Over the next six days, I'm going to try and summarize the guide we began handing out to smaller shops. This guide tested over 400 hardware configurations, built on different price points and goals of the consumer. But most importantly, it works to help develop a set of guidelines for system builders on "known good" configurations, and typical problem-resolution. Before we get to the heart of the guide with regards to construction, there are certain things that need to be said up front in constructing your MCE2005 system. Some components are, by design, eliminated because of their complete lack of functionality. So, before we discuss products that you can use, configurations, goals, etc. let's talk about where NOT to start. VIDEO CARDS: NVIDIA: Any Nvidia card lower then 5200 in series (not speed; thus the 4600TI/4200TI are also eliminated), as well as all MX series cards, and motherboards with the Nvida MCP built in (GeforceMX Graphic integrated). Note: even with a valid video card installed, it is strongly recommended AGAINST using any Nvidia chipset based motherboard that has integrated video to this point (that would be the Nforce2 MicroATX format w/video). Should also be noted: while the Geforce6200 is functional, the 6200 "TurboCache" cards are recommended against. ATI: ATI cards lower then the 9250 are specifically not supported (NOTE: the 9200 is not functional, the 9250 is, and is the lowest card with functionality). ATI Integrated motherboards are functional (see RS200 motherboards) however, there is some trickery, which we'll get to in part 3. S3: Only the S3 Gamma Chrome S18 tested as feasible for Windows XP Media Center. It should be noted, however, that this will take some driver configuration changes and the right monitor. XGI: Mixed functionality. Recommended strongly against; only XT models managed to work fair. Matrox: No functional card at this card at this point (none planned). To Powerstrip or Not to Powerstrip? This question is asked most frequently by shops. Will we need to purchase powerstrip in order to make MCE really functional with a TV? Our answer: No. Thanks to newer drivers by ATI and Nvidia, which specifically support HDTV as well as over/underscan and alignment, in a test of over 40 different monitors over component, S-Video and HDTV over DVI, we were very pleased with the results. While powerstrip can be a requirement for specific configurations, using driver configurations provided by the manufacturer alone, we were able to successfully configure all monitors provided without the use of powerstrip. It should be noted: if you are running a PC that is not Media Center edition, some of the options available to you in tuning a television settings, looks, and layouts will not be present. What DVD Decoders are really functional? Because Media Center needs a MCE compatible DVD decoder, there are a few options out there: the ATI DVD decoder; the Nvidia DVD decoder; PowerDVD6. Of those, if you have a 6600 Nvidia or higher, the results from NVDVD were better then other products, otherwise, the PowerDVD6 decoder proved both more stable and with a solid picture. While there will be recommendations for FFDShow and others, they do not integrate as smoothly or flawlessly as the above decoders, so therefore, we did not recommend them. This does not mean the results from those products would not be good, however, it means that for what we felt were minimal improvements, the difficulty level handed to the shop would be considerably greater. What other decoders should I add? Should I add DiVX? This is the other question submitted most often. What alternative CODECs should be added, and should we install freely downloadable "CODEC Packs" (like NiMO) into Windows XP MCE 2005. After testing the performance both before and after installing CODECs in clean installs, as well as video performance, I want to note that most third party plugins do more difficulty then good. However, we had one CODEC which we do recommend shops install, that's 3IVX. (http://www.3ivx.com/) Cheap, 3iVX supports both DIVX and MP4 formats (as generated by Nero Digital and others) which provides a broad approach to content media centers may have present on them. The CPU performance of 3IVX as well as picture quality and integration exceeded that of installing DiVX and other CODEC packs with fewer hiccups in the way. In the next six steps, I'm going to run through the highlights of: Part 2: What Makes a Low-End Media Center successful, at what cost, and what can I expect? Part 3: A Mid Range Media Center: Dual Tuners or HDTV? Controlling Cable Boxes, Satellites, HDTV input. Part 4: High End Media Centers: Managing whole home automation, from security camera management to DVDs to ordering food.. while sharing content in multiple rooms. Part 5: Build Goals: how to lower the heat and make my HTPC dissappear. Part 6: Build Goals: Minimizing troubleshooting: test shop should conduct before selling Media Center 2005. Part 7: Build Goals: AMD vs. Intel; comparitive looks at 90nm designs, AMD Venice, and Centrino desktop MediaCenters.