Recently I decided it was time to jump back whole hog into the Windows Media Center experience now that Win7 is baked. In these next few posts, I’ll explain the choices I made and the process I went through to get a first class experience.

I had last used the full blown Media Center experience (XP based) in my living room several years ago before moving. After the move I never got around to setting up the hardware, in particular because the machine was noisy and I had no easy location to hide/muffle it.

For awhile we lived with the Comcast DVR, which was manifestly unfulfilling. My first steps in breaking free was to run the beta Windows 7 Media Center on my development box, and watch TV via my Xbox 360 and its Media Center Extender. While this was OK for some scenarios, it didn’t cut the mustard in a couple of key ways. In particular, it didn’t easily let me play back ripped DVDs, with DVD menu content. In addition, it was a little pokey to boot every time you wanted to watch TV.

My primary goal is to have a Media Center “Appliance” experience. It has to “just work” like the Comcast DVR did. With that in mind, I had several other more targeted requirements/goals:

·         Inexpensive. This is an appliance that needs to do one thing really well. That’s all.

·         Use Windows Home Server for storage. I’ve got acres of storage on the Home Server.  Why not use it? Plus, that content can be accessed from any other PC in the house.

·         Quiet. It’s in the living room. I hate noise.

·         HDMI output. My TV has it. Gotta keep up with the standards.

·         Powerful enough. I need to be able to record 2 shows while watching previously recorded content.

·         Energy efficient. I’ve become a fanatic about having devices sleep if they can.

·         Small. It needs to subtly reside next to my TV without being an imposing presence.

·         Play ripped DVDs. I don’t want to transcode, etc… and I want DVD menus.

 

Now, I’ve got somewhat of an advantage over somebody just starting out with HTPC, as I’ve got a lot of useful infrastructure already. In particular:

·         HD Homerun ClearQAM network-based TV tuner

·         Samsung DLP TV (1080i)

·         A Windows Home Server box with lots of storage and a 1GB NIC.

·         The aforementioned XBox360

·         CAT-6 throughout the house

·         An old XP Media Center IR receiver and Keyboard

·         Harmony 880 Remote

 

So, what to get? I originally looked at netbooks and nettops.  While there were some small laptops/netbooks with HDMI output, they either didn’t have the horsepower or were too expensive.   There were some interesting nettops such as the Lenovo IdeaCentre Q100, but they either didn’t meet my specs or weren’t available yet.

In the end, I wound up settling on an HP Slimline s5100Z. It’s completely stock, except that I upgraded the CPU one notch to the AMD 5050e. With the EPP program (for MS employees), it came to less than $300. Sure, it comes with Vista Home Basic, but that is easily remedied soon enough.

The onboard video on the s5100z isn’t fast enough, and doesn’t support HDMI. That problem is easily solved by adding in an ATI-based HD 4350 video board. There are several different options for these cards. I ended up ordering one (an ASUS) for $30 from Newegg. It beats the $60 that HP wanted for it as an upgrade.

The HD 4350 line of cards is nice for several reasons:

·         Explicitly designed for HTPC use, and has accelerated support for H.264.

·         Can go in ½ height form factor, which the s5100z is.

·         Passively cooled in most incarnations

 

Installing the HD 4350 was a breeze. Just removing a few screws to switch out the normal bracket for the included half-height bracket.

Altogether, even accounting for tax, shipping, etc… the whole thing (PC + video board) cost less than $400.

Next time, I’ll talk about the software side of the experience, going from the pre-installed Vista Home Basic screen to the fully tuned Win7 Media Center Appliance that it is today.