Friday, June 17, 2011

DIY PVR 3: Hardware

Since reading this Coding Horror article on Jeff Atwood's new dvr setup, I've been contemplating switching from TiVo to Windows Media Center.  One of the good things about Media Center is that you can pick your own hardware, but that means that you have to pick your own hardware. Someone needs to sell a prebuilt, preconfigured HTPC to compete with TiVo.

My requirements were simple- it has to incorporate a cablecard (with switched video)-compatible tuner.  It has to look nice- like it belongs with TV equipment (tower cases are out).  I'm looking for as inexpensive as possible, without being cheap.

I looked briefly into prebuilt options- the Dell Zino HD and HP Pavilion Slimline.  They both have blu-ray options and look pretty nice, but it didn't seem worth it to me to go either route- they were around $600 each, thus not saving me much; the Zino would require a network tuner; the HP isn'tquite complete enough to avoid outside purchases.

CaseAntec Fusion Remote ($150) + Antec EarthWatts EA 380D ($35)
Choosing a case and remote took the most amount of time by far.  The trend in HTPCs is to go small- real small.  Mac Mini small.  Ordinarily I'd agree, but I wanted to re-use internal hard drives (not a single laptop-sized drive), and I wanted an internal tv tuner.  Figuring out which cases are good quality (and still being sold) was tough, since we're talking cooling and airflow and noise in addition to the all-important will-it-break factor.  I eventually came across silentpcreview's recommendations, and from there chose the Antec Fusion because it had the necessary internal space and looks nice.  With children around, the volume knob will certainly have to be disabled (not sure why it's there in the first place), but the LCD display looks kind of neat and LCD Smartieis surprisingly well supported by Media Center plugins.  Unfortunately, it's ~$150 price tag doesn't include a power supply, so I added an Antec Earthwatts EA 380D, which is Bronze 80+ certified. It's probably overkill (Jeff's using a similar setup at less than 60 watts), but it will hopefully be energy efficient, cool and quiet.

Remote - ???
Finding the right remote was the most difficult task.  TiVo has me spoiled- their remote is great.  It has the buttons you need, feels good, and is easy to figure out.  There are a lot of remote options for WMC computers, and some look really nice.  Unfortunately, a lot of them simply won't control the TV- I need power, volume, and input buttons; I want a remote as universal as possible.  One option is the Logitech Harmony family of remotes, but I had one a few years ago and it wasn't all that I hoped it would be- it was over complicated (even once everything was set up) and the batteries (4 AAs!) died quickly.  I don't need an LCD display on my remote, and I don't need different modes, and it only needs to control 2 devices- the TV and the computer.  After much searching, I decided to try several- a TiVo Glo remote (after I bought it, it struck me that the lights probably make the battery run out faster- d'oh!  Looks like you can turn it off, though), the bundled Antec Fusion remote (it's free, might as well try it out), and the discontinued Philips Multimedia remote (I hope this is it for $28 [I also hope that's a real store]).  Maybe eventually I'll try out the TiVo Slide remote, too- the bluetooth functionality is appealing.

ProcessorIntel Core i3-2100T ($135)
For the CPU I went with Jeff's choice of the Intel i3 2100T for its combination of high computing power, low power consumption, and low temperature (thus quieter).  It also has an integrated on-die video chip, thus removing need for a video card (reducing electricity usage, heat, etc).

MotherboardASRock H67M ITX ($100)
I also went with Jeff's coice of motherboard.  I considered getting a larger one since I have a larger case, but matching up motherboards features to find a good one to go with the 2100T wasn't a very exciting proposition.  This one has an integrated audio chip, HDMI and DVI output, and TOSLINK (optical) output, which are exactly the connectors that I need.  Plus, if I want to get a different case, the MiniITX form factor will let me put it in any case I want.  The only downsides are the single PCIe slot and only 2 DIMM slots.

RAMCorsair 4GB DDR3 ($45)
I remember back in the late 90's when my dad upgraded the ram in his computer, doubling it to 8MB.  That 4MB upgrade cost $150!  Today, ram is practically nothing- I got 4GB for around $40.  I expect 4GB will be more than enough, and if it's not, upgrading is easy and cheap.

TV Tuner - Ceton InfiniTV4 - ($300)
Although there are networked TV tuners that would fit the bill, I decided that I wanted as much as possible in one case- thus fewer power cables, fewer things to plug in, fewer boxes under the tv, fewer things to go wrong.  The InfiniTV4 looks like it will work great- 4 tuners, man!  Plus, it's been temporarily reduced by $100 to $299, making it only $50 more than the HDHomeRun Prime 3cc, which doesn't ship until later in the month.  One extra tuner for $50 seems worth it to me.

HDDCrucial RealSSD C300 ($125)
I've heard good things about Solid State Drives and their sweet, sweet transfer rates.  I already have a large capacity drive (1TB, plus the 2TB drive that's plugged into the TiVo), but I wanted a separate drive for the windows installation.  SSDs are great for boot times and program startup times, but not that great for storing media (even if I could afford it).  I picked out a 64GB one that should be more than enough for what I need.  There's a lot to know about buying SSDs (like MLC vs SLC) and I didn't research very well, but I did choose one listed as SATA III and having a perfect 5-egg rating over 289 reviews.  What could go wrong?

Blu-RaySamsung Black 12X BD-ROM ($65)
I need a blu-ray drive for both playing Netflix movies and ripping my own discs, so I picked a regular old drive.  Nothing special, but the reviews were good.

My total was around $950 before shipping, not counting the Philips remote.  It's certainly more than the $700 for TiVo + lifetime subscription (at least, that was how much I paid 3 years ago for the HD), but it's going to do a whole lot more.  Not included in my hardware list are the Windows 7 Home Premium license that I already have (family pack, natch) and the 1TB drive that will be repurposing.  I'm also expecting to spend $100 for blu-ray playback software, and purchase/donate to several Media Center plugins.
Once all the hardware arrives I'll post my experiences putting it all together and setting up the super-sweet experience.

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