In this section, I’m going to explore your hardware choices. In part 2, we’ll get into extenders and in part 3 we’ll hit on content. Hopefully by breaking them up, I’ll be able to provide you with a pretty much, step-by-step guide to getting yourself up and running with Media Center.
As stated above, here we’ll focus on the main unit. With extenders, this PC can act as a media server but we’ll get to that later. First we want to get running locally. I’ve posted about part of this before but the first thing we have to think about is whether or not we want an OEM or custom system. I won’t repeat the whole article, but for me, you can’t beat a custom system. This really comes down to whether or not you can build and maintain a custom system. It’s really not that hard and if you think you can do it, it’s hard not to and you’ll probably find you enjoy it.
Let’s take a look at the minimum system we’re going to want for Media Center. Since this is going to be a system dedicated to one function, that’s what we want to focus on when buying parts. Case-wise, you want something with enough space. In this case, I personally would stay away from anything half height. It’s just one more thing to worry about when buying other parts.
Next is the motherboard. I’m not the most technical person so you’re not going to hear about northbridge, southbridge, chipsets and whatnot. You’re going to hear about the ability to make things work. That being said, I look for a few things. Most boards you look for today will have these things but check and be sure. First is PCI Express. Most if not all video cards on the market today use PCIx16 which is much faster than either PCI or AGP. Unless you have quality onboard video you’re going to want an add-on card and this is the way to go. Next is the number of SATA headers available. The motherboard I bought has six which was a good number for me. This will allow me to add five hard drives and a blu-ray recorder. I have two drives so far so I have plenty of room for more storage, a key thought when building a media center as we’ll see in part three.
Next is that video card we mentioned above. While there are fights between ATI and Nvidia over which is best, our goal here is something that can pipe HD video out to a large LCD. I’m not going to do into the video card debate as there are sites out there that already do that, but make sure you don’t make my mistake. Get yourself a card with HDMI out. Most any card on the market that has one is going to have the ability to get your HD content to your display. I have an Nvidia 8500GT and it works great but I do wish I had that HDMI connection.
RAM is next. If you’re running Vista 32 bit, most people will tell you that 2GB is plenty. Me, I’m going to max out. 4GB is what I put in my machine as I run 32-bit OSs. x64 will handle even more so my suggestion here is to put in what your motherboard and your wallet can handle. While you can certainly have too little RAM, it’s not possible to have too much. Simple as that.
Next, and depending on how much content you want to archive and consume, is your hard drive space. With 1TB drives running around $100 there’s no reason not to load up here. This is also where case space and cooling can become important. Between the size of .WTV and DVR-MS files for recorded TV, as well as other content you may want to store, the story here is a lot like RAM. More is never enough! Hard drives are easy though. You can add more at any time without making massive changes to your system so at least a 1TB drive is a good start. One recommendation on how to utilize your space: I always set up a partition just for the OS and programs. This ensures that should you need to reinstall your OS, you don’t have to worry about losing your archived content.
Next is an optical drive. While I personally have no need for a Blu-ray drive, it may be something you want to consider. If you have no need like me, a standard DVD-RW drive will work just fine. If you plan on watching DVDs using this drive however, make sure you find a quiet one. Nothing is going to kill a movie experience than a DVD drive sitting there spinning like a champ.
One other consideration I want to talk about today is cooling. While this box could be setup as a server using extenders, more than likely you’ll be placing this box in your main viewing area. As such, some of the most important research you have to look at is cooling. You want to make sure that you either have fans that can keep your equipment cool while not being too loud or possibly look at liquid cooling. It’s more expensive but it might be something to keep in mind. Fans will work, but look for ones that can stay quiet for you.
Stay tuned for the other two parts of this series. Again, in part two we’ll cover extenders and in part three we’ll talk about content. With the content talk, we’ll expand a bit on storage options