Thursday, June 7, 2007

HTPC Media Center for $60

Been a couple of months since I posted a new blog on Fun Finds. Well I'm back and I got a new little old gem that does an absolutely great job.

I run was running an external hard drive DiVX player to run my LCD in my bedroom. It worked like a charm, played just about everything I play over my network, but I have to load media manually. If I want the next season of Quantum Leap in my room, I have to pull it out of the rack, slot it, and copy it all onto my little 30gb 2.5" drive.

Pain in the butt. I love my living room setup. I use a modded Xbox running xbmc (best software ever) to play all my media on my 55" TV and runs my 5.1 digital stereo. I wanted to be able to do this in my room, but my xbox is LOUD. It's louder than my PC when it's running it's drives and the fan.

Guess what I did?

If you guessed go take a nap, you're right, but after that I went back down to ye olde state surplus and shopped around. They were having a clearing house clearing sale, also known as "as cheap as you can haggle us down to" sale.

Big change from every other day.

I looked around, I know I can play divx5 on a PIII 800 without post processing. So I needed something about like that.

I found a pretty little FlexATX from Gateway in a low profile case. Only a Celeron 900, and it only has 256mb of RAM, but for $20 what can you really ask for?

Anyone can find machines like this on eBay for less than $50 shipped. I very much like being able to plug them in and make sure they work.

I also picked up a few cables and some Intel EtherExpress Pro 10/100's still in the plastic cases for $2. Now these are great cards!

Getting this little guy home I pulled out my super duper XP all in one version install disk that has Tablet PC and Media Center Edition on it. I had to gank a DVD drive, but I have a burner in an external enclosure that I just don't screw back together anymore just for this purpose.

Media Center has higher hardware requirements than other editions of Windows XP. MCE 2005 requires at least a 1.6 GHz (or equivalent) processor, DirectX 9.0 hardware-accelerated GPU (ATI Radeon 9 series or nVidia GeForce 5 series or higher), and 256 MB of System RAM. Some functionality, such as Media Center Extender support, use of multiple tuners, or HDTV playback/recording carries higher system requirements.

It installed just fine on a Celeron 900 w 384MB RAM, it even ran after complaining that my video system wasn't supported. I could do mp3's and view my shares. No go on video. I was a sad puppy.

So I tried my true software goal, Media Portal. Media portal is a Windows port of the software I use on my xbox, and basically what I wanted was a quieter xbox in my room.

Download, install. Looks like crap! It works though. After browsing though the MP forums I found out that the software really needs DirectX 9c's composting features to really shine.

Time to find a cheap old card. I used up all my PCI video cards recently, kind of a long story, and I think some of them ended up being returned to Wal-Mart in the wrong box.

Don't ask.

I needed something low profile too, I've ran into this problem before. You can put regular cards in these low profile cases, but then you can't get the stupid lid back on! So I called around for something half height. I came up with a GeForce MX440 w 64 MB RAM that a local store had in a box as a test card that they would part with for $40. Yeah, that's twice as much as I paid for the computer, but if you gotta, you gotta.

I think the idea that $40 would buy a bottle of whiskey and some peach schnapps for royal peach shooters, but I got those anyway!

It was then time to jury rig this bad boy together. Unlike the card in the pic above the one I got had a heatsink with a spinny noisemaker fan on it. So I pulled that off, and rubber banded a wonderfully huge thermaltake copper block from a CPU heatsink that I never used.

So now I have a PIII Celeron w 900 MHz of raw computing muscle, 384 MB memory and a circa 2004 GPU all for $60. Guess what? If you're not planning on doing any TV recording on an XP Media Center Edition PC you don't need anywhere NEAR the specs they post. This thing runs MCE like it's nothing. Smooth transitions, video is clear as it is on anything that plays DiVX I have ever seen.

I like Media Portal much better though. It's got the same interface, heck, even the same skin, as my Xbox Media Center. Project Mayhem III may just be the best GUI in the world for this.

Never be afraid to test out old machines to see if you can get some function out of them. If you're doing something simple, you can often get away with something very cheap. You can easily find a 64MB Nvidia GPU for less than $20 online, and a CPU up to 2GHz for about $50.

Just make sure you hide the cables under the carpet!

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