This month I’m continuing with my media PC guide, we’ll go through the some options and form factors available for building your media system. I’ll only talk about systems I’ve tried myself, so in the interest of fairness I may be bias towards certain form factors, platforms, graphics cards or systems. I’ve got a lot of real world experience in building these media systems, encoding, streaming, HD audio codecs and sharing media libraries across networks. so if you want to back up your audio, DVD, and Blu-ray library then watch it in lossless quality while taking advantage or DTS-HD master audio or Dolby true HD, read on and I’ll hopefully be able to help you on your quest to watch movies anywhere in your house.
First thing’s first, Roku Boxes, Chromecasts, Android Boxes have their place if you want to stream Netflix, Amazon Instant Video or watch IPlayer etc. You can even use them to watch shitty low bitrate rips of films whether it’s good old DivX with MP3, AAC, or H264 with core DTS or Dolby audio. They will accommodate higher bitrate 720p h264 rips, and will handle a 1080p rip but only really lower bitrate videos. They don’t, and will never allow you to play 28 to 35Gb lossless streams from your favourite Blu-ray discs, output HD audio formats, or have the ability to scrape the movie posters of a huge library without crashing repeatedly. That’s a job for your home theatre PC. I love my Chromecast, but there’s a time and a place. Personally I only use it to cast YouTube to my older smart TV and that’s about it. For someone who doesn’t have an interest in a doing anything technical and just wants a plug and play streaming device I do rate the Amazon Fire TV, it’s got a remote out of the box and is very easy to setup.
There are about as many possibilities for systems as there are turds in the sea, but the main points to think of are as follows.
- Footprint (how big it is): Do you want a tiny system hidden from sight, or will it have pride of place in your living room for all to see.
- Style: Do you want it to look like an AV receiver, set top box, like a gaming PC, a micro server, or maybe you want to use an existing system for your needs.
- Power Consumption: Do you want it to be low power and low noise? Will you leave it on permanently, or just fire it up as and when required?
- Media PC or Multi-use: Do you want to build a system purely for media, or do you want to build an all in one system capable of playing the latest games too?
- Cost: Do you want to buy a pre-built system and tweak it for your needs, do you need to adhere to a strict budget, or do you want to create a monster and worry about cost later?
Once you’ve mused over these points you’ll likely have ruled out many options and have a good idea of what you want. Below I’ve outlined the good and bad points for the pre-built all in one systems and micro servers. Custom builds will follow next month as they’re a bit more complex, and right now I’m still building and configuring my new system.
All in one pre-built systems (Acer, Lenovo, heck they all do them)
• None, unless you actually know exactly what you need it to do are prepared to read up on specifications, read the service manuals, learn the exact boards, input and power consumption then you’re going to end up with a lemon. I’m yet to find an out the box system that I’d deem suitable, regardless of price.
• They are usually built out of older dog shit that didn’t sell the first time round.
• They’re likely packing rancid atom based boards, or cheap laptop motherboards which are underwhelming and sure to disappoint.
• Non-standard power supply, sometimes a laptop charger and no upgrade options. Without any way to supply more power, even if the system has room to upgrade components.
• Ram limitations sometimes one single dim, or worse it’s soldered onto the Motherboard.
• No PCI 16 to add a more suitable graphics card.
• Only one, or even more likely, no additional Sata connectors for additional hard drives.
• Not enough USB’s.
• Outdated connections on the back plate and not enough of anything you actually want.
• Got on-board HDMI? You’ll still be left disappointed as it won’t be able to decode or even pass through HD audio tracks.
I could gone on with this but I think you get the idea, I hate these.
I really like these. The Proliant Gen8 above is sub £400 just now, the previous model the Prolliant N54L is still kicking around for less than £200 on a bad day, and was available for as little as £120 on a HP cashback offer (what’s not to like). The N54L shipped with a 2Gb ram dim, 250Gb 7200rpm HDDs, and are ready to go straight out the box. Stick an extra ram dim in, a HD 5450, and a couple of spare 3.5” hard drives if you’re on a budget (or just upgrade the ram to 8 or 16Gb), throw in a HD 6540, Blu-ray disc drive or writer, a couple of 4Tb hard drives and you’re set for HD media streaming, viewing with HD audio greatness.
• Great price.
• Robust and reliable components, with a nice finish throughout.
• Extremely quiet, even if your anal about noise.
• N54L has an unofficial BIOS to remove half speed on the fifth sata (great if you want to slam in an SSD and still have four HDDs as well).
• Spare internal USB (maybe slap a Linux Live CD on it for dual boot).
• Gigabit LAN on board, useful if sharing media around your home.
• PCI-Express gen 2 x16 connector with x16 link (only low profile and very low power cards can be used).
• PCI-Express Gen 2 x1 connector with x1 link adds a USB 3.0 Card as you only get USB 2.0 on board (but with seven USB 2.0s on board you can’t complain).
• E-sata on the back (great for attaching a HDD for data import or export).
• 150w PSU (you can’t fit a GPU over 35w low profile 5450 or 6450)
• Two ram slots, will take two 4Gb easily, but if you want 16Gb check online for forums about what 8Gb dims are compatible.
• You can’t run much in regards to games on.
Below is my old setup, which has done me well, and if you want to push the limits of this little machine don’t worry I’ve included that as well.
I happily ran a Pro Liant 54l with 16Gb of ram, a 2Gb HD 6450, 16Tb (four 4Tb in the HDD slots), SSD on the fifth sata, five USBs with 4Tb Seagate externals and four 3Tb NAS drives mapped to it. This setup will work perfectly well, even whilst permanently on for weeks at a time and with a second machine in my bedroom. I’m using Kodi for my front end and running MYSQL on the Pro Laint to sync my media library.
Most heavy users will find the second 16Gb system will likely satisfy their needs. If your using a decent router with a gigabit LAN, and it has decent dual band Wi-Fi, then you could consider adding another Pro Liant or other small micro server as a second device. With 4Gb of ram and a HD 5450 you can easily stream a 50Gb Blu-ray ISO. Of course if you don’t want to be hard wired to a separate room you can I always get a decent Wi-Fi dongle. Personally I rate the TP-Link dual band dongles, they’re around £12 and are rock solid, capable of starting Blu-ray streams instantly. Even large variable bitrate ISOs of 50Gb are handled with ease. There is also the option to setup an MYSQL server to create your library centrally and sync any watched, paused or new additions to your library.
As for audio, if you’ve got shitty PC speakers I suggest you ditch them and get a decent AV receiver. There are Sony receivers at just over a £100, while Onkyo do great budget receivers. For speakers you can usually find good value on the likes of Ebay, Gumtree and clearance on the Hi-Fi specialist websites for end of live products. I picked up five EPOS centres, all new old stock on Ebay all for the cost of one of them at release. My AV receiver(Onkyo 609) in my bedroom again drives the 5 Epos Centres, after it broke last year, Onkyo kindly fixed it for free as I mentioned in last month’s column. Prior that I had a budget Sony AV receiver which sounded great for the price, my only niggle was not being able to name my inputs.
Custom systems using Mini-ITX are where I want to be going forward, the N54Ls moving upstairs and I’ve built a small but high power HTPC, which can run with the big boys. I’ll be going through what my new system is and what it does next month as, like I say, it’s currently being setup. Once it’s ready I’ll give you the low down on it, specs, cost and I’ll also touch on the software that I feel is essential for media sharing, streaming and managing your collection. I’ll be praising Kodi (formally XBMC) as I can’t get enough of their lovely stuff.
I tested streaming on Steam this week and I’m loving it. Playing the latest games in other rooms via my micro server is superb, so I’ll have my review of it arriving soon as well so keep an eye out should you want to try something similar.
I’ve also been lucky enough to find myself with an Nvidia 750ti. As a major lover of AMD’s GPUs for the past ten years (and a hater of their processors for about the same amount of time) how will I cope? Will I love this budget GPU and be urged to ditch my noisy AMD brute, or will I urge my cat to defecate on it? I’ll tell you know either way in next month’s instalment.