The Ultimate Home Media Centre
The time of seemingly endless pieces of home entertainment hardware is coming to an end. With the vast array of media formats for movies, music and gaming, the number of components sitting under the nation's televisions is growing at an alarming pace - digital television, DVD, Blu-ray, satellite, games consoles, amplifiers and music systems all take up space, plug sockets and all add to your electricity bill. Over the next ten years, I believe that instead of this electrical array increasing even further, we're going to see consolidation of media playback technology.
However, you can embrace this space-saving now through the use of a home media centre computer. With one PC or Mac, you can play back every consumer disc format available, all of your MP3s and all of your downloaded videos. Not only this, you can also watch digital TV via Freeview and there are even ways of integrating Sky into your home media centre. With one stylish box controlling your entire media collection you'll also have the opportunity to support future formats with more ease than you would with multiple, format-specific components.
With the help of a number of brilliant manufacturers and retailers, I have built a home media PC to handle DVD, Blu-ray, HD DVD and music collections and this feature will take you through the components and software I used to put together this powerful system.
The first step to building a home media PC is to decide what you want it to support. Do you want it to store all of your media? Do you want it to play the latest games? What sort of display and audio hardware are you connecting it to?
All of these questions are important as they help to determine every aspect of the final PC, from the hardware right through to the software and operating system.
For this project the aim is to create a PC that can handle as much as possible. So we're going to be including Blu-ray and HD DVD support alongside the standard DVD. As it is going to also be a media server and store music we need to bear that in mind. We'll also consider our options for gaming and television playback and recording.
Determining the correct components to use is one of the most important tasks when building any computer. When it is a specialised computer it is even more important that each piece of the jigsaw contributes to the functionality of the final product.
After much research into the huge variety of home cinema dedicated PC cases, each tailored to fit in with a different system and requirements, I selected the Shuttle SG33G5M. This small form factor (SFF) cube PC is both stunning to look at with its mirrored front and black case, it is also small in size and features everything that is needed for playback of everything from DVD to the latest HD formats. It includes onboard support for 7.1 channels of sound with both discrete and optical outputs and even includes a HDCP capable HDMI interface to connect the PC directly to your HD-ready TV. It supports the latest Intel Core2Duo/Quad processors and these are more than capable of playing back the most demanding HD formats. The HDMI interface will carry both sound and vision.
The onboard graphics wouldn't be enough for the latest PC games, but the Shuttle SG33G5M includes a PCI-Express slot so you can install a much more powerful graphics card if gaming is your thing. In addition, this product also includes a remote control and a stylish LCD display to provide visual indication of the current function of the system and even a remote control so you can control the major playback functions from your sofa.
On top of all of this, the Shuttle SG33G5M is very well built and is very easy to work with.
The Optical Drive
LG GGC-H20L - this drive supports the playback of all three major formats and also offers the option to write to DVD. There is a more expensive version of this drive which also supports writing to Blu-ray, but given the current media cost, this is unnecessary for this project. The LG drive was kindly supplied by SVP who come highly recommended as suppliers of hardware and disc-based media.
Seeing as we are not using a separate graphics adaptor for this project, the processor needs to have enough power to play back Blu-ray and HD DVD. Both of these formats are server intensive and in order to achieve smooth playback it cannot be stressed enough that the processor must be very fast. The Shuttle PC supports Intel Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad processors - while the later would easily be able to handle this, the former would be the most cost-effective choice.
We eventually used an Intel Core 2 Duo E8200 processor. This processor has two 'cores' and therefore can carry out more tasks than a single 'core' processor. Its clock speed is 2.66GHz which is more than enough to handle smooth HD playback.
The Core 2 Duo E8200 was supplied for this project by the kind folk over at Shoebox Computers, retailers of quality PC hardware at good prices.
The Hard Drive
SATA drives are generally very fast - they are the most advanced currently available to the home market and can offer up to 1 terabyte of storage capacity (1,000 gigabytes). We've chosen to use a Hitachi Deskstar 750GB SATA - this is more than adequate for anything but the heaviest of use. It will be able to store tens of thousands of music tracks, hundreds of hours of standard definition video and more photos than you're ever likely to take!
This drive was kindly supplied by our good friends over at BigPockets.
The Operating System
Also supplied by our BigPockets friends, we made the decision to use Microsoft's latest operating system, Vista for this project. There are two main reasons for this - firstly, it is the most up-to-date iteration of the Windows platform and secondly, depending on the version used, it includes Windows Media Center. Windows Media Center is the perfect front end for a home cinema PC - it is stylish and the graphical interface provides clear and easy access to every type of media.
Unfortunately, the current version of Windows Media Center does not natively support either of the HD video formats and therefore we chose to use the external Cyberlink PowerDVD Ultra package as supplied with our LG optical drive. This can be directly integrated with Windows Media Center through the use of a third-party application called MyMovies.
For the Shuttle SG33G5M, there is a compatibility list of suitable memory modules that should be used for best performance and compatibility. We selected the 2 GB of OCZ memory - while 32bit Vista can support more memory, for this project any more than 2GB would really be overkill and would not offer any noticeable increase in performance or functionality.
Building the Home Media Centre
Building a PC is actually a reasonably straight forward task - just plug each component into the motherboard as instructed. As long as you are protected against static electricity, there's nothing that even the most novice of computer users couldn't do. The main complexity isn't regarding putting together the hardware, but instead ensuring that the software is correctly set up and used.
There were only two real issues I faced when installing everything needed for the media centre - the first was integration of PowerDVD and Windows Media Center for Blu-ray and HD DVD playback. After some research, this was achieved using the MyMovies application which performed the link between the two applications reasonably seamlessly. The second issue was relating to the drivers for the onboard graphics - they must be the most up to date available in order for PowerDVD to detect that the hardware is suitable for HD playback and correctly supports HDCP over HDMI. At the time of writing, the correct drivers for the Shuttle SG33G5M are available at the Intel website.
In order to ensure that the media centre is able to support as many discs as possible, the final step is to find a way of bypassing region restrictions. For DVD there are a number of options for this, however with Blu-ray there is a more complex form of region protection. There is currently only one application that is able to bypass this restriction - SlySoft's AnyDVD HD. This software is constantly being updated to provide workarounds for Blu-ray region restrictions. It also removes all DVD region protection and even allows you the option to skip usually unskippable trailers, ads and copyright warnings on your discs. It comes highly recommended to anyone who uses a computer for media playback.
On top of the basic software required for video playback, you should also ensure that you have a good virus checker installed as a minimum in terms of security. We recommend the free edition of Avast.
The Home Media Centre
With all of the hardware and software in place, the remaining task is to give the system a thorough test with as many formats as possible. Having watched a few films now, I can confirm that this Home Media Centre offers as good a picture quality as I've seen through my Samsung 40" 1080p TV. I've tested DVD, Blu-ray and HD DVD and have given both live-action and animated films a good workout. Having tested The Simpsons (BD), Shrek 3 (HD), Robocop (BD), Apollo 13 (HD) and Lost (DVD and Blu-ray), I have yet to see any compatibility issues. I've tested a number of MP3s and everything works as expected.
As previously mentioned, the addition of a Digital Terrestrial capture card would add Freeview support to the media centre, and if you wanted to purchase a Vista-compatible dual tuner card you could use the centre as a fully featured PVR. There are a huge number of additional plug-ins available for Windows Media Center and the simple fact that you are using a PC as the basis for the media centre means that there is no real limit to what you can play back. You could install iTunes and playback any iTunes DRM protected music, you can upgrade the graphics card to one that can handle high-powered 3D gaming which can easily challenge an Xbox 360 or PS3 - you can even use the controllers from these consoles if you wish! You can also watch BBC iPlayer video and 4OD online on your TV and can have full internet access with fully-featured browsers such as Firefox or Internet Explorer. As long as it's something you can do on your own PC or laptop, you'll now be able to do it from the comfort of your sofa.
You may wish to consider a good quality wireless keyboard and mouse for those situations where you need more control than a remote affords. Something like the stylish Logitech diNovo mini cordless Bluetooth keyboard, which includes an integrated touch pad to replace the need for a mouse, would be perfect for this type of system.
The only downside of a PC-based home cinema system is the fan noise - PCs by their nature can run pretty hot and therefore have various methods of cooling. In the case of the Shuttle, this is via the ICE heat pipes and two fans - one on the power supply and one to remove the heat from the case and processor. These obviously generate some noise - although it isn't too distracting and isn't on the level of say an Xbox 360 - so you'll only notice it during quieter scenes. In a side-by-side comparison it was a little louder than a PS3 and on a par with most standard PCs. There are a couple of ways to tackle this issues - the first is the option to reduce the speed of the main fan via the XPC Tools software supplied with the Shuttle - care should be taken to ensure that the fan speed doesn't drop to a level where the system may overheat and become unstable; while the second option is the addition of an external fanless power supply unit rather than the internal fan cooled PSU. The PC62 external PSU is available to buy from Shuttle themselves.
The total cost for this system works out at approximately £700 inclusive of VAT. The Shuttle SG33G5M has a current retail price of around £300, whereas the cost of the additional compontents and software accounts for around another £400. Compared to standalone Blu-ray players, this is at the top end of the price scale. The Playstation 3, for example, retails for less than £300 and offers Blu-ray and DVD playback but it is region locked for both formats. Standalone Blu-ray hardware can be picked up for anything from £180 right up to more than £800 depending on the model and specification. HD DVD players (if you can still find one!) can be bought for well under £100 but again, these are region locked for DVD playback (HD DVD is region-free).
In my view, the benefits afforded by this home cinema PC somewhat justify the cost. You obviously have greater flexibility than any fixed-hardware platform can offer and the ability to do far more than just play films and media adds an additional level of usefulness to this solution. It's neater and tidier than any of the various other options you would have to explore to achieve the same level of functionality.
With the potential to save space, money and resources, many homes in the future will find their entertainment systems centred around powerful PCs. You can do this now with a system such as this or through one of the many off-the-shelf hardware solutions. You'll be ready to embrace home movie entertainment, no matter what the format, as a system such as this will also be able to handle whatever HD delivery format is chosen in the future.