Friday, January 28, 2011

Do it yourself, do it all Media PC for $600

If you are going to "Cut the Cord" you are definitely going to miss the ability to record, pause TV and skip commercials.  Building a Media PC is the perfect solution to make the process painless and you will wonder why you never did it before.

So, what can this box do?
  • Play and Stream most disc based media: Bluray, DVD, CD, etc
  • Record, Pause, Playback High Definition Free Broadcast TV (no subscription needed!)
  • Plenty of storage capacity (1.5TB = 100s of hours of TV)
  • Place-shift live TV and locally recorded media (watch it anywhere)
  • Play Internet content Hulu, Netflix, Boxee, YouTube, etc.
  • Play (all formats of) videos stored on flash drives or usb sticks
  • Streams Videos, Pictures, etc. from other computers on your network
  • Surf the web with Firefox or your favorite browser with long range wireless keyboard
  • Fully functional TV-style remote controls 95% of Media-PCs functions
  • Stream music directly to your receiver without having your TV on
  • Play PC or web-based games (power gamers will want to upgrade the graphics)
  • Display 3-D media and play 3-D games
  • Plenty of graphics and cpu horsepower for almost any media or server application
  • Stays in standby mode when not in use (uses less than 2 watts! - measured here)
  • Quiet (fans barely audible)
The list really goes on as this is a fully functional Windows Media PC and there is no limit to what you can do with this it  With Windows Media Center and some properly setup software, you can do almost anything you could imagine with ease in a family friendly package.

Note:  A Media PC is also sometimes called a Home Theater PC (or HTPC).  I prefer the term Media PC since it is a more general term that better describes it's capability and use.

Why do it yourself?

There are an endless list of stand-alone media/set top/DVR boxes you can buy (or rent), but in my opinion they are all flawed in one way or another.  Most of the problems with other boxes are:
  1. Cable, Satellite, or IPTV DVRs have limited functionality and tie you to expensive monthly fees
  2. Media streaming boxes can be limited to specific services and often will only play limited video formats.
  3. Few devices will let you record broadcast TV (and usually come with monthly fees)
  4. Few devices will let you surf the web (or if they do, come with crippled browsers)
There really is only one type of box that will have few compatibility issues and nearly unlimited functionality and that that is a Media PC.

Another advantage to building a Media PC is that you can replace multiple boxes with one device that really does it all.  In my case I replaced a DVD player, Slingbox (for placeshifting), Comcast Cable DVR and Squeezebox (for audio streaming) all with one Media PC.  As a bonus, I sold my old devices (Comcast took back my DVR) on Craigslist and recovered some of my project's expenses!

Some videos of the Media PC in action

Also, here are more pictures of what this box can do.

Build Instructions

First, since it is so important, here is a overview of the remote control options for a Media PC.

  1. Parts list
  2. Assembly instructions
  3. Setting up the BIOS
  4. Loading the software
  5. (optional) Turn your Media PC into a SqueezeBox Audio Streamer
  6. (optional) Configure a recording light
  7. (optional) Go wireless N for streaming Media
  8. (optional) Tame your remote with an IR blaster and EventGhost
  9. (optional) Setup your Media PC for place-shifting and remote access
  10. (optional) Easily backup your Media PC  
  11. (optional) Add multiple tuners to your Media PC 
  12. (optional) add 3-D to your Media PC
Note:  As I add features, I'll keep this post updated so check back for changes.


  1. Thanks George! I don't think I've seen a more concise, easy to understand and complete review anywhere on building a media PC and believe me I've been looking.

    One question. How about backing up? I use Acronis to back up my PC. Would it apply here?

    Again, thanks for the great information.


  2. Hi Tom,

    You are very welcome!

    Great point about the backup, Windows 7 has even been reminding me about it as well! I do have a simple scheme for saving my configuration (only), but a Media PC deserves a bit more sophistication. I'll think about it a bit and post my setup.

    Best Regards,


  3. Hi Tom,

    Just posted the first half of my solution for backups. Acronis is a good choice too.


  4. What about the cost of having a Media Center PC running 24/7 versus a DVR? Adds up over time and is a big hurdle for my wife to get over (she doesn't like the idea of a computer that's on all the time).

  5. @Anonymous, good question! You will be please to note that it only uses 2 watts when in standby (which it is in 95% of the time). I'd like to see any DVR beat that kind of efficiency! It is also totally silent too when in Standby.

  6. If you're truly advocating to cut the cord, a TiVo HD is a great option that won't scare away the non-DIY crowd.

    While your box does do everything, I liked the idea of having something pre-built that does everything in a very integrated way. I was going zero fuss. I wanted everyone in the house to be able to use it easily. We went a TiVoHD and have never looked back.

    My total cost was right at about $600 too and this was over a year ago. I have a TiVoHD. If you get the lifetime plan, there is no monthly fee. You just pay for it all up front.

    I don't know of anything that rivals TiVo's easy to use UI or attention to detail at the moment. They even optimized the filesystem for DVR use and to make it survive power blips. I use it for free over the air broadcasts, Netflix and YouTube. It has all the right connectors on the back for easy hookup. I'm doing HDMI to my TV and S/PIDF to my receiver. We use just the TiVo peanut for 95% of the time. It turns the TV and receiver on and off at the press of one button and the volume controls the receiver.

  7. Check out the Dell Inspiron Zino. AMD processor, Windows 7, Media Center remote, 2 eSATA ports, 1TB HD, Blu Ray Combo drive, wireless N. Pretty sweet for $500. Throw in a USB HD tuner and you're good to go for less than $600 and virtual no set up required. I'm planning on getting one and I'll let you know how it goes.


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