I’ve had a media PC (otherwise known as HTPC, which stands for Home Theatre PC) for quite some time now. It’s based on an MSI K8NGM2-FID motherboard, has an AMD sempron 3000+ CPU with 1GB of RAM. It has served me well for a couple of years now, but is starting to show it’s age in terms of it’s ability to decode the newer HD encoded files, such as H264.
So, I decided it was time to build a new machine. I wanted it to be capable of playing all the new codecs, so I opted for an Asus P5E-VM-HDMI with 2GB of RAM and an Intel E6750 Core2 Duo CPU. I installed Vista Ultimate Edition and MediaPortal and it all worked great. Everything played back smoothly, but I then read this article on Tom’s Hardware. After that I was sold on getting a lower power consumption and from appearances a better HD capable solution. So, I sent the bits back to my supplier, apart from the CPU which they wouldn’t take back on account of the stock cooler having been used and no longer having any thermal material left on it. Not to worry, as I managed to sell it on ebay for not too great a loss. Overall though I saved over £50 on the total cost, so that was a very nice bonus.
So, I installed Vista Ultimate Edition and MediaPortal again and everything played back smoothly. But this time without the strange video corruption that I experienced with the Asus board, and the sound worked properly via the HDMI.
|Part||Make & Model||Cost|
|CPU||AMD X2 BE2350||£55.68|
|CPU Cooler||NorthQ 3392||£19.38|
|Memory||4GB (2x2GB) Scan Twin DDR2 PC2-6400||£59.91|
|Case||Hiper Media||£57 (ebay)|
|Remote Control||Microsoft MCE 2005 Remote||£18.98|
|PSU Fan||Rasurbo 50mm Quiet Cooling fan||£6.00|
The Hiper Media case is pretty easy to work with except for two things, which I will come to shortly. The motherboard first in easily with all the standings in the right places, and the rear I/O shield clipped in with no problems. Whenever I build a new PC, I fit the CPU, CPU cooler and memory before installing the motherboard in the case. The hard drive and slim-line optical drive are fitted to the removable drive cage, this is detached from the case by a single screw, and a few lugs that hold it in place. I used a SATA laptop hard drive that I already had lying around, so that went into place with the aid of a 2.5″ to 3.5″ adaptor. I have chosen to not have an optical drive in the finished PC, and to have a large hard drive in my server with all the movies stored on it.
Now we come to the two problems I mentioned earlier. The first is getting the 20/24 pin ATX power connector into the board. This is impossible to do without first removing the small PCB that had the four front USB ports attached to it. Even then I found it quite a struggle to get the connector into the socket. The other problem is with the 4 pin ATX power connector, on my motherboard it only just reached. I have actually bought another Hiper Media chasses in order to build another media PC, and this one came with a small 4 pin ATX power extension lead, so it looks like they’ve sorted that particular problem out. I have yet to build the new media PC, so cannot comment on whether they have addressed the other problem.
The 200W power supply that comes with the Hiper Media case is cooled by a 50 mm fan, not 40mm as I thought. Consequently, I now have a couple of spare 40mm fans! Anyway, the supplied fan does generate quite a bit of noise, certainly too much for a Media PC. It is powered from a 2-pin connector coming from the PSU, this is driven at 12 volts. My first attempt to reduce the noise involved chopping one of the plastic lugs off of the 3-pin connector on a FanMate controller. While it did reduce the noise, the motor in the fan didn’t actually have enough torque to get itself spinning with the lower voltage. So a new fan was needed. I picked the Rasurbo, as it was the only 50mm fan I could find. Even that produced a little too much noise for my liking when hooked up to the SYS_FAN header on the motherboard. So, I had to employ a FanMate controller to bring the noise level to an acceptable level. I also had to use a FanMate on the CPU cooler. Bear in mind that this had made the case close to silent at a distance of around two feet, that’s 61cm for the youngsters among you!
The motherboard has all the right connectors for a Media PC, namely HDMI, S/PDIF (Optical) and USB. Not much more to say on this, the display connects to the HDMI. If you’re using a seperate amplifier/receiver, that cannot take the audio over HDMI, then you’ll need the S/PDIF optical connector. And finally USB for your remote control and/or wireless keyboard. Oh, and there is a power connector too!
The Final Product.
So, I now have a beautiful looking Media PC that is HD capable and quiet.
The Gigabyte motherboard came with a piece of software called XPress Recovery2. This is a hard drive partition backup and restore utility. So, I decided to make use of it and partioned my 80GB drive into two 40GB partitions.
Important Note – Before you install your Operating System of choice, remember to set the ACPI Suspend Type to S3(STR) in your BIOS, if you don’t do this then your PC will not power down all the fans when going in to sleep mode.
I installed Vista Ultimate Edition, to avoid any potential headaches with blu-ray playback, onto the first partition and left the second unformatted. In order to set up the XPress Recovery partition you will need to boot your machine up from the motherboard driver CD.
So, once Vista was installed I popped the driver CD into my optical drive (a normal DVD drive that I hooked up just for the installation of software), and the XPress Install appeared. It just installed all the required drivers for the hardware I had on the board. Fantastic! All motherboard installations should be like this. Usually it’s a case of working out which drivers I need, but this just did everything for me.
Once the drivers were installed I then downloaded and installed the Vista Codec Pack. As a matter of course with all new PC builds I turn on Remote Desktop Access. This can be done by bringing up the Computer Properties (Win-Break), clicking the Remote tab and ticking the Allow users to connect remotely to this computer box. Next I installed all the usual suspects; Firefox, AVG, CPU-Z.
Since I had installed the 64-bit version of Vista Ultimate Edition I had to download and install the VC++ re-distributable library for x64. Then I could install MediaPortal.
I have chosen to use MediaPortal because of the recently released TV-Server. This is basically a client-server TV system, where all the tuners are in a server and each client uses those tuners for watching TV. Also, all of the recordings are done by the server, with the clients being able to watch the recordings. I already have a similar set up using GBPVR and MVP devices, but I wanted to be able to watch better quality recordings and movies that the MVP could manage. It can only handle MP3 audio and MPEG-2 video.
Why is my Hard Drive in constant use?!
When I built the first Media PC with the Intel CPU I was using a 3.5″ SATA drive which was quite noisy. And Vista was accessing it constantly, and by that I mean it never stopped the whole time I had it powered up. So, I did a little digging around on google and found that if I stopped and disable a few services that hard drive access stopped and my PC became responsive. I have since read that I shouldn’t disable one of these services, but there have been no ill effects so far. The services are:-
- Super Fetch
- Windows Search
- Ready Boost
I also changed a local security policy to stop the annoying flashing when Vista pops up and asks if it can run administrator type things. To do this fire up the Local Security Policy editor by running sec from Start | Run. Select Local Policies | Security Options and disable User Account Control: Switch to the secure desktop when prompting for elevation.
Media PC Specific Tweaks.
- Disable Require a password on wakeup in the Power settings.
- How To Auto-Logon To A User Account At Startup With Vista
That’s all I can think of at the moment, if I think of any more I will add them in.
Installing the MediaPortal client is painless. It’s just a case of downloading it from the website and running the install process. Installing the TV-Server is also painless, just download from the website and run the installer. Since I already had WAMP (Windows Apache, MySQL and PHP) installed on my server I chose to use MySQL as my database. You will also need to install the TV-Client plugin. There are some excellent tutorial videos on the MediaPortal website, it is probably easier for you to watch those rather than for me to try and remember every little detail!
One thing I will let you in on is to leave the hostname blank for the MySQL setup for TV-Server. I tried localhost, 127.0.0.1 and the actual IP address of my server, but it didn’t like any of them.
When using the TV-Server and Client Plugin you will need to open up some firewall ports. I just let told Vista to open that port when it asked, I didn’t realise it had asked as MediaPortal was running full screen. I only tried alt-tabbing when the screen stayed black when I tried watching a TV channel! Instructions for opening up your firewall, if you have it enabled in your internal network, are here.
Here are a few useful key mappings in case you haven’t got a remote sorted out.
I only have a few things left to do now before I can deploy the new Media PC into the lounge to replace the existing box.
- Install a HDMI distribution amplifier so that I don’t have to mess around with the DVI switch I currently have. As well as the HDTV I also have a Hi-Def projector which I have connected to the DVI switch box via a DVI to HDMI cable, and then into a HDMI CAT5 transmitter. (see 7th May 2008 Update)
- The current Media PC will basically disable the video output if I switch it on and it doesn’t detect a display on the end of the HDMI/DVI. So I need to test that with the new Media PC. (see 8th May 2008 Update)
- I have yet to use the S/PDIF output into my Home Cinema Receiver. I’ve only tested on the Hyundai monitor, which happens to have a HDMI input. (see 7th May 2008 Update)
Once all that has been sorted I will build another Media PC to the same specification, and then transfer all of my tuners over to TV-Server from GBPVR. I currently have six DVB-T tuners, two Hauppauge Nova-T 500 and two Hauppauge Nova-T cards. For the moment I have given the two Nova-T cards to TV-Server, leaving the two 500’s under the control of GB-PVR.
Update (7th May 2008)
I have now got the S/PDIF output working perfectly. It passes through all DTS/AC3/MPEG/Stereo audio to my amplifier. I have also got the HDMI splitter working now, although I’ve yet to test it out on the projector, but it works on the TV which is something.
I also had to switch to using SQL Express as my database server, as I couldn’t get MySQL to work properly.
Update (8th May 2008)
I tried switching the PC on (wake-up rather than a cold power-up) without the TV being switched on. With my old HTPC it would see that the monitor was no longer there and I would have to remote desktop into the thing and use system restore to take it back to a time when it knew the TV was there, then reboot it while the TV was switched on. This new PC seems to cope just fine with the TV not being there straight away. Which is great, as it doesn’t matter which order I power things up in. Having said that this new PC is able to play back video smoothly after having been woken up. The old one would stutter really badly and would need a reboot. So, I used to power it down and do a cold power-up whenever I needed to use it. But, now I can just hit the TV power and PC power buttons on my MCE remote and all is well. The PC takes around 1 second to come to life, so I am very pleased with it all.
I will soon be building another one for use in another room.
Update (12th May 2008)
So, I was watching a movie at the weekend and all of a sudden my projector screen goes blank! I hit the info button on the remote and it came back. It turns out I had my power saving settings turning off the video output after 20 minutes of inactivity. This is not a good thing to do on a media centre, so that particular setting is now “Never”.
Update (22nd August 2008)
I’ve noticed that the bedroom PC kicks out a fair bit of heat if left on (by falling asleep watching stuff!). So, I’m going to investigate a few things on it after having read this blog post. Some things to consider are:-
- Underclocking the CPU, less heat = less noise
- Making sure cool’n’quiet is working correctly.
One of the comments looks interesting and worthy of further investigation.
One other quirk you should know about — the “Power Options, Edit Plan Settings, Change Advanced Power Settings, Processor power management, Minimum processor state” kept getting reset to 100%, which means the CPU would never throttle down (!).
I searched a few forums and found the ATI drivers (I’m using 8.4) are responsible for this. I disabled the one ATI service in the service manager (I think it’s called something like “external notification service”) and now the minimum processor state stays at 5%, which is the default for the out of box balanced power plan.
Update (4th February 2009)
I have purchased a couple of 30GB OCZ SSD hard drives, one for each Media PC. I am currently installing Vista Business Edition (no useless Vista Media Centre). I have tried without success to stop the Media Centre popping up when I accidentally press the green button on my MCE remote. So, I’ve decided to reload the PCs with an operating system without media centre integrated.
I am also upgrading from MediaPortal 1.0 RC1 to Media Portal 1.0, so I thought it’d be better to do that on a new hard drive so I can put the old hard drive back in until I am happy with everything. I have also scrapped the Vista Codec Pack in favour of the Stand Alone Filter for Media Portal. So far these seem to be working really well, they even make use of the UVDs in my on-board Radeon HD3200 graphics chip. I ran a few tests the other day, and playing back some 1080p material the CPU usage was between 2% and 5%. So, hopefully the CPU won’t get as hot which will mean the CPU cooler fan won’t need to spin quite so fast.
Once I am happy with things I’ll use my power meter to check the power consumption of the PC, and hopefully use a picoPSU and power brick instead of the power supply that comes as standard with the Hiper Media Case. This should mean I will have a virtually silent PC, with the only fan being the CPU cooler.
Update (2nd April 2009)
I hooked my power meter up to the PC last weekend and played some 1080p footage. The maximum power draw was 88 watts, so it’s a little too much for the 80 watt picoPSU I currently have. So, once the server upgrade is completed (planned for this coming weekend) I will look in to moving to 120 watt picoPSU + power bricks. Although the hiper media cases I use are great, the power supplies they come with kick out a lot of heat and consequently the fans gradually get noisier the longer the PC is powered up. So, I’m hoping that the combination of Solid State Disk and pisoPSU will eliminate the anoying noise they make when they’ve been on for a few hours.
I’m pretty happy with the performance of the PCs playing back hi-def footage, as I’ve recently learned that mkv files have to be encoded in a certain way to take advantage of dxva/uvd acceleration. So, I’m going ahead with my upgrade this weekend. Because I built both PCs from identical hardware, it meant I could use CloneZilla to copy the SSD once I was happy with the first PC. Then I could boot the new one up and change the PC name and a few other things. The SSD took 6m46s to transfer the 20GB of data. But I actually did a full device to device copy, so 30GB in under 7 minutes is pretty good I think.