Wednesday, 20 August 2008

The Media Center

Digitization can achieve wonders. If you seek proof, check your own DNA: it's the perfect example for how being able to make reliable copies, an attribute of digitized information, has brought conscious beings into this world.
Recently, digitization has reached the video world. The result is that we now have high definition digital TV, digital broadcasting, digital downloads, as well as the close siblings of digitized music. However, with this digital revolution come new issues: namely, how are we supposed to manage all this digital information now at our disposal? For example, how are we expected to record programs off TV when our old VCR’s picture looks as attractive on our big high def capable screen as a smiling politician?
There is a large pool of solutions available, as deep as your wallet. You can get a high definition set top box, a high definition hard disk recorder, MP3 players, home networking equipment that would transmit your downloads from your PC to your TV, you name it – the options could crack your brain just thinking about them. But between all of the confusion there does seem to be one solution that rules them all and in the darkness of your home theater binds them, a single box that does almost everything you need at this day and age: a media center PC.

A decent modern PC has enough processing power up its CPU’s sleeve to easily muster any demands home theater can present. Set up properly, a media center PC can perform the following duties:
  • High definition set top box.
  • High definition hard disk recorder.
  • DVD burner.
  • DVD player.
  • DVD/CD ripping: Useful when, say, your child wants to watch the same DVD again and again; instead of messing with physical disks, just have the movie stored on your PC.
  • Internet gateway: this enables all sorts of things, from downloading stuff directly to the PC that will be used for watching it later, to programming your hard disk recorder directly from websites that contain the channel guides.
  • Act as your music library.
  • Connect to your TV using an HDMI output.
  • Connect you your home theater using 5.1 outputs, either analog or digital.
The idea of using PC’s to manage one’s media is not exactly new. Microsoft has offered a modified Windows XP version dubbed with a Media Center tag a good few years ago with varied success. Windows Visa has upped the ante, but the question is – do you really want Windows to manage your media center?
Well, I don’t. To point at just a few of its issues, Windows is heavy, it’s a bad product, and its security is very lacking and resource consuming. Personally, by now I find the idea of my money going to Microsoft for their compromised Windows products quite revolting.
Luckily, Linux can help by providing constantly updated distributions that do everything you would want a media center PC to do, do it very well, avoid being demanding on the user and on computer resources, and best of all – are totally free of charge.
You can buy ready made Linux PC’s at places such as this one, or you can do things yourself by buying a PC or assembling your own from parts. Widescreen Review, for example, has had a nice article on how to build such a machine (albeit a Windows running one) in its #125 issue.

When deciding to go for a media center PC, one of the dilemmas is whether to get a laptop or a desktop to do the job. A laptop has the advantage of having its own screen, which means you don't have to turn your TV on just in order to pick an MP3 song to listen to. This seemingly minute point is quite important in my own private case as projection technology does not like being frequently turned on and off.
That, however, is the only advantage I can think of; the rest of the advantages are clearly on the desktop side, from price through reliability to scalability and flexibility. Generally speaking, I think it is safe to say one should only get a laptop if one has to use a PC while on the move; for everything else, do yourself a favor and get a desktop.

It looks like my call is going to be preparing a PC of my own from separate parts and running the Mythbuntu Linux distribution on it.
As its name suggests, Mythbuntu is based on Ubuntu, so you enjoy all the updates and support that Ubuntu provides, but adds media center necessities on top as per the MythTV project. Effectively, once you install Mythbuntu (or, for that matter, one of many other Linux media center distribution), you’re all set to start using your media center for what it is meant to be doing – managing your media.

While praising Linux, one has to be aware of its biggest deficiency: lack of hardware support. The problem is that for better or worse, today’s computer equipment is built with Windows in mind, and often the drivers – the bit of software that liaises between the hardware and your PC’s operating system – is lacking. This means that if you buy a PC and want to run Linux on it you need to verify things would work in Linux first, which is far from being a trivial affair. There are websites that recommend suitable hardware, some of which are linked through the Mythbuntu website. However, when dealing with a media center which is expected to generate high quality multi channel sound and hopefully support the new high definition sound formats (e.g., Dolby True HD), things get even more complicated.
One solution which I may choose implement is to make my media centre PC a dual booting machine, with Mythbuntu sharing the pleasure with Windows XP. Once I’m happy with Mythbuntu I should be able to kiss XP goodbye. Such a safe approach would allow me to tinker with my media center’s components until I find a good combination; because I will be dealing with relatively small components, the cost of tinkering with parts should be quite acceptable.

My media center PC is still at the conceptual stage, which means that at the moment I’m mostly busy just thinking about it. So far I have identified the need to acquire the following components, which should cost significantly less than $1000 in total:
  • CPU: Given the undemanding nature of Linux, a moderate Intel Core 2 Duo CPU should do well at around $100-$150. In fact, it would be overkill, but given their cost there’s no need to go lower.
  • Motherboard: Probably the most important choice to make when building a PC, I will be looking for a motherboard that provides digital and analog 5.1 sound and does so in Linux at around $100-$150. Asus has a lot of offerings in the motherboard department, but my personal preference is with Gigabyte given Asus’ appalling support in Australia and their record of cheating with their motherboards’ specs.
    To date, I am yet to encounter a motherboard that supports the new high definition sound formats, but at least they're not that expensive to upgrade later.
  • Sound card: A sound card will probably only come on board if the motherboard’s sound facilities are found to be lacking. Relevant sound cards start at around $100, but audiophile grade stuff comes at a price of $500; I hope things won’t come down to that.
  • Case / power supply: As the media center PC will be spending time in the living room next to the hi-fi, it needs to look good and keep quiet. It should also be reliable. That means a rather heavy investment in a desktop (flat) box from Antec or Thermaltake at around $250. That, however, should come with a small LCD screen that will allow us to pick songs to listen to without turning the TV on and also come supplied with a remote. The big question would then be whether the remote and the screen are going to be supported by Linux?
    One interesting point about the cases which could explain their high price is the rarity of flat desktop cases (as opposed to standing tower cases). In particular, the rarity of those that would look good in the living room. Being that they're read and generally unavailable in the cheaper computer shops, one has to open his wallet wider to get a suitable box.
  • Wireless card: Used in order to connect to our wi-fi network. Research indicates the $15 Asus wireless cards work well with Linux.
  • Graphics card: Nothing a media center does should challenge a modern graphics card. All we really need is HDMI output and support for our TV’s resolution, which should cost us around $80 for a nice Nvidia based PCI-Express card. To be honest, there's a good chance a good motherboard will already contain all the graphic skills our media center would need, depriving us of the need to get a dedicated graphics card in the first place.
  • RAM: Given the Linux approach, 1gb of DDR2 RAM should do. Given the prices, I will probably go with a 2gb Kingston kit at less than $50.
  • Hard disk: A media center needs tons of storage space. At the moment, the balance of cost/benefit is on the 500gb mark, costing a tad less than $100 to buy the latest mainstream Seagate or Western Digital hard drive. If need be, additional drives should be easy to install.
  • TV card: To be connected to our aerial and receive the high definition signals. Again, the challenge is to get a model that conforms with Aussie digital broadcasting standards (which are rather eccentric) as well as with Linux. Should cost us significantly less than $100.
  • Wireless keyboard and mouse: Required because our living room needs fewer wires if we want to be able to live in it. Say, a $50 investment.
  • DVD burner: A pretty basic affair at $30.
It looks as if I would be delving into the media center realm sooner rather than later. Money issues aside, this looks like a bottomless pit as far as time consumption is concerned. I'm talking, of course, about building the PC; enjoying it as a media center would probably come much later.

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