Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Media PC - parts list

Here is the complete part list that you can use to build a do it yourself, do it all Media PC.

At the bottom of this post you will find all of the links for good prices on the parts.  Total cost will come in around $600.  An excellent buy for all of the features and capabilities that this box has.

First, let me go through some of the features and why I selected these parts:

Case and Power Supply

The most visible feature is the case.  I wanted a case that was decent looking (doesn't look too much like a PC), had quiet fans, and was large enough to hold one internal drive, one Blu-Ray drive and a front mounted card reader.  Usually these Media cases command a price premium and you have to buy the power supply separately (adding to the cost).  However, I found this one to be a steal at $50 and does everything that I want.

As you can see, it has front access for USB/Firewire and convenient power / reset buttons.  The power button has a green backlight and the reset button doubles as a hard disk access light.  Neither light is obnoxiously bright.

The case is actually pretty small, roughly the size of my old DVR and doesn't draw attention to itself.

Card Reader (with optional TV recording light)

Most cases seem to come with 3.5" floppy disk slots which are pretty much useless these days.  However, they make great slots for card readers.  I picked up this USB based card reader for cheap and as a bonus it includes an extra USB port on the front (never can have too many of these).

For you hardware hackers, notice that the card reader has two LEDs.  There is a red one (show lit above) which is on all of the time (pretty useless if you ask me).  There is also a green led which is on when you insert a flash card.  I disconnected the red power LED and used it instead as a recording indicator.  This way I can see when the set top box is recording live TV.  This is a pretty simple modification and add as really nice touch.  Instructions are posted here.

Remote Control

Probably the most important item is the remote control.  I wanted one that pretty much worked out of the box without fuss and had enough functionality that I didn't have to reach for the keyboard very often (if ever).  This one fit the bill and I've been very happy with it.  It works great with Windows Media Center and includes basic mouse functionality as well.  This really comes in handy as no remote is perfect when you are working on a PC.  Although this remote isn't programmable, I've come up with a really flexible setup using an infrared transmitter / receiver to allow this remote to do cool things like turn on and off my other components.

This remote use IR, so you need to point it more or less as the receiver which I've mounted on top of the set top box.

Wireless keyboard

No media PC would be complete (or really usable) without a keyboard for surfing the web, etc.  I wanted a keyboard that used radio frequency (RF) transmission so it had good range and I didn't have to "point" it at the TV when typing.  I've shown it here above with the remote so you can see that it is really fairly compact.

Another really great feature of this keyboard is that it has a trackball, scroll wheel, and left/right mouse buttons.  Just like the remote, it can control the whole PC to do all of your basic functions.

Placement of the IR, RF receivers

Although the wireless keyboard has good range, I've found that it performs poorly when I inserted the USB receiver is in the back of the set top box.  Therefore, I used an USB extension cable to move it to the side.  I could have just as easily plugged it into the front USB ports, but this was a little cleaner.  Here is a closeup of the remote's IR receiver (on top in RED), sitting on top of the IR transmitter (slightly larger black box stuck to the side), and the RF keyboard receiver (sitting loose next to box).

Blu-Ray Drive

No set top box would be complete these days without the ability to play Bluray movies.  I picked up a bluray drive for under $70.  This can read, rip and play just about anything I through at it.  It includes a copy of PowerDVD (the software that you need to play Bluray movies).  Windows 7 doesn't include the ability to play Bluray, so you need this software.


The case that I chose uses a MicroATX form factor motherboard.  These are slightly smaller than your standard PC motherboards and helps keep the case small.  As you can see there are a ton of I/O options on this motherboard.  The most important to me where that this motherboard has high performance embedded graphics (no graphics card needed) which reduces cost.  It also has everything you'd ever want like tons on USB ports, HDMI, DVI, VGA, eSata, Gigabit Ethernet, Optical/Coax Digital audio, firewire, etc.  Shown also installed above is the wireless N card that I added to work with my wireless network.

Note for high-end home theater users:

I've read that this motherboard does not support high resolution audio pass-through from Bluray discs.  If you care about this, you may want to select a different MicroATX motherboard.  Update:  See comments below.  I personally don't mind because stereo and up to Digital Dolby 5.1 is more than enough for me.

A peek with the top off

As you can see, it is pretty compact.  The case is held in place by three easy to remove thrumb screws.  Once you install everything there isn't much room for anything else.  However this is fine with me as I didn't want a big box and it does everything that I could possibly imagine.  Also, there is still plenty of room for cooling/airflow with the three fans that are in the box.  I like things that are well designed and I wanted to make sure nothing gets too hot.

CPU & Memory

I opted for an AMD based dual core cpu.  I could have easily built a system based on Intel, however the decision really came down to choosing the embedded graphics system first (ATI) and I think their solution is currently better than Intel's.
The AMD cpu is a reasonably priced dual-core that is in a low-power (65w part) running at 3Ghz.  There are faster cpus that you can buy, but this should be plenty for all your media needs.

2GB of Ram is probably more than enough for your needs.  I actually installed 4GB in mine which is probably complete overkill.  The motherboard will take more RAM, but I prefer to use the 32-bit version of Windows to have maximum compatibility.  With a 32-bit OS, the system can't use the full 4GB of memory anyway.

I had read that the some video codecs and other software is not yet available for 64-bit yet.  So, be careful if you choose to go with a 64-bit OS.

What about power usage?

One of the reasons I went with the MSI motherboard is that it is incredibly power efficient.  Sure I could have gotten an Atom based system that would have been lower power, but I wanted a system without performance handicaps.

At idle, the system uses less that 50 watts (not bad at all!).  Under load (watching movies), it only jumps up to the 70w range (again, not bad).  Measurements are here.

Of course, most of the time, my system is in standby mode and uses only 2w!   This is why it is important to get a box that works well in standby mode.  As my old Comcast DVR ran all of the time, I'm sure this is a far greener solution than I would get with any commercial set top box.


There are a quite a few good choices when it comes to set top box software including systems based on a Mac Mini).  However I wanted a system that didn't require a lot of extra cost/fiddling, worked really well out of the box, and was compatible with just about anything.  To get all that, I chose to go with Windows 7 and Windows Media Center.  So far, I have no regrets and I still think it is the right choice for now.

BTW:  As far as the hardware above, this box would probably work fantastic with any of a number of Linux based solutions (e.g. MythTV).

Complete Part List

Here is the complete parts list with links to either Amazon or NewEgg.  Amazon was the cheapest supplier and I only ordered parts elsewhere when they were not available from Amazon.  The parts took a couple of weeks to arrive, so you want to allow some time for everything to come in.

From Amazon:
From NewEgg:
Base total cost: $603

Optional stuff (which I have):
Note:  The card reader I originally bought is here, but it is no longer available.  The one above looks identical.  Here are two more choices:  Sabrent or Sony.

Need something else?

If you don't see what you want above, you can also use this search widget.  Every purchase supports this blog.

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  1. Thanks for the guide.

  2. Great post! I used the same case in my build and my only concern is if the PSU will last a while. Lot of times those OEM power supplies that come with cases are crappy.

    One thing I did go with differently is the AverMedia AverTVHD Duet tuner card. It's dual tuners for under $50 and fits nicely in the case with the half height bracket it comes with.

    Love to hear updates on how things have been going with it since you started using the box.

  3. Hi Chris B.

    Thanks for the comment, and thanks for sharing the tip about the dual tuner!

    My experience has been that PSUs are the most likely component to fail in computers. I've owned expensive PSUs and cheap ones. All of them seem to fail with no discernible pattern to me, so I'm not particularly worried about this case's PSU (especially for the price).

    My system's report card after almost 5 months is still great. I do worry that the fans won't stay quiet, but all fans do that. If and when one of them gets annoying (case, cpu or PSU), I can always swap it out with a newer/quiet one.

    Also, more posts are coming about different ways that I'm using this Media PC.

  4. Very nice go by i was looking at this exact case at work today i think i will take the plunge. I have 2 question one what USB based card reader did you use to fit in the floppy drive i didnt see it anywhere in you writeup and 2nd i would need the high resolution audio you have any ideas for motherboard that can do this or do i just buy a better video card ???

  5. Dear Anonymous,

    1) Thanks for catching the missing card reader! I've updated the parts list above.

    2) Honestly, I need to research the whole area of HD audio a bit more to provide a good recommendation. Also, I don't have a HD audio receiver to play with either (yet!).

    However, what I've read about hd audio and integrated graphics doesn't inspire a lot of confidence that there are currently good solutions (too many compatibility issues/problems being reported in various forums). I'd probably hunt for a good mid-range graphics card if this was important to me. As a bonus, I'd be able to play better games.

  6. Hi Chris B,

    Finally got around to your recommendation about the AverMedia Dual Tuner. Thanks, I like it too!

  7. Thanks for the great guide. I bought the IOGear Multimedia Keyboard, and it has not worked well for me. It loses connection when you are idle, and then when you need to pause a movie or turn down the volume, it is unresponsive when you need it to wake up quickly. Any advice on how to improve the connectivity of this device?

    I also bought the media center remote you which works fantastic. The only time in need the keyboard now is to type something.


  8. Hi ChrisB,

    The IOGear keyboard does sleep to conserve battery. I'm not sure what the timeout is, but it is on the order of minutes so that could be what you are experiencing. However, mine wakes up as soon as I press a key (you can't use the track ball). So I have a habit of touching the shift key (which is safe) and it wakes up. Flipping the power switch will do it too, but that is probably not a good thing to do regularly.

    You could also be having a problem with reception. I had trouble when I placed the dongle receiver on the back of my Media PC (definitely reduced the keyboard's range). I took a USB extension cord and moved the dongle so it is near the front of the PC (which helped a lot). I could have just stuck it in one of the front usb ports, but I feared it might get snapped off too easily.

    Other than that, I can only suggest new batteries.

    Hope that helps!

  9. Great post!

    do you have any recommendations for a media PC that I don't have to assemble? :-)

  10. Hi Brianna,

    Thanks for the feedback! I will have some recommendations coming soon, I definitely appreciate that not everyone wants a DIY project.

  11. FYI: For a media PC that you don't have to assemble you can go to Newegg.com and search "htpc supercombo".

  12. George, any comments on the ZBox?? At Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Zotac-Intel-Blu-ray-Mini-PC-ZBOXHD-ID34BR/dp/B0044DE7XK/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1299589089&sr=8-6

  13. @Anonymous: Thanks for the tip. The Zbox looks like a nice, low power choice if you don't want to build it yourself.

    However, your options for expanding it are going to be limited. For example, adding a TV tuner would have to be via USB or the mini-pci express slot. If you will be running Windows, that will add $100 to the price. Also, if the graphics (or cpu) turns out to be not powerful enough, you are going to be stuck.

    Also, compare it to Boxee Box, Apple TV, Roku, Google TV, etc (much cheaper options if you are okay with a limited set of features).

    Lots of choices!


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