Building a media pc
This page is all about my experiences building a media PC. It's mainly here so that I can refer back to it if I have to rebuild / reinstall it, but others might find it useful too. It is a long story and I learned a lot!
I did this in November 2006. Things move on fast in the world of PCs so it might all be out of date by the time you read it.
Why do it?
- I was getting fed up of the growing number of boxes under the TV and the associated collection of remote controls.
- The DVD player/recorder (A LiteOn 5005) had no concept of widescreen or 4:3 which meant lots of messing around getting the right aspect ratio on the widescreen TV. Also if I recorded a DVD to give to someone else, it recorded as widescreen but didn't set the widescreen flag so discs would not play back properly on other people's TVs.
- The Freeview PVR (a Pace Twin) only had 20GB hard disk so we kept finding it hadn't recorded stuff because it was full.
- We kept wanting to copy recorded tv shows from the Pace Twin onto DVD but the only way to do this was an analogue copy (slow and not very good quality).
- The Pace Twin kept locking up and having to have its power pulled to get it going again.
- We had all our CDs ripped to hard disk (for use in ipod type thingys) but no way to play them in the living room.
- And finally it would be another toy to play with!
The bits used
I've built a lot of PCs so this was going to be a self build too. The main problem I could see was how to get a good picture to the TV, which has RGB SCART as its highest quality input. All the graphics cards seemed to be VGA or DVI output and I was not going to have a monitor there. Eventually I found a motherboard (Asus M2NPV-VM) which had onboard video with composite, S-Video and Component outputs for a TV. (I originally thought that the component could be RGB and drive the SCART directly, but this proved not to be the case. See later).
After referring to the QuietPC website for their recommended quiet components, I got the following bits:
Case: Antec Fusion (nearly silent case with a little display on the front)
Processor: AMD Athlon 64 3200
Motherboard: Asus M2NPV-VM (AM2 socket, Nvidia 6150 graphics chip)
Hard disk: Samsung HD400LJ 400GB SATA
DVD drive: Samsung SH-S182D dual layer SATA
RAM: 1GB from Crucial as recommended by Dabs's memory chooser
Processor fan: Thermaltake Blue Orb (blooming enormous but very quiet)
Freeview tuner card: Cinergy 2400i dual tuner card
Remote: Microsoft MCE infra red remote
Keyboard: Keysonic 2.4GHz radio keyboard with touchpad
OS: XP home
All of which cost about 600 quid. I was planning to use the freeware GBPVR program for viewing and recording because it looked good and was apparently more reliable at making recordings than everything else, including Windows Media Center (MCE). I didn't go for MCE because it seemed to be extremely unreliable, from reading the internet. As I later found, this was not true, probably a reflection of the much larger number of people using MCE, therefore more posts from people with problems.
It all went together nicely. The Antec case was very beautiful, easy to use, and most of all, amazingly quiet. It all ran up first time on a VGA monitor.
Getting it to work in the living room
This was where the fun started. I had a long series of problems.
Getting the TV working. The red green and blue phono sockets on the video card were not analogue RGB but component (YPrPb or YUV). Using my electronics facilities at work and a little design from the internet I made a converter (see here) to get it to RGB for the SCART which worked first time, rather surprisingly. The picture quality was much better than composite or S-video, definitely worth the effort. The graphics card would not play ball to start with, emitting all sorts of weird signals, but eventually by restarting the PC with the component cables connected, it outputted the right thing. I also had to pull the SCART blanking pin to 2 volts and the control pin to 12 volts to make the TV actually use the RGB.
Getting the Microsoft remote working. For some reason best known to MS, they don't support the MCE remote in XP home. You have to have XP professional or Media Center Edition. You can get round this by copying across the files irbus.inf, irbus.sys and irbus.pnf from an XP Pro installation (which I have at work) and telling XP Home to use those files when it tries to get drivers for the MCE remote.
Getting GBPVR working. It just would not display the TV picture smoothly, it looked like it was dropping every few frames. The picture was also deinterlaced making everything look like it was shot on film (if it had been going to a PC monitor, deinterlace would be good, but for a TV it needs to stay interlaced). I tried every MPEG decoder I could find, Intervideo, Cyberlink, NVidia PureVideo, but they all had problems. The Cyberlink one was best, but the aspect ratio was all cocked up. Eventually I tried another freeware program, MediaPortal. This didn't work either, it would not display the TV unless it was also set to record it. However, when it was, it displayed the TV perfectly, so obviously there was some conflict going on with GBPVR. Lots of other people use it successfully, must have been something about the setup. I eventually found the problem with mediaportal was something that I or GBPVR had done to the Windows video mixer renderer.
So it was time for a reinstall. I decided I would go for a complete windows reinstall and try Windows Media Center Edition to see what it was like. To my surprise it was really good and the setup very smooth (or maybe it seemed like that after all the messing around). The user interface is extremely pretty and it just works nicely. Of course it isn't as flexible or expandable as Mediaportal or GBPVR, but the fact that it played TV properly was a big plus point! I still had a few problems...
Fixing Windows Media Center problems
DVD playback - would play some DVDs but not others. Some had a distorted picture with tearing/flagging at the top of the screen. This I suspected was Macrovision protection. Others would not play at all which I also thought might be some sort of copy protection. I came across a program called AnyDVD which sits in the background decoding the DVD for you. Voila- all DVD problems sorted, except now MCE did not display the DVD title or chapter headings like it did before (this is because AnyDVD changes the disc ID). I can live with this as it makes the DVDs actually watchable!
16:9/widescreen - MCE was convinced my display was 4:3 as the graphics card was set to 720 x 576. This is actually correct for PAL tv's, the widescreen is produced by stretching the pixels out. But MCE was not interested in this. I could get widescreen video to display correctly using one of MCE's zoom settings, but 4:3 video would not display correctly (was stretched) and MCE did not offer me the zoom option, thinking it was displaying 4:3 on a 4:3 screen. Eventually by setting the video card to some bizarre resolution (I think it was 860 x 508 or something like that) using a custom setting, I got it to accept that it was widescreen. I'm not sure what pixel mangling is going on inside the Nvidia chip, but it looks nice anyway. If the Nvidia "Flicker filter" is not set to the first notch, you get some weird scaling artifacts. MCE seems to keep turning off the flicker filter when it starts up. I have not fixed this yet. I am going to try 1024x576 which should be a proper widescreen resolution but not sure what the graphics chip will make of it.
The front display on the case - I found a little program called FrontView to display what MCE is doing at the time. This looks nice. I would like it to display when it is recording something, I have not managed this yet.
Recordings stopping part way through - All my initial test recordings gave up part way through with MCE claiming the TV signal had disappeared. I found some later drivers for the Cinergy tuner card on Terratec's website and updated the machine. So far so good, no part recordings.
Losing channels / guide channels becoming unassigned - I kept finding that channels were disappearing, or that channels which had previously had programme guide info attached were set to "No guide for this channel". This may be related to the loss of tuner signal above, maybe the updated drivers will fix this. This is a problem as scheduled recordings just disappear if this happens.
My music - MCE kind of managed with our ripped MP3's, except it could not identify the artist for each album. It knew the artist for each song. I think that the ripping program EAC may not have set the "album artist" tag which MCE needs.
Start up in Live TV mode - I have set up the PC to go into S3 suspend when you switch it off with the remote or the front power button. This means it goes on/off in a few seconds (faster than the Pace Twin was!). But if you turn it "off" while it's showing Live TV, when it comes back it shows Live TV stopped and you have to click Resume to get it back. I have not fixed this yet.
Updates from December:
Widescreen: Setting the video card to 1024x576 (select DMT option from the timings screen to actually make it work) gives the proper shape desktop, but there's still the problem with MCE turning off the flicker filter. If you go into Regedit and change MCE's virtual screen width to 1024 but leave the actual screen width at 720, then it works by some mysterious means.
Losing channels: Updating tuner driver to 260 version helped with this, but still problems with the TV showing "No TV signal" when there patently was one (seemed to happen when a recording ended on the other tuner). Terratec support told me to install all optional updates for MCE from Windows Update which does indeed seem to have mostly fixed this problem.
My music: Nice little proggy called Album Art Fixer sorted these problems out. Some albums persistently would not work, I found that deleting the extra files created by MCE in the album folder would make them work again.
DVD: MCE will not play NTSC (29.97fps) DVDs. This is kinda disappointing as my 25 quid player played them perfectly! It does play them, but really jerky (it seems to skip 2 frames every half sec or something like that). The only workround I have found for this is to rip the DVD using DVD decrypter then convert it to PAL/25fps using a nice free program called VOBBLANKER. Fortunately I only have three NTSC dvd's.
DVD playback sometimes just locks up with the twirly circle. I have no idea why this happens.
Frontview: keeps losing the data connection to MCE and displaying a default message. Not sure why.
Output volume: The line output level is really low (compared to standard set top box) even with everything on the PC cranked to max.
Startup on Live TV: gave up on this. I found that if the box was left on CBeebies overnight (a timeshared channel which is off the air between 1900 and 0600) then it would nearly always crash in the morning, usually while in the middle of recording something. If left on BBC1 or another continuous channel it is much more reliable, not sure why this should be.
It's rather frustrating - it is great and very usable when it works, but the fact that it keeps cocking up in different ways for no readily apparent reason (cries of "the telly's crashed again") reduces the success of the idea somewhat.
6 months later:
We started to get problems where recordings would be cut off due to not enough tuners. This is because using MCE you can't watch something and record it at the same time using one tuner, you need two. This means if you are watching something and recording two programmes end-to-end, the end of the first programme gets cut off as it jumps to record the 2nd one. Annoying.
So I installed a second dual tuner card, this time a Pinnacle Dual Pro PCI or something like that. Reading of some problems with this card not resuming from standby, I was very careful to not let the Pinnacle CD anywhere near the machine and to let MCE download its own drivers which it did. I had to hack the registry to get MCE to use all 4 tuners.
I found that the terratec card was installed 3 times in the registry, obviously 2 of these referring to a non-existent card, I suspect this may have been behind some of the problems.
All the mysterious "no signal" problems went away when I did this. Now we hardly ever lose the end of a recording, though sometimes it still chops it off to record another programme even though a tuner is free (notably Dr Who!). Also Frontview started working properly (??). However I now had problems getting it to turn off after a timed recording (it used to come on in a sort of "dark" mode - no video signal - to do a timed recording, now it comes on to the MCE menu), but MCEStandby to the rescue here.
Still have problems with NTSC DVDs, low audio level. But it works much better.
Mysterious guide problems... (Sept 07)
It started to not record scheduled programmes (Shaun the sheep!) In the error log there were lots of "Error 20: Mismatched guide package". Internet advice seemed to be to delete the ehome folder from documents and settings, so I did this and rescanned for channels. This appeared to fix the error, but now we couldn't get Film4, TMF or a couple of other channels (they were listed in the guide, but it just showed "No TV signal".
After a great deal of messing around I found that locking the scan to Belmont's frequencies seemed to resolve this problem. I don't know if that means that MCE has the wrong frequencies for one mux or something. Anyway the working settings for belmont are now locked in the registry: see http://thegreenbutton.com/forums/1/133114/ShowThread.aspx. And it recorded everything OK today, though I notice an error 20 in the log. So we will see what happens next.
One year on...
The Media Centre is mostly working well and has become an essential part of our living room. We find that we hardly watch live tv now, just things we liked the look of and recorded. Even Philippa and Natalie can work it (occasional cries of Daddy, the television isn't working). It occasionally fails to wake up to record a programme, I don't know why, and once decided that BBC1 was a radio channel.
We have filled up the 400GB disk and I am going to add a further 500GB. Other projects include building a little box to boost the audio up to a normal level, and possibly connect to an itrip-type radio transmitter to link to the fm radio in the kitchen. Also to buy and install Nero 7 so we can burn programmes to DVD (we have never managed to get MCE's inbuilt DVD writing to work properly).
The saga continues with Windows 7...