Build a silent Media Center - Part One

Media PCs are the most powerful and flexible entertainment systems around.

They'll record and time shift TV shows, play DVDs or high definition video, manage your entire music collection, put on slideshows of digital photos and wirelessly stream just about any of it around your home. With the launch of the Xbox 360 later this year, home networking should become even easier.

Today there are many decent Media PCs for sale, but for the ultimate system you should consider building your own. This way you'll get exactly the specification you've always wanted, without compromise. Totally silent operation? No problem. Huge hard disk? It's yours. Twin TV tuners? Consider it done.

Depending on the components you choose, an uncompromised DIY system may work out more expensive than a pre-built one, but you'll end up with a unique system built to your exact specifications. It's easier than you think too.

In this, the first part of our Media Center special, we'll explain our choice of components. In part two next week, we'll show you how to put it all together, install Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 and tweak the system for the best results.

Want to upgrade your existing system? Then you can cherry-pick from our list of components, then read part two of our feature to see how to install the software.

Getting started

When choosing components for a Media PC, it's crucial to think very carefully about what you'd like it to do and how it should perform.

We believe the ultimate Media PC should look like an AV device, complete with a built-in display and remote control sensor. It should also run in complete silence if possible. In terms of TV recording it should have an EPG, twin digital tuners and a huge disk capacity.

Suffice it to say it should also be able to play DVDs, archive TV shows to disc and manage your digital music and photo collections.

It should additionally have the power to play high definition content and crucially feature quality outputs to a variety of displays.

Last but not least we believe the ideal Media PC should run economically, typically consuming less than 80 watts in operation - traditional PCs can consume more than double this.

It's a tough list of requirements, but one we've met with our specification. The components that we recommend are listed below. Note: prices are listed as a guide only.

  1. The Case: mCubed hFX: A Media PC shouldn't look out of place in your living room, and mCubed's hFX is one of the best-looking cases we've seen. Most importantly of all, a pair of massive heatsinks running along each side can cool a processor, graphics card and power supply without any fans. It's much like the Hush E3 MCE system, reviewed here.
    www.kustompcs.co.uk

  2. Silent cooling: Borg CPU cooling kit: In order to exploit the hFX heatsinks to cool a processor, you'll need the optional Borg heatpipe kit; adapters are available for a variety of processors. Another heatpipe kit allows you to silently cool a graphics card for £25.
    www.kustompcs.co.uk

  3. Silent power supply: Silverstone ST30NF: The ideal power supply for the hFX case is Silverstone's ST30NF. This fanless model mounts directly onto one of the hFX case's heatsinks to keep it cool in complete silence.
    www.kustompcs.co.uk

  4. Case display/remote: iMon VFD: The iMon VFD can display information about what you're watching or listening to, and fits neatly into the hFX case. The unit also includes a hidden infra red sensor, allowing you to operate your system with the supplied remote control.
    www.kustompcs.co.uk

  5. Processor: Intel Pentium M: While most Media PCs use Pentium 4 processors, we've gone for something more exotic. Intel's Pentium M processor may be pricier, but combines speed, cool-running and very low power consumption - see box for more details. The 1.86GHz 750 model is a good choice costing £200 at the time of writing.
    www.ebuyer.co.uk

  6. Motherboard: Aopen i915GMm-HFS: There's only a handful of desktop motherboards designed for the Pentium M processor, but Aopen's i915GM-m-HFS has everything you'd want for a Media PC including high definition DVI and component video outputs.
    www.scan.co.uk

  7. Memory: Crucial 1GB DDR: While a Media PC could run on 512MB of memory, at today's prices it seems mean not to go for 1GB and be prepared for more demanding software. DDR PC2700 DIMMs are fine for the Aopen motherboard above.
    www.crucial.com/uk

  8. Hard disk: Seagate Barracuda 300GB SATA: At the time of writing, £116 bought you 300GB of quick, quiet storage. By the time you read this, 400GB or even larger drives may have fallen to similar prices.
    www.dabs.com

  9. DVD/RW drive: NEC ND-3540: A drive which can quickly record on almost every type of disc (including dual-layer DVDs) for just £30 is a bargain. Buy the black one to better match the case.
    www.dabs.com

  10. TV Tuner: AverMedia A16A DVB: We're building a twin digital tuner system for Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, so need compatible TV tuner cards. A pair of AverMedia's A16A DVB-T cards will do nicely - make sure you buy the OEM versions designed for Media Center.
    www.mediaatlantic.com

  11. Keyboard/mouse: Microsoft Wireless Optical Desktop.www.dabs.com

Total (with Pentium M 750): £1,295 inc. VAT

Tips for a trouble-free install...

  • Physically assembling a PC like the one we've described should take no more than three or four hours. The important thing is to ensure you have plenty of time in case unforeseen complications slow you down.
  • It's also crucial to have all the parts to hand before you start and a clear well-lit space in which to put them all together. Be warned: many screws and other components can be small and easily lost. Also ensure you have your motherboard manual nearby, as this will fully explain exactly what cables and plugs go where.
  • In terms of tools, a Philips head screwdriver can be used for pretty much all the main assembly, although do note that the hFX case used demands one with a shaft of at least 13cm to reach distant screws; one with a magnetic head is preferred.
  • You'll also need a small flat-headed screwdriver to unlock and relock the Pentium M processor socket and a tube of thermal paste to allow the various heatsinks to make good contact. The motherboard comes with a small amount of paste for its supplied heatsink, but if you need more, order a tube of Arctic Silver AS5 Premium from www.quietpc.com for around £7.
  • One often mentioned advantage of building your own PC is the ability to recycle various components from other systems or projects. Doing so can reduce your overall costs, but it's important to ensure the components in question really are completely suitable for the desired result. For example, our system is designed to run Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 (MCE) which can be notoriously picky about components. It insists on modern graphics cards and will only work with TV tuners which specifically support it.
  • We chose the AverMedia A16A DVB-T cards because the OEM version sold by Media Atlantic is designed specifically for MCE and has certified drivers available to download. An excellent alternative are the Black Gold DVB cards from GDI at www.blackgold.tv, which also have certified drivers. If an existing or alternative TV tuner card does not have drivers for MCE, you can be almost 100 percent sure it won't work.
  • Additionally, modern components are required in order to fully support power saving technologies like a sub-10 Watt standby. Mixing older parts may affect the ability of a system to reliably standby and wake up again. So for this project to be a success and operate as described, we'd recommend only using the parts listed.