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+
Memory 1 GB DDR SDRAM
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 newegg.com).

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 meritline.com.  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.

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