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What type of capabilities should I look to include in a computer I'm planning on building within the next few months?
October 8, 2008 8:06 AM   Subscribe

What type of capabilities should I look to include in a computer I'm planning on building within the next few months? I would like to make sure I'm prepared for future technology. I don't want to build totally for the present.

I'm having some trouble sorting out what type of capabilities I want my next computer (or computers) to have. I have some ideas, but I'm curious as to what you all would be sure to include in this day and age.

A few things about my current set-up:
1. I have a Macbook Pro and a desktop PC that I built 2 years ago
2. I have a TON of music and videos already on the HDs of my desktop
3. I have a lot of DVDs that I would like to have on a computer for backup/playability
4. I'm a big audio guy. I'm going to have a 5.1 system in my living room and hopefully some very nice speakers in my room. This means 2 places for audio playback.

But, what I'm looking for is not specifications, but what this computer should be able to pull off. From there, I'll be then looking into hardware.

So if you were a big media guy, what type of computer would you build in the next few months? What would you want it to do in order to take advantage of soon-to-be-adopted technologies or current technologies?

Would it be a desktop? Would it be a HTPC next to the TV? Would it be a server in the closet that would talk well with my Macbook Pro? I'm looking to define capabilities at this stage.
posted by decrescendo to Technology (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm pretty sure one of these capabilities should be Blu-Ray playback. Am I correct in assuming that it would be a little dumb to build a computer at this time that would not have Blu-Ray support?
posted by decrescendo at 8:15 AM on October 8, 2008


Not specifically media-related, but sorta...

I've been thinking about building a new desktop for a while, a really nice one. One of the first things I decided I'd want was several huge (1 TB?) SATA drives, using RAID 5. This way the odds of losing data to a disk failure are greatly reduced, and, if done right, the RAID will speed up access, too.

I've always been a fan of RAM... I put 2 GB of RAM in my laptop, at a time when 512MB was okay and 1 GB was a lot. And now I'm periodically running into situations where 2 GB of RAM is inadequate. Go for a lot. 4 GB RAM is the most that 32-bit Vista will take, but some motherboards and operating systems will let you go further. (Several of the motherboards for LGA 775, used by Intel's quad-core chips (among many others), will take 8 GB.) You can upgrade RAM later, but especially if you're dealing with huge files, it'll be nice.

FWIW, I've been toying with the server vs. desktop thing—I wanted a nice fast desktop, but I also wanted an always-on fileserver with RAID that would let multiple computers share files. And I realized I could have both: an always-on desktop, with lots of hard drives shared over the network.

You might look into an HDTV tuner, and would almost certainly want a motherboard or video card with HDMI out, along with a sound card that had SPDIF out?
posted by fogster at 8:29 AM on October 8, 2008


FWIW, I've been toying with the server vs. desktop thing—I wanted a nice fast desktop, but I also wanted an always-on fileserver with RAID that would let multiple computers share files. And I realized I could have both: an always-on desktop, with lots of hard drives shared over the network.

I'm also in that same boat. I hear desktops are going to be obsolete before too long. Everything's going to be mobile, etc. I could do that, but I would want my data back home in my room. However, I want that computer to fully function if my laptop goes down.

However, is a server just basically a desktop without a monitor with drive/file sharing? I believe it is.
posted by decrescendo at 8:33 AM on October 8, 2008


However, is a server just basically a desktop without a monitor with drive/file sharing? I believe it is.

Not exactly - there is some confusion of terms.

Strictly speaking, a server is any computer that provides a service. You can run a decent web/file/ mail server on commodity PC hardware if you're only planning to accomodate few users, can live with the occasional downtime and so on.

You can also buy hardware that has been designed for use as a server: reduntant power supplies, rack mount, higher grade components and the like. This is what some people would really call a server. It is probably overkill for the home user, and costs quite a bit more.

That being said, if you plan to leave your PC on 24/7 to serve media over your home network, investing in a good case with proper ventilation and a good power supply is important.
posted by ghost of a past number at 8:51 AM on October 8, 2008


If you plan to have a computer on 24x7 you should look for something with low idle power consumption, and an efficient ("80+ certified") power supply that is properly matched to your system. Graphics cards usually pull a lot of power at idle, so get a motherboard with integrated graphics in the chipset. If you intend to use your always on system for HD playback, then make sure the integrated graphics have good HD accelleration. Sites like Tomshardware.com usually do a good job of testing power consumption of major components.

If you want a machine you can play the latest games on, then consider having two systems. An efficient onewith all your disks, then another with your fancy bid card.
posted by Good Brain at 9:22 AM on October 8, 2008


Along the lines of the above, I'd suggest your best bet is to think first about setting up gigibit ethernet and a file server/media streamer, which can be low-power and doesn't need to be state of the art (but beware that many motherboards fitting that description don't have onboard gigabit ethernet.) This also can be out of the way so doesn't have to be as quiet as you'll want the others to be (not that you can put it in an unventilated cupboard.)

Then you can tune individual machines to the capabilites you want at the location -- something low-power in your room for audio (it's easy to build a silent absolutely-no-moving-parts machine capable of audio these days, especially if you're willing to shell out the bucks for an SSD) and something less low-power for video.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 9:30 AM on October 8, 2008


A dedicated always-on media server is a fine thing. And you can just spend some money on a quick and responsive new desktop PC and use your current desktop for server duty. My 2005 desktop is now my 2008 server, with a fresh case, PSU, and silent chip fan. I have a Belkin splitter so I can share monitor/keyboard/mouse with it, but honestly I use RDP just as often so it's fairly painless to make it headless (power/ethernet connections only). There's nothing too complicated about server hardware...just lots of disk memory and reliable components. Software has a learning curve, but a samba share, UPnP server, and FTP will be all you need. RSS + torrent automation too, if you swing that way.

To give it HTPC capabilities too, you'd want to spend money and time on 5 things in addition to a Blu-Ray drive:

1. Audio card for 5.1 output to your receiver. Easy and cheap. PulseAudio software can let your desktop act as a satellite speaker system for the server/htpc and vice versa.

2. Video output to TV. HD outputs are being integrated into new motherboards if you're starting from scratch, or you can just get a cheapish video card with TV-ready output.

3. Video capture card for DVR capability. If you're doing playback/recording simultaneously, it might be necessary to split this between two machines in a frontend/backend setup. There's lots of software platforms to choose from, but this capability is generally the one that balloons the complexity and frustration of a HTPC setup. Depends on how much you like TV.

4. Remote control. I use a diNovo Mini with my HTPC and it's lovely. Hacky IR recievers or PDA/iPod Touch options also available. I find that the hardware integration here is lacking. We might start seeing more embedded systems that are dedicated HTPC remotes, but who knows. A Sonos-like system would be ideal, and that's a relatively cheap and very classy option if you're not hurting for video on your TV. That and beefy commercial DVRs are the state of the art for navigation and interaction right now.

5. Displays. Have a widescreen monitor? HDTV? Those are lots more expensive than the server/htpc hardware and are the most important parts of the system.
posted by cowbellemoo at 9:35 AM on October 8, 2008


If I built a HTPC and had it connected to my 50" plasma in the living room, could I play an HD movie from the harddrive on that plasma while playing music in the bedroom over my speaker system?

Could that theoretically happen?
posted by decrescendo at 9:55 AM on October 8, 2008


"could I play an HD movie from the harddrive on that plasma while playing music in the bedroom over my speaker system?"

Do you with an HTPC in the living room, and a desktop in your bedroom, with the HTPC just streaming video off the hard drive of your desktop? Absolutely. If you're talking about sound for movies and sound for music coming from the same computer (e.g., two different sound cards), it would probably be a pain, though it's certainly theoretically possible, I'm just not sure if Windows would make it easy.
posted by fogster at 10:18 AM on October 8, 2008


Do you with an HTPC in the living room, and a desktop in your bedroom, with the HTPC just streaming video off the hard drive of your desktop? Absolutely. If you're talking about sound for movies and sound for music coming from the same computer (e.g., two different sound cards), it would probably be a pain, though it's certainly theoretically possible, I'm just not sure if Windows would make it easy.

All I know is that I would probably be serving a movie to one room and listening to music in another room.

I guess that would require two computers then.
posted by decrescendo at 11:09 AM on October 8, 2008


All I know is that I would probably be serving a movie to one room and listening to music in another room.

Yeah, unless you just run an audio cord over to a reciever (or cords to the TV) you'll need to network a client computer to the server. That client can be a full computer, or some kind of home theater appliance that can network with the server. PS3s can read UPnP shares, or something like this can communicate with a windows media center server.
posted by cowbellemoo at 11:50 AM on October 8, 2008


I had similar requirements about a year ago, and here's what I did: Good enclosure (e.g. Antec P 182), beefy power supply to spin 4 or more SATA hard disks (550W), motherboard with gigabit ethernet (you'll also want a gigE switch) and 4 SATA + 2 PATA connections, cheap trailing edge microprocessor, lots of RAM. Then install Linux and do software RAID on the disks. As far as video goes, I actually wanted to dual boot into Windows from time to time to play Bioshock so I didn't go with on-board video. But I think that was a mistake, so save your money and don't do that.

In other words, what everyone else here has already said. Good luck!
posted by whuppy at 2:30 PM on October 8, 2008


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