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Appliance or PC?
Our the last effort to build a home theater PC was about a year ago, so it’s time to revisit the topic. In the past year, a number of interesting, pre-configured “media PCs” have arrived on the scene. The boutique PC makers, such as VoodooPC with its Voodoo Vibe and Alienware’s DHS series, offer examples of the craft. But even mainstream PC manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon—Sony with its VAIO RA-810G and HP with its Digital Entertainment Center.

All of them are certainly fine products in their own right, but it seemed to us that we could build something equivalent, or maybe even a little better. At the top of our list was the ability to seamlessly integrate this rig into our home-theater system. Secondarily, it had to look like it belonged in a rack with A/V components. Finally, the system had to support HDTV viewing and recording.

We also wanted to use Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 (WMCE). The latest version of Windows is now available through OEM channels to anyone who wants to build a system. You no longer have to get a complete PC system to use WMCE. Windows Media Center Edition vastly simplifies the integration issue, and with an update, even supports HDTV.

Usually, when we spec out a configuration, we try to develop a single, recommended configuration for a particular purpose. However, we took a slightly different approach here, and offer several alternatives. The core components are all the same, but the cases and power supplies differ to suit different users and needs. Still, it took us some time to build and integrate the system. The main issue revolved around the ongoing technology transition. As the industry shifts to PCI Express and other new technologies, some older and current devices won’t work as effectively with the latest technology. We’ll offer workarounds to these issues.

So strap in and hang on for a wilder ride than usual.

Choosing the right PC case once meant just finding a beige case with rolled edges so you wouldn’t slice open your hands when working inside it. The DIY PC market changed all that, and there’s a staggering variety of cases for all possible purposes. During our search, we encountered conflicting options that forced us to fork our choices a bit. At the last moment, though, we found a potential contender that might just fulfill all our needs—more on that in a bit.Ideally, we wanted an up-to-date case that would accept a full-size ATX motherboard. A BTX casemight have been interesting, but that option isn’t yet viable, because of the lack of available motherboards and cases. We also wanted the case to look good in our home-theater rack. Our rack is an open one, so we couldn’t completely hide the PC from view. A small tower case was an option but would have had to be placed in a corner to remain unobtrusive. That meant access to the DVD drive would have been more of a nuisance than if the PC was in the A/V rack.

The reason we needed a case that would accept a full-size ATX motherboard was because we needed three PCI slots and a PCI Express x16 graphics card slot. If we’d gone with a Socket 478 Pentium 4 or a Socket 939 Athlon 64 micro-ATX motherboard, we would have had to give up PCI Express support. But our choice of graphics card forced us in the PCIe direction. The infrastructure for AMD PCIe systems isn’t quite there yet, so the choice narrowed to an Intel 900 series motherboard. No socket-T micro-ATX motherboard we’ve seen offers three PCI slots—most have at least one PCIe x1 slot that would take up the spot where a PCI slot might be.

Even with these restrictions, we had a few good choices. One was the Antec Overture, but the Overture is getting a bit long in the tooth. It’s still a fairly attractive case, but it looks old fashioned compared with today’s home-theater components. In the end, we settled on the Ahanix D5 Media Centercase. The Ahanix is a spare case, with lots of room to work inside. The aluminum case houses a vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) compatible with Windows Media Center.

Alas, nothing is perfect, and you can see this in the D5. The Achilles heel of the D5 is its power supply. The constraints of Ahanix’s design led them to use a micro-ATX power supply instead of a full-size ATX power supply. This limited the case to a 300W design, though our component choices wouldn’t overtax that amount of wattage. But it restricted our ability to use an alternative such as the Antec Phantomfanless power supply.

To show you another option, we decided to build an identical system using an Antec SLK3700-BQE—a budget case designed to make as little noise as possible. This case uses a slow-turning 12cm fan in the rear. But we yanked out its Antec SmartPower power supply and replaced that with the fanless Phantom, rated at 350W.

Both cases worked well in the end, but the D5 was noisier than we liked, particularly when recording an HDTV stream. That would heat up the HDTV tuner card and CPU, causing the power supply fan to spin fast enough to be annoyingly audible. The Antec was much quieter, but had to be placed away from the main A/V rack.

At the last minute, we uncovered another potential HTPC case, the Silverstone LC10. The Silverstone can accept a full-size ATX power supply, but it’s also somewhat bulkier than the Ahanix. Its flip-down doors, though, make easy access to the drive bays a bit problematic. We haven’t had a chance to use the Silverstone yet, so we can’t recommend it, but we’ll check it out when it arrives on our doorstep.

The designers at Ahanix clearly thought about the appearance issue. For example, they supplied a matching bezel cover for the DVD drive, to avoid a color mismatch without using doors. The front of the case has a spare, almost elegant appearance, although it lacks built-in flash memory-card readers, which would have been convenient. While not as quiet as we would have liked, it gets high marks for esthetics.

We’ve harped on the noise of the power supply, which is a problem in our setup. But if you have an enclosed cabinet, it may not be a problem. Our choice of CPU also played a factor, but we’ll talk about that when we discuss internal components.

<!—table 1–>

Product Ahanix D5 Media Center PC Chassis
Company: Pros: Looks great; VFD compatible with WMCE; easy to work inside Cons: Micro-ATX power supply; noisy with a high performance CPU Summary: Building a system with this great looking case will garner oohs and aahs from your friends, but it could be quieter. Price: $260 (buy) Rating:

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Product Antec Phantom Fanless Power Supply
Company: Pros: Utterly quiet; standard ATX form factor; blue LED Cons: Only 350W; needs internal air circulation Summary: This 350W power supply should suffice for all but the most performance-oriented users. It’s a heavy power supply, because it’s essentially wrapped in a passive heat sink. Price: $165 (buy) Rating:

Graphics and video are really the heart and soul of a home-theater PC. The video card shouldn’t offer features that just assist the hardware for video playback, but should also have top-notch image quality. Most graphics cards today are substantially better than those of a few years ago. For our purposes, though, we chose an ATI Radeon X700 Pro. While it’s not as speedy on the 3D side as an nVidia GeForce 6600GT, its 3D performance is respectable. Also, the card requires no external power connection, which is a plus in our supply limitations. Note that the X700 Pro does something relevant.

We went with two TV tuner cards—one analog NTSC and one ATSC digital TV tuner. If you want, you can install twoNTSC tuners and one digital tuner card. Unfortunately, Windows Media Center won’t support two digital TV tuners currently.

We went with the ATI HDTV Wonder for the high-definition TV tuner. At first blush, this may not seem to be the most robust choice, given the problems people have run into with the HDTV Wonder. Most of the issues we ran into dealt with setup and software awkwardness. Since we were using the Windows Media Center, software wouldn’t be a major problem, and the HDTV Wonder is certified for Windows Media Center. You can find ATI drivers for Windows Media Center 2005on ATI’s Web site. So we avoided having to use ATI’s software, with its rather arcane user interface.

As for the hardware, the HDTV Wonder uses ATI’s NXT2004 decoder chip, identical to the one used in a variety of HDTV set-top boxes and ATSC tuners integrated into HDTV sets.

Curiously, the ATI HDTV Wonder’s analog NTSC capabilities do not work under Windows Media Center, so we needed to install a separate NTSC TV tuner card. We obtained an nVidia-designed eVGA nVTV card, which uses an LSI Logic hardware MPEG-2 codec for hardware encoding and decoding of MPEG-2 streams. We used the single tuner card, but a dual-tuner version is also available.

So let’s review for a moment. We’re installing an ATI graphics card, nVidia NTSC standard definition TV tuner, and an ATI HDTV Wonder card. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? Actually, it works great. We’ll show you how we did it when we discuss installation and setup.

No home theater PC is complete without audio support. However, our desires introduced some additional complexity: We wanted both digital audio output for movies and 24-bit/96KHz DVD-Audio playback. DVD-A generally requires six analog outputs for multichannel audio support. For movies, we prefer to pipe the Dolby Digital or DTS bitsreams to our Onkyo TX-NR900 receiver and let the receiver handle the decoding.The DVD-Audio solution is pretty straightforward. The Creative Labs Audigy 2 ZSsupports playback of multichannel, high-resolution DVD-A discs. But the S/PDIF output is a bit iffy, and can output voltages beyond the capabilities of some receivers.

The good news is that our motherboard of choice offers either optical or coax digital audio outputs. The bad news: We had to turn on the integrated audio. But at least the integrated audio is based on Intel HD Audio, so that’s good. The worrisome part: Will the Creative drivers and the Intel audio drivers get along? As it turns out, the answer is yes. We’ll show you how when we get to the software setup.

Motherboard, Processor and Memory
We wanted enough CPU horsepower to handle HDTV and occasional 3D gaming, but we also wanted to avoid overkill. So we chose the Pentium 4 model 550, which is an E0 stepping variant. At first glance, the 550 may seem like overkill, since its rated thermal output is 115W. But the E0 stepping offers enhanced power management, allowing the CPU to actually execute a halt when idle.

The motherboard was a tougher choice. We needed three PCI slots at a minimum. But we also wanted wireless networking, as the family room where the system would reside during testing wasn’t wired for Ethernet. In the end, we went with the Asus P5AD2 Deluxe, which has the requisite 3 PCI slots plus 802.11g down on the motherboard.

A good alternative would have been the Intel D925XCV. It lacks wireless networking, but offers a fourth PCI slot where an 802.11g PCI card could have resided. In either case, we could also have used a wireless extender, such as Dlink’s DWL-G810. The PCI layout of the D925CXV may be more suitable, as the Asus board has all three PCI slots adjacent to each other. The Intel board has four slots, but are separated into clusters of two by a pair of PCIe x1 slots. Things did get a little crowded, the Asus board didn’t hiccup. Continued . . .

No system would be complete without mass storage. We needed a fast, capacious hard drive. A variety of companies have begun shipping 300GB, 7200 RPM drives, but we had a Hitachi Deskstar 7K250serial ATA drive on hand already, so we popped that into the system.Our choice of optical drive was somewhat restricted by how well it would fit into the Ahanix case. For example, we tried an Asus 16x dual format, dual-layer DVD recordable drive, but its front-tray bezel was just a bit too high. The drives that worked best were the Memorex 16x DualDrive and the Pioneer A08 dual format drive—both based on the same Pioneer drive mechanism. We were able to attach the Ahanix DVD tray bezel, which attaches with double-stick tape. The whole affair went together quite handily.

Need Input!
Making a system do what you want to do requires input devices. A typical PC would use a mouse and keyboard, but a home theater PC needs a remote control, too.The choice of keyboard and mouse was pretty straightforward, albeit pricey—the Logitech DiNovo Media Desktop. This combination of keyboard, separate MediaPad, and mouse communicates wirelessly with the system via Bluetooth. The MediaPad is a separate numeric key with additional media control functionality and a small LCD display. It can be used as a remote control when running applications outside of Windows Media Center Edition.

The diNovo MediaPad doesn’t work as a Windows Media Center remote, so we picked up an actual Windows Media Center remote at our favorite white-box store. You can buy them online as well. Although ours is Microsoft-branded, other companies are entering the fray, such as the Logitech Harmony 680 or the Snapstream Firefly. If you’ve ever built a PC from scratch, then building a Media Center PC is pretty straightforward. The Ahanix case is spacious, so installing the motherboard and expansion cards is pretty easy. However, there are a few rules of thumb to observe with this particular case:

  • The VFD (vacuum fluorescent display) connects to the system via the parallel port. The cable connects to the inside front of the case, underneath the drive bay. You’ll want to make sure the cable is connected beforescrewing down the removable drive bay.
  • Make sure you feed the VFD cable into the case before you attach it to the internal connector. The parallel port connector itself is too large to be pushed through an expansion slot connector.
  • Ahanix doesn’t supply an expansion slot connector with a cutout for the cable, but you can make one easily enough with a pair of small tin snips. Otherwise, you end up with an open expansion slot hole.
  • If you install a hard drive into the top 3.5″ bay, you’ll need to attach it after the bay is installed. The drive will block access to the screw that attach the bay to the front of the case.
  • When installing the optical drive, don’t tighten the screws all the way. Attach the Ahanix aluminum DVD bezel to the DVD bezel, and then adjust as needed.
  • If your case doesn’t come with a driver CD, you’ll need to download the Windows Media Center drivers for the VFD.

Once the motherboard and storage devices are installed, connect up power, then install the LGA775 CPU. After you install the heatsink, pop the DDR2 memory modules into the socket. We used a pair of Kingston DDR2/533 ValueRAM modules for this system.

Next, install the expansion cards. The order of installation probably isn’t critical. However, we wanted to maximize airflow from the graphics card-cooling fan. Since the eVGA analog TV tuner card is a low-profile card, we installed it next to the graphics card. We installed the ATI HD Wonder card in the outermost PCI slot, so it would have space to radiate any heat. The Audigy 2 ZS gets sandwiched between the two TV tuners, but it shouldn’t have much of a problem with heat.

Once the hardware is installed, it’s time to configure drivers and Windows Media Center 2005 itself. That’s the more critical task. Continued . . . The big question is: How do you get a copy? There are no retail versions of Windows XP MCE. So you’ll need to buy an OEM version. Different outlets have different requirements for buying a copy. Most require that you buy a substantial piece of hardware—a motherboard, hard drive, or CPU is typical. One reseller, Directron, only requires you check a box that states you’ll install it into a new PC. Other resellers require you to buy most of the PC. The price ranges from around $130 to $150. Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 arrives on two CD-ROMs. The first CD is the bootable Windows CD, so you’ll need to set up your system BIOS to boot from the optical drive.

The setup process for Windows MCE is pretty similar to any Windows setup. At one point, you’ll be asked to switch CDs. After some files are installed from the second CD, you’ll receive a prompt similar to this:

Please Insert Windows XP Service Pack 2 CD

Neither of the two CDs is labeled “Service Pack 2”. What this prompt really means is to insert the first CD back into the drive, as the SP2 files are on the initial boot CD.

Once you get the OS installed, you’ll need to install drivers and software in the following order:

  1. Install the chipset from the motherboard driver CD. You’ll have to reboot after the install.
  2. Install the Ethernet (LAN) driver. This may not require a reboot.
  3. Once you’ve got your network drivers installed, use Windows Update to download the latest update. The key update is the “Update Rollup 1 for Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 with HDTV Support (KB873369)”.

    Install the Intel HD Audio drivers.

  4. Install the Ahanix VFD driver. Make sure the parallel port dongle is connected to the motherboard’s parallel port.
  5. Install the Bluetooth keyboard drivers for the Logitech diNovo, using the latest driversfrom the Logitech web site.
  6. Install the Creative Labs drivers. Make sure you also install the DVD-Audio player, which is the primary reason for installing the Audigy 2 ZS.
  7. Install the drivers for the X700 Pro. You want to use the Windows Media Center 2005 drivers for the X700,from the ATI web site.
  8. Install the drivers for the eVGA analog tuner card. Note that you’ll install the nVidia DVD decoder software at the same time. These are certified for WMCE 2005.
  9. Install the DVD Decoder software if you plan on using something other than the NV DVD decoder supplied with the eVGA card. We used PowerDVD 5, which is approved for WMCE use.
  10. Install the ATI HDTV Wonder Drivers for Windows Media Center 2005.You’ll need to download them from the ATI web site. Do not use the drivers from the HDTV Wonder CD.
  11. Activate Windows XP Media Center Edition.

Note that you don’t need to install drivers for the IR remote, if you’re using the Microsoft remote. Those drivers are built into WMCE. Assuming everything goes smoothly, you’re now ready to configure Media Center Edition for your setup. Continued . . . Next up is to connect the system to your home-theater system. We were connecting the PC to the following home theater configuration: We used an Antennas Direct DB2 bowtie to configure the high definition signal. We had ordered an Antennas Direct DB4to mount on the roof of our two-story home, but that hadn’t arrived in time. However, we were encouraged by how well the DB2 worked on the ground floor. We used the following I/O configuration to integrate our HTPC into our home theater rack:

  • Three sets of stereo mini-jack-to-RCA plugs to connect the Audigy 2 ZS analog output to the multichannel analog input connectors on the Onkyo receiver.
  • A coax digital audio cable (copper, not optical) connected the motherboard’s digital audio output to one of the Onkyo’s digital inputs. We assigned the digital input to Video 3 on the receiver itself, using the on-screen display.
  • The PC’s video output was then connected to the TV via a standard VGA cable. Continued . . .

We won’t be reviewing WMCE 2005 here; that’s a topic for a different article. You can check out PC Magazine’s review of Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005,for info on the OS.When you first start up, Windows XP runs normally. That is, you’ll get to a Windows desktop, without MCE running. You’ll need to go to the Start menu to run Media Center itself. Once within MCE, you can change the behavior to boot into WMCE every time the system starts by accessing the start menu.

Before you start up WMCE, you’ll need to make sure the audio works properly. You do this in the Sounds and Audio Devices control panel applet. You need to ensure that the integrated audio drivers are the primary drivers, and that the Creative Labs drivers are secondary. This ensures that digital audio output from the motherboard works properly within WMCE. Also, if you want to play DVD-Audio discs, you’ll need to use the Creative Labs player software outside of Windows Media Center.

Once you start up WMCE, the first tasks you need to complete involve configuring the TV tuners and calibrating the display.

First you’ll be asked to confirm your region, then you’ll be informed about the order of events: Set up standard TV signal, configure the Guide software, and configure digital TV.

After the analog tuner channels have been discovered, you’ll configure the Guide software. You’ll first be asked to confirm if you want to use the Guide, which does upload anonymous information to Microsoft, similar to that collected by TiVo and other DVRs.

Now that all the TV listings are downloaded, its time to configure the HD signal.

Next up in the initial setup process is to calibrate the display. Note that this is an optional step, but well worth doing if you’ve never calibrated your HDTV. After you make these selections, you’re then presented with a menu that allows you to center and size the screen, pick the aspect ratio and adjust image quality settings. We won’t walk through these individual menu entries, but let’s look at the brightness and contrast screens as examples of what you might see.

Once you’re done with the initial configuration, your Windows Media Center 2005 system should be good to go. There are lots of other setup options to explore, but those are accessible in the setup menu, selectable from the main scrolling menu in the 10-foot MCE user interface. Once you get up and running, you can get glorious HDTV from your PC. How much does it all cost? Well, it’s not cheap:

Component Brand Pricing
Case: Ahanix D5 MCE (X235) $260
Power supply: Included NA
Motherboard: Asus P5AD2 Deluxe $210
CPU: Intel Pentium 4 550 $300
Memory: 1GB Kingston DDR2/533 ValueRAM $260
Hard drive: Hitachi 7K250 250GB SATA Drive $150
Optical drive: Memorex Dual-Layer DVD burner $125
Graphics card: ATI X700 Pro PCIe $175
Analog TV tuner: eVGA NVTV Tuner PCI (single) $68
HDTV tuner: ATI HDTV Wonder $230
Sound card: Audigy 2 ZS $95
Keyboard / mouse: Logitech diNovo Media Keyboard & Mouse $160
Remote: Microsoft MCE Remote $35
O/S: Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 $135
Total: $2,203

You can cut a few corners, however. If all you want is HDTV, you can save around $70 by excluding the analog tuner card. You can also get by with a lesser cordless keyboard combo, some of which cost as little as $50. Another $90 can be shaved off by going with a Pentium 4 540. At 3.2GHz, it’s plenty speedy enough for a WMCE PC, and runs cooler as well. That might also serve to decrease the fan noise from the power supply.

Once your Media Center PC is built, it can become a repository for all your media. Using Windows Media Player 9, you get full access to both Windows Media Audio and MP3 for audio playback. This system can also serve up content to Windows Media Extender devices deployed in other parts of your house. And you can play WMV-HD movies as well as standard DVD movies. You’ll also have a repository for digital photos and videos. And don’t forget about the really cool option of recording your favorite HD broadcasts.