Note: Below is a very rough summary because I had to change a great many numbers and some paragraphs, by design, had to be deleted out. Therefore, I've summaries the monetary moments to minimize them and make them cut and simple rather then schemas of available product; moreover, because I am temporarily removing graphs, I will add a final post at the end ranking the performance of all components as well as why some items were chosen. Also note: while this was basically scanned in with Omnipage and edited, it was originally written by someone who's English is a second language, so I'll try to clean it up as best I can if it gets really messy. This will be broken up into three posts: the first outlining hardware, the second outlining installation, pictures & performance including captures from screens, the final will show installation, networking options, etc. ---------------------------------------------- Most customers who look for a Windows Media Center as a PC function first (standard desktop) with MCE capabilities. We will not be addressing those designs within this guide at any point. Instead, we will be looking at Media Centers as a Media Integration Device for it's primary function. In light of that, we have certain set criteria that even a low end design must fulfill: Ability to record television programming. Ability to view DVDs. Ability to access internet. Remote capabilities. Asthetic compatibility with other components. A "low end" configuration is calculated as anything sub $700 (including OS cost, but not including installation) with these capabilities. Low end boxes (in general) do not address HDTV functionality, however, they will offer HDTV performance to Plasma, LCD and some HDTV devices that accept VGA input. It should also be noted that while it is possible to easily come under this figure by using very cheap solutions (cheap cases, Durons, low end celerons, etc.), we are looking for something that also appeals to the more professional client. Ultra-cheap (sub-500, workable) configurations will be discussed at the end. While it's possible to construct very cheap PCs, a cheap media center is almost worthless; in order to meet the basic requirements above and perform to meet the customer's demands, we don't recommend 'cheap' HTPCs except as Desktop PCs first (media PC second). These can be configured in environments in which the TV is driven by a Media Center Extender, but a MCE2005 PC exists as the primary computer of the household. With this established, let's cover the basics. What's most important to focus on for a low-end PC is long term compatibility. Designing a HTPC for MCE2005 that has a very limited lifespan or continually has problems is a negative both for you as a support issue, and for the client. But, the need for low cost boards can create issues as well. Before we begin, we should note that in this category, products evaluated were required to be MicroATX. While higher end cases in small form factor are available, the need to keep case expense reasonable is especially important at the low end of development. Eighteen MicroATX cases were considered. These included: Antec Overture & Minuet (I&II) InWin BT566 AthenaTech A202 BroadwayCom MicroATX Series Chenbro PC40522/80562 Aopen MicroSeries Atop 80 FoxCon MicroShelf (A-4) It should be noted that the Silverstone Lascala 11B and Ahanix units, which are available, are not included. This is because their significant price tag (over $120 without PS) removes them from this category. Now that we have the field to evaluate, it's important to narrow this down. In our testing, best recommends go to the Antec Minuet&Overture (first choice) with Foxcon's Microshelf and Chenbro's 80562 model coming in as runners up. Some of the most important factors in recommending these models are performance of power supply, noise level, and configuration. In an ideal configuration for a low-end HTPC (as with all HTPCs) Floppy drives are replaced with 10-1 3.5" Bay card readers. This provides users quick access to camera photos and other items and provides a better match with the purpose at hand. Because many microcases offer either a molded 3.5" bay (Aopen) or none exposed, those cases were not feasible for the final purpose. Cases with lower powersupplies (less then 200W) were also removed, as were cases dual height (Broadcom) allowing for full-height cards. While this lowers cost in some aspects, it does not do so significantly enough to overcome the asthetic goal. A low end MCE should look and be component compatible with a standard VCR or DVD player. With this in mind, it's time to turn to configurations that are possible at this price point. Because we are not worried about direct HDTV, with the exception of upscaling DVDs, the main performance issue will be both managing data, and playability of alternative formats (DiVX, etc.). Our first requirement is to add a tuner card which will work adequately in our micro-ATX case. To this end, two cards are readily available: The ATI eHome Wonder tuner-LP, and the Hauppauge 150MCE-LP. Of the two, our recommendation is the ATI eHome Wonder. This is largely due to capture quality, stability, and ease of installation. Moreover, the ATI eHome wonder expands easier (the addition of second tuners) with greater ease then the Hauppauge. (more Info on the ATI eHome Wonder: http://www.ati.com/products/ehome/index.html ) Tuner Card: $65 Case: ~$65-$85 MediaCenter 2005: $125 Our current total is now at the ~$275 price point, and as we noted, we want to stay below $700. Before we get to the anchor (CPU, Motherboard, RAM) let's add in the last two devices we will need: A 160 Gig hard drive. Of the models out their, the Hitachi and Samsung Spinpoint P performed admirably in this category, especially in terms of volume in comparison to Western Digital, Maxtor, and Seagate. $80. We need at 256MB of DDR400 memory. (We prefer Crucial, $34) So, now we get to the guts: board and CPU combo. Here, we'll talk about the three options which suited us best. In the low-profile video cards, we need to stick with a card which adequately handles MCE2005, DVD decoding, and is low volume. Two cards provide that solution: the ATI 9250-LP as offered by Sapphire, and the Nvidia Geforce 5200 (many brands). As you'll note throughout this, many pricepoints mean different solutions. In the low end pricepoint, solid S-Video performance and ease of installation significantly break toward ATI's 9250, which accurately registers Svideo devices on all tries with projectors, monitors, and other devices. As a device that comes without a fan (heatsink only) it also adds to the quiet factor of our PC. $38. A media reader (generic) adds $10 of cost, and for a DVD writer with good support, we recommend the NEC-3520 and LiteOn 16X series in this cost range. ($50). All models tested well (Top Models for quiet/performance: Pioneer 109, NEC-3520; worst performers: AOpen, OptiWrite, BenQ (A-6)) Now, there are some software components which must be purchased. We will need a DVD Decoder (Power DVD 6.0 OEM can be obtained for minimal cost, NVDVD $12, both with 2 channel support; roughly $25 with multichannel support). At This point, we need to assemble a motherboard and processor. Because customers will have different preferences, we're going to lay out three options that have been tested and are "known good". AMD64 - So, how can you fit an AMD64 platform into this solution for less then $200? In looking for a Micro ATX motherboard with upgradability options, but needing only SDTV output for the time being, this may seem to be the unfeasible option. However, it can be done within this budget. Using the MSI RS480M2-IL, with PCI-E ATI Video & Svideo out, we were able to assemble a stable MCE2005 box with solid performance. Thanks to the integrated DirectX 9.0C controller, this motherboard is currently the ONLY board tested in any form where integrated graphics qualify for MCE2005. Combined with a 939 AMD64 3000+ 90nm, the board/combo is roughly $235. Over our limit? No, thanks to the fact that we can now remove both the expense of a DVD Decoder (ATI Multichannel DVD Decoder software included) and the Radeon 9250 is no longer needed. Intel: Because of our MicroATX, and power supply, we were unable to find a Pentium IV solution which was both cheap enough and ran with minimal heat to be truly viable. However, the Intel Celeron 335J and up are all viable candidates here. In our testing, Celerons below the 330 suffered DVD Stutters when upconverting to HDTV displays, as well as issues with DiVX. Therefore, we recommend the 335J and higher. Because we will be using an AGP card, it is a necessity to find a MicroATX board without onboard video. Due to a known issue with MCE2005, the creation of multiple video controllers can cause problems with TV display. We also recommend against Via chipset designs. To that end, The only board with adequate functionality came to be the Foxconn 865PE7MC-ES. AMD32 (Barton/Sempron) as our lowest denominator, any Sempron 2800+ or faster is also capable. Numerous Nforce2 MicroATX boards are available which performed very well. (see List A-19). This is your cheapest option, with least upgrade capability. We will also need to add a Microsoft Remote ($25) as well as a generic Keyboard/Mouse, as we assume the end user will use the Remote as their primary function device. UltraCheap: It should be noted that "ultra cheap" solutions such as a standard case ($25) Duron 1800 Processors + SIS Driven boards will function at a feasible level and can be constructed for less then $500. At the end, in configurations tested and performance, we will graph all HTPC performance from the $400-$6,000 price ranges, but because we do not recommend this as a true solution, it will not be covered in depth. Please contact your rep if you have questions or would like discussion of a specific design (E-19) Now, to construction, testing, methods, and installation of this design.