[2011-11-29] Replaced the wireless keyboard/mouse.
[2011-??-??] Replaced the wireless adapter.
[2010-09-28] Replaced the case fan and adjusted the sleep policy.
I have been contemplating a lot about building my own HD DVR for about a year. This was partly spurred on by the upcoming renew date for my TiVo HD (November 2010). Do I shell out another $400 for a lifetime subscription (I bought my TiVo HD when they didn’t offer a lifetime subscription) or do I build a HTPC?
[2011-12-29] Another reason was the cost of TV service. At the time, I had DirecTV, and I think I was paying about $45 every month. The thing about these service providers is that they raise rates every year like a clock work, for most of the channels that I don’t care about. I looked at my DVR recording / viewing patterns and it turned out that most of my TV programming was coming from the over-the-air digital channels (the Big Four, and a 24-hour Korean programming channel). Without cable channels, I would miss Tour de France, but that seemed a small price compared to $500 ~ $600 a year.
Initially, I was heavily into Intel Atom with nVidia ION, which had a great price point and power consumption. However, my requirements changed over time, and the following is what I ended up building.
And what’s built can and will replace three devices: TiVo HD, ReplayTV and Xbox 360 (as a Media Center Extender).
- Tuner Cards: 2 x AverMedia AverTVHD Duet OEM [$49.99 each]
My quest started out with a dual tuner since I was looking for a TiVo replacement initially. However, I realized that I often needed more than two tuners at peak hours. And this card is fairly cheap. Much cheaper than other solutions (Ceton quad tuners are $400!). And I am only interested in ATSC tuners (no CableCard needs).
This is a PCI-Express 1x card. So, this meant choosing a board that had two free PCI-Express slots. This meant I had to abandon the Atom route since it only came in the mini-ITX format which only has one expansion slot. I’ve seen something called mini-DTX which has two expansion slot, but I have yet to see one with two free slots (one is usually taken up by an nVidia ION expansion card for HD).
- Operating System: Windows 7 32-bit Home Premium OEM [$99.99]
I did consider Linux. However, the lack of driver support for tuner cards became problematic. Also, there is no free solution to TV guide data ($20/year).
Windows 7 Media Center costs somewhat, but solved the above problems. Also, it’s a familiar platform. My ongoing challenge will be to keeping it clean…
I chose the 32-bit version since I think it’s still a better supported version although the 64-bit support is getting more common. Also, it would lessen the memory requirement somewhat.
- Processor: AMD Athlon II X2 245 AM3 65W Dual-Core [$58.99]
Since the Intel Atom option is gone, I had to pick a CPU. A dual-core seems to be a good choice and it seems 65W TDP seems to be the lowest power consumption. There are Intel CPUs, but it was difficult to find a matching motherboard that had a HD-capable GPU.
AMD seems to be a good choice since I was able to find a decent motherboard with good GPU and all required ports.
- Motherboard: ASUS M4A785-M AM3/AM2+/AM2 with AMD 785G [$74.99]
After the above, the following became a list of requirements for the motherboard.
– Two free PCI-Express 1x or better slots (micro-ATX)
– Good HD capable integrated GPU (this has ATI Radeon HD 4200)
– Optical audio out
– VGA (my old TV does not have an HDMI port, let alone DVI-D)
– HDMI for the future
With this, it was a matter of cost/shipping/reviews to come to this one.
- Hard Disk: Western Digital Caviar Green 500GB [$54.99]
I just like Western Digital… And supposedly Caviar Green uses less power. I thought 500GB was good enough. I thought about separating out the OS and the Data disks, but that seems a bit of a hassle.
500GB seems to be good enough. My TiVo HD has 250GB and I really haven’t had the storage issue, so this seems to be good enough.
- Case: hec Micro-ATX Media Center with 300W Power Supply / 7K09BBA30FNRX [$59.99]
“WAF” is something to consider, so I only looked at HTPC cases. This seems to be a good price/shipping/review on NewEgg.com.
- Memory: 2 x 1GB PC2 6400 [$37.99]
Nothing special… 2GB seems to be good enough since I am just going for a media device.
- Networking: NETGEAR RangeMax WNDA3100 Dual Band Wireless-N Adapter [$32.39]
[2011-??-??] Replaced the TP-WN722N. Well, actually, I didn’t need to, but I had to replace my wireless router, and I ended up getting a dual band N router. So, I thought I might as well get something that could utilize the new one. :p
As some of the reviews on Amazon suggests, be sure to get the V2 (not V1) of this model. To make sure, I went to a local store for this, so that the return would be much easier.
- Networking: TP-LINK TP-WN722N USB 2.0 WiFi Adapter [$19.99]
[2011-??-??] No longer used.
Wireless networking FTW! I don’t have a N system, but it might come in handy in the future (yeah, sure…).
- Keyboard/Mouse: GMYLE P1800 [$26.90] Palm-Sized Mini 2.4GHz RF Wireless Media Keyboard with Multi-Touch Gesture Touchpad Mouse/Remote Control for Windows 7/Vista/XP HTPC PC
[2011-11-29] This replaced the IOGEAR one. This thing is really nice. Basically, a large Blackberry with a trackpad as the screen.
- Keyboard/Mouse: IOGEAR GKM561R [$39.99] Wireless Keyboard with Trackball
[2011-11-29] No longer used.
Since this is a PC after all, I often found a need for a keyboard/mouse. This has a trackball on a compact keyboard. Seems useful.
- Remote: Rosewill RRC-126 Media Center IR Remote with Receiver [$24.99]
There was a cheaper alternative, but this looked nicer. :p Also, when I got it, it was discounted somewhat. I mainly needed the IR receiver. I have an MX-700 universal remote that I use for everything, so it was matter of learning the code and setting up the MX-700 layout.
TIP: If pressing the same button multiple times work just once on your universal remote, don’t blame your universal remote. The media center remote has this “debounce” feature which alternates between two codes to reduce false positive reception. You can turn this off on Windows using regedit. Just search for “debounce remote regedit”.
Well, the case fan that came with the case and the CPU fan that came with the processor were not the quietest. Especially the case fan was fairly noticeable when being turned on. Also, they were not variable-speed…
So, a couple more to solve this.
- SILVERSTONE SCOOL81 80mm Case Fan [$12.99]
[2010-09-28] The Nexus wasn’t quiet enough. Since that was running at a fixed speed, there was no way to make it run quieter. SCOOL81 is a variable-speed fan with a thermal sensor. Without the sensor, it wasn’t that different, but with the sensor, the fan slows down quite a bit and it makes all the difference. I don’t think the motherboard’s variable fan speed control is either not working well or I don’t know how to use it properly, maybe.
- Nexus SP802512L-03 80mm Case Fan [$9.99]
[2010-09-28] No longer used.
- Scythe Shuriken Rev.B SCSK-1100 [$29.95]
This is a very quiet fan. However, even with its low-profile design, if I were to add an internal optical drive, I might have a difficulty with this case…
- Hardware Notes
So, the component total came to about $571.84 (+ tax + shipping – coupons). Not bad for a quad tuner HD HTPC with free TV guide data that has no problem with Flash. Especially when you consider that Ceton CableCard quad tuner costs $400 by itself…
Some assembling notes…
- Motherboard and Back-plate: Make sure that the notches on a couple of top holes on the back-plate are not blocking the ports on the motherboard. I had to disassemble the whole thing again to get that right.
- Hard Disk Mounting: The space for the HDD bracket is kind of blocked by the power supply. However, the front case plate comes off. Two notches on either side each and two notches in the middle. The top middle one is obscured by the case fan, but running a small screw driver along the line unlocks them. Once the front plate is removed, it’s easier to get HDD mounted.
- Power/HDD LEDs: The connectors have polarities. It’s kind of random, so you have to play with it. Initially, the Power LED didn’t come on, but once I flipped it over, it worked.
- TV Resolution: My old Panny plasma display is ED (480p). For some reasons, its native resolution (852×480) wasn’t syncing correctly between GPU and the display (probably some clocking issue). I had to bring another “real” monitor and set the resolution to 1072×600 manually and have the display downsample it.
- Software Notes
- Automatic Login: This box is supposedly an appliance, so this was crucial.
- BIOS Power Failure Setting: Set it to restore to the last state. This is so that when the box was on, it will turn it back on. [2010-09-28] However, this doesn’t seem to work well…
- Hulu and Boxee: There are ways to launch Hulu or Boxee from Windows Media Center. Jeromy Lukenbaugh has a good article on it.
- Sleep / Wake up: The Media Center remote has a power button that can put the box to sleep and wake it up. I tried to turn off “hybrid sleep” because I thought that would take more time to come up, but for some reason, the box did not come up (black screen, frozen). When I turned “hybrid sleep” back on, it worked without a problem. [2010-09-28] This became a reliability concern for me, so I am not putting it into sleep anymore.