Under The Hood: Build Your Dream Media Centre For Under $700

Between the Blu-Ray player, laptop, digital tuner and everything else hooked up to your TV, your home theatre situation can easily become a mess. Here's how I rolled all those devices into one awesome media centre — the media centre of my dreams — for under $700.

What This Media Centre Can Do

You can put together a home theatre PC (HTPC) using all sorts of options: an old PC, a cheap laptop, or even an Apple TV. . However, if you really want to get the most out of your HTPC, building it yourself is the way to go. We've tried a lot of different builds over the years, but not every build can handle everything you throw at it. This build will allow us to play virtually anything, including:

  • All of your ripped or downloaded movies, TV shows, and music;
  • All of your DVD and Blu-Ray discs;
  • Streaming media services such as ABC iView;
  • Any video game you can install on a computer, from old school emulators to modern PC masterpieces.

Part One: Choose Your Hardware

In order for my media centre to accomplish everything I wanted, I've found that I needed a very specific set of hardware. A lot of basic HTPC builds are too low-powered to handle things like video games or streaming TV. This build is powerful enough to handle nearly anything you throw at it, and at a very reasonable price.

If you're already set on your hardware choices but still want to know how I set everything up, skip the parts list. You're free to tweak certain aspects of the build to fit your needs, but here is what I recommend. Australian pricing is indicative based on what staticICE throws up. (Ultimately, buying from one supplier can save you money depending on postage costs, so shop carefully.)

  • CPU: AMD A4-3400 2.7Ghz, $60: This processor is inexpensive but more than powerful enough to handle any tasks your home theatre PC will require. It has an AMD Radeon HD 6410D graphics processing built in, which makes gaming possible without a separate card. If you want even more graphical power for advanced games), you can upgrade to the slightly more expensive A8-3850.
  • Motherboard: ASRock A75M-ITX, $95: This tiny motherboard has support for 7.1 HD surround sound, HDMI out, and some nice features for managing the speed (and noise level) of your fans, which is great for keeping your home theatre quiet.
  • RAM: Corsair 4GB DDR3 1333 Memory, $25: It's inexpensive, high quality, and gives us enough memory to do the aforementioned gaming, since the built-in graphics chip uses your regular memory for video.
  • Hard Drive: Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB, $110: We like Western Digital's Green drives for their low power consumption and quiet operation, which is ideal in a home theatre PC. 2TB should be enough to hold a stack of movies on your HTPC, but if you're storing them somewhere else — like your own home server or NAS — you can grab the cheaper 500GB model for your HTPC.
  • Case: MI-008 Mini-ITX, $46: It's small, attractive, and has a few USB ports in the front for your gaming controllers. It doesn't come with any fans, which is great for silence, but if you feel like you want a bit more cooling, the side vent holes are perfectly sized to fit a couple of 80mm fans that you can buy separately. It also comes with a power supply.
  • Blu-ray Drive: LITE-ON Blu-ray Combo Drive, $60: If you want to watch DVDs or Blu-rays on your device (not just ripped and downloaded media), you'll want one of these. Blu-Ray isn't perfect, and if you really wanted to, you could skip this part and save a few bucks, but the price difference from a regular DVD drive isn't that high.
  • OS: Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit, $299: Despite the popularity of Linux as a HTPC solution, Windows is the only OS that will give you true play-everything capabilities. Blu-Ray and video games are all difficult or impossible to play on Linux, so we'll be using Windows for this build. Home Premium will set you back $US100 off-the-shelf, but you may be able to find it for significantly less elsewhere.

That's a total cost of around $695 (paying full retail for Windows). If you're happy with Linux instead of Windows, it drops to under $400.

You might want to add various options, included coolers, a case fun, additional XBox controllers or a specific remote, but this will be enough to get you started.

Once you've got all your hardware rounded up, it's time to put everything together. Check out our complete guide to building a computer from scratch if you're unfamiliar with the process. The only thing you'll want to take special note of is that your CPU fan should go into the CPU_FAN1 socket, and your case fan should go into CHA_FAN1.

Part Two: Set Up Your Operating System

Again, we're going to be using Windows for this build, not Linux. It may cost a bit more, but Linux has trouble with some streaming media services (blame the providers), doesn't play games very well (blame the developers), and is far too complicated when it comes to Blu-Ray, so Windows is the only OS that really gives us that "play-anything" experience.

Grab a spare keyboard and plug it into your computer. Turn it on, and press the Delete key as it starts up — this will bring you to the BIOS screen. Go to the "Boot" tab and make sure your CD drive or USB drive — whatever you're using to install Windows — is first in the boot order. Lastly, insert your Windows CD or thumb drive and go to "Exit", saving your changes. This will reboot you into the Windows installer, which should guide you through the process of installing your OS. When you're finished, reboot into the BIOS and set your hard drive as the first boot item.

When you're finished installing Windows, you'll need to install a few drivers. If your internet isn't working out of the box, install the LAN drivers from the CD that came with your motherboard first (if your internet works, just skip this step). Then, open up Internet Explorer and head to your motherboard's driver page. Choose your OS (which should be Windows 7 64-bit, if you followed our build guide above) and download the following drivers:

  • AMD All-in-1 Driver
  • Realtek High Definition Audio Driver

Unless you have a specific reason to install one of the other drivers, don't download them, because we won't need them. Once you've installed all these drivers and restarted, you'll need to tweak your graphics settings.

Right-click on the desktop and head to AMD VISION Engine Control Center. I found that on my TV, my desktop didn't fill up the whole screen, so I had to go to Desktops and Displays > Scaling Options and turn my Overscan setting up. You may also want to browse around the Control Center and see what other tweaks look best to you on your display.

Next, you'll want to adjust fan speeds. Restart your computer and head back into the BIOS. Under the Fan Control tab, you'll see the speed of your CPU fan and, if you have one, your case fan. Here, you can adjust your target temperature for your CPU and Motherboard, as well as the target speeds of your fans. You may need to play around with this over time to find out what nets you the best balance between good temperatures and good noise levels, as everyone's home is different. I just turned my case fan all the way down so it keeps up good airflow, but doesn't make very much noise.

Lastly, bring up the Start menu and type in "Power Options". Click on the first result and click "Choose what the power buttons do" in the left sidebar. Change "When I press the power button" to "Sleep" in the dropdown menu. This means your computer will sleep instead of turn off completely, which makes it much quicker to start back up. It also means hitting the power button on your remote, if it supports the power function, will put it to sleep instead of shut it down.

Part Three: Set Up XBMC

Lastly, it's time to set up the central piece of this box: the media centre software. We've shown you how to create a kickass seamless media centre with XBMC, so I won't go into much detail here. Check out that guide to get your fully customised XBMC box up and running like a champ. Here are the things you'll want to know specific to this build, though.

First, download and install XBMC. Then, head to its installation folder — by default, that's C:\Program Files (x86)\XBMC, and right-click on the XBMC.exe program. Choose "Create Shortcut", then drag that shortcut into your %APPDATA%\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs\Startup folder. This ensures that XBMC will start up automatically with your computer. You may also want to go to %APPDATA%\XBMC/Userdata and add the following line to AdvancedSettings.xml, under the first line:

<fullscreen>true</fullscreen>

This ensures XBMC will always start in full screen.

Next, open up XBMC and head to Settings > System > Video Output. Set your Display Mode to Full Screen if it isn't already, and check the "Use a fullscreen window rather than true fullscreen" box. This will solve some video problems XBMC has in full screen mode.

If you want to set up video games, check out our feature on turning your XBMC media centre into a video game console with Advanced Launcher. It has everything you need to know.

Set Up Blu-Ray Playback

Lastly, if you want Blu-ray playback, you have a few options. Our old Blu-ray playing method doesn't work in the latest version of XBMC, so we're going to use a Blu-ray playback suite to get the job done. Your Blu-Ray drive probably came with a program like PowerDVD or WinDVD, and you can use those to play Blu-rays right from XBMC. All you need to do is head to %APPDATA%\XBMC/Userdata\ and create a new file named playercorefactory.xml with the following code inside:

<playercorefactory>

<players>

<player name="Disc_Player" type="ExternalPlayer" audio="false" video="true">

<filename>C:\Program Files (x86)\CyberLink\PowerDVD9\PDVDLaunchPolicy.exe</filename>

<args>"{E:}"</args>

<hidexbmc>true</hidexbmc>

<hideconsole>true</hideconsole>

<warpcursor>none</warpcursor>

</player>

</players>

<rules action="prepend">

<rule name="Blu-Ray" filename="D:\\.*" filetypes="bdmv" player="Disc_Player"/>

</rules>

</playercorefactory>

Change the filename="D:\\.*" and <args>"{E:}"</args> lines to correspond to the letter of your Blu-Ray drive, and change the C:\Program Files (x86)\CyberLink\PowerDVD9\PDVDLaunchPolicy.exe to correspond to your Blu-Ray program of choice. For more info, see the XBMC Wiki entry for External Players — your config may differ depending on your hardware, Blu-ray program, and other factors.

If you don't have a Blu-ray capable program, or the one that came with your drive isn't working correctly, you have a few choices. We've rounded up some of our favorite Blu-ray playback suites, but the bottom line is that all Blu-ray programs will cost you money. AnyDVD HD, while the most expensive, is going to be the easiest bet. You won't need to go through any of the above hassle; just install it, run it at startup, and XBMC will automatically detect Blu-ray discs and play them when you select "Play Disc" from your main menu.

There you have it. With the right build and the right software, you can unleash the full power of XBMC and put together a media centre that plays anything your heart can desire, from streaming TV to modern video games and everything in between. Again, be sure to check out our complete guide to creating a media centre with XBMC, as well as our guide to building a computer if you're unfamiliar with the process. When you're done, you'll never have to use those old DVD players and other junk again.

Originally published on Lifehacker Australia


Comments

    Or you can be like me and wait and build a Raspberry Pi XBMC for about $50

      I agree with this.

        Yep - I already built one on my friend's Pi whilst I wait for delivery. It's not without its challenges I have to say but I am looking forward to taking XBMC in my pocket when I travel and using my phone via wifi as the remote control.

        Did you know they are working on XBMC for Android? Just hook up your phone or tablet to the TV and enjoy all that XBMC goodness

        Also the fact that raspberry pi will run of the USB if your TV has one. Meaning it will power up and turn off when you turn your tv off. Simple and easy.

          Technically possible - but unless your TV provides standby power via USB, not a good idea. I've read a few reports on the RaspBMC forums of people with corrupted SD card data as a result of not shutting down properly.

      Ermm, can RasPi handle 1080P playback as well as 3D 1080P playback?

        I doubt the above listed system can handle 3D 1080P playback....
        But does the Raspberry have a bluray drive.
        It's definitely more DIY.... you'd have to make your own case for example.

          You could use a PC case, one of them cool miniITX cases. I know it's a waste of space, but it's enough to mount your DVD/BR drive and hide away all the extra power cables, powered hub, etc etc - unfortunately the RaspPi struggles to provide WiFi adapters enough power, you almost always need a powered USB hub for them :/

            Technically possible but the appeal of a Pi based media center is it's set up low cost, and low power foot print. Factor in a mini-ITX case, powered USB hub, USB Blu-Ray drive - as well as all the peripherals you'd normally need to compliment your Pi PCB and you're starting to get significantly closer the cost of a bare bones PC (without Windows).

            Keep in mind too, the article has already touched on the fact that Blu-Ray playback is difficult in Linux based OSes - RaspBMC or OpenELEC will have the same problems.

        It will playback 1080p
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raspberry_Pi#Specifications
        Probably not 3d but I don't own a 3D TV or looking to ever buy one.

          I was playing 3D 1080p on a core2duo with AMD 6850, so I think the above won't have an issue.

            They're talking about the RasPi dude...

              I've got a Raspberry Pi with XBMC and I've found it struggles to playback a 1080p movie. It works for a little while and then pauses to buffer. 720p movies (which lets face it most of the downloadable HD movies are) play back fine. The UI for XBMC on the Pi still has a way to come though, it's quite slow and unresponsive, but I understand people are working on this.

                I don't have any 1080p rips (I've always found 720p to be sufficient for anything I've wanted to watch) - so I can't say first hand; but most reports I've read where people have reported issues with 1080p playback have always been attributed to one of 3 causes:-

                - Dolby Digital/DTS being used as source audio codec; on a non-DD/DTS capable receiver or transported via 2-channel analogue. The Pi doesn't have the grunt to decode either of these streams via software decoding, and hardware decoding is not supported for either.

                - Insufficient/fluctuating current from the power source. Luck of the draw with this one, some power sources seem to perform better than others.

                - SD card issues. Seems to be more specific to RaspBMC, but there's a huge list of "working" and "does not work" SD cards, with quite a few in the grey area in-between.

              "I doubt the above listed system can handle 3D 1080P playback" read the OP dude...

            It says 1080p Quake 3. Come on Quake 3 1080p? My comp could run Quake 3 in 10800p

      I've got a pi set up in my kids room to stream video over wifi with samba from my media centre pc. Works perfectly with the debian squeeze distro.

      I hear there is a XBMC build for the raspberry pi in the works too, but it's in early beta and probably only for devs at the moment.

        RaspBMC is up to RC4, not sure about OpenELEC, but there are people who swear by it.

        That said, XBMC has well and truly landed for Pi, even if it's not official.

      yeap thats what I did too! I laugh at $700 media centre... ha ha ha

    If your're building your own PC, "legally" you are allowed to buy the the OEM version of Windows for $200 less than retail mentioned in your article.

      True, though as you allude to, it's an annoying mess of bureaucracy to pull it off.

        Untrue. Go to any computer shop and ask. $99 OEM Windows 7 copies are everywhere. You may find sites/shops with the disclaimer "only available with purchase of new motherboard".. that is something that is very loosely enforced and is reflective of the use-case anyway.

    Did you miss a power supply in the item section?

      Don't be silly, computers don't run on power.

        I thought they just ran on internet?

          ACTUALLY WHEN THEY MAKE THE RASPI POE - THAT MAY BE ACCURATE.

          whoops - cadding atm (CAPS)!

    So compared to a WD Live Media player...
    This set up includes hard drive space and a blue ray player.
    Everything else can be achieved with a $130 media player box....

      I currently own a WD Live and pretty happy with it. The fact my 4yr can use it easily to get to her shows. Just want an device to stream AIRPLAY music from macbook's iPhones and iPads throughout the house. If WD Live could do that I would give it 4.5 stars. (the compiling media all the time does get annoying)

        Ummm pretty sure a full fledge PC can do a lot more than your WD Live Media other than just play Bluray and upgrade storage space. You may have heard of a little think called applications, of which Windows PCs have many.

      I don't have one computer to get all my media files for me, than transfer to a media centre. I do it all through the media centre. Means I can quickly and easily download a show and start watching as soon as it's done. No starting up 2 different machines, then worrying about transferring between them.
      Plus things like iview are super easy to get going.

    Where's the SSD? even just a little 60gb one for the OS is crucial and can be had for $60-70. Personally I don't believe in running your OS from mechanical drives anymore, why bottleneck all the other powerful components.

    Would this have enough grunt in it to do the ripping as well? I've been meaning to make a HTPC for some time now but always end up putting it off. I'd like one capable of 1080p and if I get around to it, PSOne emulation

    I saw the breakdown and was wondering how you could have gotten to $700 and then BAM Windows 7 for 300 bucks. lol

    I reckon HTPC's running WIndows 8 with Kinect support could work really good.

    Need a control too.
    Please don't tell me you can use your phone, if your OK to use a phone your not using a HTPC enough to warrant $700 on parts

    I have a somewhat similar setup with 2x2gb but one stick was crap, so I was surprised at how little (if any) difference running win7 (ultimate 64bit) with 2gb instead of 4gb made for a media box.
    p.s. where's the keyboard and mouse? I have a wireless combo and it rocks!

    If your a mac user and you have iPad (or iphone) and apple tv then give air video a try.
    The iOS app and server application is great. It will play anything I ask it to.
    I get iview through the iPad as well as sbs. A great artical but given the rise in other tech, a HTPC is not my idea of a night in.

    Why on earth would you pay for full retail Windows 7 when you can quite legitimately buy the OEM version with your system for <$100. Come on guys this is a tech blog, how can such a glaring error make it past editting.

    What twit pays $299 for windows 7 home premium? I bought it last week for AU$100 for the new Show Computer. In fact for less than you quote I got an i5, Motherboard, case, 650W PSU, 2TB HDD, 16GB RAM and a blueray reader/DVD Burner Combo.

      Oh and Win 7 home premium 64 bit too - a legit purchase as it is with system components

    Not a big fan of the choice of case. I would be willing to spend a bit more to get something that doesn't stick out like a sore thumb.

    Everyone has failed to mention the lack of a TV card or TV server. XBMC fails at this.

    I'll stick to my Android functional and TV functional Media Portal.

      Fail

      Almost a good article, except, well not nice choice in HT software.

      1. Dont use XBMC use WMC
      2. Integrate MediaBrowser into WMC to get very very nice menus for browsing media
      3. Use PowerDVD WMC plugin to seamlessly integrate Bluray playback into Windows Media Center
      4. Customise the the WMC menu using the software found on hack7mc and remove /rename the terrible menu

      Hey preseto you then get a single truely integrated solution.

      When you can integrate powerdvd or TMT into XBMC, then and only then should you switch. I love XBMC but it does not do bluray.

    is it just me or wouldn't A PS3 or Xbox do this for cheaper

      Xbox is full of fail for TV movies.
      1. no local storage
      2. half assed and severely lacking codec support
      3 NO BLURAY SUPPORT
      4. Horrible menu
      5. No metadata support system

      PS3
      1. Menu makes for a Terrible 10 foot experience
      2. Lacks support for a massive amount of codecs
      3. Lacks real local storage
      4. No metadata support system

    Almost a good article, except, well not nice choice in HT software.

    1. Dont use XBMC use WMC
    2. Integrate MediaBrowser into WMC to get very very nice menus for browsing media
    3. Use PowerDVD WMC plugin to seamlessly integrate Bluray playback into Windows Media Center
    4. Customise the the WMC menu using the software found on hack7mc and remove /rename the terrible menu

    Hey preseto you then get a single truely integrated solution.

    When you can integrate powerdvd or TMT into XBMC, then and only then should you switch. I love XBMC but it does not do bluray.

      I too use WMC with MediaBrowser, its fantastic.

      It's also good for the other family members that like to record TV to watch later, it has 2 dual tuners in it for those rare times when there is several things worth watching on tv and they are all on at the same time.

      I do find it easier to pop a dvd or blu ray into my PS3 for watching them though, so I never bothered putting a blu ray drive into it

    Or get a HP microserver for $250 + a $50 graphics card and use that :)

    PeeCees as media centres are dead. Long ago. Many superior options for media playback exist that are smaller, consume less power, play more video formats, and are easier to use.

      Not to mention less than 1/3 the price of this $700 suggestion. Ouch!

        True. But my media PC can also play Diablo 3.

        I suppose you could say I wanted an integrated entertainment system. So, PC with media capabilities it is. I don't like consoles much. I find gameplay too simple (Says the Diablo 3 player. Yeah. I know I know. Irony = overwhelming)

        At the end of the day, I use XMBC with MediaPortal serving TV to XMBC. Works like a charm. Missus uses it and that is a testament to ease of use in itself.

    New guy question here- how hard would it be to integrate a tv tuner into this so I could watch/record live tv using WMC?

    Cheers!

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