How To Build the Ultimate Windows Media Center 2005 Machine on a Budget, Part 1
"One OS to rule them all... one OS to bind them."—adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings
Windows Media Center 2005 (MCE) is Microsoft's attempt to bring together the entire living room—and the entire family—under the warm quilt of a single operating system. MCE 2005 is the third and best attempt at a Windows XP-based "home theatre" operating system. (At the time of writing, August 2005, an interim rollout version codenamed "Emerald" is rumored to launch shortly.) After building and using the system described in this article, I can understand the brilliance of Microsoft's plan to dominate the home market. I would even hazard that Microsoft will drop the vanilla version of XP Home Edition some time in the future and will replace it with the enhanced MCE variant. MCE could become the new family cynosure—the "hub" around which secular family life will revolve.
Until recently, the OS has only been available through OEMs. However, you can now get it by purchasing only a token piece of hardware or two—just enough to call yourself a "homebrew OEM." But why would anyone try to build his or her own MCE machine? Haven't we all heard early horror stories of the incompatibility problems, the mangled video, and the endless frustration that comes with a do-it-yourself MCE project?
Well, those stories are all true. However, this is late 2005, not 2004, and we have a better shot at it. MCE 2005 (which I will hereafter abbreviate as MCE) is the third version of the platform, and it has been out for almost a year. Thus, the hardware market to support it has matured. I hope that by reading this article you can learn from my (sometimes costly) mistakes.
Building your own system gives you a lot of the satisfaction I discussed in my 2004 article "How To Build the Ultimate Gaming System on a Budget, Step by Step." MCE systems are quite expensive, and you can expect to pay upwards of $1,500 (September 2005 prices) for a top-of-the-line system that I describe in this article. However, by doing it yourself you can bring that cost down considerably. In addition, you will truly own your system, so that in the future you'll have the knowledge and confidence to upgrade it by yourself. Finally, you'll have a truly high-end system, which will allow you to do word processing; check email; surf the web; and play graphically intense, online 3D games—all while lying comfortably on your living room couch. (At the end of this series of articles, I'll present a final shopping list of all the components, as well as a price list).
Choosing the Case
When you spend this much money, you want to be sure you "future proof" the system. Our target is to make this box last about five years. To do this, we need to spend extra for high-end components. But more importantly, your aesthetics may change. Statistically, most of you reading this article who are still single are likely to be married in five years' time. And your future spouse will banish the MCE from the living room if it is loud, garish, and tricked out with UV and neon lighting like a gaming rig.
So with aesthetics in mind, I began to look for a high-quality, brushed aluminum case in a silver color. More importantly, I had to decide on a case size. A small, slender form factor would look more at home in an AV rack. However, that would require us to buy a tiny motherboard, mini-ATX or smaller. And the components for mini-systems are often more expensive and less compatible. In addition, as a DIY enthusiast, I plan to be back inside the case to upgrade or modify it fairly often. So I wanted room to maneuver.
After a great deal of research, I settled on the Ahanix MCE601 Home Theater PC case in silver (see Figure 1). I also added an internal USB 2.0 card reader, which for less than $20 allows me to add direct support for memory cards of most types. So now I can pop open my digital camera, take out the memory card, and insert it directly into MCE to start a slideshow.
The Ahanix case is a bit more expensive, but it's worth spending more since it forms the foundation of your entire system. In addition to the chassis' very good looks, it's very functional. An attractive vacuum fluorescent display dominates the front panel, while bottom and top vents provide adequate cooling. A special feature is the vented hood (see Figure 2) that allows the CPU to draw cooler air from directly outside the box, rather than recirculating the warmer, ambient air inside the machine. This venting also allows the two quiet, 60 mm fans in the back of the case (see Figure 3) to draw cool air up and over the motherboard chipset and across the graphics cards. The Ahanix ships with a 350W, very quiet power supply that will provide more than enough juice for an MCE. Note that this is a really big case, ATX sized, so plan your table space accordingly when setting up your home theatre. Dimensions are 435 × 150 × 458 mm, 17.13" × 5.88" × 18.00" (W × H × L).