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.
This 3-part series provides 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.
Part 1 – Hardware in this series detailed the hardware used for our sample Media Center PVR PC build.
Part 2 – Software in this series outlined the software packages you’ll want to purchase or download to prepare for building your own Media Center PVR PC…
Part 3 of 3 – Configuration
Here are the configuration details of our example build:
Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor:
If you have a used computer in mind that you want to use, and you are willing to upgrade it to Windows 7, it is well worth running the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor program (free download). This program will provide a printable and save-able report of the hardware and software on your computer and what is or isn’t ready for Windows 7. If you have a machine that is already running Windows Vista, it is likely that most if not all of the hardware is already Windows 7 compatible.
Get compatible device drivers and software:
Following the completion of the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor, you should be advised if there are device drivers you will need for Windows 7. You also might find that some programs may not run; many manufacturers have updates for this. The Upgrade Advisor report should indicate links or web sites where you can find more information. If there isn’t a link to an updated version of a particular software package, search the manufacturer’s web site or the Internet for Windows 7 compatible software and drivers.
Provided that you have the collected the hardware components you are planning to use, at this point you should install them into the computer chassis. Make sure the case is unplugged from the AC power, and that you observe anti-static precautions such as holding the metal case with one hand while handling the PCI cards (by their edges, not the contacts). You can also use a wrist strap specially designed for this purpose.
Note that the Hauppauge! HVR-2250 comes with 2 IR-blasters; in order to use the second one, you must install the included A/V expansion adapter, which occupies an additional PCI slot’s location. It plugs directly into the Hauppauge! card with the included cable.
Windows 7 Installation:
Once you have the software and drivers you will need, copy them to a CD/DVD, a USB flash drive or removable external hard drive so you will be able to easily access them following the Windows 7 upgrade. If there are any documents, pictures, music files, etc. on the computer that you want to save, now would be a good time to copy them to your external storage device.
Insert your Windows 7 DVD and follow the setup instructions. You’ll be prompted for your license key, so make sure you have that handy. If your computer already has an operating system installed (XP or Vista), you may be prompted to do an upgrade installation. It is recommended to do a complete full installation from scratch, so follow the wizard instructions to install a new copy of Windows. NOTE: A new installation of Windows will reformat your hard drive, causing all existing data on the drive to become lost!!! Make sure you have all data saved from the existing drive before proceeding.
After Windows 7 Setup completes, check the Device Manager for devices that did not install properly or need updated drivers. These devices will usually be displayed with a triangular yellow exclamation point icon or a yellow question mark. Right-click each device and select “Update Driver” and follow the wizard instructions. Here’s where your USB drive and your hard work preparing will come in handy! To open the Device Manager, click the Start button, then choose Control Panel. Choose the “Hardware and Sound” category title, and then select Device Manager at the top… look for problem devices as described above.
You should wait to install/download any software until you have Anti-Virus and Anti-Malware protection. You should also make sure that Windows Firewall is enabled.
If you are planning on using your Media Center PVR PC from the comfort of your couch, now would be a good time to change the font size to something readable from your normal viewing location. Note that not all software packages support this font enlargement. To change your font scaling (DPI setting), right-click on your desktop background image somewhere where there are no icons, and select Personalize. Click on Display in the left column, then click on Set custom text size (DPI). Choose something in the 150-200% range for starters…
Set up your Internet connection:
Depending on how you plan to connect to the Internet (and you’ll want an active connection to this computer for program guides at least), either run an Ethernet cable from your router or modem to the wired connection on your new Media Center PC. If you are using wireless (Wireless N recommended), open the Network and Sharing Center and follow the instructions to set up a connection to your wireless network.
Trend Micro Internet Security:
You should first log in as a user with administrative rights to install TMIS 2010. Insert the CD or browse to the downloaded file and run the setup program. Follow the on-screen instructions to install and update the software.
Following installation (and likely a needed reboot), you should set up some basic settings. It is a good idea to password protect the settings to prevent unauthorized changes or someone purposely or accidentally turning protection off.
You will want to ensure the Personal Firewall is turned on, especially if you are directly connected to a modem, and not through a router. If you have a home network sharing files and/or media, you should change the firewall settings to Home instead of Direct Connection. Direct Connection is the default and blocks attempts to access your computer. This setting is useful on laptops while surfing the Internet using a public WiFi hotspot, or any time you want to block all attempts to access your computer that aren’t explicitly allowed.
Windows Live Family Safety:
Install Windows Live Essentials on your computer to monitor and control Internet access on your new shared media PC.
This package will let you log into a web site to manage and monitor the activity on your new Media Center PC. You can assign local accounts to users on your PC, and set up filtering and monitoring settings. This can block social network web sites, pornographic content, and various themes such as adult content, drug usage, racism, etc. You can view a comprehensive list of web sites visited per user, and turn off monitoring for any administrative or standard user accounts.
Configure Windows Update:
Now would be a good time to get all the applicable Windows updates for your PC. Go to the Start button, then choose “All Programs” and click on the Windows Update link in the list above.
In the left pane, click on “Check for Updates” and follow the prompts. If there are any optional updates offered, exercise caution when installing them. It is always a good idea to closely review these items so you don’t have to use System Restore or restore an old backup to undo any problematic changes.
It is recommended that you turn off Automatic Installation of updates so you can review them for applicability before installing. Windows 7 is pretty good at finding the correct drivers for your devices, but occasionally, an incorrect one can get installed. This actually happened on our example build PC, where the NETGEAR RangeMax Wireless-N Desktop Card got an unsuspecting driver update to a Broadcom driver. This effectively disabled the card, although Windows would recognize it and it appeared OK. It simply wouldn’t connect to the wireless network any longer. Rolling back the driver and hiding this particular update from being offered via the Windows Update web site fixed the problem.
Other (Google Chrome, Adobe Reader, other optional packages):
You will want to install the free Adobe Reader, perhaps a free Office suite like Open Office, and it is recommended that you install Google Chrome, a fast, free, and secure web browser…
Windows Media Setup:
This is an involved category, but fortunately, Windows Media Center will walk you through it all, with the one exception of sound calibration. For successful sound calibration, you will need a good-quality microphone connected to your PC.
In Windows 7, Media Center supports Clear QAM channels. Clear QAM is a digital TV transmission method and stands for Quadrature Amplitude Modulation. HDTVTUNERINFO.com has an excellent guide on How To Set Up Digital Cable in Windows 7 Media Center, complete with step-by-step screen shots. Beware, however, that the screens you see in your particular version of setup could somewhat differ in appearance.
Tuner, Listings, Audio, TV, auto start, always on top,
LM Remote KeyMap:
Install this program in order to be able to program some of the buttons on your new Media Center remote. There are 4 colored buttons across the bottom, which may or may not have any functionality by default. Also, the power button at the top of the remote will likely put your computer in Standby Mode, which can be a nuisance.
You can use this program to assign IR commands for your TV, stereo, etc. to a profile and then assign one or more of these commands to the MC remote buttons. For our example build, the power button was reprogrammed to send a power on/off signal to both the TV and stereo, so these components can be turned on and off easily. This also allows the computer to remain on for recording and guide updates.
The LM Remote KeyMap program can be a bit of a challenge to set up and understand. The version used was the free one, but there is a paid version with more functionality and support. LM Remote KeyMap is very useful software, but somewhat technical; further details about its setup and use won’t be covered here. Visit the LM Gestion web site for some excellent tutorials and more information.
You’ll want to check the configuration option “Enable exclusive use of this remote” in the settings. This will ensure that your remote always has control of the system.
Also, if you want to use your Hauppauge! MCE remote with Windows Media Center, but are not installing WinTV or any of the software on the provided CD except the drivers, you’ll want to locate the file “Hauppauge CIR Config.exe” on the CD. Run this tool and select the check-box to enable Windows Media Center to use your Hauppauge! remote conrtol. A reboot may be required.
Create a Shared User Account:
Once you are able to log into Windows 7 (as an Administrator, of course), you will want to create a shared user account to be used with the dedicated Media Center functionality. To do this, open the Control Panel, then click under the “User Accounts and Family Safety” category, click on “Add or remove user accounts”. Follow the wizard to create a new, limited user account. You want a limited account so that it doesn’t have complete control of the computer by default. This is especially important if you share files on a home network. In our example build, the account we created was named simply “TV”.
After creating your shared user account, right-click on the Windows Live Family Safety icon in the system tray (in the Taskbar by the clock), and choose “Open the Family Safety Filter”. Click on “Add or manage family members on this computer”. You’ll be prompted to login to the Windows Live Family Safety web site with a parent’s Windows Live ID (you can get one for free if you didn’t create one aready). Then follow the wizard steps to set up your new shared user account to be monitored by WLFS. If you haven’t done so already, you’ll want to create a WLFS member account to assign to your new Windows “TV” account. You can call this whatever you like…
Configure Automatic Login to a Shared User Account: Visit the Microsoft TechNet Windows Sysinternals Autologon page for a free tool to set this up. (Thanks to Mark Russinovich for his valuable contributions to the community!)
Another way to accomplish this is by using the userpasswords2 command line utility. You can also find some alternate instructions on how to do this here.
Once you have everything set-up and configured, it’s time to consider protecting your hard work by setting up a backup plan. Windows 7 had a fairly useful backup tool built into the operating system, but for more features, we recommend Acronis True Image Home 2010. This program will create automatic backups for you, and lets you create bootable rescue media (USB flash drive, CD ROM, etc.) from0 which to boot your computer if it becomes unusable.
If you’ve made the wise decision to install a second hard drive in your Media Center PC, you should save your backup archives on it so if your main drive fails completely, you will still be able to recover your computer. And if you’ve set up Media Center to record TV to this second drive, any existing recordings that have been saved there will remain intact, also!
Part 1 in this series detailed the hardware used to build our sample Media Center PVR PC.
Part 2 in this series detailed the software used to build our sample Media Center PVR PC.
Part 3 in this series (this article) discussed the installation and configuration of the hardware and software used to build our sample Media Center PVR PC.
We hope you found these articles useful and informative, and that you have fun building your new Media Center PVR PC!
If you are looking to have a custom Media Center PVR PC built for you, please contact us.