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Build Your Own Media Center PC, Part 1
Pages: 1, 2, 3

Processors and Motherboards

Once the casing is selected, the next step would be to choose the appropriate CPU and motherboard.

CPU

With dual-core processors becoming mainstream, it really makes sense to go for a dual-core CPU. Unless you have the financial muscle (this may change as Intel Core 2 Duo processors become cheaper), you can probably go with the Intel Pentium D Processor (see Figure 9).

Figure 9
Figure 9. Intel's Pentium D processor

Note: If you are an AMD fan, you can also go for a dual-core AMD processor.

I chose the Intel Pentium D 830 (3GHz), a dual-core processor. One important consideration you need to factor in is the choice of cooling fan for the CPU. The fan that came with the original Intel Pentium D sounded like a vacuum cleaner when running in full-speed mode (controlled by the motherboard depending on the CPU workload) and the noise is unbearable if you sit near the computer. This is definitely not an ideal situation for your media center. For a cost-effective to cool my CPU, I opted for the Samurai Z CPU Cooler ($25; see Figure 10).

Figure 10
Figure 10. The Samurai Z CPU Cooler

Note: The Samurai Z CPU cooler does not fit in the Mozart SX case due to its height. For the Mozart SX case, I had to change the CPU cooler to the CL-P0220.

The Samurai Z CPU Cooler spins at a maximum speed of 2,000RPM, generating only 23.5 dBA of noise. In actual testing, the fan is virtually silent.

Best of all, the Samurai Z CPU cooler can be installed over your CPU without needing to remove the entire motherboard, making it very easy for those of you who have already mounted the motherboard onto the casing.

Motherboard

There are several brands and models of motherboards in the market. I used the MSI 945GM2 (HF) series ($109) for my Intel Pentium D. This is a micro-ATX motherboard.

Note: If you need more PCI slots, you should get an ATX motherboard instead.

Figure 11
Figure 11. The MSI 945GM2 series

The MSI 945GM2:

  • Comes with built-in Gigabit networking (supports 10/100/1,000Mb/s)
  • Contains an Integrated Intel GMA 950 graphics core
  • Contains an audio codec Realtek ALC880
  • Supports up to four SATA II drives
  • Supports PCI Express x 16 graphics interface
  • Support up to 4GB memory size (supports DDRII 533/667 memory interface)

Since the MSI 945GM2 comes with several components built-in, it saved me quite a bit of money since I don't have to spend extra money on network card and sound card.

Memory

Memory is one critical component that you should not skimp on when building a media center. For this, I went for two pieces of Corsair's 1Gb PC4200 DDR CL4 Value Select DDR2 memory modules (see Figure 12; $100 per piece), for a total of 2GB of memory.

Figure 12
Figure 12. The Corsair VS1GB533D2

DVD Writer and Hard Disk Drives

If you plan on watching DVDs or saving TV programs onto DVDs, you need to have a DVD writer, or a DVD ROM drive. But with the price of DVD writers dropping so rapidly, you really should buy a DVD writer. Selecting a DVD writer is a straight-forward affair--I went with the Pioneer DVR-110DSV ($69; see Figure 13).

Figure 13
Figure 13. The Pioneer DVR-110DSV DVD writer

Like DVD writers, hard drives are also getting cheaper and bigger. When it comes to buying hard drives, always go for one with the fastest spin rate that you can afford. Today, almost all new drives spin at 7,200RPM, so don't settle for anything less than that. For my hard drive, I got the Seagate Barracuda ST3250824AS (model 7200.9) ($96; see Figure 14), a 250GB SATA II drive. It spots an 8MB cache and spins at a 7,200RPM.

Figure 14
Figure 14. The Seagate Barracuda ST3250824AS

TV Tuner

One of the important ingredients of a media center is the TV tuner card, which allows you to watch receive TV signals and watch programs on your computer.

When it comes to a TV tuner, I turned to Hauppauge, which is one of the leaders in bringing TV functionality to the PC.

Hauppauge has a series of TV tuners that you can choose from:

  • WinTV-PVR-150
  • WinTV-PVR-150 MCE
  • WinTV-PVR-150 l.p.
  • WinTV-PVR-250
  • WinTV-PVR-250 MCE
  • WinTV-PVR-350
  • WinTV-PVR-500 MCE
  • WinTV-PVR-USB2

The product names that end with "MCE" are designed specially to work with Windows Media Center Edition. Both the WinTV-PVR-150 MCE (see Figure 15) and the WinTV-PVR-250 MCE allow you to watch TV and listen to radio on your PC, while the WinTV-PVR-500 MCE has dual TV tuners that allow you to watch one channel while recording another. The WinTV-PVR-500 MCE uses dual hardware MPEG-2 encoders, so it frees your CPU while you are recording TV programs.

Figure 15
Figure 15. The WinTV-PVR-150MCE

Note that the MCE products previously mentioned do not include a remote control. If you want a remote control, you can buy any of the following MCE kits:

  • WinTV-PVR-150 MCE-Kit
  • WinTV-PVR-500 MCE-Kit
  • WinTV-PVR-USB2 MCE-Kit

For my project, I selected the WinTV-PVR-500 MCE-Kit ($170; see Figure 16), which can be plugged into a PCI slot on the computer.

Figure 16
Figure 16. The Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-500 MCE-Kit

Figure 17 shows the inputs accepted by the WinTV-PVR-500 board. Besides the connectors on the board itself, the package also comes with another connector that contains a similar set of connectors (minus the FM and TV connectors). This allows you to connect two separate video/audio sources to the WinTV-PVR-500.

Figure 17
Figure 17. The connectors on the WinTV-PVR-500

If for whatever reasons you do not have a spare PCI slot on your computer, you can opt for the WinTV-PVR-USB2 MCE-Kit (see Figure 18), which connects to your computer via USB.

Figure 18
Figure 18. The Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-USB2 MCE-Kit

So, which one is suitable for you? It all depends on your budget. For the best performance and features, go for the WinTV-PVR-500 MCE. If you are cash-strapped, the WinTV-PVR-150 MCE is good enough. Finally, if you want to watch TV while traveling, then the WinTV-PVR USB2 is probably the best option.

Note: Another popular TV tuner card is the E-HOME Wonder (see Figure 19) from ATI.

Figure 19
Figure 19. The ATI E-HOME Wonder

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