Building Your Own Media Center PC

Introduction

Imagine a centralised entertainment system – a huge widescreen television (plasma or LCD) connected to?a computer powerful enough to play the latest 3D games on the big screen,?where you can watch DVDs and television with surround sound from your 5.1 PC speakers, record television programmes and radio programmes, create slideshows from pictures of your last vacation and?display them on that plasma screen.?

This was the dream, now it’s reality!

A Media Center PC, or more commonly known as Home Theater?PC?is basically this:?a computer specially designed to be used in your living room or home theater for digital home entertainment this can include watching movies, listening to music, digitally recording television, playing PC games, and more.

Now, there are several solutions to accomplish this, but I’ve chosen the more elegant (in my opinion of course) but slightly more costly solution with Windows XP Media Center Edition, which can be purchased at Sim Lim Square for about $185.? Basically it’s Windows XP Home Edition that has an additional program called Media Center that’s the magic behind everything.? What I like about this solution is how it naturally integrates with the operating system.? It makes sense, you need the operating system, so just shell out the cash.? I’ll come back to this in a while.

Building a Media Center PC was a painful process, at least for me, as I had access to almost no information from the web.? Sure, there are many guides around, but they all seem to only cater to the American audience, so for us in Singapore, building a Media Center can be a challenge.? Fortunately, there were some kind folks at http://www.htpc-gear.com that lent me a hand.?

So to combat this lack of information on the web for us poor Singaporeans, I’ve written this guide to help my fellow citizens who might be feeling the same frustration I was just a few days ago.?

This article will focus on building a brand new Media Center PC.? For people who would like to upgrade, there is a brief section near the end of this article that deals with that.? Anyway, without further ado, let’s get on to the hardware.

Hardware

There are some issues with Media Center though.? First of all, Windows XP Media Center Edition is very selective about the hardware that can be used.? So make sure that your TV Tuner card and your graphics card are recognised by Microsoft.? You can find out more from this list of hardware Microsoft says that it recognises here:? http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/mediacenter/partners/directory.mspx

Anyway, just for reference, here are my system specs:

Processor:? AMD Athlon 64 X2 4600+
Motherboard: ?Asus A8N-SLi Deluxe
Ram:? 4 x 512 MB Kingston DDR RAM
Hard Disk Drives:? 300GB 7,200 RPM Maxtor SATA II, 160GB 7,200 RPM Maxtor IDE (Master) and 80GB 5,400 RPM Western Digital IDE (Slave)
Graphics Card:? Leadtek 7800GTX
Sound Card:? Creative Audigy Platinum (The front panel’s not working though)
TV Tuner:? Hauppauge! WinTV PVR500 MCE (This is bundled with a Media Center Remote)

It would most definitely be interesting to get yourself a wireless mouse and keyboard so you can surf the net and play games on the big screen, however, as far as finances go, that wasn’t viable for me.? Besides, I don’t really have a big screen anyway.?

I won’t go into too much detail for the hardware set up as system set ups differ greatly with different parts.? However, here are the important connections you have to make:

  • Connect your Starhub Set Top Box (STB) to your TV tuner.? This is done through your composite cables.? This is the one that comes with 3 jacks, yellow, red and white, which should be provided to you by Starhub when they connected the STB to your TV.? Anyway, yellow would be for video, red and white for audio.? Connect them up to your TV tuner.? If you have another STB you can connect it up to a second tuner for you to be able to watch TV shows and record at the same time.? More on that later.
  • Connect your television to your graphics?card’s?TV-Out port.? More information can be found here: http://www.htpc-gear.com/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=8
  • Connect the remote control receiver to your USB port.
  • Last, and probably the most important bit to get Starhub working fully with your set up is to connect the Infrared Emitter (small black capsule like thing attached to a long wire) provided to your remote control receiver and place it in line with your STB.?

As an aside, you might want to lengthen the range of your speakers by buying extra RCA cables.? This is because the typical lengths of desktop speakers are rather short and may not be long enough to drag across the room for true surround sound.? Be sure to study the connections between your speakers first.? Alternatively, you can buy the new Creative speakers that feature wireless rear speakers to solve elegantly the problem once and for all.?

For more information for building your own Media Center PC, you might want to check this out:? http://www.htpc-gear.com/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=3

Now that you’ve completed the construction of your new Media Center PC, let’s move on to loading the software.

Software

The first thing on the list is installing Windows XP Media Center Edition.? Just pop in your disc when your computer starts up and choose to boot from CD when the dialog appears.? I’m doing a clean install here, even if you’re upgrading, my advice is to do a fresh install, after backing up your important files and documents of course.? After the text based installation screen appears, you should be good to go.? I ran into some problems with that though and the standard fixes from System Recovery didn’t seem to solve the problems.? My issue was that set up always reads my Master IDE drive as drive 0 despite my SATA drive being set as the first boot up device so set up attempts to write into the boot sector of my Master IDE drive instead of my SATA drive where I will be installing my operating system.? This might be due to some bug, but I’m not too sure.? Anyway, I found a quick solution by simply pulling out the power plugs for both my IDE drives.? Set up proceeded smoothly after that and when?Windows was installed, I plugged the power back to my drives without any problems.?

After Windows is installed, do not touch the Media Center program before everything has been set up properly.?

Install your various device drivers.? This should be a relatively painless process, device drivers that work for Windows XP Home or Professional should load up on Media Center Edition without any glitches.? Next, update your computer via Windows Update.? This is necessary as there are various performance and stability issues with the vanilla version of Media Center.

As Windows XP Media Center Edition doesn’t provide an MPEG-2 decoder, to watch TV shows or DVDs, you will be required to purchase MPEG-2 decoder software.? I used NVidia’s PureVideo which can be downloaded from there website for a 30 day trial, following which, you will be required to purchase to continue using.? NVidia’s PureVideo is not the only decoder of course, Cyberlink’s PowerDVD seems to be another good choice although I’ve not had much experience with it.? Nevertheless, after installing the decoders, you may or may not want to install Slysoft’s AnyDVD to be able to watch DVDs from any region.

Setting Up Media Center

After installing all the necessary software for your computer to be running smoothly, here’s the tricky part – setting up the Media Center program within Windows XP to work with Starhub’s STB.? Run Media Center and it’ll walk you through the its basic set up.? Just go through it, it shouldn’t be much of a problem.? When it asks you to set up your TV signal, choose Cable and then choose your composite input.? Note that if you only have one set top box you won’t be able to watch Starhub CableTV programmes while recording.?

After that, let Media Center know that you have a set top box and that it comes with a remote control that doesn’t need you to press an ‘Enter’ or ‘Ok’ button after entering the channel number.?

Next,?Media Center will try to detect your remote control frequencies, and this is the tricky part.? First, Media Center will ask you to take your remote control and hold on to the ’0′ button.? Media Center will fail to recognise your set top box model and display 2 choices in the next screen.? Choose to let Media Center learn your remote control from scratch.? Media Center will then present you a screen and ask you to press and hold the ’1′ button.? Now, if you were in some other country like the US, you wouldn’t have to bother much, you’d just have to press the button once, hold and release when Media Center prompts you to, then Media Center will require you to confirm by pressing the button, holding and then releasing.? However, Starhub’s remote control’s buttons alternate frequencies.? What this means is that if you press the ’1′ button once, the wave sent will be x Hz and if you press it again it will by y Hz.? If you press it a third time, though, it will be x Hz once again.? So, with this in mind, there are?2 ways to solve the problem.?

One way is to point the remote control at the infrared receiver, press and hold the button?till you’re prompted to release, point it somewhere else, press and hold for 5 seconds before releasing, then point it back at the infrared receiver, press and hold till prompted to release.?

The other way is simply to point the remote control at the infrared receiver, press and hold till prompted to release but don’t release just yet, keep your finger on the button but just point it somewhere else that’s not in line with the infrared receiver.? Hold it there for 5 seconds before pointing it back to the receiver, then finally release when prompted to. ?You will then be asked to repeat the same thing for the rest of the buttons required (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0, Channel Up and Channel Down).?

After that, you will be asked to change the channel with your Media Center remote.? If the set up went smoothly, you shouldn’t have a problem with this part.? If you do have a problem, check whether your Infrared Emitter is in line with the set top box.? When you press a button on the Media Center remote, the Infrared Emitter should blink.? If it does blink but the Starhub STB’s status light doesn’t flicker red, then consider moving the Infrared Emitter around, to try to get it in line with Starhub’s STB.

With that, watching and recording TV shouldn’t be a problem with Media Center.

Setting Up the Electronic Programme Guide (EPG)

Media Center becomes extremely useful with the EPG because the EPG is not just a normal programme guide, you are able to pre-record TV programmes directly?from the EPG’s screen.? Furthermore, if the TV programme is a series, you can even have the option of Media Center recording the whole series.? This way, you’ll almost never miss a show!?

Of course, as this is Singapore, you’re bound to run into problems with it.? Firstly, neither Microsoft nor Starhub supports this feature for Singapore.? If you try to run the Guide set up, it will be in vain.? Luckily, however, some enterprising folks have solved this problem with TVxb, which can be found here:? http://www.tvxb.com.

Go to the website and download the TVxb program.? Unzip the file into Program Files perhaps and then download the country.ini file from Singapore.??The name of the file would be TVxb-Starhub-Descriptions.ini.? Read the installation guide provided on the download page.? Follow the instructions in the guide and when it tells you to go to this web page to follow the instructions for?BladeRunner Pro, do so.? Follow the instructions for BladeRunner Pro and have everything set up.? Note that to have Starhub channels set up, you’ll need to copy and paste the channel information from the TVxb-Starhub-Descriptions.ini file to the TVxb.ini file.? Be sure to select only the channels you need or be prepared to wait for a really really long download.? Also note that when TVxb is running (downloading), it may appear to have hung, but it’s usually not the case.? Even if Windows labels it as Not Responding, it’s still working and you should just let it run.? It’ll typically take some time for even a few channels.?

Lastly, remember to schedule TVxb to download the TV Guide every few days or so to have the latest information.? The procedure for this is documented in the BladeRunner Pro installation guide.? I did run into some problems with permissions for setting up Scheduled Tasks.? I solved that by giving my account ‘Write’ permissions for Scheduled Tasks.

With the EPG set up, all that remains are just some minor details which should be easily set up.

Upgrading

Upgrading a PC to a Media Center PC should be quite straightforward.? Remember to back up your files and do a clean install.? After that, connect up all your new hardware.? Remember to connect the Infrared Emitter to your Remote Control Receiver and place the emitter in line with your Starhub STB.

Peripheral and Optional Devices

There are some devices that can enhance your Media Center experience.? I’ve not used any of them yet, so these are just my impressions.?

Firstly, to be able to record TV programs and watch live TV at the same time, you will be required to get an additional STB from Starhub which would cost you about $8.? This is because Starhub’s STB doesn’t allow dual tuning.? Note that if you decide to switch channels while recording, the programme that’s playing on the new channel will be recorded.? Thus, if you do get an additional STB from Starhub, you’ll require another TV tuner card.? Windows XP Media Center Edition can support up to 4 cards.? However, it cannot record two TV programmes at the same time.? In my case, I have a Hauppauge! WinTV PVR-500MCE so essentially I have two TV tuner cards.? So if you’re looking?for a solution to?watch and record TV programmes at the same time, the PVR-500MCE is the card to get.?

Next, Microsoft has released a special keyboard for Media Center called the Remote Keyboard for Windows XP Media Center Edition.? This can be found here: http://www.microsoft.com/hardware/mouseandkeyboard/productdetails.aspx?pid=038.? This is an interesting replacement for your keyboard,?mouse and remote control.? It is wireless, so you can surf the internet and chat while lounging on your sofa.? But don’t expect to be able to play games on the clumsy looking mouse replacement.? Instead, if you want to play fast-paced games on your big screen, get a wireless mouse.

Conclusion

Windows XP Media Center Edition is a robust and elegant solution for building a Media Center PC.? With this guide, hopefully, you’ll have solved most problems while building your own Media Center PC and connecting it up to Starhub CableTV.? Entertain away!




11 Responses to “Building Your Own Media Center PC”

  1. bongshh Says:


    Visit bongshh

    Hi, great job particularly on the starhub setup guide and as well as the remote controller. I was about to give up setting up the whole system when i chance upon your blog.
    Once again great job and thanks.

  2. Tien Yew Says:


    Visit Tien Yew

    You’re welcome. Please let me know if you run into any problems. I’ve run into some frustrating ones myself due to hardware / software incompatibilities and I’d be happy to help.

  3. Alan Says:


    Visit Alan

    Hi- very impressive guide. I would certainly never have made it through all the starhub schedule without having found your blog. However, i’m having a bit of a problem with my tvxb files- about 2/3rds of the tv channel schedules download correctly, but the other 1/3rd have the wrong information. For some, the times of the shows have been shifted a few hours, but most have completely incorrect schedule data. i’ve tried using channel info from other schedules (HK, asia-pac) to overwrite the messed up channels, but no luck. don’t seen the specific .ini file you mention anywhere on the tvxb site. if yours works correctly, could you perhaps send it to me? Other than those channels being messed up, i’m enormously happy with the system and the setup. Thanks again for your help- I would certainly never have made it this far without your blog

  4. bongshh Says:


    Visit bongshh

    Hi its me again.

    Just wondering whether can you merge in the .ini file both Kids and Arts central together?

    thanks.

  5. Tien Yew Says:


    Visit Tien Yew

    Alan, have you tried the .ini file from here:
    http://www.tvxb.com/country/sg-ini.html

    If you still have further problems, please email me and I’ll send you my .ini file.

  6. Tien Yew Says:


    Visit Tien Yew

    bongshh, I’m sorry I don’t know how to do that, but perhaps the people in htpc-gear.com might know.

  7. sergiogiogio Says:


    Visit sergiogiogio

    Great guide, thanks for all the info!
    Any advice as to where to buy all the parts?
    Also could you comment on the noise of your system?
    Do you leave it on all the time – and if yes does it not tend to get too hot?

  8. DolMat Says:


    Visit DolMat

    Great Instruction. I’m about to build my own HTPC, having a hard time trying to understand how to.. Your guide is clear and very helpful, especially with the EPG.

    Many Thanks. Hope box will be as good :)

  9. Slickk Says:


    Visit Slickk

    thanks for the info, specially the STB portion… cheers!

  10. gbpdem Says:


    Visit gbpdem

    Hi there, just wondering,
    how do you change channels using the IR blaster?
    i.e. which code set do you use in the IR blaster config?

    I understand from reading a few setups on the net that
    Hauppauge does not support Starhub’s Digital STB?

    thanks and regards,

  11. russell Says:


    Visit russell

    Hi,
    I stumbled upon your blog and the instructions were really helpfull for me to successfully configured my my HTPC to link to Starhub STB. Unfortunately, I have no luck to get the EPG to work on my Windows 7 MCE x64…

    I wonder if I need to “reset/clear” the MCE database before loading the guide data into MCE..

    cheers


Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>