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.
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.
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
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.
- $48 - IOGear Multimedia Keyboard with Laser Trackball and Scroll Wheel, 2.4GHz Wireless GKM561R (Black)
- $17 - Windows 7 Vista XP Media Center MCE PC Remote Control and Infrared Receiver for Home, Premium and Ultimate Edition
- $65 - LITE-ON 4x Blu-ray Disc SATA Internal Optical Drive iHOS104
- $90 - MSI 785GM-E65 Micro ATX Motherboard
- $100 - Windows 7 Home Premium (OEM)
- $71 - Amd Athlon II X2 250
- $100 - Western Digital 1.5 TB Caviar Green SATA Intellipower 64 MB Cache Bulk/OEM Desktop Hard Drive WD15EARS
Optional stuff (which I have):
- $69 - PCTV HD Pro Stick USB2 HDTV Tuner for Free HD
- $63 - AverMedia Duet White Box - Dual PCIe Tuner
- $50 - USB-UIRT (Infrared transmitter / receiver)
- $49 - D-Link DWA-556 Xtreme N PCI Express Desktop Adapter
- $91 - D-Link DIR-655 Extreme N Wireless Router
- $8 - SYBA CL-CRD20024 Flash Card Reader
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