I can haz media centre?
October 25, 2009 6:14 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to build the world's cheapest media center PC. Budget is teensy.

My roomate and I decided we'd like to get rid of our monster TV and the cabinet it came in (left by a former roomate). We don't watch TV but do enjoy a DVD, maybe once a week. The TV was never hooked up to an antenna or cable. We also both love music A LOT.

I was thinking that we can sell the cabinet (and the somewhat crapped out TV) on craigslist...and maybe get $150 or a little more than that for the two of them.

My idea is that we could get a cheap ebay dell ($50ish) and a cheap LCD ($100ish) Mounting the whole thing on some sort of rolling cart, with speakers attached. Installing Linux on it, and using this to play DVDs, music, youtube and things like that. Oh and I'd probably install a cheap big hard drive, there's a lot of music floating around our other computers.

I searched online quite a bit but mostly found people who are looking to do Tivo kind of stuff, which is not a priority for us at all. My main concern is that DVDs look reasonably good on screen. Our TV was crappy but ideally the color on the LCD would look good and it would not be choppy.

Suggestions of computers (is this Dell overkill for what we need, or undergill) LCDs (would we be terribly dissapointed with a cheepy) and software (Windows is a possibility too, and what programs would you run on this?). Also alternatives to this whole plan would be good too. I'd also consider modding a xbox off ebay. You can consider me moderately handy with computers and OS stuff.

posted by sully75 to Computers & Internet (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Decent colour on an LCD panel really requires an IPS screen of some sort: these are significantly more expensive than ordinary TFTs. You can use a bottom of the barrel screen, but don't expect the colour to be all that impressive.

There are also noise issues to consider: one advantage of an old xbox is that it'll probably be quieter than any $50 Ebay Dell box.
posted by pharm at 7:08 AM on October 25, 2009

Make sure the video card in that Dell is capable of 16:9 screen resolutions.

Why linux? It sounds like you want to keep this whole project low-maintenance. I'd just use Win XP; there might even be a windows COA sticker on the side of the Dell, so all you need is install media.

I have a Windows Vista box as my HTPC. I picked up a Logitech wireless keyboard and mouse (IR with a USB receiver) for I think $20 on eBay. Works great from the couch.

I typically play media with Windows Media Player, but occasionally it has trouble keeping video and audio playback synchronized, so I'll switch over to VLC, which works great.

The monitor you linked to won't be able to go up to 1080p, so if you're thinking about a Blu-ray drive (or just hi-def in general), this might not be the best monitor for the job. Also, you said you'd be disappointed in a cheepy -- this monitor doesn't inspire confidence in me.
posted by ben242 at 7:13 AM on October 25, 2009

I'm in the process of this right now. I bought a Dell Optiplex DX260 off of eBay for 50 bucks (P4, 2.4ghz and 512mb ram), installed XBMC for Windows on it (I'm running XP) and hooked it up to my plasma screen. Runs absolutely fine although I'm now streaming any HD stuff. I also don't have a dedicated video card.

Can't comment on your screen as I'm using a TV for that (or DVDs as I haven't tried that yet) but a low end PC should run XBMC fine.
posted by gfrobe at 7:51 AM on October 25, 2009

Why linux? It sounds like you want to keep this whole project low-maintenance. I'd just use Win XP; there might even be a windows COA sticker on the side of the Dell, so all you need is install media.

My guess would be cost; Ubuntu or another Linux distro can easily and legally be gotten for free.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:25 AM on October 25, 2009

Check out XBMC, in particularly, their "live" version, which runs on linux, but boots directly into XBMC off a USB stick. It has a decent DVD player, and can play all sorts of media off of a HDD or file-share. The hardware requirements are pretty modest, but I found that Live doesn't include drivers for my aging NForce2 motherboards on-board video, but you can also install it on Ubuntu, or even windows. There is also Boxee, and free but commercial XBMC derivative that has added a lot of specific support for streaming web video.

One caveat on Linux is that the Linux flash plugin is supposed to be a complete pig, which may matter if you want to start watching streaming web video.
posted by Good Brain at 10:06 AM on October 25, 2009

Keep in mind that that $50 Dell box is really $78 if you actually want it to be shipped somewhere. This leaves you with less money for the LCD, and no hard drive.
posted by oaf at 11:17 AM on October 25, 2009

That LCD is tiny, which might bother you more than you expect. If it was me, I might consider just using the existing TV with a DVD player, or buying a CRT TV off craigslist (they're really cheap now, since everyone is going HD).

You should be able to stretch that $100 a bit farther than that monitor if you check deals sites. I use deals2buy and gottadeal. There is a 20" widescreen monitor on deals2buy for $100.

If you can somehow scrape together another $100, you can get this dell 24" monitor, which is also the correct aspect ratio (16:9 instead of 16:10) for movies.
posted by !Jim at 3:13 PM on October 25, 2009

Why the desire for a rolling cart setup? Is your place big enough that a devoted console setup wouldn't work for your living room?
posted by craven_morhead at 10:36 AM on October 26, 2009

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