Submission by Keith Finnett – Let’s get straight to the point – does Microsoft Windows work as an entertainment centre? If you read the computing press you’ll know the answer is yes, no, and maybe. If you want one, you’ll have to be an early adopter with deep pockets – most pre-built systems retail at around the £1,000 mark.
So, does it work? I’ve just built my fourth Windows Media Centre Edition (MCE) PC and the latest version is more stable, quieter and more usable than its predecessors. It has also completely changed the way we watch television – no longer do we have to be sat down in front of the TV at a specific time; we now watch the programmes we like when we want to. If you’ve never tried PVR (Personal Video Recorder) technology, you’re missing out! And TV/PVR is not the only string to MCE’s bow – it gives us access to live and recorded TV, music and (camcorder) video, online and offline DVDs, and our ever growing photo gallery. You can also access it over the Internet – just in case you’ve forgotten to record something.
My Previous Media Centres – First an admission – each of my previous three media centres have been Windows MCE based. I know there are a multitude of alternatives based on both Wintel and Linux platforms, but the completeness that MCE offers is (for me) the deciding factor.
My first media centre was based on the original release of MCE- dubbed Windows Media Centre Edition 2002. As an MSDN Universal subscriber I was able to download a copy on the day of its release, which I duly installed onto a 1GHz Athlon PC I had in my study. After a little tinkering, I used it for nothing more than evaluation. I had no TV tuner cards, and it was really unstable. The MCE part of the OS (and it’s really only a program which runs within XP) was only used to show friends, and since the PC was hidden away upstairs I had no way of viewing the content downstairs.
I then decided to rebuild the PC and connect it via a structured and distributed cabling system I had installed in the intervening period – we could now use MCE to view pictures and videos, but still no TV. However, everyone that saw and used it liked it -when it was working, which wasn’t very often as Microsoft had been concentrating their efforts on a new release…
My third effort was far more useful – I had bought a Dell Dimension 8400 desktop (3.2GHz P4 with 1GB RAM, etc…) which I felt needed an upgrade, and Microsoft had just released the second major MCE version (Windows Media Centre Edition 2005). I ordered two BlackGold Digital Freeview tuner cards, and installed them in the updated Dell PC. With XP service pack 2 applied, the machine was immediately far more stable than before. I still had a few problems, though. First, the PC was still upstairs, and I was only running a composite video signal to the AV distribution system. Second, the PC was not usable for anything else if MCE was in use – the application maximises and a second monitor is not usable whilst MCE is running. However one thing was clear – that MCE was now an accepted and essential part of the house. There was no going back!!
The New Media Centre – The Requirements – Given our previous experiences with MCE, we had some pretty specific requirements of a full-blown media centre. First it had to live comfortably in the lounge, and be distributed around the house whilst being plugged directly into the plasma TV via DVI/HDMI – there’s little point in having a digital TV and computer GUI signal and viewing it solely over composite.
Second it had to be dedicated to MCE, and it needed to fit into the environment – not look unsightly in a stack of AV components, and not make too much noise (accepting that silence might be difficult or expensive to achieve).
Finally, it had to be even more stable than the Dell-based version, which required a (automated) reboot every night to keep it fresh. In hindsight I think the instability experienced was primarily due to the PC being used for other things (including development) – having multiple .NET distributions installed would certainly not make the most stable platform.
System Design – The major building block for this system is an Intel Mobile Pentium processor. There are of course a lot of choices for the CPU – standard P4, AMD chip, or something a little more exotic – but the Pentium M requires minimal heat-sinking and has excellent comparative performance (a 1.6GHz Pentium M is similar in most situations to a 2.8GHz Pentium 4, which in this application is more than adequate – even for HD reproduction).
The only drawback to using a mobile processor is motherboard choice. A few manufacturers offer socket 479 micro-ATX motherboards, but they are expensive – £200 is simply too much when you’ve also got to buy the processor (which itself is not cheap). There is another option – Asus build a socket 478 to 479 adaptor (product code CT-479), allowing you to plug in a mobile CPU to a selection of standard Asus motherboards. The range of compatible motherboards is not huge (around 8 at last count), but the Asus P4P800-VM has everything you’ll need for a media centre including no bridge fans – and at around £50 it’s also cheap.
The rest of the system components are selected to minimise noise whilst maximising performance – a fanless Asus Radeon 9250 video card with 256MB, Maxtor Diamondmax 10 250GB SATA hard drive and an NEC ND-3540 DVD writer take care of display and storage. It’s important to note that we don’t require huge storage in this machine as we have greater capacity elsewhere.
The media centre components comprise a pair of Black Gold Digital Freeview cards (excellent quality and very stable), a standard Microsoft Media Centre remote and a new Microsoft Media Centre keyboard. They are all housed in a mediaPC.TV HTPC case which isn’t necessarily the prettiest case, but includes a really quiet PSU and has just enough space for everything.
To improve cooling whilst reducing noise, there are a few internal changes. A round IDE cable is joined by two AcoustiFan DustPROOF fans – one for the CPU and one for the case, the latter mounted with an anti-vibration gasket. The fans use a three step power connector system that allows you to reduce the supply voltage and hence the fan speed. Reducing both fans to 5V (and around 1,500rpm) is sufficient to retain cooling with almost no noise. In terms of temperature management, neither the CPU nor the case runs at higher than 45 degrees C with the machine permanently on.
The result – a highly capable system, which runs almost silently! The total price for the hardware is just under £700.
Software Design – Apart from ensuring the operating system is patched up fully using Windows Update, including XP service pack 2 and rollup 2 for MCE, little else is needed. I use the NVidia PurerVideo decoder package, the latest Windows Media Centre ATI Catalyst (5.10) drivers for the video card (even though ATI don’t directly state support for this card/driver combination), and the latest universal WHQL drivers (5.17) for the tuner cards. Using this combination, the system is extremely stable. This may be assisted by a full restart early in the morning (scheduled every day), but the system is absolutely rock-solid.
In terms of add-on applications, I use just one as generally I’ve found third-party applications written for the platform are quite unstable. In fact, some of them are so bad that they crash Windows Media Centre completely. “My Movies” is not included in this group and I use it very successfully to provide access to offline and online DVDs. It’s also completely free!
Conclusion – Our fourth media centre is the best in so many ways. Whilst it isn’t cheap, it undercuts commercial versions considerably and is in most cases more powerful and certainly quieter. Is it staying? Thankfully (for my wallet) it is!!
BlackGold Freeview tuner cards – www.blackgold.tv
ATI Catalyst drivers (5.10)
BlackGold WHQL drivers (5.17) – www.blackgold.tv