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Build Your Own Media Center PC, Part 1

by Wei-Meng Lee
11/28/2006

Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is an enhanced version of Windows XP that turns your ordinary PC into an all-in-one home entertainment center. By using the Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, you can watch and record TV programs, play DVDs, listen to music, share your digital photos, and more. Best of all, you can continue to do your work on the same computer.

In the past, you couldn't really build a Windows Media Center yourself because the list of compatible hardware was very limited and Microsoft did not sell the OS directly to end users. However, things have changed and you now have a wider choice of hardware that works with Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. In addition, you can now buy the OS through system vendors.

In a two-part article, I will show you how to build your own media center PC for around $1,500. In this first part, I will walk you through the steps in choosing the hardware. In the next part, I'll show you how to get started in using your newly built media center PC.

Choosing the Hardware Components

The first step toward building your own media center is to select the appropriate hardware based on your budget constraint. Of course, if you have the cash, you can always go for the latest components that money can buy. However, most of us usually have to compromise and decide the best value for whatever budget we have. In general, the hardware requirements for Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 are similar as that of Windows XP. Below is a list of minimum requirements that I feel you should have to enjoy the fun provided by Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005:

  • CPU: 2Ghz or more
  • Memory: 512MB or more
  • Hard drive: 80GB or more
  • DVD drive: preferably a DVD writer if you want to save TV shows onto DVDs
  • Display: 17" LCD Monitor or LCD TV
  • Graphics card memory: 128MB or more

If you wish to watch TV programs on your computer, then you need a TV tuner card. Also, a remote control that works with Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 will greatly enhance your usage experience.

In the next couple of sections, I will walk you through some of the components you can buy and show you what I have selected for my project.

Casing

The first hardware that you need to consider is the casing. Technically, any type of casing is acceptable, but since we are building a media center here, looks are important as it must look presentable when placed in the living room. More importantly, the ventilation system used in the casing should not be too noisy--you don't want it to sound like a vacuum cleaner when you are playing DVD, do you?

When it comes to media center casing, you have quite a few choices:

Figure 1 shows some of the models you can choose from.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Some media center casing offerings

For my project, I have selected two casings:

  • Fusion by Antec
  • Mozart by Thermaltake

Antec

The Antec Fusion ($219; see Figure 2) is the newest member of the LifeStyle family of enclosures from Antec.

Figure 2
Figure 2. The Antec Fusion

The Antec Fusion is a very solid and beautifully crafted enclosure designed for those who want to integrate their media center with the audio systems. It features the following:

  • Aluminum plate front bezel with vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) and volume control to work with media center applications. The VFD displays useful information (controlled by an application shipped with the Antec Fusion), such as RSS feeds, system information, graphic equalizer, email, etc. The volume control directly controls the volume of your Windows XP operating system.
  • Triple chamber structure to separate heat and noise of power supply, hard drives and motherboard for cooler and quieter operation.
  • Quiet high-efficiency 430 watt ATX12V v2.0 power supply with universal input and active PFC.
  • Removable HDD brackets with extra soft silicone grommets to reduce vibrational noise. The silicone grommets effectively quiet down my noisy Seagate hard drive and make it virtually silent.
  • Advanced cooling system: 2 x side-mounted 120mm TriCool; 3-speed fans. The two fans have variable speeds (low, medium, and high) and can be adjusted using the attached switch.
  • 3 drive bBays
  • Front accessible: 1 x 5.25" (for a DVD drive)
  • Internal 2 x 3.5" (for HDDs)
  • 4 expansion slots
  • Supports Micro ATX form factor motherboards(9.6" x 9.6")
  • Front-mounted ports for easy multimedia connections--2 x USB 2.0, 1 x IEEE 1394, audio in and out

Figure 3 shows the three chambers that house the different components of the system.

Figure 3
Figure 3. The triple chamber of the Antec Fusion

Due to the design of the Antec Fusion, adding or removing drives (DVD or HDD) is very easy. However, do note that only micro-ATX motherboards are supported.

Thermaltake

If you are looking for a slimmer casing for your media center, then the Mozart SX VC7000 series from Thermaltake ($250; see Figure 4) is a good candidate.

Figure 4
Figure 4. The Mozart SX VC7000 series

The Mozart SX has the following features:

  • Pithy aluminum front panel design
  • Slim-type DVD-style and pithy aluminum front panel design
  • Built-in Media LAB kit with hot keys module, including Media LAB hot keys function, Media LAB application CD and remote control, Media LAB VFD panel
  • Superb multimedia capability
  • Full ATX, micro ATX, and mini ITX compatibility
  • Fits standard PSII PSU
  • Front I/O ports for easy access

The Mozart SX supports both full-size ATX as well as micro-ATX motherboards (see Figure 5).

Figure 5
Figure 5. Internals of the Mozart SX

If you are using a micro-ATX motherboard, you need to purchase the optional upgrade kit A2423. This kit contains a PCI-E riser card and PCI riser card (see Figure 6).

Figure 6
Figure 6. The optional upgrade kit A2423 for micro-ATX motherboards

Due to its slim design, Thermaltake recommends that you use the CL-P0220 CPU cooler ($23; see Figure 7) for your CPU. Some CPU coolers are too tall and may not fit into the slim Mozart SX casing.

Figure 7
Figure 7. The CL-P0220 CPU cooler

Also note that the Thermaltake Mozart SX does not come with a PSU, therefore you need to purchase one separately. You should be able to find a standard PSU easily in a local computer shop for about $34. I went for the Coolmax 400Watt ATX power supply with 120mm fan ($40; see Figure 8)

Figure 8
Figure 8. The Coolmax 400Watt ATX power supply with 120mm fan

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