Building a Vista Media Center, The Sequel

[I highly recommend reading the first write-up in this series before continuing.]

This is an update to the detailed write-up of how I built a custom Vista Media Center (VMC) that rivals retail units in both price and performance. The goal was to replace our TiVo Series3 while keeping the price as low as possible. My unit cost me just under $500 after mail-in-rebates, recycling some spare parts from previous machines, purchasing a couple accessories and excluding software. The actual price, if all components were purchased new, would be around $800 for the computer and $600 for the digital cable tuners (DCT). Thus it is considerably more expensive than a TiVo Series3 (excluding the monthly TiVo subscription fee) but still much less than buying a pre-made VMC.

Why the update? Well, there was a fire. I’m not joking. My custom VMC caught fire which destroyed several components essentially putting me back in square one. I had never had a computer catch fire before. I was there when it happened and, thankfully, there was no damage to our home or other equipment in the rack. Here is a recap:

The VMC started exhibiting strange behavior one week such as randomly rebooting and periodically hanging. One evening after work, I decided to investigate and the error logs all indicated a problem with the hard drive or memory. I opened the case to have a look and everything passed visual inspection. The hard drive still spun up and the computer would boot into Vista successfully so I figured it must be faulty memory.

I decided to remove one of the two memory modules to determine if one was bad which happens more often than you might believe. After removing the module, I plugged the computer back up and turned it on to see if it would boot. Immediately after turning the computer on, there was a spark, followed by a flame, followed by the smell of ozone and burned silicon us electrical engineers know all too well from circuit work.

I quickly unplugged everything and thought to myself, “That can’t be good!” Sure enough, the chip responsible for controlling the bus (think of it as the superhighway inside your computer that all the data between the processor, memory, drives, etc. travels on) took one for the team. It had a thin soot film across its top, it was gone. My beloved VMC was dead. Great. TB with no TV is not pretTY. I had to get it fixed and fast.

Well, after a month and an additional $570, we are back in business. That’s right, the fire forced me to scrap just about everything and ended up costing me more to repair the machine than it cost to build originally.

Apparently, the power supply shorted so everything that needs power (essentially everything inside a computer) got a lot more power than expected causing those components to burnout. Computer components generally don’t do very well when they receive excess power so the processor, video card, motherboard, case, hard drive, DVD drive and IR receiver got fried. You may recall I saved some money originally by salvaging those last three items from old machines. Of course, those too had to be replaced. The only good news was the memory and digital cable tuners survived. I was able to get NewEgg.com to replace the video card under warranty and a co-worker gave me an IR receiver. I bought everything else and hated every moment of it.

I don’t know if the surgery I performed on the power supply to make it quieter had anything to do with the fire or if the wires in the case had been damaged during shipping like the drive bay door. Either way, I learned a couple valuable lessons. I purchased a quality, silent power supply and a sturdy, pristine case from Fry’s. I will no longer order computer cases online and I won’t be performing surgery on a power supply again anytime soon.

The good news is we’re back in business and the new VMC is more powerful than its predecessor—5.3 v. 4.8 Windows Experience Index (WEI). Here are the updated specs with everything purchased at NewEgg.com unless otherwise noted:

  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 2.4 GHz ($119.99)
  • Memory: Crucial Ballistix, 2 x 1GB, 800MHz ($0.00, salvaged from first VMC)
  • Video: ASUS NVIDIA EN8500GT, 256MB GDDR3, PCI Express x16, HDCP-capable, HDMI ($0.00, replaced under warranty)
  • Motherboard: ASUS P5B ($79.99)
    • Audio: 5.1 surround sound, Toslink digital optical output
    • Chipset: Intel P965
    • Network: Gigabit Ethernet
  • Storage: 500GB Seagate Barracuda 7200RPM 16MB SATA-2 hard drive ($79.99, purchased from Amazon.com)
  • Disc: Samsung SATA-2 DVD-R/RW ($28.99)
  • Case: Zalman HD160 ($164.99, purchased at Fry’s)
  • Power: Thermaltake 500 Watt ($49.99, purchased at Fry’s)

Total repair cost: $570, including tax and shipping

Here is a side-by-side comparing the WEI of both machines. While I used the exact memory and an identical motherboard in both machines, the memory runs faster because I overclocked the bus this time around. :nerd:

Keith's Vista Media Center (Original) Windows Experience Index Keith's Vista Media Center (New) Windows Experience Index

As you can see from the images below, the new VMC (second set of pictures) looks a lot better than the first one. The entire case is constructed from sturdy, brushed aluminum and it looks just like a normal stereo component replete with a large, functioning volume knob.

Keith's Media Center (old) front Keith's Media Center (old) back Keith's Media Center (new) front Keith's Media Center (new) back

I’m happy with the result but still fuming from the damage caused by the fire. I sure hope this one lasts.

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