Seeking the ultimate media center PC.
October 5, 2009 1:27 AM   Subscribe

Looking to build/buy a (maybe) Linux-based media center. Requirements: HDMI, YPbPr, and (bonus) standard RCA output (not all at once), region-free DVD/Blu-ray playing (physical drive[s?]), some sort of remote control, automatic boot into media center interface, small size (not a tower), and (of course) lots and lots of codecs: Blu-ray rips, H.264 .avi, VIDEO_TS folders, the works. Need to know: cost, upkeep, storage options.

Short version: What's my best standalone media center PC option?


Long version: I'm thinking I'd run XBMC on this beauty, but I'm open to other suggestions. A main selling point for me would be how nice the UI looks (MediaStream looks gorgeous, but can I choose the posters/fan art that it displays?), but I'd also like minimal lag when going in and out of menus. Not sure if XBMC runs best on Windows or Linux, but I'm more keen on Linux since it's, well, free.

The computer I use for this should ideally be small—I have very little knowledge of the current desktop PC scene since I've only owned a laptop for years and years. What's out there, case/size-wise, nowadays? What sort of processing power would I need to play HD video? Blu-ray?

Storage is also a concern of mine. I currently have a little under 1 TB of TV shows and movies in .avi and .mp4 format, along with ~500 DVDs that I'd like to get copied onto a HDD of some sort. Should I go for internal drives or external drives? How often should I replace the drives in order to avoid failure?

If I could have this on my wireless network, that would be nice as well. Live TV would be nice, of course, but I'd be using it with rabbit ears of some sort if this were the case. Could I record live TV with this? Bonus: Could I integrate the rabbit ears into the case itself, or is this impractical?

This would need to have a remote control; what are my options there?

Thanks so much, and sorry for the length.
posted by reductiondesign to Computers & Internet (5 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
FWIW, there is no Blu-ray disc playback on linux.

I'd suggest a Shuttle as a small HTPC case (I use a K45, now discontinued). For HDMI/Component, you can go with any current gen PCIe graphics card, I'd go with one that's fanless.

Any dual core 2.0+ ghz should do fine decoding 1080p.

As for recording, yes you can record HD over the air. I've done well with a single rabbit ear with a Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro stick. YMMV on the antenna based on your location.
posted by wongcorgi at 2:56 AM on October 5, 2009

Best answer: Dual core atom, mini itx motherboard includes wireless
Newegg-Motherboard and cpu


Add ram, hdd, and any other accessories you need.

Mobo includes power supply too.
posted by nuke3ae at 5:12 AM on October 5, 2009

Best answer: I've been using XBMC and Boxee on Windows 7 for a while, and after some effort configuring the system (removing the login screen, configuring the remote control) it's been excellent. Windows 7 is extra good because it automatically figures out your TV resolution and uses that without effort, as well as fast boot and shutdown. I figure XBMC on Win7 should be able to handle blue ray discs, though I haven't checked.
As far as putting DVDs onto hard disk, I suppose you'd want handbrake for that.
If you worried about drive failure, I'd recommend buying a cheap RAID controller and using RAID5 on internal drives (or a cheap external NAS with the same function). XBMC can handle networked drives, and multiple file sources, so that's not an issue.
You can get a cheap (windows) media centre remote from most retailers, and that will automatically work with the setup above (though you might want to customise with eventghost). Alternatively, they also come bundled with some PVR cards such as Hauppauge's offerings.
posted by charlie7691 at 5:39 AM on October 5, 2009

I'd skip RAID 5 personally, unless you can demonstrate you need faster writes than a single disk can offer. Instead, just use disk mirroring. It shouldn't cost much CPU and you don't have to worry about crappy cheap controllers failing so hard you can't recover. If you're pushing the limits of physical storage, perhaps a RAID 1+0.

As far as preventative replacement, it's generally impossible to tell. SMART in theory describes the health of a drive, but in practice it's not very reliable. At work our High Availability systems use RAID 6 and we still run into cascading failures during rebuild. But here's the deal: you don't have the only copy of that data; you can always re-rip those DVDs. You shouldn't sweat these too much.
posted by pwnguin at 12:44 PM on October 5, 2009

Best answer: You might want to keep in mind that disks are noisy and generate heat. It's much better if the machine has no storage, so all your media files live on your server (which is in a closet or basement) and are played over the network.

Not worrying about storage means the system can use a compact flash card as its OS disk. If you go in that direction you should not have any swap space, and if possible the "disk" should be mounted readonly, with an overlaid in-mem filesystem to make it writable (see aufs). With no writes to the card it should last indefinitely.

(An example: my low-power no-moving-parts media PC.)
posted by phliar at 4:03 PM on October 5, 2009 [3 favorites]

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