Building a Media Center PC on Budget

As I noted in an earlier post, I dropped my idea of using PS3 as a media center and started a project to build an MCE PC. My budget is little tight. So I carefully chose the mobo and the processor so that I can go for an upgrade late 2007. Here is the list of components that I shortlisted and the reasoning:

Tuner card: Hauppauge WinTV PVR 150 MCE kit. For MCE, you need a tuner card with onboard MPEG 2 encoding. None of the cards available in the local market had hardware encoding. I was searching for Hauppauge tuners everywhere and couldn’t find it even in ebay.in. Later, I came to know that Microsoft India is selling hardware upgrade kits for MCE along with Media Center OS through its retailers. The hardware upgrade kit is nothing but an OEM Hauppauge 150 PVR with an IR blaster and MCE remote! For a list of Microsoft retailers in India, refer here. If you cannot get a Hauppauge tuner card, search for a MCE certified tuner card.

CPU: AMD Athlon64 AM2 3000+. For a moment, I was thinking of choosing Core 2 Duo platform, but then I realized I don’t need that much power for a MCE machine. I went back to my old favorite, the Athlon64. The AM2 3000 + is a pretty decent processor for MCE needs. By selecting a processor for AM2 socket, I made sure that I can upgrade to a cheaper dual/quad core processor by the end of 2007, which will give a new lease of life to this budget PC.

Motherboard: I selected the Midrange Asus M2N-MX motherboard which has a 5.1 channel audio onboard and a PCI express slot for the graphics. The only caveat in choosing this motherboard is that it has only 2 PCI slots, which I have already filled up with the wireless card and the PVR card. Any further upgrade can only be done through USB ports.

RAM: Transcend 1 GB 533 MHz. This is more than sufficient for now. It will be due for an upgrade when I upgrade the processor.

Hard Drive: Seagate 250 GB 7200 rpm SATA. I won’t be recording a lot of TV shows. I think 50 GB will be sufficient for my recording needs. I will use the rest for my Music collection, home videos that are currently scattered all over the place in multiple DVDs and plenty of digital photos which I shot over the years.

Graphics Card: GeForce 6200 128MB DDR2 TC. This low end graphics card can also share 128 MB RAM from your main memory, which is plenty to boast about for a PVR machine. The DVI output is a must if you are going to use a LCD monitor/TV.

Networking: D-Link DWL-150G PCI card. Though the motherboard has onboard Gigabit Ethernet, I won’t be using it since I have setup a wireless router at home.

DVD Drive: Sony dual channel/dual layer DVD-RAM drive. This drive can write in all possible DVD formats. Must for archiving some old recorded TV shows etc.,

OS: Windows XP Media Center 2005. My initial plan was to install fedora core 6 with MythTV, but I was slightly put off by the long installation and setup procedure for MythTV, especially considering that EPG for India is not available through XMLTV. I wanted to get things up and running pretty quickly, so I selected MCE 2005, which is a surprisingly cool OS with a nice user interface. I may eventually migrate to MythTV, but it is MCE 2005 for now.

Other Software: Putting together the hardware took about an hour, but getting the software running took a few more hours because of search for codecs and other software. Beware: XP MCE does not ship with a MPEG 2 decoder, which is a bit of a surprise and also a blessing in disguise, because you can now use hardware accelerated MPEG 2 decoder shipped by NVIDIA. Costs money though.

MSN India provides the EPG. Though some channels are missing in the guide, the EPG is fairly informative and useful. Some screenshots below. (Note: High-res images)

The Guide

EPG for a regional channel

While I am pretty happy with the MCE install, I also tried the Vista media center and it produced some very disappointing results. The audio and video stuttered when going into full screen mode, which is quite surprising for a system that has pretty decent specs given Vista’s system requirements. Maybe it is because of some of the beta drivers that I used for audio and graphics. We will know in the coming days when the final versions are released.

Update 21 Feb 2007: The latest NVIDIA beta drivers and the beta audio drivers for my motherboard have vastly improved the Vista Media Center performance on my PC. I will update once I have the final drivers.

40 thoughts on “Building a Media Center PC on Budget

  1. who are the retailers you contacted? I’ve tried redington for the hardware kit but to no avail. Would appreciate your help!

  2. I contacted the retailer in bangalore. But he does not seem to have an upgrade kit. From which retailer did you get the upgrade kit. It would be really helpfull to me.

  3. came across this article while searching for a PVR solution to go with a Tatasky connection. Some queries regarding PVR-150 media kit.
    Did you get a ir-blaster along with it?
    Are you using it to control a DTH set-top box?

  4. No. It did not come with an IR Blaster. I havent gotten a Tata sky connection yet. Your option is to get a Hauppauge card (Non OEM) from some dealers rather than MS. Also, I saw that in US you can buy the original MS MCE remote alone which comes with IR blaster.

  5. I have been using both media portal and Win MCE for over two months now. On comparision, MCE seems to have a fair margin by at least two points. Reasons being…

    1) It is integrated with WMP 10 & 11. So this works very nicely for non-standalone MCE PCs as you can switch to the ehome interface and the playback will continue thereon from WMP.

    2) This is the speck of my system. Some might be surprise.

    Asus A7N2666Vm-Se mobo
    AMD Athlon 1400 processor
    384 MB of DDR (Low end – Hynix)
    XFX GeForce FX5200 128 MB
    Sound is in built.
    Pinnacle PCTV stereo ( I have made it work – courtesy mainconcept) as well as the remote (courtesy Girder)

    MCE works at least 1.25 times faster on such a low-end system. Plus PCTV Stereo (very poplular in India) won’t work on media portal.

    3) I don’t have to maintain multiple libraries. WMP library is all that I need.

    4) MCE is definitely less resource hungry than Media Portal. I have hardcore tech readouts for this.

    But yes, I do have a licensed copy of MCE which might be a problem for many users as they would already have XP Pro/Home on their systems.

    In that case, media portal is a better option. XP Pro system can’t be upgraded to MCE and its not worth an install from scratch. Go for Media Portal in that case.

  6. And the hardware kit is aailible on ebay.in (search for windows media center) as well as HCL stores ( Its availible in NOIDA – and I am not promoting my company)

  7. @Kunal
    Your post is very informative. I did not know about MainConcept. That seems to be a brilliant solution. You can use a cheap Pinnacle card because of this!!

    BTW, do you have any solutions for IR blaster? I want to go the DTH way and the hardware kit did not come with an IR blaster.

  8. Thanks Jaganath for clearing it out. I too haven’t took Tatasky as of yet. Thought of getting a clear picture of getting a PVR work with it before taking a connection. Tell me your suggegtion on this: Assuming that there is an option in the tatasky EPG to tune to a pre-set channel on a pre-set time, can we omit the ir-blaster and let the pvr record the default input at a set time.

    oops, don’t know if you are able to make out what I meant.

    @kunal, thanks for providing HCL info.. asking price for the kit in ebay is around 7K. Let me check if it is available in local HCL stores.

  9. Mahesh,
    Did u verify that it works with MCE? I heard that only the original ones that ship with Hauppauge works with MCE.

    Please keep me updated. This is the only reason I am postponing my upgrade to Tata Sky.

  10. I have a Hauppage WinTv PVR150 with licenced win mce, also have a IR Blaster(got with the card). I need some info on how to control the stb(TATA SKY) using mce remote.

  11. Hi roopesh. How did u get ir blaster with Hauppage? The MCE upgrade kid doesnt seem to include it. I was interested in getting this TV tuner but wud buy it if only I can get the ir blaster with it. Did you buy yours in India?

  12. I have a TataSky, and have a Hauppage PVR USB2. I use GBPVR as my PVR solution, and use USB-UIRT as my IR-blaster to control my TataSky box at scheduled times from my Dell Inspiron 6000 laptop running Vista. XMLTV is my choice of EPG updated weekly.

    Things are ALMOST working fine, and I am still in the process of ironing out the last few wrinkles.

  13. Folks – I have assembled PC. want to add PVR150 with remote etc with MCE.
    a) from where do I get the upgrade kit (with OS, tuner card remote) – hcl? MS india? ebay??? confused ..
    b) how much does it cost (7k or 3k) ??
    c) does it require XP to be preloaded, or MCE with the kit can be installed on a machine from scratch
    d) PVR150 has FM but does it allow recording?? via remote?

  14. I’ve been looking for reliable PVR solution for quite a while! Considered MCE as well. I’m encouraged by looking at this post! Thanks.

    Q I’ve is how does channel line up in EPG provided by MSN India match with my local service provider? I’m not using digital cable.

  15. My Card is Internal Pinnacle PCTV 110i TV tuner card instead of Hauppage will it work????
    and TAta Sky…and I use WinDVR software …
    Can I get a IR blaster like USB UIRT work with this card as it has a remote control ????

    Can i use other PVR software as my card is already installed and woking fine for manual recording of live tv
    I want to automate recording thats why I want to go for IR blaster to send signals to STB to change channels at select time!!!
    I thank you so much for ure lovely article..
    Look forward to hear from u

  16. The most important thing for a good AV experience from a media centre PC is to install as high end a graphics card as you can afford. In an ideal world one would use the Nvidia 8600GT with Purevideo HD for full 1080p scaling which looks remarkable on an HDTV.

    As far as Vista is concerned, there are so many bugs in the system that if assembling a Media Centre PC yourself I would strongly advise you use Media Center 2005.

  17. I built XP-MCE 2005 initially with PVR500 (Twin tuner card) This worked perfectly and I used for more than an year. Now upgraded to Vista Ultimate.(Did DOS GHOST on MCE to avoid reactivation🙂 )
    In both the cases, I never succeded in getting the “EPG”. How did you guys manage to get this from MSN India. Your inputs are highly appreciated.
    Now I’m upgrading to use “Tata Sky” Please provide inputs in getting TataSky EPG for VISTA.
    Another thing with PVR cards – On some channels, Audio does not render smoothly and small irretating hitches were observed. Contacted Hauppauge CS but their inputs were of not much help😦

  18. The best bet for a home brew PVR system is MythTV. This Package is awesome and quite outperforms MCE when ran on Linux.(Linux is a lot more resource efficient, you can run the PVR system on memory as low as 256Megs). I had Pinnacle PCTV analog card with Celeron 1.7GHz processor(can u believe this??!) It was almost impossible to get this card supported in MCE without buying real time software MPEG2 encoder that will make MCE believe my card is one of those onchip mpeg2 encoders. And forget about other softwares like GBPVR or MediaPortal. They simply wouln’t work out of the box. I always knew MythTV is somehow the best bet but it took me a little time to figure out. Now that I have setup MythTV with Lirc on my system, it works like a charm. My system is a desktop and now it can be automatically turned on to record a show and then go back to hibernation when done. I don’t even have to touch the key board as i can do it all (vertually everything) through my original Pinnacle PCTV remote. Wow, that’s a progress.MythTV rocks, and so does open source. It didn’t cost me a penny!

  19. Hi,

    Has anyone been able to get the EPG (program guide) for India to work in Vista Home Premium ? I use a TataSky connection and am trying to get the Guide going. Microsoft says they only support the Guide in the XP version of Media Center and not in the Vista version which sounds silly.

    Any thoughts or ideas or tips would be greatly appreciated.

    Andrew

  20. Please can someone publish a tutorial of how to integrate MSN EPG wit h Windows XP’s Media Center Edition. it would be of gr8 help.
    thanks

  21. How many of you are still using MCE, VMC or MythTV or another PVR applications?

    How are you managing your EPG? MSN provides EPG for 111 of 300+ channels. How are you managing the rest? Is there anyway of getting MSN to provide EPG for the rest of the channels?

    I am currently using Vista Media Center and some home grown applications to grab the data from websites and convert it to VMC EPG format. It works alright but it takes about 2 hrs to do that and I have to do it every week though I can automate it.

    What I have is not an ideal solution. I am working with a company to provide XMLTV format of the EPG for almost all the TV channels in India. This can be used in VMC and all PVRs that use XMLTV format.

    I cannot disclose the name of the company as I am under Non Disclosure Agreement. How many of you would be interested in EPG for Indian TV Channels?

  22. I have VMC with a hathway cable set top box. I am able to control the set top box etc. but cannot set up the EPG. It asks for a postcode and then cant find the listings whatever postcode i provide. I have tried 560001, 110019 etc.

    Pls help!!!

  23. i have been able to find a solution to the problem of the GUIDE asking for a postocde and then not finding listing…..

    email me privately to get the soluton

  24. I have built HTPC with following configuration:

    Hardware: AMD X4-920-2.8GHz / ASUS M3N78-EM / GeForce 8300/ 4GB RAM / 2 X 500GB RAID-1 / Sony 32″ BRAVIA LCD & Home Theatre

    Software: Ubuntu 9.04 with XBMC media centre application.

    It is awesome.

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