HTPC Build

Notes on the Home Theater PC build.

This machine is to replace the older Series 2 Tivo with the build-in DVD player, mainly because the building’s cable set up will have a odd-ball channel line-up. A Tivo HD will be around $100 (after discounts), plus a couple hundred dollars in subscription fees.

The timing is also to fit in with the new TV season, as well as news about the pricing on, say, Asus EEE nettops with the Nvidia ION chipset. A homebrew machine with ION, plus a bigger drive, faster ION, Blu-Ray, etc., costs about the same as the Asus.

The important bits and pieces were picked up from NewEgg. The bits are:

  • Zotac ION Mini-ITX N330 (dual-core Atom). The ION should be able to decode 1080p video without hiccup.
  • Rosewill RS-MI-01 BK Mini ITX case. This is a bit larger Mini-ITX case, mainly to allow for a full-sized optical drive, instead of a slim drive. It also has 2 3.5″ bays. The PSU is a nice addition, though it turned out to be unnecessary (and in the way).
  • Lite-ON Blu-Ray drive.
  • KWORLD ATSC TV Stick UB435-Q. This is a USB digital TV tuner, which works well enough.
  • nMEDIAPC HTPCKB-B RF wireless keyboard and WMC remote control.
  • Plus the usual big drive and 4GB of memory.

Assembly went relatively well, though the Rosewill case, even if larger than the typical Mini-ITX, is a bit tight. The included PSU wasn’t actually needed, as the Zotac motherboard comes with an external power supply. For that matter, the PSU would have gotten in the way of the CPU heatsink. The external 3.5″ bay, with a regular hard drive in it, stuck too far in the back; the SATA cables got in the way of the CPU fan in this case. But the case has an internal 3.5″ bay and the drive fits there nicely. Shorter SATA cables would have been nice, but I didn’t bother. Note that the Zotac’s CPU fan screws directly into the heatsink fins; there are no screw holes. Other note: the case front panel LEDs aren’t glaring, which works nicely in the HTPC context.

The heatsink fan is necessary, I think. Without the machine really doing anything, the heatsink fins were hot to the touch. Who knows what it would have been with the machine trying to process HD content? With the fan, the fins were cool.

The operating system is Windows 7 beta (build 7100 specifically). Of course, I’ll install the released version of Win7 when that comes out. Installation went without a hitch off a USB flash drive boot.

Zotac BIOS update caused a minor hiccup with the CRC checksum failing after the flash (and recognition of only 950MB or so of RAM). In the flash program options, make sure the flash writes to every part of memory to fix this. Also, make sure the BIOS doesn’t start up with numlock enabled, as the wireless keyboard doesn’t have a numlock indicator; password entry failed until I realized this was the issue.

Additional codecs/software should be installed for Win7 to be able to open MKV files, specifically the CCCP codec pack. 720p playback of a test file went without a hitch after the pack was installed.

The HTPC is hooked up to an older Toshiba 46HM84, which is a 720p DLP rear projection set. The Nvidia control set has it at a weird resolution, 1176×664. Additionally, the “display type” within Media Center has to be set to “Projector” to deal with overscan issues. Everything looks better now with this setting. Possibly, a new TV would fix this, but there’s no need for that right now. Maybe when the current bulb burns out.

In terms of media center functions, recording scheduled shows works, as does playback of downloaded content. Netflix doesn’t have an add-on for the pre-release Win7 — I believe they’re going to come out with a fancy one when Win7 is officially released — but playing movies from within a browser seems to work fine. Same for Hulu Desktop. I haven’t tried Amazon’s streaming service yet.

Live TV works fine, though the antenna with the USB tuner stick might be better. I ordered a second tuner, a hybrid one this time, because I didn’t realize that the building’s cable signal is purely NTSC analog. Media Center should be able to handle multiple tuners (I believe up to four with Win7), so we’ll see how that works, and how annoying it’ll be to set up a custom channel line-up for the building’s cable.

Other software: UltraVNC so I can do stuff without having to turn the TV on. uTorrent, well, because.

I haven’t tested Blu-Ray yet, since I don’t have any disks. I should pick one up. I’m thinking of the Planet Earth series, since that’s something we’d actually want to keep. Netflix will cost an extra $4/month for access to the Blu-Ray collection.

The wireless keyboard includes a trackball in the corner, with mouse controls on the sides (e.g., a trigger-type left mouse button underneath the trackball, and a scroll wheel on the left side). The mouse has to be activated by clicking on one of those buttons instead of just rolling the thing. The remote also has a trackball, which is kind of awkward and makes the buttons kind of smaller and less ergonomic. The Tivo remote is light-years ahead in terms of usability compared to this, i.e., commonly used WinMCE buttons are too small, and so on. It’s a hefty remote, though.

So, the Tivo is going to get retired really soon. I had already suspended the account when we moved to Philadelphia because it wasn’t clear what kind of TV service was in the building (and Verizon FiOS TV wasn’t available yet). I’m going to forgo the CableCard thing: I don’t see anything useful for the high additional cost, since the building gives access to basic and extended channels (e.g., Discovery, FoodTV, etc.) The current line-up of Tivo HD devices also doesn’t have any with a Blu-Ray drive, so we would have to get a dedicated Blu-Ray player with a new Tivo.

My impressions so far is that Tivo is more polished in the things it does, but it does less than a modern Windows Media Center HTPC. It’ll cost about the same as the homebrew machine, once you account for the stand-alone Blu-Ray drive. I’ve had a Tivo since the early days, around 2000, but I think we’re at the end of the road now.

Anyone want a Tivo Series 2 Humax with a built-in DVD burner?

Update: the second tuner arrived today. Yay, Newegg, shipping from New Jersey. WinMC required manual configuration to get it working, though: it’s a hybrid tuner, WinMC would detect the digital part and ignore the analog part. Interestingly, the cable line-up was already there, specific to this particular building.

Oh, throw in the second tuner, and this Blu-Ray equipped dual-tuner HTPC comes in at under $650, albeit I’ve deferred paying for Win7 until later.

Update 2: Blu-Ray is working, though it took a bit of effort. The drive came with a bundled version of Cyberlink’s PowerDVD version 8. PowerDVD8 required at least 1024×768 for the display, which is a problem on a 720p TV. Changing the PC to one of the 1080i resolutions got PowerDVD8 to start up, but lead to a driver incompatibility error having to do with the ION chipset.

I tried PowerDVD9 with the same 1080i mode and got the same driver incompatibility error. I tried an alternative like Nero, but the trial version didn’t support HD playback (which is stupid, since this is what people will be testing). Looking at reviews of the ION, I was encouraged that some of them used PowerDVD to test Blu-Ray playback: someone out there got it to work.

Eventually, I tried setting the screen resolution back to a 720p mode. PowerDVD9, unlike v8, started up fine, and played the Blu-Ray test disk I picked up. I don’t know what the original problem was.

Note that Cyberlink’s Blu-Ray test program still showed that I wasn’t supposed to be able to play Blu-Ray. In one instance of the test program, it showed the driver incompatibility. In the other, it showed that and a HDCP failure, even though Nvidia’ control panel showed a valid HDCP pathway.

Of course, I now have to pay for PowerDVD, but at least there’s one working version for my setup. “Planet Earth” in HD looks gorgeous.

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