Out with the old, in with the new (media center)

The computer I built when I moved to Seattle has finally died. I’ve been looking for information I’ve saved for what I put in it, and found a confirmation email from the Newegg order. Here’s what I remember about the computer and its storied history:

  • When I built it, I only had a laptop. This was to be my gaming PC, so it had to be powerful.
  • I didn’t have a proper computer desk or a monitor. The idea was to connect this to my TV, and use that as my monitor. I would use the Media Center capabilities of Windows as a source of content, in addition to Web content. Back in my parent’s home, it was always a challenge to get videos from the computer to the TV, so this was a big plus.
  • To serve those two goals, these were the specs:

Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600

4GB RAM

VGA XFX 8800GB (Nvidia)

500GB HD

AverMedia analog TV tuner

Antec P182 tower case

  • I installed Windows Vista. Yes, Vista. And it worked fine!
  • I chose the CPU was because this was going to be a media center, so it would be streaming or encoding something constantly, and I wanted it to be responsive even with a background load. I remember I could have gone with a faster Core 2 Duo that would be better for gaming at the time.
  • I chose the big tower case because I wanted room for expansion. What I didn’t consider was how ugly it would be in the living room next to the TV.
  • I chose an Nvidia video card because I thought it had better Linux support for some reason. I even left unpartitioned space on the HD so I can do dual-boot. I never got around to it.
  • At some point, Comcast moved away from analog cable in favor of digital, so the analog TV tuner no longer worked. I bought a HD Homerun, and had the joy of manually setting up ClearQAM channels in Vista Media Center. This gave me access to premium digital channels, until Comcast encrypted those. Then I only had broadcast channels until I bought the Ceton InfiniTV tuner and got a CableCARD, which I still use today.
  • I added two internal HDs, one 1.5GB and the other 2GB.
  • Windows 7 released, so I upgraded to Ultimate.
  • I played all of the major PC releases on this computer, including Age of Empires 3/Online, StarCraft 2, and Diablo 3. Actually, I probably played way more games on consoles.
  • HDMI out with embedded audio from discrete video cards wasn’t common back then. Indeed, my video card had dual-DVI out. This was a minor problem when it was connected to the TV directly, because it meant two cables for video and audio. It was a bigger problem when I got a sound system, because the receiver expects either analog video/audio (that have to be separate) or HDMI for digital video/audio.
  • The whole kit cost more than $1200 back in December 2007. I ordered it right after I ordered my 42” TV, which I also still use today.
    This setup faithfully served me for over five years, up until last month when it started malfunctioning. One of the HDs, along with the Ceton TV tuner, would periodically disappear as a device. I suspect one of the bridges on the motherboard was malfunctioning, and when it goes it takes everything it’s connected to down with it, which apparently includes one of the SATA ports and PCI-E slots.
    There were other problems too, though none that was breaking functionality. The tower was simply too unwieldy, and now that we care about how the living room looks (mostly my wife), it’s tucked away in a corner, out of plain sight. But even then, it’s big and noisy (and in hind sight, the lack of air flow in the corner of the room probably contributed to the malfunction). The Q6600 has a TDP of 105W, so it sucks way too much power. The discrete graphics also uses too much power, and it wasn’t being used for gaming anymore since we got a Dell XPS 27 all-in-one in the bedroom. It was probably being used more for SETI@home and BOINC than for gaming.
    That and Windows 8 was released, and I’d been meaning to clean up the Windows 7 install, which was getting bloated with too many startup tasks. And I really wanted to see live tiles on a 42” display.
    So it was off to the Internet we go, as we go partake in the great scavenger hunt (and time sink) that is ordering computer components online, something that I really haven’t done since I built the old media center.
    First, the form factor. I wanted something small, because expandability wasn’t that important any more. It needed room for a few HDs, but not for a big graphics card. The only expansion card needed was the Ceton. So I chose the mini-ITX form factor. The case was a Cooler Master Elite 120 Advanced, and the motherboard was a Gigabyte GA-H77N-WIFI. Both were chosen because of good reviews and USB 3.0 support (front-panel ports for the case and connectors on the motherboard). The motherboard has HDMI port with embedded audio as well as optical audio, which was important as well. The fact that the case supports ATX power supplies and long expansion cards was bonus.
    Next was the CPU. I hadn’t looked into CPU developments in detail since I built my old media center. I know of major releases (how the Core i3/i5/i7 has supplanted the Core2, and the emergence of low-power solutions like Atom and Celeron) but not specific model numbers. And what happened to AMD? I built my first computer around the AMD Athlon XP, and it was faster than Pentium 4s at the time and cheaper. Now AMD is barely mentioned anywhere, though apparently they’ll play a big part in the next round of gaming consoles.
    I figured I’d start at the bottom of the power consumption scale and work my way up until I found a processor that could handle what I need, which is mainly recording multiple streams of HD video from cable. It was pretty clear that the low-power Atoms and AMD C-series processors wouldn’t be able to keep up, which was too bad because it was possible to build a fan-less computer with them. The next step up were Celerons and higher-power AMD chips, but that approaches the TDP of lower-end i3s, which was when I discovered how Intel names its CPU models. Specifically, the –T designation means low-power, with a TDP of 35W. So I picked the fastest –T model that I could afford, which was the i3-3220T. As with all i3/i5/i7, it came with integrated graphics, but only HD Graphics 2500, not the more impressive 4000, but since I wasn’t gaming on this computer, it’ll do. It’s really nice that the GPU is built into the chip, and it can use the video-out ports (HDMI, DVI) already built into the motherboard, because the board only has one expansion slot, which I need to use for the TV tuner.
    The rest of the components didn’t require much consideration. A Samsung 840 120GB SSD drive was the right balance between price and capacity, and has generally positive ratings on Amazon. For power supply, the Cooler Master eXtreme Power Plus 500w was listed along with the case, so I chose that. 8GB of DDR3 1600 memory from Corsair rounded out the components.
    WP_20130312_009WP_20130312_013WP_20130312_014WP_20130312_015
    This is the third computer that I’ve built, so I’d like to think that I’m a bit of an expert at this point. Nevertheless, there were some tense moments, mostly with the size of the case. My previous builds were towers, and the cases were designed to maximize air flow by routing wires along the sides of the case. The mini-ITX case, however, is designed to be as small as possible, so getting wires away from the moving parts took some effort. Luckily, the stock CPU fan is pretty low-profile, and is more than adequate for the power-efficient processor. There was barely enough room for the disks.
    Speaking of disks, one of the HDs from the tower started failing. It was already showing signs of read failures in the tower, but Windows 8 actually surfaces the SMART warnings from the hardware. The HD that failed is made by Seagate. I had two HDs fail in my workstation at work, both of which was also made by Seagate. Moral of the story? Don’t buy Seagate. At some point I need to shut down the computer and remove it, but for now I just don’t use it.
    So the end result? I built this on 3/12 and it’s been on ever since. It’s not as quiet as I thought it would be, but definitely quieter than the vacuum jet that the tower sounded like. My electricity bill dropped from $110 in February to $99 in March and $84 in April, but that’s also because the weather is getting warm. The Core i3 turns out to be quite the performer as well, at least compared to the old Core 2 Quad. Converting a 40-minute TV recording used to take about eight hours, but the combination of the i3 and SSD brought that down to just over four hours. The SSD also makes Windows 8 really responsive. It even played StarCraft 2 in a pinch.
    It’s pretty stable now, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have any improvements in mind. In addition to removing the faulty drive, I currently split the cable between the tuner and the modem, and that has led to some signal strengths issues when recording. What I need to do is buy a really long and thin coaxial cable and connect the tuner to the coax across the room.
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