Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Building an HTPC - Part 1

I've been wanting to build a Home Theatre PC (HTPC) around Windows Media Centre Edition for some time now, but I didn't want to shell out for new hardware until I had fully evaluated MCE and tested that it would fit into our living room without causing too much disruption.

The first stage of the process was to acquire a copy of MCE. As I have an MSDN subscription this was not a problem :)

Stage two was to install MCE on a second hard drive so that if the evaluation went well I could simply drop the drive into the HTPC when it was built.

This was complicated slightly by a (very) brief flirtation with Linux. More on this and the joys of GRUB removal later.

Once MCE was successfully installed and the system was set up to dual boot both the existing WinXP Pro install and the new MCE installation I checked out the Media Centre UI and found that I liked it enough to purchase a MCE compatible DVB-T TV card.

A trip up a ladder with some cable cutters and an hour in the attic with a drill saw the sneaky diversion of a coax aerial cable from my son's room (he's only four, he didn't even know he had an aerial point!) to the house IT hub (the attic), and I found myself immediately in love with watching and recording Freeview through MCE.

So far so good. The next step was to test the whole thing in the living room with our old 4:3 Hitachi telly. This called for some decisions regarding cabling. The HTPC was running a Radeon 9600SE with DVI, VGA and s-video outs. Ideal really, as I can eventually use DVI when we get an LCD TV, and in the meantime s-video to SCART would work well on the old Hitachi.

The next thing was audio. I managed to find a cable in Maplins with a male SCART on one end and an s-video and two (red & white) phono connectors on the other. So the final cabling had a 2 phono to 3.5mm stereo adaptor splitting the audio signal from the HTPC sound card into the red and white cables, and the s-video carrying the video signal, all going to the SCART socket in the back of the telly. A bit of experimentation found that only the AV2 SCART socket could be s-video enabled, and once this was confgured in the TV's settings the HTPC worked perfectly, giving a clear picture and good stereo when in the Media Centre. The Windows desktop didn't display so well unfortunately, but it was usable in 800x600 and this is to be expected on an old TV. Also this will cease to be a problem when an LCD telly is finally connected up. (I've decided to wait for 1080p to come down in price before splashing out: I just hope it's months rather than years away!)

One thing to note is that I also tried connecting using s-video to composite in (yellow socket) on the telly, but the quality was very poor. I had read that composite video was slightly worse quality than s-video, but was surprised at how bad it looked. S-video to SCART is really the only way I found of getting a good quality image in MCE on a non-HDMI TV.

So, I had one HTPC working very well in the living room, with two problems. Firstly it was still set up as a dual boot system and I needed my WinXP Pro drive back for my new gaming rig, and secondly the case and fans made the thing sound like a F-15 on rotation.

Now firmly convinced that both my and my family's very lives depended on getting the HTPC working silently in the living room I did a bit of research into silent PCs. I finally plumped for a Silverstone LC16B case and a 430W Coolermaster iGreen silent PSU.

The plan was to take the components out of the noisy case and install them in the silent enclosure, then build a high spec gaming rig in the old case using new components and the old WinXP hard drive (for now).

Before the two builds could begin I needed to make the drive containing MCE bootable, preferably without having to reinstall the OS. (This drive is the home of my BSG and Heroes torrents among others, and backing them up would be time consuming to say the least.)

There were a couple of problems. First off a small portion of the MCE drive was partitioned off with a Linux Fedora install, and in order to triple boot between XP, MCE and Fedora there was a GRUB boot loader in the MBR of the primary drive.

You can read how I dealt with the problems in this post.

Now the drive boots perfectly as if it had always had its very own MBR :)

I'm starting the build tonight, so we'll see how silent the HTPC really is...

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