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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


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