How To – Low cost, high power Media Center PC (HTPC) – Part 1

So a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a small review on XBMC. Having used this wonderful piece of software for as long as I can remember, I thought I would take the time to write a little how to. Hopefully the end result of this, will be a nifty little Media Center PC (HTPC), capable of playing back full HD content, for as cheap as possible.

The Machine…

First things first, lets see how much an off the shelf Media Center will set you back. So from google i chose the first link from the search results. (not very scientific, I know.) Then looked at their cheapest Media Center PC (HTPC). Which would be able to play back Full HD. The spec is below.

  • Intel Core i3 2100 (2 x 3.1GHz)
  • 2 GB DDR3 1333 MHZ RAM
  • 500 GB SATA-II 7200 RPM
  • Silverstone Grandia GD04B Case
  • 500W Cooler Master PSU
  • Integrated HD Graphics
  • 5.1 HD Sound
  • Blu-Ray & DVD Player
  • Asus P8H67-M LE Motherboard
  • 54 MB Wireless Lan
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64 BIT
  • USB2, USB3, DVI & HDMI

All for the princely sum of £538.19 (inc Vat), that s by no means a bad machine, and it should playback full HD, but you only have 500gb of space, which as any Media collector will tell you, that goes and it goes FAST…

So, what do I recommend. Well first up, we need to look for a nice small unit that can hide under or even behind the TV, with enough connectivity, to ensure your able to connect to what ever other AV equipment you like. Now firstly, I use ebay a lot when im looking for parts for a project like this, you don’t have to, feel free to buy new, but some of the best savings can be had just by buying something second-hand.

For the base unit that the rest of this build is going to center around, we need to look for a device like this, the ACER Aspire Revo. I personally have the Acer Aspire Revo R3610, which I picked up off ebay for £100. Lets quickly take a look at the specs on my Revo.

Acer Aspire Revo

  • Intel Atom (330) 1.6GHz Processor with 1MB L2 Cache and 533MHz
  • 2048MB SDRAM
  • 250GB Serial ATA Hard Drive
  • nVidia ION Chipset with Integrated Graphics
  • HDMI
  • Optical Out

Now the first thing you will notice when you compare the specs, is that the hard drive is only half the size of the above, and the processor seems to be a bit wimpy,also it has no CD/DVD/Blu-Ray drive, worry not, for I have an awnser to all. I personally like to be able to watch any of my content on any of my devices, without having to leave a single machine online in order to serve the content, so in the next section, we will be looking at NAS (Network Attached Storage). The little processor is also of no concern, as this is going to be devoted to playing back only Audio and Video formats, and for this we will use the ION Chipset, rather than the onboard processor. The ION chipset from nVidia is specifically designed to provide full HD decoding without costing the earth. (More info here).

One other item of note, as most people already have a DVD or Blu-ray player, my builds never include on, now you can add an external USB DVD player to this build with no problem, a Blu-Ray player on the other hand becomes a little more complicated, and if im honest, not always worth the hassle. I would hold fire on the Blu-Ray player for now…

Now if you can’t find a Acer Revo R3610, any of this line should be fine, as long as they have the ION(2) chipset, also, any device from another manufacture that makes a small form factor machine with an ION chipset will also be fine, hell, if you want to build your own machine, as long as its ION based it will be cool. Also make sure you have enough HDMI, and audio outputs to match with the AV equipment you will be running.

The Storage..

So now we have hopefully picked out a machine, which will form the basis of the Media Center (HTPC). Next up we will need somewhere to store all this material that you have acquired. I tend to buy DVD’s and then rip them to AVI or some other exciting format, so I can keep the DVD nice and secure in its case, and not have to get off my ass to watch something. This means I am very space hungry. This brings us onto the topic of NAS, or Network Attached Storage.

In its most simple terms, a NAS box, is simply a disk (or array of disks), that is directly connected to your home network, without the need of a computer front end. This is possible where you will spend the most of your cash, as it’s the one item that I would recommend is not bought second-hand. Now depending on your collection habits, I would recommend between 1Tb and 4Tb of storage. You will also need to ask yourself, do I care if I lose my data, if you do care, make sure you buy a NAS box with either Mirroring, or full Raid 5. This will of course push up the price. If on the other hand, you don’t care, feel free to buy a device with a single big drive.

Mirrored/Raid Device.

At the cheaper end of the market, for a redundant 1Tb system, you can take a look at the My Book World Edition II WDH2NC20000 NAS server – 1 TB, available from around £149. These devices are simple to set up, in as much as you turn them on plug them into the network, and away you go.

Sitting a little higher up the price plan, something like the QNAP TS-412, with 4 drive bays and proper raid, can be had (excluding the cost of the disks), for around £290 ish. But don’t forget you will need to purchase disks for this, and the setup, is a little more complex, nothing scarily so, but you will need to spend some more time reading around.

Single Disk Device.

A single disk device, is defiantly the cheapest option, but with a disk ranging from 1Tb all the way through to 3Tb thats a lot of data to lose in one go should the worst happen. I have had and am still using a 1st Gen My Book World Edition NAS server – 1 TB, the 3rd gen ones, WDH1NC10000 NAS server – 1 TB can be had for as little as £85, the 2Tb version £143 and the 3Tb version £157. So as you can see you will get more bang for your pound, but at the cost of data security.

Point and Click.

So now hopefully you will have chosen your device, and your storage system, the last piece of the Media Center PC (HTPC) puzzle, is the remote control. Earlier, I mentioned that we would be building a XBMC Media Center PC (HTPC), as such, the easiest way to get a remote control is to use your smart phone… Currently there is a great app available for all android devices called, the “Official XBMC Remote”, which does exactly what it says on the tin, and best of all its free. Get it here. For the Jesus phone (iPhone), search the apple store for XBMC remote, the best of the lot, costs about £0.69. Both have some great functionality which we will discuss in the next chapter.

If by some amazing feat you don’t own an Jesus phone, or an android device, you will need to scope out the large collection of remotes available, just make sure you purchase one that comes with an IR-Reciever as these tend to be the easiest to set up. The Hauppauge MCE Remote Control Kit Remotecontrol – Infrared, is supposed to be good, and can be had for around £26.

Well that’s all for this part of the guide, next time, we will look at how we go about installing and setting up the Media Center PC (HTPC). As well as some nice optional extras.

Any questions, please leave a comment.



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