The Hardware – Part 1

Windows Media Center has been around for some time, dating back to the days of Windows XP and the Windows XP Media Center Edition that was released in 2002.  Whereas the XP version of Media Center was a standalone version of the Operating System, in Vista (Home Premium and Ultimate editions) and Windows 7 (Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate editions), Media Center was bundled in with the base operating system as an application that could be added through “Add/Remove Windows Components”.  With Windows 8 Microsoft has decided to spin Media Center off and not include it with the base operating system install, but make it available as an add-on pack. 

While there are rumors as to why they did this, the most likely scenario is the fact that Media Center includes codecs and add-ons that require Microsoft to pay licensing fees for.  Why should they pay for millions of licenses for these codecs and add-ons for individuals that never even use Media Center?  This way, those that want to use Media Center can still get it, while Microsoft does not have to pay for all the extra licenses for those that don’t.

I’ve been happily running Windows 7 Media Center for years, and even though I’d like to write a guide on how to build a Windows 8 Media Center, there’s just no reason to.  Windows 7 Media Center is superior in just about every way compared to the Windows 8 ‘upgrade’.    Even though there are pros to moving to Windows 8 like faster booting and better driver support, there are some major cons that have been reported with the new version of Media Center such as there being a limitation of 4 tuner cards and removal of the capability to boot directly into Media Center. 

Enough about software, let’s talk about Hardware.  Hardware wise, building a Home Theater PC is a completely different animal compared to building a gaming rig or distributed computing machine.  Simply put, we’re building a PC that will connect to a TV, be controlled by a remote control and pump audio and video to your home theater.  Normally important factors like cost, performance and heat, take a back seat in a HTPC, to two often ignored factors, power efficiency and noise.  Things like cost, performance and heat generally are not an issue with a HTPC because we don’t need use cutting edge components to do what we want.  We just need a solid machine that can run for long periods of time without breaking the bank in power costs.  I liken it to a game machine being a thoroughbred racehorse and a HTPC being a work horse that just does what needs to be done without a whole lot of fuss.

Honestly, if your machine can effectively run Windows 7, it can likely handle most, if not all, Media Center tasks without much of an issue.  Minimum specifications required for Windows 7 are not insanely high, and you might very well be able to use gear you already have that is just sitting around, collecting dust.

The minimum specifications required to run Windows 7 are:

  • Processor: 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster 32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x64)
  • RAM: 1 gigabyte (GB) (32-bit) or 2 GB (64-bit)
  • Hard disk space: 16 GB (32-bit) or 20 GB (64-bit)
  • Graphics card: Microsoft DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM 1.0 driver

Of course, it never hurts to throw in hardware above and beyond the minimum specifications, but there’s no reason to think about running overclocked Extreme Edition CPU or Quad SLI/Crossfire video cards.  Your mantra should be “Decent performance for a decent price with excellent power efficiency.”   Since we are not prioritizing performance there’s a good chance we won’t run into heat issues, just be aware that you shouldn’t shove your HTPC into a media cabinet that has little or no airflow or you will cook it no matter how cool it runs.  Since the box will be running all the time, we will key in on power efficiency and noise.  Noise may or may not be an issue depending on whether it’s going to be kept in a location where the sound of whining fans will interrupt your TV viewing, or worse, your sleep.

My Experience: I highly suggest that before you cancel your cable or satellite subscription that, if at all possible, you build a ‘test HTPC’ out of components that you already have on hand for two reasons.  First, it gives you experience in how the install works and lets you get through some of the learning curve of installing and running media center before you rely on it as your primary entertainment center.  Second, take the test machine and hook it up to a TV that you use, but isn’t your primary TV (like in a bedroom) so you and everyone else can test out using Media Center in a real world way.  Worst case, you find out that you, your significant other or your kids just can’t live without your cable/satellite TV subscription and can easily swap a box or two and be back to the way things were.  I ran a test media center for a few weeks on another television we used every day before I cancelled our cable subscription.

With the components of my upgraded HTPC build I worked to follow the “Decent performance for a decent price with excellent power efficiency” mantra.  I will not be as concerned with noise in my build because the machine will be located inside a (well ventilated) media cabinet that will adequately muffle most of the noise.  Low power use will be my priority.

In addition to the main components, I’ve shown some “Optional” parts below that you may not actually need in your own build.  I’ll discuss why I chose the optional parts in more detail later, but my HTPC build will consist of the following components:

Note: Prices are subject to change, but were accurate at the time I wrote this.

Total Cost: $576.92 or what I was paying for 3.8 Months of Cable and TiVo

Cost with Optional Components: $781.89 or what I was paying for 5.2 months of Cable and TiVo

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