Do you have a … DVD player? TV tuner? Blu-ray player? I’ll show you how I replaced all of my standalone home entertainment equipment and created my own media center—with a single PC.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a home entertainment equipment junkie. At the age of 14, I started spending all of my little allowance on DVD drives, high-quality video cables, and sound cards. Since then, my passion for digital media has grown even stronger. Over the past two years, I tweaked my PC and worked with Windows Media Center (WMC)—making my computer the center of my home theater.
In a series of posts, the TuneUp Blog will show you how to set up WMC and focus your PC’s performance on the media tasks at hand. We’ll also discuss the essential WMC plug-ins, “secret” parameters and registry settings you’ll need to get the most out of your home entertainment system. If you’d like us to cover a specific WMC topic or have any questions, drop us a line!
This blog post shows how to build a Media Center using Windows 7. But don’t worry, most of the tips also work fine with its predecessor Vista Media Center with little or no limitations.
The advantages of a WMC rig
Here are a couple of reasons why I decided to move away from standalone, home entertainment equipment to a WMC-based PC. (Granted, I still have a Playstation 3, to fulfill my need for console-exclusive games.)
- A PC is able to play all of the video and audio formats, including DVDs, Blu-rays, streaming video, MP4, AVI, MOV, and MKV. Note: For full support of all sorts of video formats, we will show you how to install all the necessary tools (called “codecs”). This is especially necessary if you’re using Vista, as the codec support is somewhat limited here.
- The computer can serve as your personal video recorder. Watch and record standard and high-definition (HD) content on your PC, and save it to your video library.
- You can show all of your photos from your home PC and access your entire music library from the big screen. WMC contains a nice slideshow feature with transitional effects and background music. Impress your family!
- It has excellent upscaling capabilities. WMC and its codecs do a really nice job of upconverting standard-definition content to a full HD screen.
- You can add a variety of applications and games to the WMC interface.
- Go online, and watch trailers and streaming video on your WMC-based PC. For example, Netflix lets consumers stream paid video content on their PCs. Get the latest season of Lost in HD in seconds! (By the way, WMC will automatically update itself online.)
- Listen to online radio. WMC allows you to listen to hundreds of radio stations, either with a FM receiver or via online stream.
Step 1: Finding the right hardware
The first step to building a nice, home entertainment center is, of course, finding the right hardware.
- Screen: I personally prefer an HD projector (over an LCD TV or Plasma), but that entirely depends on what you prefer and the size of your living room. If you need monstrous screen estate, then there is no way around a projector. If you rather prefer a larger TV (50″ or more), then you should probably settle for a plasma. They produce much better black levels and a higher picture quality than LCDs in larger sizes. But beware that some find that a plasma does not work as good in daylight (so you need to be able to darken the room, just in case). If you’re only interested in 46 inch displays (and below), I can recommend an LCD, as it offers the best possible picture. After a lot of research, I ended up with Epsons Pro Cinema 1080p projector, which despite it being almost two years old, performs incredibly well. However, a projector is only an option if you watch movies or play games for longer periods at a time. It is not recommended to turn on the projector if you want to watch the news for five minutes and then turn it off. Spend time investigating the right projector, LCD TV or Plasma TV and the right audio equipment. (Join the discussions over on AVForum, or check out great reviews on Sound & Vision Magazine or UltimateAVmag.com). But in the end, let your eyes and ears be the final judges. Find a professional home cinema shop and see for yourself.
- PC: Finding the right PC on which to base your media center is not an easy choice. If you want it to play DVDs, your music collection or slide shows, then you can go with one of the recent Atom-based nettops, for example, the ASRock ION 330 BD (as pictured above). The processor in these nettop machines are a bit on the weaker side, but thanks to ION-based Nvidia graphics chips (which are integrated into most recent nettops), nearly all of these machines are capable of 720p and 1080p HD video.
If you want to use one of your older laptops or PCs as a media center (especially to watch HD content), you will need either a stronger dual core processor with at least 2 GHz or a graphics card with H.264 hardware acceleration. The latter feature allows the graphics processing unit (GPU) to decode all of the HD video content and lift the heavy work off the processor. You will find H.264 acceleration in all nVidiaGeforce 8000 series (and higher) cards as well as on all ATI cards found here. Note, if you watch a lot of documentaries such as IMAX Blu-rays, then even a dual-core processor and an 8000 series might be be too slow. The reason: These videos are encoded in a very high bitrate (30–40 Mbps, that is, Megabits per second) instead of a regular bitrate (usually around 20 MBps, that is, Megabits per second). This gives you a noticeably better picture quality, but your PC might be overwhelmed.
If your WMC-based machine will also serve as a gaming rig, we recommend going for a Core 2 Duo, Core i5 or Core i7 machine. Coupled with a decent graphics card, you will be able to get the most graphically-intense game running at full speed.
You may also need the following:
- A PCI or USB TV tuner that is HD capable
- A DVI/VGA/DisplayPort to HDMI adapter (This will allow you to connect your PC to your TV or projector., if your PC does not have a HDMI output)
- HDMI cable to hook your WMC PC to your screen
- A good sound card (If your WMC-based PC has an integrated audio chipset, such as Realtek HD Audio, and you want to hook it up to a high quality 5.1 surround system, we recommend upgrading to a sound card, like the Creative Labs SoundBlaster X-Fi). Laptop users might want to go for an external USB soundcard like the X-Fi Surround. You will notice the improvement in audio quality and support for high-end sound formats, especially when you’re using a coaxial or optical digital cable to hook it up to a good audio receiver.
- A remote control for the media center (As pictured below, these special remote controls are exactly what you need to launch and navigate through the media center. They feature a couple of special buttons, which will enable you to easily navigate the different categories). I hear a lot of home cinema enthusiast swear on the Logitech Harmony One, though I never tried one of those myself.
Note: All of the product recommendations in this post are based on my personal experience.
Step 2: Finding the right software
To anyone who is serious about home cinema, I can only recommend Windows 7 Media Center, which is integrated into every version of Windows 7 (except the Starter Edition for netbooks and Home Basic). Microsoft has been developing this media center interface for more than eight years, and it has become a solid solution for home theaters based on a single PC.
There are, however, a couple of very good media center alternatives, like XMBC, on the market. For this guide, I have chosen the very solid, polished Windows 7 Media Center. The advantage of this all-in-one solution is that it is very compatible with a variety of TV tuner cards, and it does not require excessive fiddling to make it work. Note: Parts of this guide will also work on Windows Vista Media Center.
Before I started building my dedicated, WMC-based PC, I considered stripping my system of all the features that are not home theater-related, with a little pre-install tool called vLite. This tool takes your Windows DVD and allows you to remove features, drivers and services that you don’t intend to use. In turn, it decreases the footprint on your PC and increases the system’s performance. I normally keep my hands away from these kinds of solutions on a productive machine, as Windows sometimes relies on features that you remove, and Windows Update may not work properly due to the missing system files. However, on a standalone, WMC-based PC, I gave vLite a try, since it is supposed to work on Windows 7 (although initially designed for Vista).
I did not have any luck! No matter how many different configurations I tried, the reduced version of the Windows DVD did not install, and my dream of having a Windows 7 version—with only the most necessary WMC features—died. Instead, I decided to install the full Windows 7 Home Premium edition, and then disable unnecessary features and services afterwards (to be discussed in Part 3) of this blog post series. I urge you not to use any solutions like that if you want your WMC-based PC to work reliably.
Step 3: Basic setup of WMC
To set up WMC, click on the start orb, go to “All Programs”, and click on the “Windows Media Center” shortcut.
Click on “Continue”, and select the “Custom” setup routine. Hit “Next”, and select if you’d like to send anonymous reports about WMC’s performance to Microsoft. We highly recommend answering with “Yes”.
This will let WMC download cover art and, most importantly, the EPG (Electronic Program Guide) that you will not want to miss while watching TV. Click on “Next” and then “Next” again. If you think that WMC does not really fit on your screen or that the colors are off, choose the “Optimize how Windows Media Center looks on my display” setting. Otherwise, skip this part, and select the “Set up my media libraries” setting. Libraries are a new feature of Windows 7; they allow you to view the contents of as many folders as you like (e.g. one folder on your C drive and one on your external USB disk drive) in a single window.
WMC accesses all of the libraries on your machine, so if you haven’t set up your libraries with Windows Explorer, you can do that now on WMC. To consolidate all of the photo folders, select “Pictures”, and click on “Add folders to the library”. You can choose to add local folders, or folders on another PC or server inside your network. For now, let’s select “On this computer” and then the D drive, which contains part of our photo collection.
Now, the WMC includes the standard photo folder on the C drive and our entire photo collection on the D drive in its “Pictures” category. Click “Next”, and review which folders WMC aggregates. If you’re done, click on “Yes, use these locations”, and select “Finish”. Note: WMC only shows the contents of these folders. It does not move these folders around or change any data.
Stay tuned for the next part of this series! I will show you how to get around in WMC and how you can make it automatically start on dedicated home theater PCs.
10 Responses to “Building the Perfect Media Center (Part One)”
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