Monday, 22 February 2010

Farewell extender, hello media PC

Time to start yet another shopping list 

I've finally had enough of my Linksys DMA2100 Media Center Extender. It's worked fine for 18 months or so, but it breaks down so regularly with Windows 7 that it drives me nuts. It's got the latest firmware, although because it's a discontinued product, that means it's 1-year old firmware. It's connected via Ethernet (don't even think about Wi-Fi if you value your sanity) and chugs along fine until it randomly stops with a blank screen, frozen images or stuttering audio.

Perhaps my network is the problem - I did notice that it was slightly better when I was reviewing a gigabit router; I have eight network devices plugged in, but they're not gobbling bandwidth and network utilisation rarely exceeds 10% even when everything's going full tilt. It could even be a lack of horsepower in the router (the Fritz Box I mentioned recently), but that's not something I can do much about and frankly, I don't care anymore.

There are non-performance related issues as well, such as not being able to watch the Sky Player Media Center plugin on an extender (I don't really need it, but it owes me £20..), or play DVDs or Blu-ray discs directly from the PC. So I'm going to build a dedicated Windows 7 media PC, based around the Intel Core i5-750 that Intel kindly donated last year as part of a cancelled PR event.

The motherboard I fancy is an Intel microATX model, the DH55TC 'Tom Cove', mainly because it's one of the cheapest microATX models around (it's about £75) with all the features I need, chief of which is a PCI slot for my old dual-tuner Freeview card.

The case is a bit more difficult. I can't spend too much, but I want one that will fit in the telly cabinet fairly unobtrusively. There's almost room for a standard ATX desktop case, but I spotted two cheapo models on Ebuyer - the top one's an ATX from Trendsonic, which looks a bit naff but has plenty of room, comes with a PSU and only costs £40.

The other is a more expensive (£49) microATX model from Ewsdn (the HTPC-410) that doesn't look quite so ugly (well, at this price it's all relative..) but needs a microATX power supply, so I'll have to budget another £20 or so for that. I don't particularly trust the look of that optical drive cover, though.

Luckily I have a spare graphics card, Blu-ray drive and hard disk (yes, I'm a compulsive hoarder - it broke my heart flogging a cartload of my old tech junk at a car boot sale last year) and I have an unused copy of Windows 7, so all I need is some RAM - 2GB of DDR3-10600 will be fine for my purposes, which is about £47 from Crucial at the moment. So in total, for a layout of either £160 or £190 depending on which case I go for, I can say goodbye to the Linksys extender and hello to Blu-ray playback and - hopefully - no more frozen documentaries. If you've any better (that is, cheaper) ideas on the case, let me know.

Update 16/10/2010: I went ahead and built the PC using the Intel board and Ewsdn case. The case is outstandingly well-constructed, looks very professional and the metal DVD cover plate works fine. It's all a bit cramped inside, and you need to think about cable routing and airflow, but in the end I sorted it all out. I used a BeQuiet microATX PSU.

It's given me many months of problem-free service, although for some reason the Intel board keeps throwing up CPU overheat warnings via the Intel Desktop Utilities monitor. These usually happen on standby or shutdown, so I'm guessing they're spurious and not critical. In normal use temperatures are well within spec, and the two small fans in the case are practically silent, as are the CPU and graphics fans.

So overall I'm very happy with the components, and especially the pricing. Here's a pic I took of the finished article.

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