Setting up a Media Center Computer

Setting up a Media Center Computer

I love technology, though quite often the commercial world doesn’t create single products that do what I want to do, so I then have to piece together a solution.

For many years I have been waiting for some type of device that allows me to merge all my digital media in one place in the living room (Television, Videos, Music, Pictures, Radio, Internet). There are many products that attempt to do this, but with major limitations and a lousy interface.

It started with my music which is all in digital form. CDs are just plastic disks for me to transfer music to my computer. I Rarely use them anymore since I listen to all my music on digital players (computer, mp3 players, etc).

When we bought our first house around 4 years ago I wired up the house with speaker wire so that each bedroom would have a speaker and volume control. I love listening to Gurbani all the time so this allowed me to have a central place to play/store the Gurbani/Music and hear it all through the house. I hooked up an old computer with a big hard disk which connected to my audio receiver where I controlled everything.

I used to have satellite TV, but canceled it years ago because it cost too much and I ended up having to pay a fair amount to get various "channel packages" with all the channels that I wanted. I couldn’t justify paying as much as I did for the little bit of time that I was able to  watch TV. It just wasn’t worth it! Sure if you have extra money and watch a lot of TV it might be worth it, but these days every dollar counts for most people. Saving a little here and there adds up!

For those of you who are techy and love to play around with technology you can setup your own media center at home. Let me be straight, this is not for the lightweight techy! Some of this stuff can be pretty time consuming to setup and if you don’t know what you are doing then you could end up with a lot of frustration. If you are feeling adventurous though and have time then by all means go for it! For me putting it all together is part of the fun!

I use my system to watch TV shows, DVDs, Netflix on demand movies, internet radio, audio podcasts (SikhNet stories for children), listen to music, manage my movies, watch/display pictures or slideshows on the TV and lots more!

Everything that I watch on TV or listen to goes through my computer. I don’t use satellite TV or cable. My extra computer is a dedicated media center computer that I leave on all the time. It took me a long time to finally find a solution that worked for most of my media needs so thought I would share what I found out.

 You can setup your media pc without spending much money. Even if you do have to spend some money you will likely save a lot in the long run when compared with monthly service fees from cable/satellite TV.

Here is are the pieces you’ll need to get started:

Computer

This is the heart of your media center. As long as you don’t plan on playing Blue-ray discs in1080p hi-def then you should be fine with re-purposing an old computer/laptop that you are not using anymore. I am using a three year old Dell computer with some extra hardware. It’s still a decent computer (dual core processor, 2GB memory, good video card).

Operating System

This really depends on which media center software you want to use. After much testing of lots of media center software I have found Windows Media Center to work the best for all my needs. The only problem with you using this is that you can’t install "Windows Media Center" on it’s own like an individual program. It is part of the windows operating system which is normally installed from scratch when you first setup your computer. So if you wish to use Windows media center then you need to either already have a version of Windows XP Media Center or Windows Vista (Home Premium  or Ultimate Edition). If you don’t have this version of windows you can get a copy of it for about $100.

If you don’t have the option to use Windows media center or just don’t want to you can download and install Team Media Portal which is what I used to use. There are other programs that you can try as well, but for the sake of this blog post I’ll be mostly focusing on Windows Media Center.

Watching Live Television
If you want to be able to watch (or recorded off-air) live TV, you’ll need to install a TV tuner card which will enable you to connect your over the air TV antenna to your computer. I have the Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-2250 Dual TV Tuner which allows you to record one channel and watch another at the same time. When you setup the TV tuner in Windows media center it scans what channels are available in your area and automatically downloads the TV guides so you can view the channel/schedule just as you might do so on cable TV or satellite TV. Most any TV antenna will pull in both analog (NTSC) and the new digital (ATSC) signals. In the USA the FCC has mandated the end to all analog broadcasting, so after June 12th 2009, you will need an antenna and either a PC with a card like the Hauppage card I mentioned above, or a TV with an ATSC tuner (newer ones have them) or a "set-top-box" converter to convert the digital signal to an analog signal that you can view on your older TV.

Storage
I have hundreds of Gigabytes of Gurbani mp3 audio and other types of music so this takes of a lot of space. I also backed up all my kid DVDs to digital video files stored on my computer for easy access so need lots of space! It’s a good idea to have a large hard disk to store your media. Storage is extremely cheap these days so make sure you have enough disk space.  I recently upgraded my hard drive to a 1.5Tb drive to accommodate my increasing storage needs. If you don’t need that much space you can get a 320GB drive for about $50.

    Remote Control
    You’ll need a remote control to navigate through the windows media software without having to get up off the couch. There are lots of options for remotes, but here is the one that I use.

    Video Output
    In order to connect your computer to your TV you need a graphics card that has a compatible output. Many video cards/laptops have an S-Video output which can be easily connected to even an older analog TV. If you have a newer High Definition TV you can use your video cards DVI output port which is the same port that you might use to connect to a computer screen (it’s a white connector.) When I upgraded to HDTV I got a DVI to HDMI cable to connect my computer to the digital  HDMI input on the TV.

    Video Codec
    If you download TV shows or videos from the internet you’ll likely need to install various codecs which are needed to play (decode the video for playback). Many of the videos won’t play on your computer without the codec installed. I am using Vista Codec Pack, but there are others also like the Combined Community Codec Pack.

    Windows Media Center Plugins

    Assuming that you have Windows media center already installed, the following are some cool plugins that will enable you to really expand what you can do with your media center. Windows media center allows external plugins to be developed by third parties to extend its features.

    • Media Browser (ver 2 beta) – This is my most useful plugin because it is MUCH more feature rich then the standard MCE interface for browsing video. It’s got some really cool ways to view media.
    • My Movies – This is a great plugin that allows you to manage your video collection. It automatically can look up and download DVD artwork and info about the movies. If you backup your DVD’s to your computer this program also makes it really easy to do so within MCE.
    • MyNetflixThis cool plugin allows you to manage your Netflix queue and watch Netflix instant movies which stream on demand (all right from within windows media center using your remote control).
    • mc-ShoutcastInterface and directory for listening to streaming internet radio from within your media center. You can also save play lists files of your streaming radio stations if you only have a few streams that you listen to and save having to deal with this program.
    • Media Center RSS Reader – I use this for listening to audio podcasts at home. When the kids go to sleep I play the latest audio stories from the SikhNet Audio Stories section.
    • lifextender – This is a simple commercial-removal application that will automatically remove commercials from any TV shows that you record. Another option is DVRMSToolbox and MCEbuddy which has some more advanced features.
    • Media Control Plugin – This gives you some more advanced video features. I installed it for video resume feature and better fast forwarding.

    Other Plugins that might be of interest

    • TVitty –   bittorrent download add-in.
    • Secondrun.tv – TV on the web pulled into Media Center.
    • TVTorrents – Website that manages TV show torrents
    • tvRSS – Syndication for your television

    Other related links of interest