I always wanted to build myself a media center (HTPC) computer for my Sony Bravia 32″ LCD television but never got around to it. Well, that’s not entirely true, as I was trying to cut costs down and build a computer out of existing parts (a Celeron 2.4GHZ, 256MB of RAM, 20GB hard drive and basic on-board stereo sound). This setup was fine for Xvid playback over the network and I never had any surround-sound speakers until I finally found the deal of the century and picked up a LG LH-T9654MB “HTIB” from Futureshop for 230$ CDN taxes in (it was supposedly below the cost price). Since I got myself a simple surround setup, I enjoyed the audio more and more… playing movies in stereo sound was boring. What more, I was finding myself diving in 720p and 1080p content and Xvid just wasn’t cutting it. After trying everything I could to make 720p playback on the Celeron computer work smoothly (tried over-clocking, bumping up the RAM, etc) it simply did not work. I decided to get a new computer but I didn’t want to spend more than 500$ on the whole setup. I basically needed a CPU that could do 1080p playback, a motherboard that had an onboard SPDIF audio output connector and enough RAM to satisfy anything I can throw at it.
Doing a quick check on Google, I came across Tom’s Hardware Guide 2007 CPU charts for 1080p playback. Being an Intel fanboy, I found the right CPU for the right price: a Core 2 Duo E4600 CPU (2.4GHZ dual core with 2MB of cache, 800MHZ FSB). While not listed on the chart, it should be sufficient as the E4300 processes 1080p at 58.1% processor usage. Logically, this processor should do full HD processing at a lower usage rate. Since I sell computers, finding the CPU at cost price wasn’t that big of a deal, but the main problem was finding the motherboard and RAM at a low price. I mostly sell business computers, so finding those “enthusiast” hardware components at a cost is a challenge (not really difficult, but I was impatient to wait for everything to arrive). I decided to hit up NCIX and see what they could offer. I found the Asus P5K-VM motherboard that had everything I needed, except a TOSLINK connector (they had Coaxial audio only). For the RAM, I found the OCZ Platinum PC2-6400 2GB (4-4-4-15) dual channel memory kit. The memory was overkill but since it was on special and dirt cheap, I picked it up without thinking twice. Finally, while I was about to check out, I came across the Western Digital 500GB 16MB cache 7200 RPM SATA2 NCQ hard drive for 97$ (special of the week, couldn’t pass it up!). I added two of those babies for the media center computer as I knew I would be needed them for all the 720p/1080p content. Total of this order with taxes and shipping came up to 469.00$ CDN. Oh, there was a 35$ mail-in-rebate for the RAM, so this brings down the total to 434.00$.
After some billing issues (damn CIBC/VISA froze my account temporarily, more on that in another post) the parts came in and I quickly assembled the computer. I installed Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 and setup Combined Community Codec Pack (CCCP) for the X264 playback. The results were superb: 720p and 1080p played back really, really well. No stuttering and the audio was perfectly in sync unlike the Celeron setup. Watching these high quality videos on the television was a treat and a half! The components I chose were definitely the right ones for the job; I was quite worried that the CPU wouldn’t be powerful enough to decode the streams, but thankfully, they surpassed my expectations. Only drawback/con of this setup: the Asus P5K-VM does not have an SPDIF optical output jack (but can be purchased separately, I hope). I’m using an Aureal Vortex 2 for the job right now, but there are no proper Windows XP drivers for it so the surround doesn’t really work. I’ll be fixing this very soon to get the proper audio setup.
Closing off, I’m happy with my purchase and look forward to filling up the hard drives with content. I hope this guide serves someone who’s looking into building a low-cost 1080p media center machine. All the components I have purchased in this guide were bought from NCIX, minus the case, power supply and CDROM drive (I had those laying around). Good luck!