Building a Vista Media Center

I put the finishing touches on a homebrew Windows Vista Ultimate Edition Home Theater PC (HTPC) this afternoon. While I am still a huge fan of the TiVo Series3 as a versatile, user-friendly DVR and media hub, I prefer the flexibility and variety of the Vista Media Center (VMC) interface.

One thing that has frustrated me about the Series3 is all video content must be converted to MPEG-2 format for the unit to play it back. That is just not practical in the online & user-generated content world of MPEG-4 and the high-definition world of VC-1 and H.264. The music and photo interfaces of the Series3 also leave a lot to be desired. I knew the VMC software would suit my needs since it is included in Vista Ultimate which I run on my primary desktop machine at home and laptop at work. The real issue was getting the hardware powerful enough to handle all my audio/video needs including support for capturing the Comcast digital cable signal at a reasonable price.

Niveus Rainer Edition

I started by researching retail Media Center units from major manufacturers like HP and Dell, at the entry level, and NiveusMedia, S1Digital, Velocity Micro, at the premium end. The form factors of the HP and Dell machines turned me off immediately. I didn’t want an HTPC that looked like a workstation. The high-end manufacturers charge too much for what essentially amounts to a medium-powered PC in fancy home-theater-friendly packaging. Those high-end units do look cool though. For example, check out the Niveus Rainier Edition. Cool, huh? Only problem is it starts at $3,299. Yikes!

Further, all the manufacturers charge stiff prices for the add-on components necessary to really bring an HTPC to life: Digital cable tuners (DCT). A DCT converts the digital cable signal to a format the HTPC can understand and record. Do a search for “ATi OCUR” for all the gore. At $300 each (at the low end), those digital cable tuners alone would kill the budget I had in mind for creating a dual-tuner TiVo replacement. (We paid $500 for our TiVo Series3 refurb which has dual-tuners built in!) That Niveus Rainier Edition requires a proprietary Niveus Digital Cable Receiver to access the digital cable signal, adding another $1,499. Wow. Almost $4,800 to replace a $500 TiVo. The VMC interface is sweet but not that sweet. This wasn’t looking good.

I dug into the specs of the premium HTPCs and was amazed by how simple they are on the inside. I decided to price out what it would cost me to build a custom HTPC modeled after the Niveus Rainer Edition (see the Rainier Edition link above to access the PDF with the specs). Here are the specifications of the Rainier500HD configuration as of Feb 26, 2008:

  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo E4400 2.0 GHz
  • Memory: 2 x 1GB, 800MHz
  • Video: NVIDIA 8500GT, 256MB GDDR3, PCI Express x16, HDCP-capable, HDMI
  • Audio: 5.1 surround sound, Toslink digital optical output
  • Chipset: Intel P965
  • Network: Gigabit Ethernet
  • Storage: 500GB Seagate SATA-2
  • Disc: Blu-Ray
  • Power: 200 Watt, 29dBa (silent)

Total cost: $3,299+

There are many other components included in the Rainier500HD but none essential for replacing a TiVo. When I first captured that list, I guesstimated I could get everything for under $1,000 which is much less than the $3,299 Niveus is charging but still more than the $500 I wanted to spend. I visited NewEgg.com, my favorite, PC hardware e-tailer and began assembling a shopping cart with each item on the list above. To keep the price down I cut the Blu-Ray disc since regular DVDs look fine on our TV and I had a DVD drive from an old machine I could reuse. I also had a 250GB Seagate PATA/IDE drive from the same machine so I cut the 500GB Seagate SATA-2 hard drive as well. Here is what I ended up with, including the NewEgg.com prices for each item at that time:

  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo E4500 2.2 GHz ($119.99)
  • Memory: Crucial Ballistix, 2 x 1GB, 800MHz ($64.99)
  • Video: ASUS NVIDIA EN8500GT, 256MB GDDR3, PCI Express x16, HDCP-capable, HDMI ($74.99)
  • Motherboard: ASUS P5B ($94.99)
    • Audio: 5.1 surround sound, Toslink digital optical output
    • Chipset: Intel P965
    • Network: Gigabit Ethernet
  • Storage: 500GB Seagate SATA-2 hard drive
  • Disc: Blu-Ray
  • Case: Athenatech Steel Evo ($104.99)
    • Power: 500 Watt (not silent)

Total cost: $460 plus $9 shipping/handling
After Mail-In Rebates: $399, shipped

htpc-newegg-receipt

As you can see, both the motherboard and case selections saved me by integrating several key components. The decision to reuse existing DVD and hard drives saved about $350. The memory, motherboard and case each included mail-in rebates totaling $70 which brought the final price to $399 shipped. Now we’re talking.

I initially tried supporting our local Fry’s. JS and I made the trip to Renton but we could not find a suitable case and all the other components were significantly (>20%) more expensive. Not wanting to completely waste a trip to Fry’s, I threw caution and price to the wind and purchased the low-end Mac Mini for $700. The form factor and all-in-one packaging make the Mac Mini a very suitable HTPC device. However, after spending a couple days getting it configured, I discovered the hard way the DVI (video) port on the Mac Mini is not HDCP compliant. What that means is those fancy digital cable tuners won’t work so I would have to resort to over-the-air cable. That’s not much of a TiVo replacement.

I went ahead and placed the order from NewEgg.com. Everything arrived in 2 business days as promised. The case arrived beat up with the top drive bay door broken but I didn’t care enough to request a replacement. There were no major scratches or dents and the case would be hidden inside the equipment closet anyway. It took me a few hours to assemble the computer. I built my main Vista box several months back so I am familiar with assembling powerful, silent PCs.

Keith's Media Center interior Keith's Media Center front Keith's Media Center back Keith's Media Center software

After getting the hardware assembled and software configured I started a 48-hour burn-in period to ensure the computer would hold up when it was put to the test. It was during that time I realized the power supply fans were much too loud. While at Fry’s to return the Mac Mini, I picked up two silent Thermaltake fans (120mm and 80mm) for $25 total and performed surgery on the power supply that came with the Athenatech Evo case. An hour later, case closed, both literally and figuratively. I had a functioning PC with a Windows Experience Index of 4.8, high enough to handle anything I throw at it without breaking a sweat, whether we’re talking 1080p high-definition TV, a 1000+ album MP3 collection or 8 year’s of digital pictures.

Keith's Vista Media Center Windows Experience Index

Now came the never-ending, time-consuming task of putting the “home theater” into the new HTPC and vice versa. I already had a Vista Media Center compatible IR receiver and reprogrammed our Logitech Harmony 880 to control the HTPC. I was able to secure two of those $300 digital cable tuners from my employer to assist in beta testing—membership has its privileges—so I was all set on the hardware and software side. The problem was getting the HTPC to work with the rest of our equipment. Luckily I had most of the necessary cables and a lot of patience. I did end up having to purchase a DVI-to-HDMI cable ($14) and I discovered and corrected several wiring issues to improve the reliability of the cable and network connectivity.

After countless hours diagnosing, debugging, rewiring and swearing, I finally have a suitable HTPC that leapfrogs our TiVo in every way. What’s more, we don’t have to pay the $12.95/month TiVo tax which, over a few years, should cover the hardware costs. The pride of having a DIY HTPC comparable to a premium unit costing 10x the price covers the labor. Here are some images showing Vista Media Center in action.

Vista Media Center - Live TV  Vista Media Center - Show Info Vista Media Center - Main Menu  Vista Media Center - Guide
Vista Media Center - Recorded TV Vista Media Center - Online Vista Media Center - My Movies Vista Media Center - My Movies Details
Vista Media Center - Music Vista Media Center - Videos Vista Media Center - Pictures Vista Media Center - Featured Content

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