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Creating Your Own Media-Savvy Windows PC You don't need to buy a PC with Windows XP Media Center Edition to create a media-savvy PC.

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Creating Your Own Media-Savvy Windows PC
You don't need to buy a PC with Windows XP Media Center Edition to create a media-savvy PC.

In this article, I show you how to duplicate the major features of Media Center PCs with third-party upgrades to an existing system.

Introduction

For years, electronics mavens have been talking about convergence the notion that a single device could provide you with the features and benefits of two or more separate devices. Windows XP Media Center Edition PCs are the latest example of convergence, bringing you digital photography, audio, and video goodness to living rooms, dens, and home offices everywhere.

However, if Santa Claus didnt bring one to your house, dont fret. In this article I show you howc to select off-the-shelf components to build your own digital media PC powerhouse. Although you cant buy Windows XP Media Center Edition separately, you can find third-party software which can give regular Windows XP Home and Professional installations comparable features.

Why Build When You Can Buy?

At todays all-time-low hardware prices, the economics of upgrading an existing PC versus buying a new PC arent as favorable as they once were. However, when you customize your own PC, youre in charge of the products you choose and omit. If youre not a fan of digital photography, you can forgo the card reader. If you already have a suitable sound card, you can skip that upgrade.

A second benefit is the ability to choose the software you want to use for each job, either by evaluating the bundled software provided with many upgrades, or buy purchasing best of breed programs separately. If you already use some multimedia software, you can stick with what you know and love instead of switching.

Finally, there is also still a significant price premium to pay if you want to be a Windows XP Media Center branded PC.

Major Components of Windows XP Media Center Edition PCs

Before you can create your own multimedia powerhouse, its helpful to learn more about Windows XP Media Center Edition and the PCs it runs on.

As its name implies, Windows XP Digital Media Center 2004 (XP DMC) is based on Windows XP. However in addition to its standard menu of features, it also offers additional features for:

  • digital video recording while you use your PC
  • remote control
  • standard and 16:9 TV viewing
  • Digital photo viewing from flash memory cards and other sources
  • Picture in picture TV viewing while you use your PC
  • Digital music library creation and management
  • Fast forward and rewind at multiple speeds

The goal is to make your PC a digital video, digital audio and digital photography center, replacing your TV, VCR, and standalone digital photo readers.

Windows XP Digital Media Center PCs

What kind of hardware is needed to make XP DMC work its magic? At a minimum, a Digital Media Center PC meets the requirements for Windows XP Professional and typically includes a high-performance processor, memory and large hard disk storage. Multimedia features typically include a remote control, high-performance graphics card with TV output, a TV tuner, a hardware encoder for digital recording, and 5.1 or better digital audio output with speakers. Most also include a flash memory card reader which supports common types of cards used in digital cameras, a rewritable DVD drive, and a large CRT or LCD monitor, often in the 16:9 wide-screen format.

As you can see, a Windows XP Digital Media Center PC is really a collection of off-the-shelf components combined with Windows XP Digital Media Center Edition. As you will see, you can virtually duplicate the major features and even much of the ease of use of these PCs with your own customized collection of hardware.

Building Your Own Media PC

The major thrust of this article is to convert an existing system into a multimedia system rather than building one completely from scratch. However, before you start you should consider whether your existing hardware is powerful enough to provide the basis for a suitable system.

Processor and Memory Recommendations

Most pre-configured XP DMC PCs use a 2.4GHz or faster Intel Pentium 4 processor. If you prefer AMD, you should have an AMD Athlon XP 2400+ or faster processor (if it fits your budget, an Athlon64 is the way to go). 512MB of DDR SDRAM is a suitable amount of RAM. How big should your hard disk be? If you plan to record a lot of digital video, you should have a 100GB or larger hard disk.

Your motherboard should have one or more free PCI slots, an AGP 4x or faster slot and have integrated or card-based USB 2.0/Hi-Speed USB and IEEE-1394a (FireWire 400/i.Link) ports. Again, if you're looking to build a system from scratch, it might behoove you to spend a little more and get a motherboard/chipset that supports PCI Express.

Assuming your system is up to snuff, its time to shop for the multimedia add-ons you need.

Flash Memory Card Readers

In 2003, overall sales of digital cameras exceeded those of film cameras for the first time. Digital camera sales are among the key factors spurring the interest in media-friendly PCs.

Although some XP DMC PCs use external card readers, theyre clunky. An integrated card reader looks better, doesnt take up floor, desk, or top-of-PC space, and enables you to move images from one type of flash memory card to another.

Two integrated card readers worth considering are the Y-E Data 7-in-1 drive and the Addonics internal DigiDrive.

Y-E Datas version integrates a 3.5-inch floppy drive as well as support for Compact Flash, SmartMedia, Memory Stick, MultiMediaCard, Secure Digital and Microdrive media. The drive is the same size as a standard 3.5-inch floppy drive, uses a USB cable as well as a standard floppy cable and sells for around $60.

If you no longer use floppy disks, Addonicss DigiDrive connects to an internal USB 2.0 port and runs around $25 direct. Addonics also makes a USB 1.1 version with Linux support ($50) and ATAPI, Serial ATA or USB 2.0-based internal bundles which also support PC Card and ATA Flash hard disks ($75-100). These readers support the same types of flash memory cards as the Y-E Data reader.

You can use the new xD Picture Card media with these and other readers which support Compact Flash by purchasing an adapter from Olympus America (model #MA-CF10).

TV/Graphics Cards

One of the most appealing features of XP MCE PCs is their ability to digitally record TV programs and provide TV viewing on your monitor. These features go well beyond the capabilities of todays mainstream graphics cards. Fortunately, you have a choice of ATI or nVidia-based solutions designed with TV tuning, digital video recording, and, in some cases, dual display capabilities.

ATIs All-in-Wonder series is the long-time leader in this field. In fact, the ATI Radeon All-in-Wonder 9000 Pro cards are used in Dells line of Media Center PCs. Other 9xxx-series models include the All-in-Wonder 9800 PRO, All-in-Wonder 9700 PRO, All-in-Wonder 9700, and All-in-Wonder 9600 PRO.

Although the All-in-Wonder 9800 PRO is the top of ATIs All-in-Wonder line, its expensive and doesnt support dual displays. If you want dual VGA display support along with the latest ATI remote control, FM radio input, optional support for component video or HDTV as well as midrange gaming performance at a reasonable price (around $240), I recommend the All-in-Wonder 9600 PRO. I discuss the basic and multimedia features of the Radeon 9600 PRO and the All-in-Wonder 9600 PRO in my article The ATI RADEON 9800 and 9600 Series. ATIs latest multimedia software features EAZYSHARE, which converts a computer with an All-in-Wonder card into a multimedia server.

If you prefer the latest version of nVidias Personal Cinema, which is based on the GeForce FX, youll find a variety of products made by typical nVidia partners such as Asus, Chaintech, eVGA, MSI and others. Some of these products also support dual VGA displays. Note that some vendors still offer the less powerful versions based on the GeForce4 MX and older nVidia chips; these should be avoided if you want decent 3D-gaming capabilities, as they lack support for DirectX 9.

Both ATI All-in-Wonder and nVIDIA Personal Cinema products include digital video recording software. The All-in-Wonder PRO 9600 also includes FM audio recording software. Both can provide TV playback in a window on your computer screen, while ATI can also playback in a translucent window which enables you to see whats on your computer display behind the TV broadcast window.

Remote Controls

Both ATI and nVidia-based graphics cards with TV tuners include remote controls for sit back and watch convenience. In most cases, these products get their TV listings from Web-based services, and sometimes use those same services for scheduling recordings, so a broadband Internet connection is handy. ATI uses a radio-frequency remote (no line-of-sight problems), while nVidia uses an infrared remote. The All-in-Wonder 9600 PRO uses the new Remote Wonder II, which provides a longer range than the previous model.

Audio Cards for Home Theater-Quality Sound

Although more and more motherboards feature onboard 5.1 or better analog audio and many also support SPDIF connections for digital audio, you might prefer (or need) the superior performance of a dedicated audio card such as the Creative Labs Audigy 2 ZS series or Hercules DigiFire 7.1 at the high end or, for budget-minded users, the Hercules Gamesound Fortissimo III 7.1.

Creative Labs Audigy 2 ZS series features support for 7.1 positional sound, THX Certified performance, and support for Dolby Digital EX/DTS/DTS-ES audio. It has a very quiet 108dB signal-to-noise ratio and 24-bit digital to analog conversion. The Audigy 2 ZS Platinum includes an internal I/O hub with remote control, while the Platinum Pro version also features an external I/O hub with remote control. All versions include an IEEE-1394a (FireWire 400) port.

The Hercules DigiFire 7.1 and Gamesound Fortissimo III 7.1 are based on the Cirrus Logic Sound Fusion CS4624 chip. The DigiFire 7.1 also includes internal as well as external IEEE-1394a ports and a wider variety of I/O ports than its sibling.

All three cards include a variety of audio creation and audio playback software. The Hercules cards also include DVD playback software.

To get the most from your new audio card, check with card vendors and third-party sources for 7.1 speaker systems. If you already have a 5.1 or better home-theater speaker system in the same room, you can usually connect your audio card to those speakers. Check with the audio card and speaker vendor for details.

DVD Playback and Recording

As I discussed in my article Upgrading Your Upgrades, Part 6: Replacing Your CD-RW with a Rewriteable DVD Drive, its time to move to rewritable DVD. When I wrote that article, vendors had just started to move to the DVD+R/RW/-R/RW dual-format drives. Now, that process is just about complete, and as 8x rewritable dual-format DVD drives start to enter the market, older 4x dual-format DVD drives can be picked up for less than $150. If you dont already have a rewritable DVD drive, now is the perfect time to grab one.

Virtually all models include DVD playback software and some type of DVD recording software. If you prefer the features of Roxio Easy DVD and CD Creator or Ahead Nero Burning ROM, be sure to check those vendors drive compatibility listings to see if the drive you want is supported. You might need to download an update.

Integration

Although you can build your own multimedia PC, the software comes from multiple sources and thus wont be as smoothly integrated as whats found in Windows XP Media Center Edition. Thats always been the case when putting best of breed products up against a suite. However, the best of separately-available products are often better than the stripped-down utilities traditionally found in Windows.

Before you buy additional software for DVD playback, recording, editing, and so on, be sure to try the software included with your choice of video, audio, or DVD recording upgrades. You might find that the bundled software does the job or provides an upgrade path to the perfect software for your needs.

Installing Your Upgrades

Although most of the upgrades Ive discussed in this article have additional features beyond basic PC components, they install the same way as standard components. Table 1 provides an outline of the process for each major component.

Table 1 Installing Multimedia Upgrades

Component

Location

Requirements

What to Remove to Install

Notes

Card reader

3.5-inch drive bay

Empty 3.5-inch drive bay, internal USB 1.1 or 2.0 port (or cable from an external port)

Drive bay cover

Use Y-splitter to provide power to card reader. If card reader includes floppy drive, remove existing floppy drive

Graphics card with TV tuner

AGP 4x or 8x slot

Same

Existing AGP card

Set computer to use standard VGA or restart computer in VGA mode before uninstalling and removing old card. Uninstall existing card drivers.

7.1 audio card

PCI slot

Empty PCI slot

PCI slot cover; existing audio card

Disable onboard audio (if in use) in system BIOS before installing new card. Uninstall utility software for existing card or onboard audio before installing new card.

Rewritable DVD

5.25-inch drive bay

Empty 5.25-inch drive bay with an available ATA/IDE connection

Existing CD-RW drive

If you replace a drive, jumper your new drive the same way. Keep your existing DVD-ROM drive if possible to make DVD data backups easier. Use a USB 2.0 or IEEE-1394a drive if you have no suitable drive bays.

For more details, see my book Upgrading and Repairing PCs, 15th Anniversary Edition.

Conclusion

If your computer already has some of the multimedia hardware you need for enjoying and working with digital audio, digital video, and digital photos, you can add the rest of the hardware you need for ultimate enjoyment. Depending upon what you need, it might not be cheaper than switching to a new PC, but the upgrade process gives you more control and can be a lot more fun.

For Further Research

Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition

Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Editions online home is
http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/mediacenter/default.asp

You can add Microsoft Plus! Digital Media Edition to Windows XP Home, Professional, as well as Media Center Edition. It adds several useful multimedia features. Learn more at
http://www.microsoft.com/windows/plus/dme/dmehome.asp

Integrated Card Readers & Accessories

Y-E Data
http://www.yedata.com/products/cardreaders/internal7-in-1.shtml

Addonics
http://www.addonics.com/products/flash_memory_reader/internal_dd.asp

Olympus America
http://www.olympusamerica.com/cpg_section/cpg_accessory.asp

Graphics Cards with TV Tuners and Video Recorder Features

ATI All-in-Wonder and Other Multimedia Cards
http://www.ati.com/products/multimedia.html

nVidia Personal Cinema Overview
http://www.nvidia.com/page/personalcinema.html

nVidia Personal Cinema Product Vendors

ASUS V9520 Home Theater
http://usa.asus.com/products/vga/v9520ht/overview.htm

Chaintech Personal Cinema
http://www.chaintechusa.com/tw/eng/product_list.asp?MPSNo=14&SPSNo=35

eVGA Personal Cinema
http://www.evga.com/products/prod_list.asp?switch=1&family=Personal+Cinema+Family

MSI Personal Cinema
http://www.msi.com.tw/program/products/multimedia/mut/ pro_mut_list.php?kind=10&CHIP=55&NAME=Personal%20Cinema

Audio Cards and Chips

Creative Labs
http://www.soundblaster.com/products/Audigy2ZS_platinum_pro/read.asp?articleid=82

Hercules
http://us.hercules.com/products/index.php3?t=2

Cirrus Logic Sound Fusion CS4624 chip
http://www.cirrus.com/en/press/releases/P116.html

Online Reviews

Anandtech

Review of nVidia GeForce FX Personal Cinema cards from Asus, Chaintech, eVGA and MSI
http://www.anandtech.com/video/showdoc.html?i=1938

Review of ATI Multimedia Center 8.8 (including EAZYSHARE media server)
http://www.anandtech.com/video/showdoc.html?i=1934&p=1

Beyond 3D

Review of All-in-Wonder 9600 PRO
http://www.beyond3d.com/reviews/ati/aiw9600pro/

Digit-Life

Review of MSI-8918 Personal Cinema (GeForce FX5200)
http://www.digit-life.com/articles2/msi-8918/

Review of ATI All-in-Wonder 9600
http://www.digit-life.com/articles2/radeon/9600-aiw.html

Hardware Central

Review of All-in-Wonder 9600 PRO (with comparisons to Windows XP Media Center Edition)
http://hardware.earthweb.com/peripherals/article.php/3292391

Copyright©2004 Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

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