Sunday, May 23, 2010

HTPC Build part 5 – Parts List! My $500 Windows 7 2010 HTPC

This is the fifth in a series of posts I’m writing about an HTPC (Home Theatre PC) build that I recently completed.  To see a list of all posts in this series, click here.

Having gotten over-the-air HDTV set up, successfully tested a PC TV tuner and Windows Media Center, made an attempt to recycle an old PC into an HTPC, and done some testing with a loaner HTPC, I was finally ready to finalize a list of parts, place the order, and build my own HTPC!

Here is the final parts list for my HTPC:

(USD; shipped;
including tax)
Purchased From Purchase Date
Motherboard Gigabyte AMD GA-MA785GM-US2H $58 May 2010
CPU AMD Phenom II X2 550 Callisto 3.1GHz $77 May 2010
RAM Corsair 4 GB (2x 2GB) DDR2-800 (PC2 6400) TWIN2X4096-6400C5DHX $26 November 2008
Hard disk Western Digital 640 GB internal SATA $70 February 2010
Onboard video ATI Radeon HD 4200 $0
(on motherboard)
-- --
Add-on video card (None -- yet) $0 -- --
TV tuner Hauppauge USB HVR-850 $50 January 2010
Optical drive ASUS 24X DVD RW DRW-24B1ST SATA $27 May 2010
Wireless LAN Monoprice USB Wireless Lan 802.11G $11 January 2010
PC case (Recycled 2004 desktop PC case) $0 -- 2004
Power supply unit CORSAIR CMPSU-400CX 400W $30 (after rebate) May 2010
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit (OEM) $100 May 2010
Remote control Lenovo Multimedia Remote with Keyboard 57Y6336 / N5901 $38 April 2010
HDMI cable HDMI cable, 6’, male-to-male $1 November 2009

Total Cost: $488 (Not including a PC case)

To cut to the chase: This HTPC works great!  The hardware worked fine immediately upon being assembled; the machine works great as a DVR and meets all of my other goals as well (with the exception of being able to act as a high-end gaming PC -- more on that below); and the machine has none of the video/overscan issues with my Philips 3000-series HDTV that I had encountered with the Intel-based loaner HTPC I tested.

Read on for more detailed commentary on the specific parts that I decided on ordering, followed by my thoughts on the performance of the new HTPC over the several few weeks that I’ve had it up and running so far.


Motherboard / CPU / Onboard Video

As I mentioned in the previous post in this series, I had encountered some fairly significant video issues with overscan and flickering of thin black lines when testing with an Intel-based HTPC and its Intel GMA X4500 onboard video, which my friend Dave had been kind enough to let me borrow and test with my TV for several days.

My consequent decision to opt for an AMD/ATI-based build for this HTPC, including Radeon HD 4200 onboard video, turned out to be a good one!  Hooking the PC up to my Philips 32PFL5332D/37 HDTV via HDMI, everything just worked great “out of the box.”  There were no issues with overscan; the PC video output running at 1920x1080 was automatically sized correctly to fit the viewable area of the TV display, without me having to do anything.

Further, the overall quality of the display was much better as compared to the Intel GMA X4500 test machine.  There were none of the issues with thin black lines appearing to “flicker” that I had noticed with the Intel onboard video.  Text on the TV display is quite readable, particularly once I increased the default text size in Windows 7 to 150% (via Control Panel | Appearance and Personalization | Display).

Regarding the specific motherboard and CPU I purchased, the purchase criteria for these parts were, in roughly descending order of importance (most important criteria first):

  • Decent quality onboard video capable of HD video playback
  • Native onboard HDMI-out
  • Very positive reviews (Parts that would be likely to “just work”)
  • Reasonable price
  • Compatible with the 4 GB of DDR2-800 RAM I already owned (more on this below)

The Gigabyte AMD GA-MA785GM-US2H and AMD Phenom II X2 that I ended up deciding on fit all of these criteria nicely.  At a combined cost of $135 shipped (including a $22 “combo” promotion that was running at the time of my purchase), I got performance that was adequate for the demands that would be placed on the HTPC at a pretty good price.


Although I included the cost of the RAM in my calculated “Total Cost” above (the $488 figure), I actually ended recycling 4 GB of Corsair-brand RAM that I had purchased for the desktop PC that I built in 2008, which is still my primary home PC.  Running the 2008 desktop PC with the 4 GB of Corsair RAM and 4 GB of Crucial-brand RAM (8 GB total), the machine would be mostly stable (and pass Windows 7’s suite of memory tests), but would bluescreen once every month or two.  I pulled the 4 GB of Crucial RAM out of the machine, but the problems continued; I replaced the Crucial RAM and pulled out the Corsair RAM, and the problems stopped.  (Note: I do realize that I shouldn’t have been running two different brands of RAM in the same PC in any event.) 

To save some money, and on the theory that there was just some kind of incompatibility between my 2008 PC’s motherboard and the Corsair RAM, I tried installing the 4 GB of Corsair RAM in the HTPC.  So far, this experiment has been a success; I’ve had no bluescreen/crashing troubles at all with the HTPC in the several weeks that it’s been running at this point.

Hard Disk

I bought the hard drive for the HTPC, a 640 GB Western Digital internal SATA drive, a couple of months earlier than most of the rest of the parts, as part of my attempt to turn my old 2004 desktop PC into an HTPC.  When that didn’t pan out, I was able to just use that same drive in the final HTPC build, as I had planned. 

The only downside to this approach turned out to be that over the last month or so, there have been a lot of good sales on hard drives; had I waited, I could probably have picked up a 1 TB drive for not much more than the $70 that I paid for the 640 GB drive back in February, which would allow me to record a lot more HD video on the HTPC.  I’m not too concerned about this, though.  640 GB still allows for a good amount of HD video recording, and in a year or two when hard drive prices have dropped even further, I can always easily add another (larger) SATA internal hard drive to the machine if I find that I want more recording capacity.

Add-on video card

As noted in the table above, I opted not to buy an add-on video card for the HTPC as part of the initial build.  Aside from not being able to act as a high-end gaming machine, the HTPC functions fine with just the onboard video.  By waiting, I’ll be able to buy a more powerful video card for my dollar later on.

PC Case

As with the RAM, I decided to save money by re-using an old part.  Using the 2004 motherboard, CPU, and RAM for the HTPC didn’t work out, but the 2004 case was still perfectly good; I took out the old motherboard, and installed the new parts in that case.  It’s a full-size desktop PC case rather than an HTPC form factor case that would fit in the entertainment center cabinet and look nice sitting next to my other devices such as the Wii; a “real” HTPC case is always something that I can “upgrade” to later.  

Remote Control

n5901The remote control I purchased, a Lenovo Multimedia Remote with Keyboard 57Y6336 (N5901), is something that I wasn’t originally planning on getting.  I had originally envisioned using a more traditional TV-like remote to control the HTPC from the couch.  However, when the N5901 went on sale on the Lenovo site for 50% off, I decided to take a chance on it – a handheld remote that could also function as a mouse and as a QWERTY keyboard seemed pretty cool. 

My experience with the N5901 has been mostly good, with a few caveats.  I’ll share my full thoughts on the device in a subsequent post in this series.

The Build

Putting together the new PC was smooth and easy – just the way I like these things to work!  All of the parts went together with no problems, and the completed PC booted up successfully the first time that I powered it on.

My new OEM copy of Windows 7 64-bit also installed smoothly and with no problems.  Windows 7 recognized all of my devices, including the HVR-850 TV tuner, the Monoprice Wireless Lan adapter, and the Lenovo Multimedia Remote with no problems, and without me having to manually install any drivers. 


I’ll go through and discuss my goals for this HTPC system one at a time, and how the system measures up against each goal.

Primary goal: Act as a DVR (record HD TV broadcasts, and playback HD video)

The primary goal for the this HTPC was to serve as my household’s primary (and only) DVR – to automatically “tape” (record) TV shows, and to play them back later on demand.

The HTPC works great in this capacity.  The Windows Media Center software works very well.  I like it even better than the Tivo that I used for a while previously, due to being able to use the mouse in the Windows Media Center interface to quickly skip directly to a particular location in a show.

The HTPC has no problem recording one show while playing back another.  In theory, I could in the future add a second TV tuner to the machine (another HVR-850 or a similar device), and be able to record two different shows simultaneously.

It’s also worth mentioning that when Windows Media Center is recording a TV show, the impact on the HTPC’s resources (processor and memory) is negligible – the machine can be recording a show while at the same time running a game or other Windows applications, with no noticeable performance impact.

Secondary goal: Act as a secondary home PC

The goal here was to be able to close or minimize Window Media Center and drop back to the Windows desktop and use the HTPC like a regular PC – to browse the web, check email, and so forth. 

The HTPC works great in this respect as well.  As mentioned above, the Radeon HD 4200 onboard video produces a great-looking signal on my Philips HDTV, with no overscan and very readable text.  Just last weekend, I used the HTPC in this capacity: I sat on the couch with my family, and used the HTPC to show on the TV screen a bunch of digital photos that my Dad had taken of the house he’s building in Florida.

Secondary goal: Play DVD movies

Since my old DVD player died, I had been keeping my Playstation 2 hooked up to the TV mostly to act as a DVD player and play the occasional movie. 

The HTPC works just fine for playing DVDs, so now I can replace the PS2 with some other device if the need arises.

Secondary goal: Play old NES / SNES / Nintendo 64 games

On occasion, I use my desktop PC to play via an emulator an old NES (Nintendo), SNES (Super Nintendeo), or Nintendo 64 cartridge that I own (and is stored away in my basement).  Playing these old games on a PC monitor while sitting in an office chair just isn’t quite the same as playing them on the TV while sitting back on the couch, though. 

I haven’t spent a lot of time using the HTPC for retro console gaming aside from the initial round of testing yet, but the HTPC does work great for this.  Even the old NES and SNES games look really nice on the HDTV.  The image is really sharp, and there’s no blurring or aliasing. 

The responsiveness of emulated games on the HTPC is also very snappy.  I was a bit concerned that there would be some small delay between doing an input on the controller and seeing the corresponding action happen in the game on the TV screen, but there has been no such delay; the games I’ve tried have responded instantly to controller input.

I’m using an XBox 360 controller (which is compatible with Windows PCs via USB) as my controller, and it works pretty well for controlling old NES games.  At some point I’m planning to pick up an SNES controller USB PC adapter and get my old SNES controllers out of storage to complete the retro gaming experience.

Secondary goal: Play new PC games / “Poor man’s XBox 360”

As with the Intel PC I tested with, I’ve tried two more “serious” modern games on the HTPC: World of Warcraft, and Batman Arkham Asylum.

As with the Intel PC, World of Warcraft runs just fine on the HTPC in full 1920x1080 resolution, although not at the maximum graphics settings.  I’m not really planning on playing much Warcraft on this HTPC, but it’s nice to know that the game runs on the machine just fine, and I now have another PC that will run WoW in a pinch.

Also as with the Intel PC, and also as expected, Batman Arkham Asylum runs, but so slowly that it isn’t really playable.  The Radeon HD 4200 onboard video isn’t up to the challenge of running a modern graphics-intensive game, even on the minimum settings.  An add-on video card will be an easy addition to the HTPC at some point in the future; I’m saving a full play-through of Batman for the time when I’ll finally be able to sit back on the couch and play through the game on the HDTV.

Secondary goal: Stream video between PCs

One thing that occurred to me that it would be nice to be able to do is to stream recorded video (TV shows) from the HTPC over to my desktop PC, for those (very unusual) occasions where Melissa and I both want to watch TV at the same time, and we don’t want to watch the same show.

The software (Windows 7 and Windows Media Center) does support this functionality – I can fire up Windows Media Center on my desktop PC and see the shows that have been recorded on the HTPC.  Unfortunately – and this is the only “unexpected” issue that I have with my setup at the moment – when I try to playback a video over the network (even a standard-def video), the playback is extremely choppy, to the point of being unwatchable.  I did run this test over both of my other test machines (the converted 2004 machine, and the Intel test machine) so the problem is apparently my network setup, not the HTPC itself. 

Both of my PCs are running USB 802.11g wireless adapters, and my router is a Belkin F5D8233-4 802.11n.  Unfortunately, my home is situated such that running a wired network isn’t really possible, so all of my machines are connected via wireless.  I suspect that streaming video (even full HD video) over a home wireless LAN should be possible, and that it’s some kind of problem with my network that’s preventing this from working for me, but I haven’t gotten this tracked down yet.  When I have an opportunity to do so, I’m going to try a different router and see if that does anything to improve the situation.

Tertiary goal: Run quietly

One final goal that I had for this HTPC is that it run quietly – I didn’t want to have to increase the volume of the TV at all just for the sake of having to compensate for a loud PC (particularly given that Melissa and I typically only ever sit down to watch TV when the kids are sleeping upstairs). 

Fortunately, this HTPC build is indeed silent when it runs.  Even with the PC on and TV turned off, when sitting back on the couch, the PC fans are not audible whatsoever.


This HTPC build turned out to be a lengthy project, due to the methodical approach that I took to testing purchasing and testing components prior to doing the final parts purchase and build.  It was a lot of fun to work through the process, though, and it was a very good learning experience.  Best of all, I have an end result that I’m really happy with!  My family is very happy with our new HTPC/DVR as well.  (I can hear Melissa in the other room as I write this using the HTPC to watch the recording of the finale of “Lost” that started airing earlier tonight while we were still getting the kids to bed.)

As a bonus, I didn’t spend too much money to achieve the desired result!  Although the total cost of almost $500 up front was by no means trivial, it’s nice that, going forward, I will have a $0 “DVR fee” alongside my monthly $0 TV and $0 phone expenditures.

This is the last of the primary posts in this series.  I will be writing at least one more follow-up post, though, covering my thoughts on the Lenovo Multimedia Remote with integrated trackball and keyboard that we’re using to control the HTPC from the couch.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

HTPC Build Part 4 - Testing an Intel-based HTPC

This is the forth in a series of posts I’m writing about an HTPC (Home Theatre PC) build that I recently completed.  To see a list of all posts in this series, click here.

Before finalizing a parts list and placing an order for the parts for my new HTPC build, I was fortunate to be able to gain access to a "test machine": A newly-built, working HTPC that my friend Dave was kind enough to let me borrow for a few days.  Specs on this machine:

CPU Intel Core 2 Quad
Motherboard Intel BOXDG43GT LGA 775
Memory 2 GB Kingston DDR2-800
Onboard Video Intel GMA X4500 with HDMI
Add-on Video Card (None)
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit

I brought the Intel HTPC home and hooked it up to my TV, a Philips 3000 series LCD HDTV.  As with the old 2004 PC that I tested using as an HTPC, the Intel test PC had some pros and cons.  Pros first:

  • The PC ran very silently -- there was no noticeable fan noise at all while the machine was on.
  • It was easy to connect the PC to the TV via the built-in HDMI port, and both video and sound output were transmitted from the PC to the TV via a single HDMI cable.
  • No problems at all with HD video playback.

I ran into a significant problem, though: When rendering video output at the TV's native resolution (1920x1080), the rendered screen image was "too big" for the TV.  The edges of the Windows desktop, including the taskbar and Start button, were off the screen.  Those elements were still present -- I could move the mouse off the screen to where the Start button should be located, click, and (partially) see the Start menu appear -- I just couldn't see them.

After spending a while trying to research this problem online but running into problems getting quality Google search results when trying to search using terms like "htpc tv image too large" or "tv display edges not visible" (and multiple other variants), I finally came across an article where I learned that there is a specific word for this phenomenon: Overscan

Now, searching with search terms including the word "overscan," the quality of search results I was able to find markedly improved.  However, I was still unable to solve the problem; in several hours of trying, I was unable to correct for the overscan either from the PC side, or from the TV side.

Most PC monitors include geometry controls that allow the screen image size, but there were no such controls available in the my TV's built in software menu.  In further poking around online, I found an thread that described how to access a "secret" admin/service menu where additional TV controls could be accessed; I actually got this to work on my TV and accessed the TV menu (after bypassing a warning about possibly voiding my warranty -- the TV is out of warranty anyway), but on my TV, there were no geometry controls in the admin menu, either.  Finally, I tried to do a firmware update for the TV's software to see if a later version would have the geometry controls I was looking for, but the TV reported that it was already running the latest version of the software when I tried to apply the update via the TV's built-in USB port.

I also investigated correcting the overscan on the PC end of things.  The Intel video card comes with software that allows a lower screen resolution to be sent to the monitor/TV to correct for overscan; however, whenever I tried to apply a "non-standard" lower resolution, the Intel software itself complained that the target resolution was not supported by my display.  Setting the screen to the next-lowest standard widescreen resolution (1680x1050) resulted in wide areas of black around all four edges of the display, so that wasn't a good solution either.  I tried updating to the latest version of the Intel video driver and video software utility package, but that didn't help either.

So, I was left with the question of whether the overscan problem would be a deal-breaker for my intended uses of the HTPC.  My goals for the HTPC were as follows:

Primary goal:

  • Be able to automatically record and playback HDTV program broadcasts.  (Tivo-like DVR functionality)

Secondary goals:

  • Be able to use the HTPC as a secondary home PC, i.e. to do things like browse the Web, check email, and view photos and videos.
  • Be able to play DVD movies (and later, Blu-Ray movies, once the price of Blu-Ray optical drives drops).
  • Be able to play old NES, SNES, and N64 games that I own the cartridges for (via emulation).
  • Be able to play newer games while sitting on the couch and using my XBox 360 controller for PC -- have the HTPC act as a "poor man's XBox 360." (Ironically, though, an actual XBox 360 now retails for significantly less than my overall budget for the HTPC!)

With respect to the primary goal of playing back HDTV content, I needed to be able to use the Windows Media Center (WMC) interface in order to accomplish this.  With the overscan problem, several of the key UI elements of Windows Media Center appeared off the screen.  However, I found a post on Aaron Stebner's WebLog detailing a series of registry keys that can control advanced options in Windows Media Center.  Using these registry tweaks, I was able to get WMC to "pull in" from the screen edges its various UI elements, such that everything was visible on my screen, even with the overscan.  Pretty cool.

However, I had no such luck with applications outside of Windows Media Center.  With the Windows taskbar, the Start button, and the edges of the Windows desktop being out of view, using the HTPC as a regular Windows PC wasn't a very nice experience. 

I also encountered one other problem: On the Windows desktop, thin black lines (such as "divider lines" in various applications) sometimes rendered on screen with quite a bit of "flicker".  This didn't make the display unusable, but it was pretty annoying to look at.

Between the overscan problem and the "flicker" problem, I made a decision not to go with an onboard Intel video card for my final HTPC build.  Having had good experiences with ATI video cards in the past, I decided I would instead go with an AMD-based build including an onboard ATI video card. (The processor company AMD acquired the video card company ATI back in 2006, so now AMD is presumably using the solid ATI technology in its onboard video cards.)

I did also do some testing with the Intel machine with my secondary goals in mind.  Old NES and SNES games ran just fine on the PC via emulation; I was worried there might be some lag time between controller button presses and the responsiveness of the games, but there was no noticeable lag at all, and the games I tested were very playable. 

WoW_OverscanCrop2 I also tested a couple of newer games: World of Warcraft, and Batman Arkham Asylum.  Warcraft (being a 5-year-old game at this point) ran quite acceptably when configured to use lower-end video settings.  However, the game was affected by the overscan issue, making the action button bar at the bottom of the game window partially invisible, resulting in the game being not very playable, at least in full-screen mode.  (The screen capture at right approximates what I was seeing on my HDTV in terms of the game image being clipped.)

Batman Arkham Asylum, a newer game, ran on the PC, but the game ran very slowly, even on minimum video settings.  Although the game ran, it wasn't really playable.  Somewhat interestingly, rather than drop frames and run at normal speed but with a poor framerate, the game just slowed down the overall gameplay to match the throughput that the video card was able to produce -- the end result was although the display was smooth, the game just ran at about 50% of normal speed (so it took Batman an unusually long time to walk from place to place, etc.). 

The poor performance of the Batman game was actually in line with my expectations: I didn't expect the onboard video card to be performant for high-end gaming.  My plan at this point is to run with only onboard video for the time being (sacrificing the goal of being able to use the HTPC as a "poor man's XBox 360"); at some point in the future, I'll purchase an add-on video card for the machine (or maybe, I'll purchase a new video card for my primary desktop PC, and do a hand-me-down of that PC's old video card to the HTPC).

The next post in this series will (finally!) cover my final HTPC parts list, and my experiences with the completed build.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

HTPC Build part 3 – My attempt to turn a 2004 PC into an HTPC

This is the third in a series of posts I’m writing about an HTPC (Home Theatre PC) build that I recently completed.  To see a list of all posts in this series, click here.

Rather than ordering all of the parts to build a new HTPC at once, I decided to try turning my old (built in 2004) desktop PC into an HTPC.  The hard drive on that PC had died, but the remaining parts were still in good working order.  The pertinent specs on the machine were:

CPU AMD Athlon XP 2800+
Video Radeon 9800 AGP 128 MB

Since the old hard drive on the machine had died, and I wanted a large enough disk to have sufficient room to record a good quantity of hours of HD video, I went ahead and ordered a new 640 GB SATA hard drive ($70 shipped from

One problem with this was that the old PC motherboard supported only IDE drives, not SATA.  (SATA is the current standard for desktop PC drives; IDE is an older standard that was still in wide use back in 2004.)   I did want a SATA hard drive, though, just in case the “refurbish the old PC” plan didn’t work out, and I ended up building a whole new PC.  I solved this problem by picking up a SATA-IDE converter for less than $3 shipped off eBay.

I also knew that I would need a method to get video and sound from the old PC to my HDTV.  The Radeon 9800 video card in the machine supported DVI video out, so I purchased a DVI-HDMI adapter for $2 shipped (on sale) from  For the sound, I bought a 3.5mm to RCA Y audio adapter cable off eBay for $1.28 shipped.  (I continue to be pleasantly surprised how inexpensively it’s possible to purchase and have shipped simple parts like cables and adapters via online merchants!)

In addition to holding off for the time being on further significant hardware purchases, I did not buy an additional copy of Windows 7 at this point.  Instead, the plan was to install Windows 7 without entering a license key; Windows will run on a time-limited basis with no key, so I planned to test my hardware configuration first, and then purchase the additional Windows 7 license once I had proved that everything worked.

I went ahead and put the new SATA hard drive into the old PC; the SATA-IDE adapter ended up working just fine.  I fired up the PC and installed Windows 7.  Windows 7 installed with no problems, even on the older hardware.  (I did have to install 32-bit Windows 7, since the older hardware didn’t support 64-bit.)

At this point, I disconnected the spare VGA monitor that I had been using for the Windows 7 install, and hooked up the PC to my HDTV via the adapter cables I had purchased.  I then spent a few hours testing the system – with decidedly mixed results. 

First, the positives:

  • Even on the old hardware, Windows 7 actually ran reasonably well. 
  • Audio and video output from the PC worked on the TV, and I was able to run the TV at its native video resolution of 1920x1080.
  • Playback of the short sample HD video clip that comes with Windows Media Center worked okay (although playback was a bit choppy for the first 2 or 3 seconds each time the clip started).

I ran into some significant problems, though:

  • Video playback: Occasionally the video output from the PC displayed on the TV screen would either “freeze” (stop updating), or simply go black.  Unplugging and re-plugging the HDMI cable would fix this, but the problem occurred fairly frequently – every 20-30 minutes or so – and I wasn’t about to settle for a solution where I’d need to be replugging the cable all the time.  Changing channels on the TV (away from the “HDMI 1” input and then back again), or turning the TV off and then back on, would not fix this problem.  (I didn’t make a clear determination whether it was the old video card, or the DVI-HDMI adapter, that was to blame for the issue.)
  • Video display: Text rendered by Windows applications running on the TV display was very “clipped” and difficult to read.  Increasing the system-wide font size to 150% and playing with the ClearType Tuner helped with this somewhat, but text shown on the display still wasn’t very nice-looking.
  • Sound input: The PC did not output sound over the DVI/HDMI cable; it was necessary to use the RCA audio cable that I had purchased to get sound to output via the TV.  Further, my TV doesn’t have dedicated RCA audio inputs that go with the HDMI input; I was able via the TV’s own menu software to “remap” the “AV 1” (component video) audio inputs to the “HDMI 1” channel, but this meant that I needed to disconnect the audio cables for the device that I had connected to the “AV 1” input (my Wii) – not a situation I was pleased with.
  • PC speed: Although HD video playback was possible, using the PC generally felt sluggish.  This was somewhat to be expected given the old hardware, but using Windows 7 on the old hardware wasn’t really a great experience.  One example is that it took several seconds to Alt+Tab (switch programs) between Windows Media Center and the Windows desktop.

After several hours of playing with the machine, based on the multiple problems I encountered, I made the call to abort the idea of using the old hardware for my HTPC.  Even though the idea of refurbishing my old PC didn’t work out, it had still been an interesting experiment; I had proven that I could get a Windows desktop to display on my TV, and gained an idea of what I could expect as a minimum baseline for an HTPC’s performance. 

The next step would be to go ahead and invest in a set of new parts, and build a new machine.  The new HTPC would be built with the new SATA hard drive I had already bought, and a new motherboard and processor that I would purchase.

The next post in this series will cover the results some testing I did with a loaner Intel-based HTPC that I borrowed from a friend of mine, as a last step towards a final determination on the parts list for my new HTPC build.

Monday, May 17, 2010

HTPC Build Part 2 – Testing a PC TV Tuner and Windows Media Center

This is the second in a series of posts I’m writing about an HTPC (Home Theatre PC) build that I recently completed.  To see a list of all posts in this series, click here.

Having gotten free HDTV via my DIY antenna working nicely, I decided to purchase a TV tuner and try it out with my existing PC running Windows 7 (and therefore also Windows Media Center), before making the full investment in a complete set of parts for a new HTPC.

I found a a pretty good overview video from Microsoft describing what it takes to hook a TV tuner card up to a PC.  Doing this on a PC running Windows 7 enables the ability to be able to watch live broadcast TV on the PC monitor.  It also enables Windows to record broadcast TV like a TiVo or similar DVR device – with no monthly fee!  (There are some free software packages for Linux that have similar functionality, but Windows is my preferred OS, so I decided to go with Microsoft’s software solution.)

HVR-850 After doing some research, I decided to purchase an HVR-850 USB-connection PC TV tuner by Hauppauge.  This tuner is compatible with over-the-air HDTV (ATSC) signals, and is certified to work with Windows 7.  I paid about US $55 for mine (and as of the time of this writing, it’s going for $55 shipped on Amazon).  (Note: This model isn’t compatible with some other types of TV signals such as “Clear QAM” from a set-top cable box; for that, you’d need a higher-end tuner part like the HVR-950.)

Unfortunately, the HVR-850 unit that I received was DOA. I plugged it in to my PC, and Windows 7 recognized the device right away, no driver install needed.  However, upon connecting the HVR-850 via the standard coax cable connection to my antenna and then scanning for over-the-air channels in Windows Media Center, the device wouldn’t find any channels.  I fiddled with the HVR-850 for quite a while, but just couldn’t get it to work.  Finally I had the idea to hook my old NES up to the HVR-850.  The output from the NES was just barely visible on the computer screen through heavy static/snow, and the music from the game was also just barely audible through heavy static/snow as well.  Therefore I concluded that the HVR-850 was “working” in that it was in fact sending some TV signal to the PC; it was just working very poorly!  Apparently I just had gotten a bad HVR-850 unit.

I contacted Hauppauge tech support, and they agreed based on my reported observed behavior that my HVR-850 was probably bad, and to RMA the unit under the warranty.  I got my replacement HVR-850 several days later, and this time, it worked like a charm!  Windows 7 once again recognized the part right away, and I was able to successfully watch live TV on my PC of the same TV channels that I could get on my regular TV.

I tested the DVR functionality of Windows Media Center (WMC) for a couple of weeks, and that worked great as well.  As with the TiVo I’d used previously, it was easy to select a set of shows to record, and have them record automatically.

A cool feature of Windows Media Center is that while watching a program, you can easily drag the current time index of the show back and forth using the mouse, and while doing so, WMC gives you a picture-in-picture indication of what is at the target location.  This makes it really easy to jump to a particular point of a show, and to quickly skip commercials.  It’s nice that Windows Media Center supports control of the software via either a mouse, or via a TV remote control.

At this point, I had effectively turned my primary PC into a fully-functional DVR, for just the $55 incremental purchase of the PC TV tuner above and beyond the cost of the PC hardware and software that I already owned.  Not bad!  However, while watching TV sitting in my office chair at my desk is okay, watching TV on my actual television while sitting on my couch in my living room would be much better!  So, having proven that the Windows 7 DVR software in Windows Media Center and the HVR-850 TV Tuner worked well, I decided to proceed with the next step of going ahead and actually assembling an HTPC for my living room.

Part 3 in this series will cover my attempt to save some money on parts by trying to turn my old 2004 desktop PC into an HTPC.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

HTPC Build Part 1 – Constructing and Installing a DIY Antenna

This is the first in a series of posts I’m writing about an HTPC (Home Theatre PC) build that I recently completed.  To see all posts in the series, click here.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post on inexpensive home services, I’ve been getting High Definition (HD) TV at home for free via an over-the-air antenna for several months now.  (In most markets in the U.S., since the 2009 digital transition, the major network channels, and often several others, are available 100% legally for free, in HD, via over-the-air broadcast.)  This has been worked great for me, particularly for the price tag ($0/month!), but not perfectly: With my cheap $20 small store-bought antenna positioned next to my TV on the lower level of my home, I could not get the local PBS station, and I had to position the antenna just right to get several other stations (and reposition it whenever anything bumped the antenna).

I set for myself a goal of getting high-quality (strong signal / reliable), hi-def TV into my home, and recording that TV via a DVR (digital video recorder) of some kind, while still maintaining a monthly TV/DVR payment $0.  (If this turned out to be unachievable, I set a fallback plan of getting TV service through one of the satellite TV companies; but even a “cheap” price tag of $25/month ($300/year) was somewhat unpalatable to me compared to a potential payment of $0/year!)

My first step towards this goal was to fix the situation with the reception.  According to the Digital TV reception map at, I should be able to get a strong PBS signal at my location.  My wife and I were very interested in getting PBS due to the good amount of high-quality kids’ programming on that station.

I got several quotes from area companies to install a roof-mounted or in-attic antenna.  All of the quotes came back for north of $500, which was more than I was willing to pay, so I started looking into other antenna solutions.

Poking around online, I came across some interesting plans for a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) antenna on  The plans involved basically assembling a small vertical frame out of wood and a metal pipe, then using pieces from some old wire hangers that are already around the house to form the actual antenna.  When it comes to things other than computers, I’m not exactly a big do-it-yourself guy.  However, these plans seemed simple to do and inexpensive in terms of parts, and there were quite a few very positive comments/reviews on the article on the design, so I decided to give it a shot.

Including a trip to the hardware store, the DIY antenna took about $30 in parts and about 4-5 hours of my time to construct.  (I suspect someone used to building this type of thing could have completed the project a lot faster.)  I set the antenna next to my TV and hooked it up, and it worked very nicely!  All of the stations that I already got (including HD signals from the major networks ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX, as well as many other high-def and standard-def channels) came in better than before. 

However, at this point, I didn’t get PBS.  The next step was to try hooking the antenna up on the second floor of my two-story house, since antennas are supposed to work better when they are positioned higher up relative to ground level. 

Most of the rooms in my house are wired for cable; however, all of the cables in the basement were unlabeled.  Going around my house to one cable jack at a time, I used a little ball of aluminum foil to “short out” the end of a short piece of coax cable connected to the jack, and then I was able to use an ohmmeter to identify the corresponding end of the same cable in the basement utility room. 

Having identified and labeled all of the cables in the basement, I used a connector to directly connect my TV-room cable to my master bedroom cable down in the utility room in the basement.  Then I carried the DIY antenna up to the master bedroom, and tried the TV channels again.  Success – I was now able to get PBS, in great-looking HD!

The final step for the antenna was to install it up in the attic.  I extended the coax cable from my master bedroom (since I intentionally do not, and will not, have a TV in there) up into the attic.  Then I carried the antenna up into the attic, and hooked it up.  I positioned the antenna in the attic by having my wife watch TV and report on how the signal was doing, while I talked to her via our home wireless phones, and made adjustments according to her feedback.  Having found a position where all stations came in great, I left the antenna up in the attic, and closed the attic up again. 

End result: Great-looking and reliable high-definition TV, with my TV simply connected to the wall cable jack.  If you’re looking for a fun DIY project with the end result of getting free, totally legal HD network TV plus more stations, I can recommend giving the DIY antenna plans a shot!

The next post in this series will cover my purchase of a PC TV tuner, and trying it out with the DVR software included out-of-the-box with Windows 7, called Windows Media Center.