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Saturday, November 19, 2005
Building an HTPC on the Cheap, Under $400I recently completed my HTPC project, and I am absolutely loving it. It's not the most integrated system in the world, it just runs normal XP. But it's quiet, and it plays every format I want to play, and records raw HD from my cable box with ease.
1. Case and Motherboard - Under $100
I started with a barebones chassis/motherboards, mine was a used Gateway with a Socket 478 slot. For under $100, you can find something with 478 or 775 sockets, and you'll just need to add the memory, hard drive, DVD, and maybe a video card. In retrospect I would have looked for one with built-in Firewire, for recording HD from my cable box.
2. Processor and Memory - Under $125
For good HD playback, you need something better than a 2.5GHz processore. I got a 2.6GHz Celeron, and 512 MB, and when combined with a good graphics card, it's plenty.
3. Hard Drive and DVD - Under $100
I got a 250GB refurbished for $75, but the key to look for is a relatively quiet drive. With the DVD drive, you can spend a little more to get DVD writer, but I just spent about $15 on a playback-only drive.
4. Graphics Card and Other Stuff - Under $75
In my case I had to buy a Firewire card so that I could record HD from my Comcast Motorola 6200 box, so that was about $20. For the graphics card, I went cheap, and got lucky. The nVidia FX5200 was just what I needed, provided MPEG-2 acceleration, was cheap, and has no fan. There are tons of them available, I spent under $50 on mine. I also bought a wireless mouse/pointer to control everything for about $20.
I installed Windows XP on my system, because I had a copy. But you could install Linux on it, the only thing you'd lose is the ability to play back WMV-HD files. Something like MythTV, for example, would probably provide a more integrated solution than what I have.
I then installed the K-Lite Free Codec Pack, so I could play back everything I wanted to in Windows Media Player. For MPEG-2 I still use VLC Media Player, I don't know why WMP doesn't work for it.
Recording HD over Firewire is a little tricky, but there's a good set of instructions at the AVS Forums.
The last, and most important step in my process, was downloading the DXVA hotfix from Microsoft, and my latest graphics card driver. Once installed, the processor usage for even 1920x1080 MPEG-2 dropped below 50%. For 1080p WMV9 files, it was around 80%, which was great considering I didn't expect to be able to play them smoothly at all.
The new graphics card also vastly improved the MPEG-2 clarity. I had recorded some raw transport streams and playing them back looked pretty poor when panning left or right. I thought it was an issue with the files themselves, but once the card was in, it looked spectacular.
I'll go into more detail on some of the parts of the project later, and probably the next step will be to add cable box control so I can watch enverything through my HTPC and not switch sources all the time.
What's the minimum processor to play back HD-DVD?
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