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January 31st, 2005:
Adventures In Home Media Solutions
Part 4

Tivo set the standard by which all other PVRs are compared. It’s intuitive and elegant interface (including remote control), responsiveness, and reliability are difficult to beat. It offers some basic home media center/server features such as mp3 playback, photo viewing, and recorded video sharing. Tivo has become more than a company, more than a solution… It has become a verb. Apparently Tivo doesn’t like that. Recent actions taken against web sites and promotions that encourage users to “Tivo that show” prove that Tivo is working to seperate itself from other DVR solutions.

My goal was to find a PC-based solution utilizing some existing hardware resources that offered a similar experience to Tivo without limiting future upgrades (multiple tuners, high-definition output) and extending the media center experience beyond DVR and media playback (gaming, internet access, multi-format video viewing, file server access, home automation). I also hoped for a reliable and mature solution.

The hardware I selected was:

TV Tuner:

Hauppauge WinTV PVR 250. A solid, full featured tuner with onboard mpeg encoder and decoder. Compared to the 150, there is a negligable difference in picture quality, but more importantly, the 250 is compatible with non-Windows solutions (including MythTV). The MCE version ships without a remote (since Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 has one of it’s own), reducing cost. OEM versions of the card can be found for a significant savings over thheir retail counterparts. The OEM cards ship in a simple white box with a 4-page installation guide. No media ships with the card, as the drivers are covered by the operating system. Expect to pay $100 to $120 for an OEM card from suppliers such as PC Alchemy and approximately $150 for the retail version.

Video Card:

NVidia GeForceFX 5200. Windows XP MCE 2005 requires a DirectX 9-compatible display adapter. MythTV (and Linux in general), gets along better with NVidia cards than their ATI counterparts. (In the past, I’ve preferred ATI’s offerings, but NVidia has made a believer out of me…) The 5200 is a cost-effective solution. It meets all of the requirements, and offers surprising performance for the price. Additionally, the DVD Decoder Codecs/Software sold by NVidia for use with their products is excellent. PC Alchemy offers several bundled packages that include a Hauppauge tuner, Windows XP MCE, DVD Decoder software, and video card. If you keep an eye on ony of the popular deal sites online (Deals On The Web, XP Bargains) you may be able to find one of these cards for $20 (or less, after rebates). Legends are still shared of those who have found these cards for free after enough rebates are mailed.

CPU/Motherboard:

I had hoped that I would be able to pull this caper off with a 1.1 gHz Athlon processor, but XP MCE requires a minimum 1.6 gHz powerplant. A faster front-side bus helps with the DVD decoding as well. I went with a Soyo Dragon KT600+ v2 motherboard with an Athlon 2600+ (snicker) CPU. It does the job. If you’re planning on compressing video files while you record television or recording multiple sources at the same time, a few more mHz will help.

Storage:

I am using a multiple-drive configuration. One drive (~30g) hosts the operating system and software while the other (~200g) is used for recording. A lesson learned from computer based audio recording: don’t record to your system drive. Recording anything in realtime uses a cache, most often in the same location as your operating system and/or recording software. Allowing your system to record to one drive, while crunching away on another will extend hardware life, reduce system stress, and limit complications that could lead to system failure. More storage is better, as recorded programs at high quality consume a great deal of disk space. Reduced quality recordings, of course, conserve space, but animated shows (cough, Adult Swim, cough) suffer greatly from increased compression by showing obvious and distracting artifacts.

Sound Card:

While most will find their onboard audio solutions sufficient, I wanted digitial audio support… my Soyo MB did not support this, so I re-used my aging PCI Sound Blaster (w/ SPDIF-out). Numerous low-cost options are available from a number of brands.

Pre-assembeled Offerings:

HP, Gateway, and Dell offer complete Media Center Machines starting at $800. However, as the features and specs grow, so does the cost. Expect to pay about $1500 for a flagship system. If you want a warranty, customer support, and a cool logo, these are viable options… if it fits your budget.

Windows MCE XP 2005 cost round-up:

In trying to research the cost of a custom media center computer, I found that there are innumerable component choices and endless iterations of hardware combinations. Expect to pay $400 for a basic system meeting minimum system requirements to $800 for a competitive solution to the pre-built options from major brands.

Other options:
Linux

If you like to tinker with software and hardware and don’t have strict requirements for dependability or features, seriously consider KnopMyth. Just because I didn’t have to patience to get every aspect of KnoppMyth working doesn’t mean that other can’t either. The hardware requirements are less strict (though I still highly recommend a video solution from NVidia.. their Linux support is great). and the OS and software are free.

Mac

With the release of the Mac Mini Apple is offering a low cost option for a brand-new computer in an attractive and tiny form-factor (6.5″ square, 2″ tall). With an eyeTV from ElGato and an external hard drive, you can build a Mac-based solution for about $800… without a unified interface. (Though these folks want to change that.)

Tivo

Forget all of the complication of a PC and go with a simple set-top solution. Tivo offers tons of features for a low initial cost ($99 – $199, depending on configuration). My biggest gripe was the $12 monthly service charge. Of course you can pay $299 for lifetime Tivo service.

My decision to use XP MCE was based on these factors:

  • Existing hardware… sorta
  • Ability to share recorded content with other computers
  • Ability to watch existing mpg, avi, quicktime, and divx content
  • Some gaming use.. mostly MAME… (KnoppMyth has a plug-in for MAME support)
  • No recurring cost/limited initial cost

Everyone will have different requirements and goal in choosing their home media center solution. I hope that these articles have proven to be useful.

Read Part 3…


Further information and related links:
MythTV
KnoppMyth
Microsoft Media Center
PC Alchemy, Home Theater PC equipment reseller
PVRBLog

One response to “Adventures In Home Media Solutions
Part 4”

  1. Van Faden says:

    Really awesome – thanks for this, I love this kind of stuff šŸ™‚

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