Recomendations for a small, cheap, home media center
January 20, 2005 10:02 AM   Subscribe

Macmini alternatives. I was considering purchasing a Mac Mini to make it a relatively inexpensive home media center, but after upgrading the hard drive to 80GB, adding Bluetooth for a wireless keyboard & mouse, buying the wireless keyboard & mouse, adding 802.11g for home networking, etc the $499 price tag was closer to $850 or more. Can anyone recommend a Windows box manufacturer who makes small form factor PCs for this kind of application?
posted by jonson to Computers & Internet (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I purchased a $450. media dedicated intel machine to use in a stereo rack and was very disappointed by how poorly everything worked together and how difficult it was to set up (and I do IT stuff for mac / PC / Linux all day) Everything was clunky and had different interfaces, many of which didn't work with the remote control. So my advice is that if you really want to do it on a PC, wait until they smooth it out a bit or be prepared to spend more money. Also, when you spec out the PC with the features you described - the price will be higher too, maybe not as high as the mac with all that, but close.

Doing a search for Media PC on Froogle will get you most of the options for PC media center cases, and perhaps some of the more expensive ones are nicely integrated and use solid software.

I hope no one will mind if I point out is some good reading for media PC info.

----- ignore if mac is absolutely out of the question -----

After that experience, I set up a very simple system on an old blue and white G3 and have had no problems with it at all, the simple keyspan remote works fine in every app, everything plays smoothly and I can control it via remote applescript from any other room.
posted by milovoo at 10:29 AM on January 20, 2005

It's certainly possible to get a PC for cheaper than a Mac, but as milovoo said, I haven't seen very good experiences on the Windows side without spending $$$.

I saw an Alienware box running some media center stuff, and it was kind of neat -- until I found out how much it cost, and it suddenly seemed much less cool.
posted by jragon at 10:32 AM on January 20, 2005

Here and here.
posted by juiceCake at 10:34 AM on January 20, 2005

Here and here.

True enough, although that S-Presso PC, in a fairly conservative configuration (DVD-read only, default processor, etc) is $650.
and that's without wireless or any operating system. It does look like a nice machine if you were planning to spend the $850. anyway.
posted by milovoo at 11:01 AM on January 20, 2005

Wow, I also followed juiceCake's links and was surprised to find that with truly comparable specs, the MacMini comes out to about the same price!
posted by gwint at 11:10 AM on January 20, 2005

Relevant Ask Slashdot
posted by AmaAyeRrsOonN at 11:17 AM on January 20, 2005

For the record, you can use any wireless keyboard and mouse, which would probably be cheaper than the bluetooth, (which gets you coming and going).
posted by smackfu at 11:24 AM on January 20, 2005

I would recommend any other wireless mouse over Apple's bluetooth mouse. Get something with a scroll wheel and/or extra buttons, AND save yourself some cash.
posted by Remy at 11:26 AM on January 20, 2005

I've been wondering how well a Blutooth FrogPad would work as a remote (and occasional keyboard) for a media machine. Seems like a nice simple solution for preventing yet another remote. I'll probably pick one up one of these days to try it out.

I do often wish that there was a very small bluetooth keyboard with built-in trackball or isopointer thingie and multimedia keys.
posted by milovoo at 11:38 AM on January 20, 2005

Are the many cube-ish pc cases, like the ones from Shuttle, unacceptable? There are lots of barebones cube-ish systems avail. at newegg for all sorts of processors.

It won't be specially intended for playing media, but throw in a video card with tv-out and you should be good to go. Lord knows there seem to be enough open-source programs for playing media on XP and linux boxes.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:21 PM on January 20, 2005

Best answer: X-BOX, X-BOX, X-BOX.

Did I mention X-BOX? How about X-BOX? X-BOX? X-BOX.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:43 PM on January 20, 2005 [1 favorite]

What Civil_Disobedient said. Ever since I saw what a good friend's (modded) X-box could do, I've been dying to get one. Alas, I am on a budget, and said friend has not offered to give it to me. How rude!
posted by willpie at 2:01 PM on January 20, 2005

Wait until the updated X-BOX comes out and the price drops to sub-$100 levels. That's an entire media system with network capabilities priced at a fifth of most budget computers.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:11 PM on January 20, 2005

What do you want to do with this media center? The main question is whether you require TV-in (which means ixnay on the X-box), but whether you want digital-audio-out, whether you want to play games on it, etc. are also relevant questions. Also, how important is size? Would you only be happy with mini-itx, or would SFF suffice?

Also, and I hope I'm not derailing the thread, but if you don't plan to go the universal remote route, I would strongly recommend an Ahanix Imon (I don't think it's made any more, but they're currently discounted at over its ATI and Streamzap competitors. I would also recommend Hauppage TV cards over their ATI competitors.
posted by box at 2:15 PM on January 20, 2005

Oh, and you know that the X-BOX Media Center can grab movie info from IMDB, right? And Amazon album reviews? And display the local weather? As well as play all your legacy games (from Atari 2600 to Nintendo to Genesis to upright Consoles)?

And box is only sort-of correct about the TV time-shifting. Thing is, the X-BOX has built-in ethernet. Even if you build your own dedicated computer, you're still going to have to buy a TV Card. Why not just throw it into one of your already paid for computer, then stream all the stuff over to your X-BOX? That's right, the X-BOX supports full video/audo streaming.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:18 PM on January 20, 2005

Sorry for the post-a-thon, I keep thinking of more stuff.

For about $15, you get optical-out, which means you can hook the X-BOX right up to your Dolby 5.1 amp. And naturally, the XBMC supports HDTV resolutions. You can even buy pre-modded systems with upgraded CPUs to handle 1920x1080 interlaced videos. A stand-alone DVD player that can handle such resolutions would cost you about $200.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:35 PM on January 20, 2005

Wow, great stuff c_d. And for you Microsoft haters out there, doesn't MS lose money on every X-BOX? So buying one is actually taking money out of their pockets? Of course the whole idea for them is to "own the livingroom", but...
posted by gwint at 3:43 PM on January 20, 2005

Could we not say "small form factor" when "small" will do?
posted by fixedgear at 4:32 PM on January 20, 2005

doesn't MS lose money on every X-BOX?

Not exactly, since they've already paid for them to be built.

Microsoft really blew it, though. Their X-Box 2 system is supposed to link-up somehow with XP Media Center, but this is way too little, way too late, and way to proprietary. XBMC can already play OGG, MKV, XViD, DIVX, MP3, AVI, MOV, WMV, etc., etc., etc. Microsoft can't go supporting non-DRM'd filetypes that compete directly with WMV, so anything they create is going to be automatically inferior. Too bad, so sad.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:36 PM on January 20, 2005

I ended my search for a media center PC when I found out what xbox media center could do. Now that I've had it for a few months, I'm a total convert. It's an amazingly capable and powerful little unit for only costing a couple hundred bucks with mods.

I'm going to write a full review for PVRblog soon, with screenshots and whatnot.
posted by mathowie at 4:41 PM on January 20, 2005

Matt, I've beat this drum every time someone asks this question. Hopefully your write-up will get more feet-a-tappin'. I'm looking forward to it.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:11 PM on January 20, 2005

Response by poster: I'm SO into this XBOX Media Center, thanks guys (and especially thanks C_D)! Any good recs for the best place to buy a modded box if I want to use it for this purpose? To be specific, I don't need a timeshifter, I just want video & audio OUT to the TV. And given my tech capabilities, buying a modded box with the software already installed & configured would be immensely preferable. Hey, can an XMC still play XBOX games? I assume so, but just checking. Also, fixedgear, in this case "small" could have referred to the capacity of the hard drive, I was just trying to be clear.
posted by jonson at 7:46 PM on January 20, 2005

I'm following this question also. I second jonson's request for recommendations for places to buy the xbox media center.

I do want to timeshift. So, I'll throw a tv card in my pc. Any favorite cards civil disobedient?
posted by ?! at 8:13 PM on January 20, 2005

Any good recs for the best place to buy a modded box if I want to use it for this purpose?

Ok, this is going to be slightly lengthy, but it's necessary in order to help you out.

Your normal X-BOX works just like a computer. You start it up, the motherboard and CPU get basic operating information from the BIOS, then if a game is inserted, it loads the game, or if nothing is in the DVD drive, a general operating system called the dashboard loads up from the built-in hard drive.

Now, the X-BOX bios is designed to only allow programs to load that are signed by Microsoft Corp. What a modded X-BOX does is effectively replace the old BIOS with a new one that allows any code to run.

There are many different kinds of modded BIOS's out there, and many different dashboards. Think of the dashboard like the operating system. The X-BOX Media Center is an application--a program that runs under this operating system.

If you're not afraid of getting your hands a little dirty, you can buy the mod chip and install it yourself. Some require soldering. Others are solderless. You can also upgrade the hard drive (the stock HD is about 10 gigs, but the sky's the limit). One company--Friendtech--has even gone so far as to upgrade the CPU and L2 memory on the X-BOX.

The problem is that, for legal reasons, nobody can install any software on the system. The only way these X-BOX modders are able to stay in business is because they don't release any compiled software. See, in order to compile the software, you'd have to have a license from Microsoft and use their developer's SDK. Naturally, nobody does this--they just get the software off the internet in various shady areas. SuprNova used to be great for this. I'm sure Loki Torrents has the latest XBMC to download.

If you just want something that works right away, I recommend getting a premodded system. These guys are really good. I would personally recommend the Xenium systems because they're the easiest to get started with.

I've left literally tons and tons of information out of this. If you've got a spare weekend, you might want to go through these tutorials, or if you just want to cut to the chase, these how-to's.

Hey, can an XMC still play XBOX games?

Technically, XBMC isn't playing the games. But yes, you can still play the games just fine. In fact, you can also play [ahem] back-ups. The only catch is that X-BOX Live functionality will not work. MS has systems in place to detect modified X-BOXes, and will ban your computer if you try playing with a modded BIOS. There are plenty of ways around this, however (most involve simply turning off the new BIOS for a short time, but there are other options).

Any favorite cards civil disobedient?

box's recommendation of Hauppauge cards is right-on. The 250 or 350 have been tested with SnapStream's Beyond TV service with multiple tuner configurations. To be clear: you could record, say, 6 different channels at the same time.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:43 PM on January 20, 2005

Thanks, C_D--I hadn't thought of using the TV card in another computer and streaming video to the X-box.

And now that this has become an XBMC thread, what kinds of options are there when it comes to X-box remotes?
posted by box at 9:06 AM on January 21, 2005

You're going to need an IR reciever, so you might as well use the reciever/remote bundle that comes with MS's own DVD Kit. It's cheap, it's durable, and it works.

Note, however, that once you have the IR reciever jacked in, you can use just about any universal remote. Also note that you can't remotely turn off the X-BOX without installing a hack like this.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:51 AM on January 21, 2005

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