Ever wonder what to do with a “retired” desktop PC? If it meets a few basic hardware requirements, it might be suitably put to use as a Media Center PVR computer, allowing you to record TV shows (in standard and hi-definition), listen to music, watch videos, watch DVDs, and view your photo collection as a screen saver.
One added benefit of using a computer like this to watch TV is that you can do away with your cable box and rental fee. If you want to receive encrypted HDTV and Digital Content channels, you may still require the use of a cable box. Check with your local cable provider for more details.
This 3-part series will provide details about the set of hardware components, the software packages, and the configuration required in order to build a decent Media Center PVR computer. These items can either be downloaded for FREE, purchased online, or purchased locally at a Best Buy store.
It is strongly recommended that you read through the 3 parts of this series before starting. You will want to make sure that the hardware and software you plan to use is compatible with Windows 7, and also you’ll want to gather up the software and drivers you will need ahead of time. Details on how to determine if your hardware and software is ready for Windows 7 can be obtained by running the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor program.
A FEW WORDS OF CAUTION: This article assumes that you have some basic computer hardware knowledge, and you know how to open up a computer and replace or add components. If you are not comfortable with doing this, but you are interested in enjoying a Media Center PVR PC, please contact us. In addition, you are hereby advised that if you do attempt to perform any of the steps or tasks outlined in this series, you do so solely at your own risk. The author assumes no liability for this content.
That being said, we can move to Part 1 – Hardware. First of all, the Hauppauge! TV tuner card used recommends that your computer has a 2.0GHz or faster processor (dual-core recommended), you have at least one available PCIe (PCI enhanced) expansion slot available. You should also have at least one if not two standard PCI slots availale. Your system should be capable of supporting at least 2GB of RAM, too.
Secondly, it should go without saying that you’ll want to have an HDTV for use as a monitor/display with your new system. Our sample build uses a Polaroid FLM-373B 37" 1080i LCD HDTV, and an awesome 770-watt Pioneer VSX-72TXV 7.1 Surround Receiver with iPod controls, a fully matched set of Klipsch audio tower, center channel and satellite surround speakers with a separately powered, 650-watt, 12″ subwoofer. All this provides for an awesome home entertainment experience, especially with action movies.
Part 1 of 3 – Hardware Components
Here are the hardware details of our example build:
- Base chassis:
eMachines T3120 Desktop computer. You don’t have to use an old PC for this project. There are plenty of deals around on new PCs with dual-core processors, that come with Windows 7 pre-installed, and plenty of RAM, a large hard drive, etc. If you are willing to spend $400 or so on one of these machines, you will enjoy a pre-assembled package with a warranty, to which you can add a TV tuner card and possibly a discrete graphics card to power your new HD-ready graphics.
The T3120 eMachines PC we already had surprisingly contained a microATX K8MC51G LF motherboard, made by First International Computer, Inc., with:
* Socket 754 support for AMD K8 series Sempron/Athlon64 processors with up to a 1GHz Front Side Bus
* A 1.8 GHz AMD Sempron processor
* 2 DIMM RAM slots supporting up to DDR400 speed RAM (total of 2 x 1GB modules)
* 2 SATA II ports
* One PCI Express x16 slot
* One PCI Express x1 slot
* 2 additional PCI slots
* Built-in 6-channel audio
* Built-in 10/100 Ethernet, and
* 8 USP 2.0 ports
UPDATE 15Sep2011: See the comment below for important update information regarding this part of the build.
XFX ATI HD-4350 PCI graphics card with 1GB of dedicated on-board video RAM, HDMI and DVI out – retail $49.99 at newegg.com ($29.99 after rebate through 15June2011).
The features of this card are excellent for its price point. The new version has a built-in HDMI connector; for the older version, HDMI with audio is available through the DVI connector with a separately-purchased adapter, which is available here for $13 (including shipping) from newegg.com.
- TV Tuner card:
Hauppauge! WinTV HVR-2250 dual hybrid tuner PCIe card (HDTV ready) Media Center Edition Kit – retail $125 at Newegg.com.
One nice thing about this package is that it comes with a Media Center remote control, a wireless remote reciever, and either one or two “IR Blasters”, which are used to send remote control signals from your Media Center PC to your TV, stereo or cable box. Pretty cool!
Here are the key features of this Kit:
* Watch and record two TV programs at the same time: two analog cable TV channels, two digital TV channels or one analog cable and one clear QAM digital cable TV channel.
* When recording analog cable TV, the dual built in hardware MPEG-2 encoders let your PC run at full speed.
* Watch and record ‘clear QAM’ digital TV. Clear QAM digital TV channels are TV channels which are broadcast “in the clear” on your cable TV network.
* Includes Hauppauge’s WinTV v7 application, which allows you to watch analog cable TV, QAM and ATSC digital TV channels.
* Now with on-board IR remote control with dual IR blasters. For Windows Media Center and Hauppauge WinTV v7!
* Now supports Windows 7!
* Built-in antenna splitter allows you to make one connection to an ATSC antenna but watch and record up to 2 channels.
* Supports Dolby Digital AC3 audio.
* Composite/S-Video and audio inputs, for cable or satellite set top boxes or VCRs.
* Listen to FM radio.
Hauppauge! also provides excellent support and software updates. The HVR-2250 product page is HERE.
- Power Supply:
UltraPower 750W SATA-ready power supply, available for $75 at TigerDirect.com.
This power supply has plenty of power to supply the hardware components outlined in this list, and then some. It runs cool and quiet, and has an excellent 3-year warranty.
- Hard drive:
A second hard drive is recommended (SATA II preferred) for ample recording and backup storage space. The example build uses a 500GB SATA II Seagate Barracude drive, available from TigerDirect.com for $45. For $20 more, you can get a twice-as-large, 1TB SATA Hard Drive!
2GB PC3200 DDR400 RAM upgrade – Retail $82 at BestBuy.com.
Make sure that the type of RAM is appropriate for your system. Most retailers who specialize in RAM have a look-up tool that lets you enter your system manufacturer and model, and offers suggestions about what type of RAM is required and the total amount supported. Beware that 32-bit operating systems usually will only support less than 4GB of RAM. This is by design. If you get a new 64-bit operating system, you can be confident that at least the OS will support 8GB or more RAM. These systems should have at least 4GB to take advantage of Windows 7′s memory management.
Here is a quick list of the maximum supported RAM on 64-bit Windows 7 systems, depending on version:
- Starter: 8GB
- Home Basic: 8GB
- Home Premium: 16GB
- Professional: 192GB
- Enterprise: 192GB
- Ultimate: 192GB
NETGEAR – RangeMax Wireless-N Desktop Card – retail $65 at BestBuy.com.
This network adapter got good reviews and works well to enhance the throughput of your Wireless N network. You’ll want to use Wireless N if you plan to stream any High Definition video from another network computer or device.
With typical PCI wireless adapter cards, a short 4 or 6 inch antenna usually is attached directly to the card. In a location like inside an entertainment center, or around a lot of wires, the reception can be dramatically reduced, because the wires can act as ‘parasitic’ antennas themselves and absorb or block some of the signal from getting to the wireless card (it’s an antenna engineering thing…).
One advantage of using a card with an external antenna like this is that you can locate or reposition it as needed for best reception. This model even has built-in screw hooks so you can flush-mount it to a wall or even the back of your entertainment center if you don’t want to see it.
Microsoft Wireless Desktop 3000 – Retail $59 at Best Buy.
This bundle has excellent performance, battery life, and range. The keys are quiet and it is spill-resistant. It also has a full set of media function keys, volume controls, zoom controls, and both pre-defined buttons like Web, E-mail, etc. It also has programmable buttons for setting up your own shortcuts. This keyboard/mouse bundle is indispensable when browsing the web on your living room TV (yes, you can do this on your new Media Center PC), and configuring the system settings. You will likely find that you need to enter administrator account credentials when configuring the settings of your new PC as you begin to use it.
Blu-Ray disc player/recorder – These are fairly expensive, but the prices are dropping. The video these devices are capable of rendering is stunning. If you have a 1080P HDTV with HDMI connections and the $$$, then this may be a worthy option. Don’t worry if you can’t buy one right now because this can be easily upgraded at a later date when prices are lower, or you have that new 1080P HDTV you’ve also been waiting for.
Next: Part 2 – Software in this series details the required and optional software packages used to build our example Media Center PVR PC…