Create your own Media Center from old computer parts

Have you ever had a dream about having a fancy Media Center in your living room attached to the big 50″ TV, but was really not sure on where to get one? Well do not fear, as this easy step-by-step tutorial shows you how easy it is to create one from scratch! This fancy Center also has a full featured Spotify module built into it as well as it’s being remote controlled using only an Android smart phone.

The box itself..

This is probably the second hardest thing to set up. What we will be needing first is the main building blocks of the machine. For this part you can use old computer parts if you like. This is NOT going to be a gaming PC so it doesn’t need to be all powerful. If you don’t have any spare parts, it means that we need to go out and do a bit of shopping.

“It’s cheaper to build one, than buy one!”

 

What we need:

  • Motherboard (with integrated audio and video output)
  • Power Supply (PSU)
  • Processor (CPU)
  • Memory (RAM)
  • Hard drive
  • Case (to put everything in)
  • Optical Drive like DVD rom or Blu-ray rom (Optional)
  • Cooling paste (optional)
  • Bluetooth radio or Remote Control antenna (USB)

If you do not have sound and video integrated into the motherboard you will be needing:

  • Sound card
  • Graphic card (GPU card)

After digging through our spare parts we only had a Power supply and a hard drive, so we had to do a little bit of shopping. To minimize the volume inside the box we got a motherboard with integrated sound card and video card. By doing this, we increase the amount of air flow inside the box and prevent the hardware from overheating.

The motherboard’s sound card had a built in S/PDIF module which is most known as an optical audio connector to be able to transfer high definition/5.1/7.1 audio to your home theater. This is an easy way to turn on surround sound instead of using 6 or 8 single cables that you need to connect to an external box before entering the home theater system. Also the built-in video card had a HDMI connector which makes it easy to connect the media center to your fancy big TV without using an adapter plug. If you do not have a home theater sound system, the HDMI cable is also built to transfer sound to your TV.

The last thing that is worth mentioning is the box itself. When you think about what computer parts are stored in we often think about a gray ugly computer box, and we DO NOT want that standing in our lovely living room. A neat trick is to go out and buy a box called HTPC. These boxes are available in various discrete shapes and will be a life saver when it comes to avoiding conflicts with the rest of your family. Also make sure that the box you get has good ventilation.

“The less heat you get, the quieter it gets!”

 

Let’s Build..!!

Make sure that you are using an anti-static wrist band to avoid damage to the hardware.

Now, the first thing we need to do is to clear out everything that may be in the way. The HTPC box usually has a metal bar that goes from one end to the other at the top of the box. This could be an idea to remove before we start, as this will only be in the way. The reason this is mounted in the box is because it support the structure, and prevent it from bending/twisting. Once this is removed we place the motherboard into it. Make sure that you use safety screws if there isn’t installed any rubber points on the bottom of the box to prevent the metal of the hardware to get in contact with the metal of the box.

The next thing we install is the processor (CPU). This goes into the socket of the motherboard. This computer chip will only fit one way, so DO NOT use force if t won’t fall into place right away. Remember to lock the socket with the socket “key” handle.

Now we install the hard drive. If you have more than one hard drive, we strongly suggests that there is room for airflow between the drives to prevent overheating. Make sure that the hard drive is mounted properly to minimize the vibrations on the disk. This may increase the life time of it! This also applies to the optical drive if you choose to install one of these as well.. By mounting it properly you may reduce the noise from it when it spins, and we sure want to make it as quiet as possible.

After installing the hard drive(s) and optical drive (if we choose to have one of these), we install the memory chips (RAM). These will also fit one way only, so avoid using the force. You may need to push a bit to slide them into place, but just remember to be careful.

Now comes the tiny stuff. What we do now is to connect the front panel to the motherboard. These are the small connectors that is built into the box and leads to the back of the front panel buttons. Make sure to consult with the hardware manual as these tends to be different from each motherboard manufacturer. Also we want to make sure that the connectors are inserted in the correct way, as a reverted connection may cause problems starting up or even shutting down the machine.

After completing the front panel connectors we install the power supply. Make sure that you mount it properly to avoid vibrations from the spinning fan inside. Connect  the main power cable to the mother board (it’s the biggest of them all). then connect any additional power cables. There should be at least 2 more of them, but it depends on the brand of the motherboard. After doing this, you provide power to the hard drive and optical drive.

Now it’s time to attach the CPU cooler. The process may vary depending on the brand you are using. This should be documented in the user manual. Now everything should be in place, and we can close the box.

 

Software Systems

Now it’s time to choose which operating system we want. In this guide we tried out both Windows 7 and Ubuntu Linux 11.10. Both have their pros and cons, let’s have a look..

Windows 7

Pros:

  • Very easy to use to set up and configure.
  • Usually has all the drivers needed to run the hardware. (In our case, we manage to get the surround sound 5.1 to work)
  • Very few things to configure.

Cons:

  • Slow startup.
  • Use a bit of resources.
  • Not open source ware, and cost a lot of money as we do not recommend the “Starter edition”.

 

Ubuntu Linux 11.xx

Pros:

  • FREE!! As it is an open source ware.
  • Very fast startup.
  • The ability to set the Media Center as a stand alone session without loading the desktop. (Very useful as this reduce loading time and startup time)

Cons:

  • Could be hard to configure as some things needs to be configured through the terminal. (Thou it looks really cool setting it up)
  • Lack of device drivers. (These could in some cases be hard to track down, like the support for optical audio connection S-PDIF which will provide us with 5.1 surround sound)
  • Lack of Bluetooth remote control software.

 

 

Windows 7

Finally, we decided to go for Windows 7. We will post the Ubuntu version later i think..

Since the system is clean and with no system on it, we should now install the operating system. Usually this would be installed using a DVD disc using the DVD-ROM. Since we here at NV.net didn’t mount one, we had to look for other options to install the OS. A quicker way is if you have the OS on a USB stick. The OS doesn’t usually come out on sticks, but there is an easy way to create one if you have the Windows files on a disc.

“It’s not illegal if you do this for personal purpose. As long as you have a legal product key you have nothing to worry about!”

If you need to install using the USB and don’t have the USB OS stick, you should head use another computer and download the ImageWriter application “IMGburn“. This is a Freeware application and free to use. Once installed, you should insert the Windows 7 disc and start up IMGburn. What we want to do now is to create a image file of the Windows DVD, and make is as an ISO file. Save it someplace nice that you will be able to remember (NOT on the desktop). Once this is done we are ready to create the USB OS stick. To do this we need the application “Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool”. This is an official application by Microsoft and will make the creation very easy. Install it, and run it! Now select the ISO image file we just created, and click next to get to “step 2”. Agree the term and follow the instructions. Once it’s done, you will have a fully working booting USB stick with Windows 7 on it.

Bring the USB stick over to the media center and plug it into one of the USB connectors. Here’s a tip!:

You may need to hit the selected BIOS button during startup to enter the computers BIOS. Go to BOOT section and select the USB as first boot device. If you plugged it in before turning it on it should list it. Select it and save the new BIOS setting.

Here’s another trick that took us a while to figure out. If it won’t boot from the USB, it may be because the motherboard only allow one of the USB ports to be bootable. Try to change the USB stick to another connection port to find the bootable port.

When this is found remember it for later use. Now install the OS as normal and install all the updates.. We recommend that during the installation splits the HDD in two, leaving about 100 GB to the OS files, and the rest to the media resource.

When the OS is ready, make sure that the graphic card driver has been installed. Now we need to make sure that the media center will be able to play all kinds of media files. If you have a favorite codec pack, go get it and install it. If not we recommend the “K-Lite Mega Codec Pack” (Standard or FULL).

The next step is to set up the media center to store any media file that is being pushed to it. There is three ways of doing this.

  1. Set up a lite ftp server to manage the files on the system.
  2. Set up shared drives/folders which is accessed from main household computer.
  3. Simply just drop the whole thing and instead map up the main computer as a network drive so that you stream media directly from this one.

We prefer option number one. Option one and two will make it possible to play media without relying on other computers in the house. Imagine the traffic going through the router when one family member is using skype, another member is downloading full speed on P2P, and the third is playing online on PS3/XBOX, and you trying to stream play a 1080p video on 15 GB over the network. Who will suffer the most?

Well.. YOU! (to make it even worse, the computer you stream from is at the moment being used to run Battle Field 3)

Feel free to use any FTP server application. We tried using “Golden FTP Server“, as this comes as a free version and is quite lite. We closed down the open for all option and set up one logon account as this is the only account you are allowed to create in the free version. Then we mapped up the area that involves in the media resource (in our case Drive D:\resources\). A tip here is to check the IP address the media center has received and set it as static. This way you won’t have the router changing the IP address each time you reboot, forcing you to track it down to update your media library. Make sure that you add a shortcut to the startup folder on the start menu to have it activated all the time.

 

Set up a remote control

If you choose to be using an IR receiver/remote control antenna, this section should be fairly easy as you only need to plug in the USB.

Should you choose to use your Android smart phone, we can recommend the application Unified remote. What you need to do is to go to the market and download it. Then click here to download the receiver server. Set it up on the media center and make sure it auto starts with windows. Then set it up on your Android to be able to communicate with the media center.

 

It’s Time to choose a Media Center

There is several media center systems available for us to use. Especially if you run Windows 7. We have tried most of them and narrowed it down to two. Here is the list of the ones we tested (We only tested the free ones):

The ones we found most useful for windows was MediaPortal, but XBMC could also be an option for this OS. For Ubuntu we found XBMC most useful.

Boxee was good too, but found this one a bit messy once you started it. One thing that Boxee had that the others didn’t have was the ability to enjoy TV series on demand. But once you start up the series database, it analyses which country your IP address comes from, and you will be stuck with only weird unknown TV series. After suspecting that the IP address had to be from either US or Canada, we tried setting up a proxy that gave us a US IP address. This worked like a charm!. YAY you may think, but unfortunately no. Almost 99% of these free proxy’s are to slow to be able to stream series on demand, and you will be left with alot of buffering pauses during the show. We know there are some paid proxy services out there to provide us with the speed we need, but we do not see the point in this right now.

In this tutorial, we choose to use MediaPortal as this proved us with the best experience.

We went to their homepage and downloaded the software. After the installation is done, you need to configure the software. This is done by clicking on the start menu, and then find it in the programs section. In the MediaPortal folder you will see the actual software and an entry called MediaPortal Configuration. Start this one and set it up. It’s important that you set up the location of the music, pictures, and video files. What you also should do after the import of files is to run the video scan to identify all the video files. Make sure that you use the English “IMDB.com” as the german version is set as startup. Be adviced that the scanner doesn’t always match the correct movie, but it will be at least 90% accurate. (If you have those files titled correctly without all those “_” characters.)

Now is also the time to build in Spotify if this is a feature you want. Click here to download the build. Make sure you save the configuration and quit the configure application. Now install the file you just downloaded. After the installation, you should open up the configuration again and set up your Spotify account that should be used with the Media Center. Go to the plug-in section and look for “Rockstar”. click configure and find the box where it says username and password.

 

Now you should be all set up. To make it start up automatically, just put the Media Portal shortcut in the startup folder of the start menu. This should make the application start on it’s own when the computer starts.

We have not checked if it’s possible to build in Netflix, but we will assume that this is possible as Netflix uses the Silverlight feature. This is one of the reasons why it won’t work on Linux. (YET)

Enjoy!

© 2012 Nordic Vikings

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