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Media centre PC AKICOLJ

With an upgrade to my main gaming PC hopefully happening later this year, it's occurred to me that the bits that will get replaced could easily form the basis of a moderately capable PC. So what would this moderately capable PC be used for?
1. A portable gaming machine. By 'portable' I don't mean to use on a train or something, but I do mean something capable of being lugged to the Isle of Wight on a passenger ferry in hand luggage.
2. A media centre PC. Something to hook up to the 50" telly in the living room and use to watch internet telly and ripped DVDs on.

Part 1 is easy. I can do gaming machines (and I've built quite a few over the years). But I have almost no experience of Part 2. So, in the hope that someone out there has done this sort of thing (or even bits of this sort of thing), I have some questions...

First here's the components that will move from the gaming PC to the media centre PC:

Core 2 Duo E8400 (socket 775)
4gb RAM
GeForce 9800GX2
Existing PSU

While I could transfer the motherboard across, it's a full ATX motherboard, and I want the case to be somewhat smaller so that I can easily get it on that passenger ferry. It is possible to get socket 775 motherboards in the tiny mini-ITX format, and that would allow for some really small cases. However, really small cases and big gaming graphics cards don't really mix. A reasonable compromise would be a smallish case and a microATX motherboard.

You seem to pay an enormous premium for a home theatre PC (HTPC) case compared to an otherwise similar case. The HTPC ones do look nice (like expensive hi-fi separates), but I'm prepared to compromise on looks if it saves me £200. Another constraint is that the PC will sit in one of the two units in front and below the telly. While you can get cases in a short, wide format (somewhere between a DVD player and an amp), they all seem to have their air vents on the side. Unfortunately, that won't leave enough room for proper air flow, since the case would be right up against the furniture. That makes a small form factor type case the best bet as far as I can see - not one of the very small ones like a Shuttle, but one capable of taking a full-size graphics card, PSU and a microATX motherboard. Something like this perhaps:

And here are the AKICOLJ questions...

1. What's the best way to get sound out of the PC to the amp? The graphics card has a pass-through S/PDIF so that its HDMI socket can send audio as well as video. I still have one spare HDMI-in on the amp, so that _seems_ ideal, but would I be better taking the sound out from a sound card or motherboard onboard sound?

2. I'll be using Windows 7. Is the Windows Media Centre part of Windows the way to go, or should I be looking at some other software to organise media? Or do I even need to bother? The TV is 50" and 1920 x 1080, so could I just use Windows without Media Centre and still see everything as clearly as I need to?

3. Does anyone know anything about TV cards? We get a pretty decent freeview signal which we don't ever use (we have Sky). But with a TV tuner card, I'd be able to record freeview onto the computer (wouldn't I?) What sort of things do I need to look for when choosing one?

4. There are lots of open source programs out there that will let you rip your DVDs to hard disk. Given how astonishingly cheap hard disks are these days (under £60 for 2 terabytes!), I am attracted by the idea of having my DVD collection all stored on a PC hard disk and easily accessible. Can anyone recommend DVD ripping software? What are the pitfalls?


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 15th, 2011 01:26 pm (UTC)
I'm not answering the question here, I know, but have you considered something like this:
which is a 2TB media player that will be smaller and quieter than anything you build yourself, for £90?

It doesn't record TV, sadly. Although one of these will.

If you are going the home-build route then Windows Media Centre is useful because it has an interface designed to be controlled with a remote (rather than a mouse/keyboard). I prefer the interface of XBMC, but as that's also free software you can have a play and see what suits best.

And I don't tend to rip movies from DVD (I prefer to play them direct), so I can't help you with that I'm afraid.
Oct. 15th, 2011 04:11 pm (UTC)
Both of those are Part 2 solutions rather than Part 1 and Part 2 solutions. I've got Sky+ HD, so I don't really need the TV recording bit, but since I already have the most important bits of a semi-decent gaming PC, it would be nice to use them.

I'll investigate XBMC...
Oct. 15th, 2011 07:34 pm (UTC)
My HTPC runs Ubuntu and MythTV, with 2 DVB-T tuners (each of which can record several programs at the same time on the same "mux"), as well as playing DVDs, ripped DVDs, and downloaded Internet stuff (e.g. using get_iplayer). It's only SDTV, and doesn't need to be high-powered, so I deliberately chose lowish-spec kit and even underclocked/undervolted it to keep it quiet and cool. This means that I could squeeze it into a Silverstone HTPC case which fits in the cabinet under the telly, and although there's only a centimetre clearance each side, it doesn't get hot and airflow is fine. I don't have experience of building an HDTV box, although I think in general for HTPCs you don't need as much power (thus heat/noise) as you might think, so you might find you're OK with cases with side airflow, as long as you have a centimetre or two each side.

You could check places like SilentPCReview forums (good for general PC building tips, especially regarding cooling), and the MythTV mailing list if you fancy going that way (although I know you Don't Do Software so you may prefer to not have the learning curve of a Linux solution).
Oct. 16th, 2011 04:02 pm (UTC)
As you say, I don't do software and I especially don't do operating systems. Since I want this to be a capable gaming PC as well, if I used linux for the media centre o/s, I'd still need to have windows for the games. Dual-booting is not something I want to go back to.

Was there a reason you went for MythTV over Windows Media Centre (apart from the fact that you were using linux)? Can it do stuff that WMC can't do?

In an ideal world, I'd have enough cash to have an HTPC AND a LAN party PC, but I don't, so compromises are going to have to be made to get something that will do both jobs. Quiet is going to be one of those compromises - if you were building a quiet HTPC, you wouldn't use a 9800GX2 or the PSU capable of powering such a graphics card. Nevertheless, that's what I've got to work with. (And I don't want to spend much on this build since it will reduce the available budget to spend on the new main gaming PC.)

What's a "mux"?

Tell me more about "get_iplayer".

Silly question, but how long does a typical DVD-ROM drive take to rip a DVD?

Do you use a remote control or regular (or wireless) mouse and keyboard combo?

Oct. 16th, 2011 07:58 pm (UTC)
There is a Windows port of MythTV but it's not primarily used by the main developers so isn't well-maintained and I wouldn't bother with it personally. In your situation I would probably try WMC in the first instance especially as it's effectively free with Windows 7, as long as you have the correct edition. I used to use XBMC in its original Xbox incarnation but that was years ago so don't know how it compares these days on PC.

I haven't used WMC but I believe it cannot do some things MythTV can do such as automatic advert detection/removal. Being Linux and open-source in general, it can be configured and tweaked to the nth-degree rather than being in control of a single company, although that can be both a good and a bad thing.

mux==multiplex==a group of digital channels broadcast on one frequency. In UK Freeview there are only five frequencies/muxes for all of the 80-odd channels (one more mux is for Freeview HD). I believe Freesat is similar, although I think probably has more muxes, i.e. fewer channels per frequency.

One tuner can only tune to one frequency/mux at a time but can, theoretically, record all of the channels on the mux at the same time, given enough HDD throughput. So although I only have two tuners, I can record many more than two programmes at once, depending on what channels they are on, which helps reduce clashes. (MythTV will search for repeats anyway and automatically schedule things accordingly so I very rarely have to tell it exactly which episode to record - in general I just tell it what series to record and leave it to it). I don't know if WMC has this ability to record more than one thing on a mux at the same time.

get_iplayer is an unofficial command-line script (GUI frontends are available but I don't use them) which downloads BBC iplayer episodes. It has had a bit of cat and mouse thing going on with the BBC and the original developer gave up, but other people have taken it on and kept it working. There may be equivalents for ITV Player, 4od etc., but I haven't looked as I haven't needed them. I only tend to use get_iplayer if I hear about a programme after broadcast, i.e. I didn't know about it to schedule it in MythTV beforehand.

Ripping DVDs is related to the speed of the drive. A 16x drive reads DVDs at 16x faster than real time, so a 2 hour movie would rip in 7.5 minutes, theoretically. In practice there is overhead starting and stopping, and you might deliberately want to rip at a slower speed for the sake of reliablilty. This is ripping to raw DVD format, i.e. highest quality. If you want to convert it to another format, that will take longer.

I tend to use Windows apps to rip DVDs as, for some reason, they tend to keep more up-to-date than the Linux equivalents with the various copy-protection things the manufacturers try to use. Look into the DVDFab free ripper for ripping, and FairUse Wizard 2.8 (the last free version) for converting e.g. individual episodes on a ripped DVD into individual movie files.

I use a remote control that looks like http://www.promo-wholesale.com/china/Computers/6/Remote-Control-Xpc-rc01-184986.htm that works as a USB keyboard/mouse (I configure MythTV to do the right thing for various buttons although a lot works out of the box). I used to have a wired keyboard attached for occasional use and currently have a wireless keyboard attached for occasional use but am finding the range is limited on the keyboard for some reason (may just not be a good model). So when I do need to do sysadmin tasks I tend to just ssh to the HTPC from a laptop or from my N900.
Oct. 17th, 2011 09:33 pm (UTC)
I can live with adverts, and the tweaking to the nth degree will probably be more hassle than I'm after, so Windows Media Centre it is!

Didn't know that about muxes, so that's useful. Do you have a recommended TV tuner card?

Thanks for the ripping recs.

In fact thanks for all of this - exactly the sort of thing I was after.

PS Livejournal reported this as a "suspicious comment", which I've never seen before.
Oct. 18th, 2011 05:24 pm (UTC)
Re: TV tuner, you can get internal PCI cards, or external USB stick-like things. I don't think there's anything wrong with the USB ones - USB bandwidth is sufficient to cope with transferring at least two DVB-T muxes simultaneously down one lead (I have a dual-tuner USB device which works fine). I believe some people have multiple USB dual-tuner devices hanging off the back of their PVRs with no problems. You might want to check if there are any limits in WMC in terms of how many tuners it can cope with. Obviously USB devices are not very tidy but may be good for you as you could disconnect them when you want to take the machine away as a games machine.

You can get DVB-T tuners for digital terrestrial (i.e. Freeview) or DVB-S for digital satellite (i.e. Freesat) or DVB-C for digital cable (i.e. Virgin). It's probably not worth trying to get ones that will cope with encrypted stuff like Sky content, as you would need another Sky card and some extra hardware I believe. If you want to do Freeview HD look for a DVB-T2 device (which should also tune DVB-T muxes). I'm not sure what you would need for Freesat HD. Again, check for WMC compatibility (I'm sure there must be good WMC fan websites/forums).

Brand-wise, Hauppauge has been around for a couple of decades and is very well respected and is what I would buy.

Re: suspicious comment, I noticed when I posted it that it said it would need to be moderated by you. Maybe because I posted a link and I don't have many posts to my name in LJ, so they thought I was a spammer?
Oct. 18th, 2011 08:05 pm (UTC)
Thanks again - really helpful. Another advantage of USB over PCI would be that it's one less thing to stuff into a microATX mobo and case, especially as I'll be using a hot two slot graphics brick.

I assumed the suspicious comment was about spam. Then again, when I've had spam comments, I've not had that error message!
Oct. 19th, 2011 06:55 pm (UTC)
By the way, I got the same message again when I posted the last comment. Specifically it said: "Your comment has been added. According to this journal's settings, it was marked as screened, and will be visible only to you and the journal's owner until the owner chooses to unscreen it. You can view your comment here." It'll be interesting to see if this comment (without any links) also gets "marked as screened", whatever that is.
Oct. 19th, 2011 06:55 pm (UTC)
Nope, that reply appeared straight away. Must be the links that are throwing up the problem.
Oct. 19th, 2011 06:59 pm (UTC)
When I said "it causes a lot of coiled cable behind the TV/HTPC" I meant to add that this isn't just untidy - too much cable can affect the signal I think, especially if it gets coiled up with mains cables and the like. Certainly, I had a problem tuning to one mux, that only seemed to resolve itself when I tidied up the cables.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )