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Building a Windows MCE 2005 PC - Part 1

by November 02, 2005

This is Part 1 of a set of articles summarizing my experience choosing the components and building a a custom-built Home theater PC running Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 (or "MCE2005" for short). Part 1 is an introduction, Part 2 shows a step by step pictorial guide to assembling the hardware, Part 3 details the software installation steps, and Part 4 contains some objective and subjective impressions of the result.

What is MCE2005?

MCE2005 is basically a version of Windows XP Professional Edition with Service Pack 2, but bundled together with an application called Media Center that provides the following functions:

  • Watch, pause and record analog/digital TV "over the air" with an integrated Electronic Programme Guide (EPG)
  • Listen to and record radio (over the air or Internet-based)
  • Play DVDs and CDs
  • Rip CDs onto the hard disk
  • View pictures and videos in a variety of formats
  • Limited web browsing ("Online Spotlight")

In addition, there are various third party applications for the following (representative only):

Media Center (the use of the American spelling of "centre" is unfortunately prevalent in MCE2005) is optimized to look good even on low resolution TVs and is best driven via a remote control. In addition, MCE2005 supports synchronising with portable media centers and can serve content to Windows Media Center Extender devices. MCE2005 contains all the features of Windows XP Professional SP2 except for the ability for a computer to join a domain (this would apparently interfere with the ability to support Extender devices, although I found out it is possible for an MCE2005 computer to join a domain, provided you do so during initial installation).

Microsoft also makes a big deal about the DVD burning capability (integrated with Movie Maker 2.1) but there is no easy way of burning recorded TV programmes (possibly intentional, due to copyright concerns).

Previous versions of Media Center Edition were only available in the US and parts of Europe. MCE2005 is the first version that is officially released in Australia . However, you can't buy a copy of the operating system off the shelf, it is only available bundled with a preconfigured PC.

What's So Special About MCE2005 Over a "Normal" HTPC?

Well, first of all, there is no such thing as a "normal" Home theater PC (or "HTPC" for short). HTPCs are just "normal" PCs that happen to be used for home theater applications. They can run any operating system (eg, Windows or Linux), plus software for playing DVDs and software/hardware for watching/recording radio and TV. In addition, some HTPC users choose to use a front end application such as myHTPC/Meedio and XLobby (plus remote controls and automation programs such as Girder) to make the HTPC "living room" friendly.

Arguably the user interface of Media Center is no more powerful, or easier to use than comparable HTPC front ends. There are plenty of DVD player programs, with the two most popular ones (Cyberlink PowerDVD and Intervideo WinDVD) now in their sixth/seventh generation and supporting formats like DVD-Audio and featuring all sorts of video-enhancing features. What makes MCE2005 so special, since it lacks the advanced features and customisability of existing third party software?

One of the biggest benefits of MCE2005 over a do-it-yourself HTPC is proper support for "Studio RGB'", as opposed to computer RGB. Most PCs operate using Computer RGB, which means Black is (R,G,B)=(0,0,0) and White is (255,255,255). In the digital video world, however, things are a little different. For a start, video is encoded using YCrCb rather than RGB. ITU-R Recommendation BT.601-4 states that when YCrCb is converted to RGB, Black should be encoded as (16,16,16) and "Reference" White as (235,235,235). This is sometimes called "Studio RGB."

Many HTPC applications and video drivers do not support Studio RGB. Indeed, many will convert YCrCb to Computer RGB, which causes crushing of below black and above white levels. A common example of use of below black levels is the PLUGE signal on many video calibration images. Even worse, different software components in the playback chain may make different and conflicting assumptions about colourspaces, providing a non-optimal final result that is neither Computer nor Studio RGB.

MCE2005 out of the box, when used with certified MPEG decoders and video drivers, fully supports Studio RGB throughout the entire video chain. This includes desktop themes and the Media Center user interface.

Another big advantage of MCE2005 is the avoidance of tearing of video frames. One of the disadvantages of HTPCs over consumer video equipment is the lack of synchronization between video frames and video display refresh rates. This is particularly noticeable when displaying high resolution video. MCE2005 uses a customised allocator presenter over VMR9 (Video Mixing Renderer 9, the most advanced renderer in DirectX 9) to avoid visible tearing.

The major drawbacks of MCE2005 in comparison to third party applications are the sort of drawbacks you would expect given that it comes from Microsoft: lack of customisability, use of proprietary formats, and a fairly draconian implementation of digital rights management.

MCE2005 out of the box is not user customizable at all, apart from the setup settings accessible from within Media Center. If you build your own MCE2005 machine, you can choose your own software components, drivers and decoders, but that's about all. If you use the Software Development Kit, you can further customise the Media Center menu items and add your own plug-ins. However, many die-hard HTPC enthusiasts lament the lack of the ability to fully customise the playback chain, such as the ability to add video processing filters (i.e. the open source ffdshow).

TV recordings are in a proprietary DVR-MS format rather than standard .MPG. Furthermore, if the copy protection flag is set in the TV broadcast, these files can only be viewed on the machine that originally recorded the content. However, there are utilities that will convert DVR-MS files to standard MPEG-2. Far more serious is the restriction on component video output. If your graphics card supports component video output, then MCE2005 will not display copy protected DVDs at a resolution higher than 480p. Good-bye scaling to native display resolution on HDTVs!

Why Build My Own MCE2005 PC?

I was not really that impressed with the initial set of preconfigured PCs that were available. First of all, they all look like PCs (complete with a mid-tower case) rather than home entertainment devices (apparently the sexy set top box-like designs for the second generation is "coming"). Secondly, they all come with accessories like LCD monitors and speakers which I didn't really want (I wanted a PC to connect to my existing home theater system, not a home theater in a box). Thirdly, none of them had exactly the specifications I wanted - in particular, bunding an analog TV tuner card when I wanted a digital one, and using Intel integrated graphics and ATI Radeons instead of a graphics card based on the Nvidia Geforce PureVideo technology (more on this later).

If you are really keen on building your own MCE2005 PC rather than buying a pre-assembled one, it is possible. Several online web sites (including www.auspcmarket.com.au ) are willing to sell you the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) version of MCE2005, plus the accompanying remote control kit, provided you also buy at least one other PC component from them (such as a motherboard, CPU, video card or hard disk).

On the downside, you get no technical support for your own custom built PC, and no help in making it all work together.

From my perspective, the two major technical benefits (Studio RGB support, plus no video tearing) outweigh the disadvantages, so I have decided to build my own MCE2005 PC based on currently available components.

Choosing the Right MCE2005 Hardware and Software Components

Microsoft's minimal requirements are a PC configured with a CPU of at least 1.6GHz, 256MB memory, 60GB hard disk and a 64MB graphics card, with a DVD-ROM drive and a modem connection to the Internet. Yeah, right. Of course, it's possible to run MCE2005 on such a machine, provided you are not interested in watching HDTV.

For optimal performance, Microsoft recommends a special form-factor PC (preferably designed using low noise components) with at least a 3.0GHz CPU (especially if MPEG-2 is encoded and decoded without hardware acceleration), 512MB memory, as large a hard disk as you can afford, an audio card that can output analog 5.1 and S/PDIF simultaneously, and a 128MB AGP 4X graphics card supporting DVI as well as analog video outs (composite and S-Video). In addition, Microsoft strongly recommends a TV tuner card, the special Microsoft-designed remote control, a broadband Internet connection, a DVD writer, a media card reader and front panel status display and controls.

I chose the following hardware components for my MCE2005 system (as usual, the prices paid are historical and the components should be cheaper at the time of writing):

Component

What I Chose

Price Paid
($USD)

Comments

Case

Silverstone LC11/14M (black)

$160.00

This is a nice case, designed to look like a consumer electronics component than a typical PC. It is about the same size as an AV receiver, and has a front panel vacuum flourescent display (VFD) plus front panel media control buttons, which means that with the right software you can operate the PC from the front panel just like a set top box DVD player.

Case Fan

SilenX iXtrema 92mm and 2x60mm fans

$45.00

The fans that come with the Silverstone case are way too loud for a serious home theater, these SilenX fans are quieter and more efficient (ie. move more air at a given speed).

Power Supply

Antec Phantom 350

$142.00

This is a "fanless" (and therefore completely silent) power supply.

Motherboard

ABIT AW8-Max

$230.00

This is an Intel 955X/ICH7R based motherboard with HD Audio (Dolby Master Studio certified). It's probably way overkill for a home theater PC, but I like it because it is passively cooled and has the audio circuits mounted on a separate riser card (improving audio signal/noise ratio).

Processor

Intel Pentium D 830 (dual core 3.0GHz)

$356.00

Again, probably overkill for a home theater PC but having dual CPUs would come in handy for doing multiple things at once (such as recording digital TV whilst playing back a DVD).

Processor Cooler

Zalman CNPS-7000B-AlCu (with ZM-CS1) with Arctic Silver 5 thermal compound

$38.00

This is a large and very efficient cooler, originally designed to allow you to cool CPUs with the fan running at a very slow speed (and hence generate very little noise). Unfortunately, the slow speed isn't quite good enough to cool the very hot running Pentium D 830 so I have to run the fan at nearly maximum speed (around 2500RPM).

Memory

1GB (2x512MB) Corsair Value Select PC2-5300 (VS1GBKIT667D2)

$93.00

I would recommend a minimum of 512MB but 1GB may come in handy, perhaps for video encoding and audio processing.

Video

GigaByte GV-NX66256DP (NVidia GeForce 6600)

$115.00

The best graphics chipset for MCE2005 is currently the NVidia GeForce 6600 family, as it has support for MPEG2 and WMVHD hardware decoding, as well as the best hardware based deinterlacing implementation, although hopefully ATI will match these features in future driver releases. Gigabyte makes a set of passively cooled graphics cards. I chose the 256MB 6600 version although there is a 6600GT version available (but it only has 128MB memory and for pure video decoding there is no advantage is using the GT version).

Audio

E-MU 1212M

$199.99

This card has 2 analog ins and 2 analog outs, plus a number of digital inputs and outputs, so it's primary purpose is for high quality stereo recording and playback. It's not required for MCE2005.

Optical Drive

LG GSA-4163B DVD multi format writer

$48.00

LG makes the only DVD writer supporting all known DVD writing formats, including DVD+R[W], DVD-R[W] and DVD-RAM, as well as high speed and accurate CD ripping.

Hard Drive

Samsung SpinPoint P120 SP2504C 250GB SATA-II hard disk

$100.00

Samsung drives are currently the quietest, although they are not the fastest or have the highest capacity. The SP2504C is a 250GB SATA-II disc with an 8MB buffer.

TV Tuner

DVICO FusionHDTV Plus DVB-T tuner

$158.00

DVICO is one of the few companies in the market with MCE2005-supported drivers, and the hardware is pretty decent too (for example, the tuner is very sensitive and able to pick up signals that my set top box decoders ignore, which translate to a lower BER).

Noise absorbers

Spire "Soundpad" and siliceous washers

$20.00

Various components to absorb noise within the case.

Remote control

Microsoft eHome infrared remote control and receiver

$44.00

This is the "standard" OEM MCE2005 remote control manufactured by Microsoft.

Keyboard/Mouse

Logitech Cordless Desktop LX 300/510 wireless keyboard/mouse

$60.00

This is the second cheapest wireless combo available from Logitech. I hardly use it (except for installing software) as the Media Center is primarily driven via the remote control.

Total hardware cost came up to $1,609.00 (excluding the E-mu 1212m which is not required for MCE2005) ; this is quite reasonable compared to preconfigured PCs with similar configuration.

Note that particular attention was paid to minimizing the noise generated by the PC, using a combination of careful choice of components and passive cooling where possible. The difference this makes is remarkable: the result is a PC that is quieter than my projector, the air-conditioner or even the fridge.

In terms of software, this is the current version numbers of various components (and prices where applicable):

Software

Current Version

Price Paid
($USD)

Comments

BIOS

1.2

-

I had to upgrade the BIOS of the motherboard to get it to recognise the Pentium D 830 CPU.

Microsoft Windows Media Center Edition

2005 (MSDN Edition)

$125.00

Actually, I didn't pay any money for this because I am an MSDN Universal subscriber. The price is indicative of what you would need to pay to buy an OEM Edition.

Intel INF Update Utility

7.2.1.1003

-

Set of Intel chipset drivers for the motherboard.

Intel Matrix Software Manager

5.1.0.1022

-

SATA AHCI/RAID driver for the ICH7R chipset.

Silicon Image SiI 3132

1.0.0.9

-

Additional SATA controller (not used in my configuration)

RealTek HD Audio CODEC

R1.25

-

HD Audio driver for 7.1 channel and SPDIF audio.

Broadcom BCM57XX Gigabit LAN driver

8.39.1

-

The motherboard has dual NICs, but I'm only using one of them.

ABIT µGuru

3.009

-

Hardware monitoring utility

NVidia Forceware Graphics Driver

81.84 (beta)

-

Graphics driver.

NVidia PureVideo DVD Decoder (Bronze)

1.0.2-150

$19.95

Unfortunately, Microsoft does not bundle a DVD/MPEG decoder with MCE2005. The NVidia PureVideo decoder (formerly called NVDVD, also ForceWare DVD decoder) is the cheapest and the best commercially available decoder, taking advantage of the hardware decoding and deinterlacing capabilities of the NVidia 6600 graphics chipset.

DVICO FusionHDTV

3.11

-

This is the manufacturer supplied Digital TV application and drivers.

E-MU 1212M driver and PatchMix

1.81

-

Audio driver and PatchMix application.

My Movies

1.51

-

My Movies is a free MCE (Microsoft Media Center Edition) add-on application to function as remote operated movie index for both your online and offline movies. Browse your movie collection by titles, actors, directors or genres - all with covers and images. You can also password restrict certain movies by MPAA rating, build a multizone movie index and much more!

mceWeather

3.0

-

mceWeather is a plugin that shows weather information for your region on your TV. The plugin provides data from all over the world (many locations can be shown, please just try if your next larger city can be found by the program). It shows the forecast for the next 1-10 days and also shows you a satellite image of your country. Keeping track of the weather conditions has never been so easy on your Media Center.

DVD Region Killer

2.7.0.2

-

Makes software DVD players region-free automatically, without the need to change regions every time. It works by pretending that an RPC1 drive is an RPC2 drive set to the same region as the inserted DVD, thus bypassing Windows region checking.

EPGRunner

3.4.0 (beta)

-

EPGRunner is a utility to allow the use of an electronic program guide within Microsoft Windows Media Center Edition for countries without an officially supported MCE program guide.

MCE Customizer

2.2 (beta)

-

Allows you to tweak additional options in MCE2005.

MCE Controller

1.1

-

MCE Controller allows the Media Center application of Windows Media Center Edition (MCE) to be integrated into an advanced control system by enabling programmatic control of the user interface via a TCP/IP connection. To put it simply, MCE Controller, allows you to simulate a press of any button on the MCE IR remote control by sending a text command to a TCP/IP port on the MCE machine. For example if MCE Controller receives the string "mypictures" it will tell Media Center to go to the "My Pictures" page.

NetRemote

0.996 (last freeware version)

-

NetRemote provides 2 way remote control using your Pocket PC or any Windows computer. Using NetRemote and your WiFi enabled Pocket PC or any networked Windows computer, you will have full control of your digital media from anywhere in your house. With NetRemote IR, you can replace all of your remote controls with a Pocket PC.

WMP9Server

no longer in development

-

The WMP9 Jukebox is a NetRemote driver and matching server application for controlling the playing of music via Windows Media Player 9 (WMP9). It will play albums and tracks from the media library and the CD drive.

As you can see, apart from MCE2005 and a compatible MPEG2 decoder, all the software I use can be downloaded free.

(Reprinted with Permission)

Visit the other parts to this 4-part series:

Building a WindowsXP Media Center Edition PC: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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About the author:

Christine Tham has always been a keen "hi fi" enthusiast, which is an affliction she inherited from her father. She has a degree in Computer Science and a Master of Applied Finance from Macquarie University. In Chris' spare time, she contributes not only to Audioholics but also maintains her own web site.

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