My Media PC

Introduction

I decided I wanted a living room PC. I wanted this to play DVDs, record TV, etc like a normal Media Centre PC, but also to be able to proxy my PS2 console onto the wireless network so I can play online, and also be able to chat online/browse the web/check email while watching TV.

Obviously such a machine needed to be small and quiet, since it would be living in my living room (the PS2 can play DVDs, but is a bit noisy, and doesn't play US DVDs very well - DVD Region X allows me to watch DVDs from Australia though).

The Hardware

After much deliberation and research, I finally settled on a hardware spec.

  • Case: Antec Aria Micro ATX Case (£62)
  • Motherboard: Asus A7S8X-MX (£29)
  • CPU: AMD Sempron 2800 (£55)
  • CPU Cooler: CoolerMaster Vortex Dream 7 (£17)
  • Graphics card: Gainward FXPro660TV/AGP 8x 64MB DDR FX5200 chipset with TV-Out (£25.22)
  • Optical drive: 16X Samsung DVD-ROM (Black) (£14.95)
  • RAM: 512MB PC2700 DDR SDRAM (£34.85)
  • Hard disk: 120Gb Seagate Barracuda7 (8Mb cache, 7200rpm) (£47.75)
  • TV Card: Hauppauge WinTV PVR250 (£67.49)

Total cost: £353.26 +VAT (£415.08 incl) (Also plus delivery, but I happened to buy a 17" TFT monitor along with it...)

Obviously by the time you read this all the prices will have dropped. It may also have been possible to get some parts cheaper by splitting the order between multiple shops, but then you pay postage... I got all the parts from Aria.

The parts were selected to provide reasonable performance, but to be quiet. SilentPC Review was quite helpful here.

Putting it all together

I've put together PCs before, but never in such a small case. Here's a few photos of it in construction.

Step 1. Check everything's there. The picture shows all the parts laid out, in their boxes. The flowers aren't part of the PC.

Step 2. Have a good look at the case. Shiny! It wasn't immediately obvious how to get the side panel off - it sort of looked like you had to hold some clips while pushing it, but that wasn't the case (no pun intended). It just slides forward slightly then comes off. Needed a good push, that's all.

Step 3. Right, let's get to work. Unpacked the motherboard, and the CPU. I punched out the rear panel that came with the case that covers the IO ports, and replaced it with the one that came with the motherboard, since the layout was slightly different. This pic shows the CPU in place on the motherboard, before adding the heatsink.

Step 4. Fit the heatsink. This was a bit of a battle. Usually you can hook the first side in by tilting the heatsink, hooking the lug, then pushing down and hooking the other side. There are tall capacitors that get in the way a bit, but it can be done. It's plain sailing from here!

Step 5. Put the motherboard into the case. This photo shows the RAM, Graphics card and TV card also fitted (they were fitted in that order). The next step is to plug all those case cables into the relevant parts of the motherboard. I took out some cables that I didn't need to connect (I'm not bothered about the front audio ports, and the motherboard doesn't do firewire, so I took the cables out completely.)

Step 6. Fit the drives into the removable bay, and plug them in. Be sure to get the jumper settings right before you fit the drives to anything! (Yeah, OK, so I had to take the HD out to see what they should have been when I found I'd forgotten to set the HD up...)

Step 7. Carefully close the drive bay down. Yes, all that stuff does fit in that little case!

Step 8. Put all the case panels back on, plug in, boot up and wait for the BANG! (just kidding) The photo shows it booted up into Knoppix for testing it all works. (Note the sexy blue LED uplights on the front - they look even better in real life, rather than just in a lossily compressed JPEG.)

Since writing the original article above, I've also bought an infrared transmitter, which can control the Sky box (to change channels). This runs off the serial port, so I had to install the serial port plate using up the last blanking plate slot.

Software is next. I installed Ubuntu and MythTV, but I'll write about that in a separate article.

Fitting it in

This block diagram shows how the Media PC fits into the rest of my system:
block diagram

The tuner is a Yamaha RX-V357, which does the job quite well. It has a LOT of RCA cable connectors on the back (each input device has composite video, left and right audio). It can switch between two component video sets, but I don't use those. It also has two digital inputs for sound - a fibre optic one, which I'm using with the PS2, and a RCA cable type one which I will use with the computer once I spend some time working out how to configure ALSA to use the SPDIF output.

The SCART splitter is a cheap thing from Maplin. It has 3 scart sockets on, and some clunky buttons that allow you to choose which ones connect. I use it to split the signal from the sky box, and give me RCA cable output (it also copies the signal to a set of composite/left/right) for the media PC, and another SCART to RCA cable lets me have a direct signal to the tuner. This lets me switch to watching the signal directly if I don't want to use the Media PC for whatever reason (eg. upgrading it).

The VCR is just a legacy thing really, I haven't used it in a long time now.

The verdict

The alert will have noticed I didn't put a wireless network card in it yet. That's because I plan to take it out of another PC that's currently doing what this PC will do, but I want to wait until this PC is all ready before losing wireless connectivity from that one. There is a spare PCI slot for it though.

At first, it is quiet. Not completely silent, but quiet. After it starts running though, it gets a bit louder, perhaps a bit louder than my PS2. It's OK for watching TV, but it would be nice if it was quieter.

What I'd do differently

(This section written after running it as a MediaPC for several months.)

I'd definitely recommend more storage space. I've already replaced the harddisk with a 300Gb one. Video eats storage space like mad, so the more the better.

Partially related to that, the case, although quite cute, is too small. Since I built this computer, several case manufacturers have come out with cases aimed at media PCs. I plan to move the PC into one of these at some point. This will allow me more space to mount harddisks (I'm thinking probably three in RAID 5, as large as I can afford at the time.)

More space inside would also allow a quieter CPU cooler, and a quiet PSU (rather than being stuck with the one built into the case).

CPU power seems adequate for the tasks, though I don't currently compress recordings further than the MPEG2 done in hardware (due to ubuntu's myth transcode daemon not working). I do run Azureus (edit: now switched to ktorrent) on it though, and it's capable of running a number of torrents, recording TV and playing a recording all at once. The new intel chips might be even better, with all the emphasis on low power consumption (so they shouldn't need so much cooling, as well as not using so much electricity).

The software

I've written a separate article on installing all the software on this computer.

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