I bought my mother a 42″ LCD TV (A 720p Acer one) for around $900 about 8 months or so ago. We were using a cheap Set top box with it which also had a recording function. It wasn’t too bad, however it started to get a little… dodgy. This included fuzzy signal and recordings not working and such. So we decided to throw it out and build something new.
In my investigating, I decided that we should buy a Tivo. Before I got around to buying it, I visted a friend of a friend and they had this Media PC set up and it was working really well, so I instead decided that I’d go ahead and build my own Media PC.
The computer has a cheap motherboard/cpu/ram setup with the old video card from my gaming machine (an nVidia 6600GT). I used the case from one of my old computers and bought a new power supply too.
My cheaping out on the power supply was a terrible idea, it has an 8cm fan that is fairly loud, which can get annoying when you’re trying to watch TV. Thankfully it’s not too much of a problem.
The hardware Specs are: 2.4ghz Core2Duo, 2gb DDR2 ram, nVidia 6600GT (128mb) Video Card and for the hard drives I use a 40gig System Drive (I have like 10 different 40gig drives lying around) and a 250gb SATA drive for TV Cache and Recorded Shows (I’ll explain later in this post).
I can’t remember the exact cost, but we’re looking at about $400 or so worth of parts (cheaper than the $700 Tivo).
The TV Card is the main part of a Media PC setup, you need something that isn’t so cheap that it fails to do what you want it to do but you don’t want to spend a billion dollars on it. The one I found was the DViCO DVB-T Dual Express. It’s available from a few major retailers for about $150AUD. It has good reception, a nice remote, allows tuning into two channels at once (record one channel, watch one channel, or two computers on different channels (see MediaPortal below).
A nice listing of hardware that would be suitable for a Media PC is at my Server Building guide, all you would need to add is a TV Tuner card, also the motherboard in that article has HDMI out, which is just perfect for todays High Definition TVs.
There’s many different Media Center programs out there, the most common one being Windows Media Center, though, the version of windows I used for this didn’t come with it. Instead, I used a program called Media Portal, it’s free and has a lot of good features.
Some of the things that I think makes Media Portal stand out above the rest are:
- The ability to share your TV to other computers in the house.
This means you can have your media PC watching one channel while another computer is watching another channel, or you can schedule recordings from another computer without inturrupting what’s happening on the other computer.
- Hooks in with your existing video library
I have it connected to my server (Zoe) so it can see the videos stored there and allow easy access to them.
- Nice easy recording options
- My Mum can use it
MediaPortal is a Windows only program, I figured I would use Windows XP Pro 32bit, I had a copy lying around at the time and figured that it’d be fine. (See Further below for Issues)
As for setting it up, I installed Windows, updated it to the latest version of Windows (then turned off automatic updating, Auto Updates are EVIL), I didn’t bother with Antivirus as Firefox + Common Sense makes Antivirus unnecessary (Note for all of you about to uninstall your antivirus, I know what I’m doing, this machine does not store any important data and losing it all to a virus isn’t a problem for me).
I installed MediaPortal and configured it, one of the things I did was mapped a drive that links straight to the videos share on my server (you will need to do this to get MediaPortal to see it) as well as got all the TV Channels added (some of the channels like Prime have 3 channels broadcasting the same thing, you can turn this off in the Server Configuration of MediaPortal).
With my dual drives, I keep the system on the first drive and then put all my video on the second drive. Drive 2 is named “Bruce” (name courtesy of my Dad). On that drive there’s a folder for recordings and a folder for TV Cache, TV Cache is used to store the timeshifting that allows you to rewind live TV. Note that the TV Cache is necessary whether you use Timeshifting or not, the way MediaPortal works is by having the server record the TV and save it into a TV Cache file and then the Media Portal program stream the TV from that file (don’t worry, you can run the TV Server and the TV Client Program on the same machine). Because it works this way, it allows multiple computers to be connected to the same TV Server. The setup in our home has the Media PC in the lounge room and I can access TV from the PC in my bedroom.
Other things of note: It’s a good idea to set auto login up and set MediaPortal to open when you turn on your computer. The remote will need to be configured to work with MediaPortal. I simply worked out what keys to press to make things happen in MediaPortal, then mapped them to the remote (also see, Issues below).
Building a MediaPC is not as simple as I had hoped. Here are some of the issues I came across.
General Windows Douchebaggery – The copy of windows I had used seemed to have some strange issue with Explorer not being a happy chappy. This caused random problems with Windows Explorer crashing. I have no clue why or how so I formatted. (See “Soon to come”)
Remote Issues – Two things here, firstly, the remote isn’t very responsive, you’ve got a list of 700 movies to scroll down through, and you can only press “down” once every second. I got around this by setting up the skip buttons to skip through a list page by page it doesn’t take as long to go through a list. The 1 second wait time between button presses is annoying though.
“Could not start Timeshifting” – I couldn’t find any information on this at all. It was an error that occurred when we had the media PC set to go to sleep rather than to bootup/shutdown. What I think it may be is that the TV Card isn’t properly freeing itself up when the computer goes to sleep, so it gets stuck and throws us this unhelpful error message.
Channel 10 Fails – A trick by channel 10 and other major TV networks is to make TV shows go for 10 minutes longer than they’re schedualed so that they make you sit and watch 10 minutes of the previous show, the intention of this is to get you to get interested in the show on before it. Unfortunately, this therefore means that when you’re recording TV, it starts too early and you also miss the end of the show. To fix this, there’s a setting in the Server software to say “Prerecord x minutes and postrecord x minutes”. I set both to about 15 minutes.
Running out of Space – Depending on how much you’re timeshifting with, MediaPortal needs room to move. For TV Cache this means upto 5gigs and for recordings you’ll want to set aside a lot more. Our 250gb recording drive gets full every now and then. The big problem with it is, it doesn’t tell you what’s going on, only that it can’t start the TV Stream. You will probably also notice that it will slow down a lot just before it gets completely full. I’m thinking up a possible solution to this (a warning system perhaps).
TV Stream Freezing – This happens rarely, but it still happens. Maybe, once every 2 weeks, the TV Stream will just crash, freeze, go glitchy or something equally unwatchable. The easiest way to fix it is to just reboot the computer, then everything is fine after that, it’s still a pain in the butt though, there’s so many points that could be failing (Media Portal, Windows, TV Card, Hard Drive).
Windows Incompatability – Media Portal REQUIRES Windows XP SP2/Vista SP1 or higher to run as well as the .NET framework. I also had issues getting it to run on Windows Server 2008. It doesn’t seem to want to run in VMWare or Sun VirtualBox on my MacBook either 🙁
Soon to Come
At the time of this post, I’m currently installing Windows Vista onto my Media PC. I figured it was worth giving it a shot (and again some time later I might try Windows 7 too).
I’m also perhaps looking at a method of doing a warning when the Media Center runs out of space (instead of having a big cry).
If you like the post, want more information or there’s anything you’d like to see on my blog, please feel free to comment.