Media Center on a budget, make your TV smarter.

Media Center on a budget, make your TV smarter.

Mar 5, 2013

Do you have an old computer sitting around? Maybe you upgraded to a new Laptop or Tablet? You might have some parts you can use to build a budget HTPC or Media Center with the help of MicroEd.

We had an old computer at home in the back room, about 6 years old, abandoned and unloved. I ran into playback issues with our ‘Smart’ TV, and found no firmware update by the manufacturer. To get around this I hooked up our laptop to display media. But then it hit me, if I can get a remote working with parts from that old computer, this can be so much easier.

Smart TVs are still not quite ready in my eyes. There are heaps of devices you can buy to achieve a similar result, however, most of them are limited by poor manufacturer updates and codec licencing issues. Sometimes media simply wont work properly.

Give your old hardware a new lease of life.

A basic HTPC (Home Theater PC) doesn’t have to cost much, you don’t even need a very powerful computer. Below are the computer components I had to build this, most of these components are outdated by today’s standards. You may not have what is needed in your old computer, ask the staff to see if you need an upgrade, or some extra components required. An old Laptop can also work well after a service!

TV/Monitor Sharp Aquos LED/LCD 60″ Full-HD TV
Case + Power Supply ATX/mATX case with Antec EarthWatts 380w
Motherboard GA-945GCM-S2L
Memory 2GB DDR2 @ 800Mhz
Processor Pentium Dual Core E2180 @ 2GHz
Hard Drive 200GB
Disc Drive CD/DVD
Keyboard + Mouse Logitech EX100 Wireless Desktop
Webcam Logitech HD C510
Video Card Nvidia 9600GT 512MB (sound on HDMI via SPDIF)
Infrared Receiver HP USB IR Receiver (RC6 / eHome capable, scored from a friend)
Remote Logitech Harmony 700
Operating System Windows 7

htpc-setup-guide
Video Recording (PVR) was not a priority, and with Foxtel iQ already available on this TV, unnecessary. Current generation Foxtel doesn’t work with a Tuner Card either to my knowledge. But each to their own, its not a difficult or expensive thing to add to your system.

What I want from my HTPC

  • Recycle some old parts, do my part for the environment and save some money in the process.
  • Pictures, Music and Videos, from various sources, using a simple remote control interface.
  • Skype ability for video chat with relatives.
  • Compatibility with all the major file formats and codecs.
  • Low power consumption and noise, best we can do with mechanical hardware anyway.
  • High Definition Audio and Video over HDMI.
  • Ability to watch DVD’s, BluRay – lets remove some clutter.
  • High speed networking to connect the TV with other computers storing media in the house.
  • Regular computer functionality, computers need to be useful as well.

Now, let’s make the magic happen.

I will assume you know your way around a Windows computer. There are many settings and configuration wise, Google is your friend! But don’t hesitate to ask our staff. Remember to clean-up and service the old computer, make sure all your devices are working properly.

You have a few software choices on a Windows computer. I’ve tried Windows Media Center, in Windows 7 this is quite nice. But I prefer XBMC because it works on all operating systems, is free, and it has a nice codec package. Also, if you don’t have a remote or IR receiver, XBMC has an Andriod and iOS App that you can use over your wireless network.

Media Center remotes work out of the box usually, but I used my Logitech Harmony remote to seamlessly add this device to our Home Theater. There is a Media Center preset for Harmony remotes, but for XBMC there is a setup guide. Ideally you want XBMC to start with Windows, and the computer to go in and out of a Sleep mode with the Remote. Getting the PC to power off and on completely sometimes requires a different kind of IR setup, but S3 sleep is quite efficient and works with most motherboards.

Sit back and enjoy.

Once configured, this took a couple of hours after the build, it became seamless with our Home Theater. SpeedFan can be used to control noise. Media can be stored on the PC, or accessed over a network. Storage can be easily expanded. You can also access some online media services.

htpc-screenshot

Upgrade wise BluRay should work with a new drive and AnyDVD HD to allow third party media players to play the discs. A classy slimline case for the TV unit without mechanical hardware would make it quieter and more efficient. If you really want to get carried away, you could even get games working with a controller – products like Steam are also moving to the living room.

If you are interested in a HTPC or Media Center, ask the staff in store about getting one working for your living room, and turn any TV into a ‘Smart’ TV. If your parts are simply not up to the task, MicroEd offers affordable computers that will do the job very well.

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