Ye Olde HTPC gets a long-overdue upgrade


— 8:26 AM on July 2, 2010

I built my first proper home-theater PC so long ago that I don't remember exactly when. Five years ago sounds about right, but it was probably even longer. I'd had PCs hooked up to my television before, of course, but that was more along the lines of an S-Video cable running from my primary desktop rather than a custom build meant for the living room. There really wasn't much point in having a home-theater PC back when my living room shared square footage with my dining room, kitchen, and the Benchmarking Sweatshop, all in a dingy little basement suite you had to crouch down just to get into. Such was the life of an in-debt student fresh from blowing all his money on a six-week post-graduation bike epic across Europe.

Ye Olde HTPC was based on a Pentium 4 2.26GHz processor that wasn't all that spiffy even at the time. It started with 512MB of RAM and a single Western Digital hard drive. IDE, of course. Graphics horsepower, if you can call it that, was provided by a GeForce FX 5600 cooled by a passive Zalman heatsink. One of Zalman's massive Reserator water towers kept the processor cool, and I used an ATI Remote Wonder to control everything from the couch. This system was built to be a TiVo substitute, and I picked up a Hauppauge PVR-250 to handle video capture and encoding.

Most of the parts were gathered from what I had lying around at the time, and with a little help from Windows XP, BeyondTV, Winamp, and eventually XBMC, I had myself a pretty sweet home-theater PC. The system wasn't a gamer by any stretch, but it handled PVR duties and SD video playback with aplomb and had no problem maintaining smooth frame rates with Winamp's trippy music visualizations. 


The guts of Ye Olde HTPC, complete with a rounded IDE cable

My little HTPC that could was extremely reliable for a system that stayed on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, year after year. I did end up replacing a few dead components here and there, swapping in a new motherboard after some capacitors blew and a fresh PSU after the original passive SilverStone unit started sagging. A sound card was added eventually, as was a second hard drive, and the whole system migrated into a new case somewhere along the way. In an epic feat of endurance, the CPU, memory, graphics card, tuner, and even the original hard drive stubbornly soldiered on from the very beginning.

I suppose that's why I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that this system was only replaced a few months ago. Right up until mid-February, the lone PC in my living room was running a Pentium 4 processor and a GeForce FX GPU. For a guy who spends his days testing bleeding-edge PC hardware, that's borderline shameful.

Obviously, I should've upgraded sooner. But as the guy who spends most of his waking life knee-deep in PC hardware, the last thing I want to do in my spare time is put together another system. Keeping my desktop rig up to date is already a challenge, and the home theater PC also falls below my notebook and closet file server on the priority list.

This year's Winter Olympics finally gave me the excuse and motivation I needed. Roughly a bazillion tourists, athletes, media, and associated support staff descended on my fair city, bringing with them obscene lineups, offensive prices, and traffic... everywhere. That's why I spent the entire time barricaded in my home watching the games on TV like everyone else.

First, I needed some HD. We were hosting a party for the gold medal hockey game, and watching it in anything less than high definition would have been uncivilized. Besides, rumor had it that Lindsey Vonn was pretty hot, and that seemed like the sort of thing I would appreciate in high def. As it turns out, I spent more time drooling over Canadian skier Ashleigh McIvor. But I digress.


The new system's still naked

I've had some grand plans for a custom home-theater PC enclosure for a while now, and since preliminary work on that project had already begun, I decided to skip a case for the new build. TR's old hard drive test platform was perfectly happy running without a case for years, so the new HTPC would surely be all right. My girlfriend wasn't crazy about the idea, but the promise of a stealthy custom enclosure quelled her objections to having the guts of a PC strewn across the shelf under the TV.

Once again, I cobbled together a system mostly from parts I had sitting around the lab: a low-power Athlon X2 4850e CPU, Gigabyte 785G motherboard, Caviar Green hard drive, 500W Seasonic PSU, and an X-Fi-based AuzenTech sound card. I have no intention of wandering outside the realm of very casual gaming on this rig, so the 785G's integrated graphics are more than adequate. A Scythe Ninja cooler sits atop the CPU and barely makes a sound, ensuring that the system as a whole is almost completely silent, even running outside of an enclosure.

If I had a receiver hooked up in the living room, I probably would've skipped the sound card completely and used the motherboard's onboard audio via the S/PDIF or HDMI outputs. But I needed good analog output quality, so a discrete sound card was a must. The X-Fi got the nod over a Xonar purely because I've yet to find a DVD-Audio playback app that works more reliably than Creative's own, which isn't compatible with the Xonar.

So what about HD? I don't watch nearly enough television to justify paying for high-def cable, and I'd rather not be tied to my provider's PVR box. I do, however, have great line of sight to Mt. Seymour, which hosts an antenna that broadcasts several HD channels over the air, including the one that would be handling Olympic coverage. NCIX had a Diamond TV Wonder HD 650 on sale, complete with analog and digital tuners and a bundled MCE remote, so I was set. The original plan was to add this tuner with my existing PVR-250, which I figured should get a chance to keep chugging in this fancy new build as a sort of reward for its years of dedicated service. Unfortunately, the PVR-250 didn't play nicely with the 64-bit version of Windows 7 that I'd already purchased. I'm an idiot for not checking compatibility beforehand, but the Diamond tuner soon went on sale again, and since the first one seemed pretty solid, I picked up a second. 


The antenna poses on the mantle next to a retired bike frame

The tuners would need an antenna, of course, and the interwebs provided me with all sorts of suggestions for rolling my own. And so I did, with a few coat hangers, some spare wood and wiring from the garage, a balun, and a couple of cheap cake trays from Walmart. The end result works like a charm and looks even more ghetto than the PC itself, but it'll eventually take up residence out of sight in the attic.

Overall, I'm quite happy with my new home-theater PC. It's more responsive than the old system, which would occasionally hiccup, and whose Remote Wonder would flake out unless you held it at just the right angle. My girlfriend also finds Windows Media Center much easier to navigate than the combination of BeyondTV and XBMC that ran on the old rig, if only because she can now deal with one interface for everything. I'm reasonably content with MCE, too, but I'd go back to XBMC in a heartbeat if it had PVR capabilities built in. Maybe that's because I've been using versions of XBMC since back when it first appeared as XBMP on the original Xbox. Or maybe it's because the music visualizations built into MCE look horrifically dated next to even what I was able to run on that original Xbox.

Otherwise, the system has been rock solid and almost completely silent. I did have a few problems with the tuners not recording standard-definition programs correctly if they came right after a high-def recording, but that was quickly fixed by an automatic update. Next on the list is a Blu-ray drive and a wired Xbox 360 remote for Audiosurf, Beat Hazard, and the odd trip down the rabbit hole in American McGee's Alice. Oh, and that custom enclosure, which I'll get around to. Eventually.

   
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