide just as much airflow with a lot less noise..
8. Shields up, gentlemen
With the fans out of the way, take the RF shield (it should be in the mobo box) and push it through the slim rectangular hole beneath the case fan slots. The shield is the metal strip that's pierced with cutouts for the rear ports. Make sure it goes in the right way up…
9. Mount the motherboard
With the RF shield in the right way round, it's time to slide the motherboard into place. The board must not touch the case or you'll create a short and bork the board, so you'll have to move the brass risers into the holes in the tray that match up with the pattern of pre-drilled holes in the motherboard.
10. Stop, Hammer time
If everything has been aligned correctly, the motherboard should simply drop into place and slide into the holes in the RF shield. Check all the risers match up one last time and screw the motherboard into position with the large screws supplied with the case.
11. Heatsinking the CPU
While there's still room in the case we'll fit the CPU heatsink. Screw it on top of the plastic bracket we fitted in step six, taking care not to disturb the square of thermal paste.
12. Start your fans please
Attach the fan power supply to the CPU fan header pins and move on to the hard drives – you'll find an adaptor for the slimline SSD drive in the case accessories. The drive sits inside and is locked into position with small screws.
13. Strip out the caddy shack
Now remove the hard drive caddy in the chassis by releasing the large thumbscrew. There's space for three regular drives – more if you're using SSDs. For now, fix the SSD into its adaptor and put it into one of the removable trays before putting the caddy back into place.
14. Swappable shoppable
Our largest drive, the Samsung Spinpoint 1.5TB is going to go in the hotswap bay in the front of the chassis. To fit it, just open the lower door on the front and pull out the plastic tray. The hard drive should fit snugly in the retainers. Note: before you put the tray back in, we'll need to fit the Blu-ray drive.
15. Blu-ray me so fa
Remove the optical drive and hotswap bay by loosening the thumbscrew inside the front of the chassis and the bolt on top. Like the hard drive caddy, it lifts out for easy access. Slide the Blu-ray drive into the top bay until it clicks, then screw it into position.
16. Exhaust port
With the caddy out of the way, pop off the side of the case nearest the processor by releasing the plastic clips on the inside and unscrewing the back, then slide the 12cm fan into place behind the grill. Make sure that the fan is oriented to blow air out of the case, not to suck it in (or you'll be in for a surprise), and bolt it down from the outside.
Build a media PC: how to put it together part 2
17. Hook up and shut up
You can hook the fan power cable up to the chassis fan header on the mobo or the throttled controls behind the hotswap bay – it's your choice. Now push the side of the case back on.
18. Buckle it down, buddy
After you've put the caddy back in, you can slide the hotswap drive back through the front and begin cabling all three drives up. Just take a SATA cable for each and attach it to the ports on the motherboard. The hotswap drive port is on the back of the caddy.
19. Fit for PCI positioning
To fit the GPU card and the TV tuner, you'll need to remove two of the silver expansion covers from the back of the case. Take out the cover that lines up to the top 16 lane PCI-e port, and one that lines up with a smaller slot lower down.
20. TV and video in
Push the two cards firmly into the expansion ports on the motherboard and secure them with screws at the rear of the case. Don't worry about the half-height adaptors that are included with both. You won't need them for this build.
21. Supplying the power
The final component is the power supply. This fits into the space beneath the motherboard so that the three-pin connector is facing out the back. Align it so that the holes in the rear match the pattern around the slot, and bolt it into position from the outside of the case.
22. Pinning the power supply
You'll need to connect the motherboard's 2-pin ATX power supply as a second four-pin adaptor near the CPU socket. Now string a SATA cable to the optical and SSD drives – the hot swap drive and fans will need four-pin Molex connectors attached to the rear of the bay.
23. Front panel fun
Finally, all that's left to do is attach the front panel connectors. This can be a bit fiddly, but if you follow the guide in the motherboard manual you should be able to hook up the power switch, indicator lights, audio and USB connectors without too many problems.
24. The turn of the screw
With all the cabling done and tucked away neatly, it's now time to close up the chassis by sliding on the lid and doing up the thumbscrews at the rear. Now you need to hook up your peripherals, power leads and your monitor. You may need an old cabled keyboard for the next part of the build.
25. Installing Windows
Installing Windows is simple. On the first bootup press [DEL] to get into the BIOS and navigate to Boot > Boot order. Now set the Blu-ray drive as your first boot device, put your Windows 7 DVD in and just follow the onscreen instructions. Make sure that you install the Windows operating system to the smaller SSD drive if you're using it.
26. Install the drivers
Install the drivers for your keyboard, mobo and and graphics card. Don't use the Quick Setup program for the TV card – we'll be using Media Centre, so launch 'E:\Driver\Setup.exe'.
27. Set up the software
Now you can start up Windows Media Centre. On the first run through, it'll want to set up your hardware. This is a pretty straightforward process, and you will need to give it control over both tuners in your TV card. It can take a bit of time, though – don't panic if nothing seems to be happening.
28. TV shenanigans and aerial antics
Nine times out of ten, the first automated set-up you try won't work properly. If you click through the manual options for TV setup, there's a better chance you'll find channels, otherwise you may want to invest in a signal booster (Maplin sells them for £15).
29. Get the right drive
Before you go any further, scroll down the main Media Centre menu to Task and choose 'Settings'. Then click TV > Recorder > Recorder storage and change the drive for files to your larger data drive.
30. For your viewing pleasure
If everything has gone according to plan, you should now have a live electronic program guide in Media Centre's TV screen, from which you can click to a current channel, schedule recording and find out information about programs.
31. Pause and record
From the Media Centre screen you can go to full screen view, pause (but we advise not pausing on James May's mug that'd be horrible) and record live TV and change channel with the cursor keys. Anything you decide to record will be saved in a folder called 'Recorded TV', which is automatically linked to your library folders in Windows Explorer.
32. Sharing your favourite shows
Because everything is logged straight into you Windows Media Player libraries, you can stream shows to other devices around the house. In order to burn them to DVD, though, you'll need to convert them to DVR-MS files (Right-click the show file) first.
33. Feed me more content
You can access a fairly limited supply of online channels and TV shows from Microsoft's online video player, but for a larger number of streams you're better off installing a third party program, such as Boxee, for example.
First published in PC Format Issue 242
Liked this? Then check out 15 Media Center tweaks and tips for Windows 7
Sign up for TechRadar's free Weird Week in Tech newsletter
Get the oddest tech stories of the week, plus the most popular news and reviews delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up at http://www.techradar.com/register