TheONbutton Durham Computer Services

Remote IT Support and Computer & Technology Help in Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh NC

Building a Windows Media Center HTPC

In January 2009 I started running the Windows 7 Beta followed later in the year by the Release Candidate on my trusty old Pentium 4 living room PC.  In October to coincide with the Windows 7 launch I brought that computer into the modern age but decided to wait a few months to collect my thoughts before sharing the experience.

The purpose of this computer is to serve as a single solution TV, media and internet video player using Windows Media Center and a browser.  This requires a quiet computer with decent graphics and sound capabilities.  The processor is less important as long as it can run quietly and is reasonably powerful.  Remember a Pentium 4 used to serve up this media prior to this upgrade.

Selecting components

The 'Black Edition' Phenom IIs can be over/underclocked with ease

I chose AMD’s low energy triple core 2.8GHz Phenom II 720 Black Edition, which can be overclocked, or hopefully in my case, underclocked.  Why would I underclock?  Well I want my living room PC to be as quiet as possible and I figured that I didn’t need those three cores to be operating at any more than 2GHz each.  So by underclocking the processor it would theoretically run cooler and require less energy, which means lower power consumption and less noise.

I paired the Phenom with an AMD 785 chipset motherboard, which has an onboard triple output Radeon 4200 graphics chip.  I need multiple outputs because I my living room PC feeds a flat screen and a projector.  I already had a triple output 512MB Radeon 4350 card, which would handle the MPEG encoding/decoding fine, but I hoped I could save some noise and energy by using the onboard chip.

The motherboard also has Realtek’s brand new ALC889A sound chip with optical (and optional coaxial) 7.1 surround outputs.  I was using a coaxial connection to my aging but superb Teac surround receiver, as my Xbox and Macbook were using its two optical inputs, so I ordered the coaxial motherboard upgrade.  I was unable to find the coaxial

Optional SPDIF bracket adds coaxial and optical inputs/outputs

upgrade for the motherboard at any US retailers, so it ended up coming from Australia via eBay.  This new Realtek chipset really pushes into semi -pro-audio territory with a crazily impressive signal to noise ratio of 106dB.  This means that it had the potential to sound ultra-clean.

I was also looking forward to running my SSD at full speed on this SATA 3.0 motherboard, as on my previous board was slower.  Finally there was also 4GB of new OCZ Obsidian RAM going into this recipe, which would all be usable as I run 64-bit Windows.  Remember to go for 64-bit if you want to use more than 3GB of RAM, as 32-bit Windows 7 is unable to address more that 3GB of memory.

Performing the upgrade

I decided to do the upgrade in two stages: hardware first, then software.  That meant replacing my existing motherboard, processor and memory with the new gear and verifying that everything worked by booting into my existing Windows 7 RC build.  I would then install of the retail Windows 7 release, overwriting the RC version.

If you are embarking on a similar journey then make sure that all power is off and that you have discharged any static by touching the metal side of the computer’s case.  This article is not intended as a detailed guide to be followed.

The gleaming underside of the Phenom II

I unboxed the new motherboard and the Phenom.  It’s difficult to handle a brand new processor, with its gleaming golden pins, without a sense of marvel.  To think that there are around 750 million transistors in this tiny square is simply awe-inspiring.  I dropped the processor into the motherboard slot, secured it and locked the giant fan in place over the top.  I also slotted in the new OCZ memory in a dual channel configuration.

Next I removed all the cabling from the exterior of my old PC and anything connecting to the motherboard.  I then unscrewed the screws holding the existing motherboard in place.  A long thin screwdriver helped me here, although some magnetism would also have been useful to reduce the risk of the screws falling under the board.  The motherboard lifted out together with plenty of dust; I them put the new one in its place and secured it with the screws I had just removed.  I moved the Radeon 4350 from the old motherboard to the new, just in case I wanted to use it over the onboard 4200.  The interior and exterior cabling was done next, remembering to connect the exterior power cable last of all.

The computer booted correctly, taking a little longer than normal as Windows 7 was internally configuring drivers for the new hardware and everything seemed to be working great.  I was using the onboard Radeon 4200 to drive my 42″ TV and projector, and I had a temporary optical connection to my receiver as the coax upgrade was still en route from Australia.

When I started testing in Windows Media Center, I noticed some occasional blockiness when recording two HD channels and playing back a third as a recorded program. I used to do this fairly often on my Pentium 4 + Radeon 4350 setup. So I switched over from the new motherboard’s onboard 4200 to the 4350 card and the occasional blockiness disappeared. I attributed this to the fact that the 4350 has 512MB of dedicated onboard memory, whereas the motherboard’s 4200 shares system memory.

Even when recording two HD programs the system sounded exceptionally quiet, which meant I might not need to

The three cores were running at a cool 45 degrees celcius

throttle back the Phenom to slow down its fan.  Firing up AMD’s Overdrive utility confirmed this, showing the processor temperature at just 45 celcius with all three cores operating at 2.8GHz.  Noise concern mitigated.

Speaking of noise, the sound quality of the motherboard’s Realtek ALC889A is simply phenomenal.  I normally use a M-Audio Transit with my Macbook and over optical connections I really could not tell the difference between either.  That’s an amazing complement to the motherboard, as the Transit is a fantastic portable sound output.  Of course the ALC889A also offers 7.1 surround, whereas the Transit is stereo only.  The coaxial upgrade for the motherboard arrived, so I could restore my Xbox, Macbook and PC digital connections.  I fitted it, attached my coax cable and started the computer.  I heard the Windows 7 startup sound, which told me that Windows had found the new output, detected the receiver at the other end of the coax and locked the SPDIF digital clock.  To put it in Mac-speak, it just worked.

Finally I performed a fresh install using my retail release of Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit.  The install went as smoothly as my previous Beta and RC installations.  All that was left to do after that was to re-install my applications and I was done.

Overall I’ve been extremely pleased with this upgrade.  Speed, silence and great sound.  Who can ask for more in a home theater PC?

Summary of components:

Processor AMD Phenom II X3 720 2.8GHz Socket AM3 95W Triple-Core Black Edition

Motherboard GIGABYTE GA-MA785GPMT-UD2H AM3 AMD 785G HDMI Micro ATX

Memory OCZ Obsidian 4GB (2 x 2GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1600 (PC3 12800)

Windows 7 and applications OCZ Apex Series OCZSSD2-1APX60G 2.5″ 60GB SATA II MLC Solid State Drive

TV recording and media 24/7 Eenterprise Class Seagate Barracuda ES.2 ST3500320NS 500GB 7200 RPM SATA 3.0Gb/s 3.5″ Hard Drive

Graphics card GIGABYTE GV-R435OC-512I Radeon HD 4350 512MB 64-bit GDDR2 PCI Express 2.0 x16 DVI/HDMI/VGA

Sound card Realtek ALC889A HD 7.1 Surround

HD TV Tuners Silicondust HDHomeRun (hosts two HD tuners)

Displays Hitachi PJ-TX100 HD Home Theater Pprojector, Vizio SV420XVT 42″ LCD

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

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Feb 13, 2010 - Posted by | Computing, Guides, Hardware, Home Theater, Photo & Video, Microsoft | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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