Why build your own "Media Center" ?
Those with Home Servers / NAS boxes will most likely be using DLNA Server software to 'stream' their video/music direct to their TV / Home Cinema system. However those without such a Server (and on a limited budget) or who have become tired with the mind numbingly slow, '5 choices at a time' tedious 'keyhole selection' garbage interface offered by the current level of (continually crashing) DLNA software will want to access a 'real Windows' GUI from the comfort of their lounge sofa.
My aim is to show you how to obtain a real Windows interface via your TV, and NOT by using some rip-off priced 'limited edition' software (such as 'MS Media Center Edition') that you can't configure, can't be made to work properly, and is crippled by all the embedded DRM restrictions
What can a 'media center' offer that DLNA can't ?
Plainly a choice from more than 5 items at once :-). However you will also be able to search all the 'shares' on your entire home network, play music whilst running a slideshow, play a video irrespective of the 'format' (using VLC) and even 'abort' a playing music / video / slideshow without everything crashing & locking up to the point where you have to remove the power plugs to force a reboot
If your 'media center' computer has a normal CD/DVD drive, you can use it to play & record your audio disc's and to play movies. With an Internet connection, you can even use it locate and view material from iPlayer, 4OD, You-Tube etc. etc.
With some relaxing music running in the background, you can lie back on your sofa & browse the Internet / read your emails and (by using your wireless keyboard) you can even answer your eMails or edit your web site pages etc.
Alternatively, you can play intellectually challenging computer games, rather than some expensive rip-off priced "jump about and shout" Games Console rubbish :-)
What else can my Internet connected Media Center offer ?
These days there are many Internet based Radio (and even 'TV') stations and whilst access to these may be offered via many DLNA Servers, it's the usual slow & frustrating '5 choice keyhole' method with many a crash & lock-up just waiting to trip you up when you choose a 'Radio Station' thats 'off the air'. Plainly having a choice of dozens of web sites (via your browser 'Bookmarks') is a far better approach.
Can I use it to auto-RIP my audio CD's to mp3 ?
Yes, but doing so is illegal under Copyright Law. Copyright exists in each separate 'FORM' (format) of the music. So, whilst you may have paid for a CD, this does NOT entitle you to 'read' (rip) it and convert it to a digital (.wav) file on a hard disk, let alone 'convert' it into an mp3 !
Of course the success of products like the Brennan JB7 CD NAS store would suggest mass contravention of Copyright Law is 'acceptable''.
Indeed, the 'champions' of US Copyright (such as the RIAA) say "burning a copy of (your) CD onto a CD-R, or transferring a copy onto your computer hard drive or your portable music player, won't usually raise concerns" (although you do have to scroll down past "Criminal charges may leave you with a felony record, accompanied by up to five years of jail time and fines up to $250,000" to the bottom of the page to find this). If you are in Europe (but not (yet) in the UK), it has been perfectly legal to make copies for your own use for some time
So if you want to build your own 'JB7' (for a lot less less than the £300 odd they sell at) go right ahead - essentially all you need is Exact Audio Copy and access to the free Albums / Titles database (CDDB) to 'auto name' the tracks and a Command 'script' to 'watch' for a CD insert, rip the tracks, convert to mp3 and save to some folder (see later)
What Hardware ?
As usual, it depends. Assuming you intend to position the unit 'next to' (or under) your TV, one of the main requirements will be 'no noisy fans' - however size may also be a concern. Unless you use a laptop (of which more later) for size, the Optiplex GX 'small form factor' (SFF) can't be beaten.
I built my first Media Center with a used the Dell Optiplex SFF. These units were widely sold to businesses but are now 'obsolescent' and can be had for £30-£50 on eBay. They are 'quite' enough to be used in your lounge, and small enough to be added to the shelf under the TV (where they can be used to replace your DVD player & PVR or used in addition to these). However the most attractive feature is the built in support for Gigabit Ethernet (which allowed me to stream DVD 'standard' movies direct from my Server).
For low noise, I recommend the Dell Dimension range (the 3100 is cheap, but with only a PCI-e x1 slot it has essentially zero graphics expansion options, so the 5150 (E510 in USA) is a better choice with PCI-e x16)
When I purchased a HD TV I was unable to get the SFF GX280 motherboard built-in graphics chip to output full HD (1920 x 1080) resolution. Rather than invest in an expensive low power 'half-height' Graphics card, I moved over to an old Dimension 5150 and added a GeForce GTS250 Graphics card (which comes with a HDMI output socket).
Can I use a Laptop ?
In theory 'yes', however few will power-on (and use the external video output) with the lid closed unless you use a Docking Station. The other problem is that few Laptops support 'Surround Sound' or have an 'upgradeable' Graphics card .. I thus focus on using an old Small Form Factor computer
What's the 'best' all round Small Form Factor choice ?
Today, the Dell Optiplex GX280 SFF. This comes with a SATA hard drive, uses DDR2 RAM and has space for one 'low profile' (and low power consumption) PCI-e x16 Graphics card plus one low profile PCI card (eg a low profile S/PDIF Audio card = see later).
Any drawbacks with the GX280 SFF ?
A1. The main drawback is it's small 160w power-supply. If you want to drive full HD you will need a 'half height' graphics card (with a DVI / HDMI output) and you will have to stick to a 'very low power' version (ones intended for Laptop use)
The PSU is a custom design and can not be replaced with anything more powerful (except by replacing the SFF case)
A2. Another drawback is that due to the 'business use' focus, almost all Optiplex's were shipped with an IDE CD (rather than DVD) drive. Whilst this can be replaced, as with all SFF base units, you need the 'slimline' IDE laptop style drive.
How do I replace the CD with a DVD ?
A1. The CD in your GX280 is set to 'Master' mode. Most Laptop CD/DVD drives share the same connection as the 2.5" IDE hard drive and are set to 'Slave' in drive firmware. This prevents you using a Laptop DVD drive as a 'drop in' replacement
Whilst IN THEORY it is possible to 're-flash' a Laptop DVD drive with new firmware (to switch from Slave to Master mode), in practice it's one of those tasks that will be "left to the reader" :-)
Fortunately, when Servers moved to SATA Hard drives they often included a slim-line IDE CD/DVD drive to save space. So slim-line DVD drives for Servers are GENERALLY set to 'Master' mode & can often be found on eBay for as little as £10-£15.
A2. However you are most likely better far off investing in a stand-alone USB linked DVD / Blu-ray player, although before paying out you might want to Google 'Regional Coding' and 'DRM Restrictions' (and 'DVD43').
In the SFF GX280, even if you remove the floppy disk & mounting brackets, there is not quite enough room to fit a standard 5.25" CD/DVD drive, although there IS is room to fit a second 3.5" hard drive. So using an external USB linked DVD would allow you to add a second internal hard drive, eg for recording Digital TV broadcasts
What about the GX260 / GX270 ?
The GX260/270 only supports IDE drives (no SATA). They also have an AGP slot - so IF you can find a low profile DVI or 'TV out' AGP card it may be worth going with the 260 (rather than the 270) since the 260 case can be 'upgraded' to take the 280 motherboard later (with a bit of mechanical work) whilst the 270 is a lot harder to upgrade.
Note that the 260/270 does have the advantage that you can use a Slave mode ex-Laptop DVD drive to replace the Master mode CD drive, although this does require the use of a "50 pin Slim to 40 pin IDE" converter (typical price £2 on eBay) and a new IDE Master+Slave ribbon cable (the one in the 260/270 for your Hard disk has no Slave socket and will be too short). Note that the hard disk (Master) should be connected using the END socket of the cable.
Do I need a Windows XP System disc ?
If you are already using Dell computers you will know that any Dell Windows System CD is usable with any Dell motherboard. So long as the COA (Licence sticker) is still stuck to the case you don't have to worry about trying to obtain a Windows System CD from the seller (which they won't have, as most businesses install 'standard System images' using Ghost or similar, so they will never have had a Dell (or HP or Microsoft) Windows XP System CD in the first place))
If you are buying cheap ex-business Dell kit from eBay and do not already have Dell kit, you can purchase a Dell Windows XP System disk for a few £££'s. Ideally, you want one that includes sp2 & is 'bootable' (sp3 gives you later versions of MSIE and Windows Media Player, neither of which you want or will ever use)
What other Hardware do I need ?
A1. You will need a 'wireless' (BLUETOOTH) keyboard & mouse and NOT an 'IR' (Infra-Red) one that only works when you 'point' it exactly at the 'media center' base unit :-)
Specialist 'multi-media' hand controllers, such as the "Fly-Mouse 2.4GHz wireless Hot Key multi-Media keyboard" allow you to control the mouse 'pointer' position by hand movements (in a similar way to the Wii controller) as well as incorporating a keyboard and even a programmable IR controller for your TV / Home Cinema system etc. At the time of writing, these are still quite expensive (approx £40).
A 'touch pad' type mouse with keyboard, such as the "2.4GHz Wireless QWERTY Keyboard Mouse Multi-Media Key Touch-pad for PC TV" or the "MINI BLUETOOTH KEYBOARD Rii for Multi-media Touchpad" comes in a bit cheaper at £30/£25.
Finally a 'standard' wireless keyboard + mouse can be had for as little as £15.
A2. If you want to record material from FreeView etc. to your hard disk, you will need a DVB-T decoder (these are available as USB 2 'sticks' for a few £'s on eBay).
A3. If your TV does not have a 15pin VGA socket, you may also need a video card with at least a 'TV out', & for sure, to support HD TV, you will need a Graphics card with a HDMI output socket (or a DVI output, since DVI to HDMI cables are less than £2 on eBay).
A4. Ideally, you should run an Ethernet cable from the media center to your Router (for Internet) or your Server (for access to your film archive etc)
If, for some reason, you can't run a cable, by all means consider using a WiFi USB 'dongle' to connect to the Router for Internet access. Be aware, however, that even the fastest WiFi (54mbs) is half the speed of 'standard' Ethernet (100mbs) and 50 times slower than Gigabit Ethernet - so with WiFi you may find yourself unable to play movies direct from your Server
What computer graphics resolution(s) are needed for my TV ?
Standard 4:3 TV screen displays 702 x 576 (PAL, 50Hz), so normal computer SVGA 800** x 600 will fill this. A widescreen 16:9 TV is 1024 x 576 and will need a widescreen video display output eg. WVGA 854 x 480 (see here for a list of standard computer graphics resolutions)
**Almost all TV's will accept any computer input signal 'wider' than the TV display which it will re-scale to fit the display width without any problems.
Many TV's will also cope with a computer display that is a bit too 'high' (eg 600 instead of 576), although you may loose (24) scan lines off the top or bottom of the screen, or 'too short' (eg 854 instead of 1080) with 'black bands' at the top & bottom of the screen, although some are clever enough to 'squeeze' or 'expand' the height to fit the screen
NOTE, however, the MAXIMUM frequency accepted by your TV will typically be 60 Hz (if you have trouble getting your TV to accept a 'too high' signal at 60Hz, try setting the computer graphics card to 50Hz)
Non-HD widescreen TV's typically don't have a VGA socket but will still have an AV (or 'Video In') RCA socket, a S-video mini-DIN socket or at least a SCART (or two). Any of these could be used by your computer, even if you have to purchase an adapter to match a video graphics card 'TV out' RCA or S-video socket to a TV SCART input
A HD TV will display 1920 x 1080p (and typically also supports the old non-HD widescreen 1280 x 720) and will need to be driven from a 16:9 computer display resolution eg. WUXGA 1920 x 1200. Many HD TV's still have 'AV inputs' and SCART (as well as HDMI sockets) however these may be limited to LESS THAN the full HD resolution - so check your TV manual before buying a 'converter' cable :-)
Many graphics cards that support HD level resolutions will have a DVI output socket** (a few have a HDMI socket) and Graphics cards intended for 'multimedia use' may well support the EXACT resolutions you require
** DVI to HDMI cables are available on eBay for about £1 per meter length
My TV shows big black bands, wrong aspect ratio or just doesn't work ?
Assuming you have tried all the resolutions offered by your Graphics (at 50 & 60 hz), the next step is to make sure you have the latest Intel Drivers for your graphics controller chip. For the Dell GX280, this is the Intel 915G & the latest driver is v14.25.50 (for win2000 & XP).
If you still can't get a resolution+frequency combination that is acceptable to your TV, often the problem is the FREQUENCY is too high ... you will have to modify the Driver .INI file as described here to get the card to output at a lower frequency
How do I get my 'media center' to automatically play CD's or movie DVD's ?
By using 'Auto-Play' of course. Auto-Play allows you to set up an application to run automatically as soon as a CD / DVD is inserted. Applications, such as VLC or Windows Media Player** can be set to run for 'types' of media (eg. if a movie DVD is found, set VLC to run), or types of file - so music CD's run WMP, .jpg files run MS Picture & Fax Viewer ('slideshow'), mp3's run WinAmp etc.
**Whilst Microsoft will tell you that you can invoke Windows Media Player from the 'command line' eg. to play a movie from your DVD drive (c:\Programs Files\Windows Media Player\wmplayer /device:(name of device shown in My computer) /fullscreen) on my computer the DVD does not start automatically (same applies to music CD's, the audio tracks are listed & the first is sown in 'Now Playing' but WMP only starts playing when you mouse click the 'Play' button)
Further, whilst the CMD command 'wmplayer (name of music file to play)' works fine, a second 'wmplayer (name of next track to play)' will 'abort' the first (i.e. it does not 'queue' tracks) - you CAN create a (XML like) play-list (*.wpl file), however since "ItemCount" appears in the header plainly you can't add tracks 'on the fly'. In fact, it seems that the WMP developers put all their efforts into coding Internet access (to offer you 'paid for' music) and forgot that you might actually want to play your OWN (existing) music tracks ..
How can I get my 'media center' to automatically convert CD's to mp3 ?
Instead of setting up Auto-Play to play the CD, you set Auto-Play to run a 'script' (a .CMD file) that will contain instructions to set-up and 'chain' (launch) a CD 'ripper' & then a .mp3 converter
CD's don't incorporate artist or track names - to support auto-naming the Ripper will require access to a 'catalogue' (either locally or on the Internet) using the Escient CDDB standard (or similar).
By far the best Ripper is EAC (Exact Audio Copy), however you can also use the Open Source CDex to auto-name your tracks (see using CDex).
If really would like to PAY for the same thing, try SmartCDRipper or perhaps XRECODE.
Your CMD script should start by creating a 'destination' folder (with some name e.g. based on the date/time) before 'chaining' the EAC 'ripper'. When EAC completes and returns control to the CMD script you can chain the mp3 converter (eg using LAME) as a separate step
Note that EAC supports a local copy of the free CDDB database which is updated every month and is approx 1Gb in size - alternatively EAC can connect to the free-DB web site
How do I use my Home Cinema system to play music from my 'media center' ?
The GX280 motherboard built-in audio chip is limited to AC97 = Stereo sound output. To play 5.1 / Dolby DVD's via your Home Cinema sound system, you will typically need an Audio Card with a 'S/PDIF' Digital output aka 'TOS link' (this will have to be a half-height PCI card)
If you have a different motherboard, check the Driver 'name' = if it contains '.. HD Audio' or '.. High Definition Audio' then you have 5.1 built in (and will have rear panel connectors for driving a 5.1 speaker set direct, even if they are 'dual purpose' (i.e. 2 mini-jacks 'double up' as line-in & microphone when not used for the center+woofer & rear speakers)). If you don't see 'HD' (or see AC97), then you have Stereo only (and only a single speaker output jack + (typically) 2 inputs (line-in and microphone))
My Sound Card has a S/PDIF connector but will only output Stereo ?
Unfortunately, it's been crippled by the DRM lobby. In order to prevent you 'pirating' high quality sound, 'the music industry' tried to force makers of computer Sound Cards to limit the S/PDIF digital output to Stereo mode only. Whist this attempt was doomed to fail (as customers shunned the crippled 'home grown' cards and purchased those offered by Far Eastern manufacturers (eg. China) who were outside the reach of the Music Industries strong arm tactics), almost all 'consumer grade' and almost all older cards with S/PDIF are DRM 'limited' (i.e. 'pass-through' of 5.1 / Dolby is 'unavailable' in the driver).
So if you want to connect your 'media center' computer to your Dolby / Surround Sound Home Cinema system, you will need to find a card that offers 'pass-through', or one that is based on the C-Media 8738 / 8768 chip-set** for which you can use the C-Media Open Source 5.1 pass-through Driver.
**WARNING - a few card manufacturers were even persuaded to block pass-through in the Hardware = so be very careful to check you are buying one of the 'listed' cards before paying out :-)
How do I test if my 5.1 S/PDIF link is working ?
Connect the TOS fibre-optic cable from your sound card S/PDIF output to your Home Cinema input. Make sure the Home Cinema system is 'looking' at the S/PDIF input (check your Manual). Then use VLC to play the .ac3 test file available from this site or the Microsoft 6 channel (5.1) test file (self-extracting .exe containing both .wav and .wma). If that works, movies played from your 'media center' hard disk (or your Server) should play just fine (although you might want to play a movie DVD just to make sure the DVD drive in your 'media center' is free from any DRM interference)
I get 'wrong Region' when I try to play a DVD ?'
In order inflate prices (and thus rip off the consumer) in some markets (eg UK / Europe) the Movie Industry use a DRM system that includes 'Regional Encoding' or 'zone' setting. This is designed to prevent Movie DVD's purchased in 'low cost' regions (eg USA) from playing in the 'high cost' regions. Most domestic DVD players are now made outside the reach of the Movie Industry and are 'multi-region', however Microsoft is not outside their reach so Windows is NOT 'multi-region' ...
If persecution for 'piracy' (bypassing the DRM Regional Coding 'zone') does not worry you, by all means install the 'DVD43' utility on your computer and play US movies on your UK spec. computer ...
My music / movie playback 'jumps' & 'pauses' when I'm using my PC ?
This is due to the Windows 'Explorer' desktop, which gives priority to the GUI, not the streaming music / video. More RAM or a faster CPU may help.
To improve playback on a machine dedicated to music, the Explorer 'shell' can be replaced with the CMP shell.
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