Not everybody wants to have a PC in their living room. Despite advances in design and power management, they're still noisy, overpowered boxes that aren't designed to sit under your TV. At least not yet. There is, however, an alternative to these wannabe Media Centers or Entertainment PCs, and it doesn't need to be quiet, because it's not meant for the living room. Consider building a Digital Media Server.
Like a Media Center, this is a PC system that's designed to receive and record TV programmes, play back video and handle your digital music and photo libraries. But rather than playing any of this media content back through its own monitor and speakers, it instead transmits them through a wired or wireless link to a small and silent set-top Digital Media Adapter (DMA) connected to your TV.
With this kind of arrangement, you don't even need a small form factor PC in the living room. A Media Server is a much more convenient solution. It can also prove cost effective, as you'll probably be able to upgrade an old PC for hundreds of dollars rather than blow thousands on a new one.
Before you think 'I don't have the construction skills or the money for a new PC', we've thought of a way around both of these problems. Over the next few months, we'll provide you with a step-by-step tutorial on building your very own Digital Media Server, or DMS.
We'll run through the practical steps of upgrading the hardware, connecting up the components and configuring the software you need to get it all working. Perhaps you've recently upgraded your home office PC and are still undecided about what to do with the old one.
In this SmartHouse project, we'll take an average PC system, splice in a few hardware extras and, by running a straightforward and inexpensive piece of software, turn it into a highly effective do-it-all box that's capable of distributing audio and video to one or more rooms in your home.
Our basic PC
As the basis of this project we used a PC with average specifications in all but processor terms, as our system is fitted with an Athlon 64 3000+. While this is ideal for a Digital Media Server, you can decode and play back video and music with a much less punchy processor. Here's the full specification of our PC:
Processor AMD Athlon 64 3000+
Memory 256MB PC3200 DDR
Graphics Radeon X300SE
Hard disk Maxtor 40GB IDE
DVD drive Sony 16x
Operating system Windows XP (upgraded to SP2)
Our media server will distribute music and movies. We're going to add quite a few extra components to upgrade the PC (pictured, right) to the level we need. This is what we're going to use, but other products with the same overall specification will do just as well.
How much will this cost me?
This project won't cost nearly as much as a typical Media Center PC, which usually offers little change from $2500. Here's a quick breakdown of hardware we've highlighted and the approximate costs involved.
This month, we're going to concentrate on upgrading a PC - adding extra memory to improve the performance, a digital tuner card for TV reception, integrated wireless and a DVD rewriter. This first part of our project should only cost you about $410. Let's get started...
Total Cost of project
Extra 256MB memory $50
Digital TV tuner card $160
802.11g wireless network card $80
DVD rewriter $120
200GB hard disk $160
ShowShifter PVR software $100
Digital Media Adaptor (ShowCenter 200) $600
Fitting your media server out with the right kit
EXTRA MEMORY (RAM)
This will be specific to your particular PC. It could be anything from PC100 sticks to PC3200 modules, and either single data rate (SDR) or double data rate (DDR). If your PC is a well-known make, one easy way to find out what you need is to go to www.crucial.com. This memory supplier offers specialised online 'configurators' - so by entering the make and model of your PC, you can find out exactly the type of memory you need to upgrade it. With a bit of luck, there will be at least one spare memory slot on your PC's system board so you can just add an extra module, but if all slots are full you may need to remove what's already there and replace it with a new stick. Whichever way you do it, for this project we recommend you have a minimum of 512MB.
Digital video is space hungry, so ideally you'll need to add a new, bigger hard disk to store TV programmes and films. In an older desktop PC, it's unlikely you'll have controllers for the new serial ATA (SATA) standard, so what you want is a parallel ATA IDE disk with a capacity of about 200GB. But any drive in the range 160-250GB will do, and names to look for are Hitachi, Maxtor, Seagate or Western Digital. More on the hard
disk aspect of the upgrade next issue.
This is the application that will handle TV display, recording of video files and compression of these files to the compact DivX standard so that they're ready for streaming. We're using ShowShifter, which we consider the best third party media front-end. It's not as pretty as Microsoft's Media Center, but it's designed specifically to handle the playback of all kinds of media files through simple controls, and crucially it includes a DivX video compressor.
DIGITAL TV TUNER
This processes the TV signal into a form you can view on your PC's screen and saves it as a file on your hard disk. You can currently buy analog or digital tuners, but we strongly recommend a digital card. The only reason you should go for an analog card is if you want to connect a separate Foxtel box to the tuner. And for better recordings, choose a card with a hardware MPEG encoder - this works independently of the PC, and means you won't get dropped frames. We're using a Black Gold Signature DVB-T card, but as long as the card you choose is compatible with the software we're using to compress the video files (before beaming them over the wireless link), you'll be fine. You can find a list of compatible cards at www.showshifter.com/support/system.htm, including a good range of ATi and Hauppauge products.
WIRELESS NETWORK CARD (802.11G)
This provides the PC-end of the wireless network connection, so it can communicate with the Pinnacle Digital Media Player at the living room end. We've used a D-Link DWL-G520 here, but virtually any PCI- or USB-based adapter will do. The card must support the 802.11g wireless standard, as while the 802.11b standard can stream compressed video files like DivX across a wireless network, it does so at the limit of its performance, which causes the picture to stutter occasionally.
Although you'll initially be saving recorded TV programmes and films on your hard disk, any digital content you decide to keep long-term is better archived on a DVD, thereby releasing space on your hard disk for new recordings. For this, you'll need a DVD rewriter. We've used a Sony DRU800A in our own PC, which is a 16-speed record, 4- speed rewrite and 16-speed read drive (16x4x16). This is a good drive, supporting dual-layer DVD+R/RW DVD-R/RW formats, but any rewriter with a similar specification should do the job.
DIGITAL MEDIA ADAPTER
Once TV has been recorded on to the Media Server, we'll need an adapter to access the content from a TV. For this, we're using Pinnacle's ShowCenter 200. It's designed to stream audio, photo and video files on a domestic TV and to link to media sources (in our case, the DMS PC we're building) via an 802.11g wireless link. The ShowCenter 200 comes complete with a remote control, so you can select and play back music and video files from your armchair without having to prime the DMS from its keyboard. It's a much better solution than having a PC in the living room.
Upgrading your desktop PC
Now that we've illustrated the cost effectiveness of this project, it's time to move on to the construction and prove that it's far easier than it looks. To be Continued Next MONTH with installing a hard drive and setting up the media adaptor.
1 A BASIC SPECIFICATION
You'll add quite a bit of extra hardware to your PC to turn it into a capable (if not powerful) Digital Media Server, so the basic specification of the machine you start with needs to be a Pentium 4 or equivalent with at least 256MB memory (if you have less, add more in step two), a hard disk with at least 3GB of free space, Windows XP or 2000 and DirectX 9. The ShowShifter PVR software requires Windows Media Player 7.1 or later.
2 ADDING EXTRA MEMORY
Even files compressed using DivX need a lot of memory, so we're recommending a minimum of 512MB. You may need to add an extra module or replace it with a new one. Switch your PC off at the wall, but leave it plugged in to earth it. Make sure you're earthed by touching the bare metal of the chassis. Remove the side panel of the PC and plug the memory into an available memory socket. Check that the white retainers are fully pressed home.
3 INSTALLING A WIRELESS CARD
To transmit audio and video files to the Digital Media Player, you need to fit an 802.11g wireless network adapter. This normally takes the form of a PCI expansion card. Remove a backplate behind a free PCI socket. Plug in the wireless adapter and screw the aerial into the back of the card. Start the PC, check that it reports 512MB of memory and install drivers for the wireless adapter. Don't worry about getting the wireless connection working at this stage.
4 FITTING THE AERIAL
Once you have the card installed, you'll need to connect up the aerial. PCI wireless adapters can suffer from interference from the PC, but definately do provide the neatest overall solution. It's obviously important to have a good quality Wi-Fi signal, as we plan to record our programmes in ShowShifter, compress them into the DivX file format and then stream them over a wireless 802.11g link to a TV in the lounge.
5 FITTING THE TV TUNER
If you want to record TV programmes so you can transmit them into your living room, you need a TV tuner. You can add a digital DVB tuner to your PC by plugging in another PCI card. Turn the PC off again and remove another backplate to make room for the tuner card. If the card has a line-out socket for TV sound, you may need to run an audio lead from this socket to the line-in socket on your soundcard. Try it without first - a neater solution.
6 SCAN FOR DIGITAL SCANNERS
Turn the PC on again and install the drivers for the TV tuner card. Run the set-up utility for the software you intend to use to view and record TV programmes. We've chosen ShowShifter, one of the most familiar third party media front-ends, but there are others available. Make sure the software recognises the TV card drivers and scan for the audio files on your PC and the digital terrestrial TV channels available. You should at least receive an SD signal from all commercial channels plus ABC and SBS.
7 PUT IN THE DVD-RW DRIVE
Fitting a DVD rewriter is more straightforward than it may sound. Remove one of the blanking plates on the front of your PC's case, either by unclipping it or, in some cases, pushing the bare metal cover out. Then slide the drive into the empty bay and fix it in place with four screws through the holes in the side of the drive cage. On the back of your DVD drive are a set of jumpers set to 'Master' by default, and should be left as is. Only change to 'Slave' or 'Auto' if your computer fails to recognise the drive on reboot.
8 CONNECTING THE DVD-RW DRIVE
If you plan to use your existing CD drive as well, the ribbon cable attached to it should have a black plug spare, and this will fit into the back of your new drive. Next, plug in a spare power plug running from the internal power supply. But if you're replacing another drive, simply unplug the cables from one drive and plug them into the new one. Both cables will only go in one way so it should be obvious where they go.