$250 + spare PCs = ???
November 1, 2005 3:04 PM   Subscribe

I have $250, access to free computer hardware and a yearning to create something cool for my house. What should I do?

I've thought about building a PVR, but I don't watch that much TV and we still have the 13 channel analog cable. I've thought about a media jukebox and that isn't totally off the table yet. I want a fun project that I can brag about to my geek friends. I have a budget of $250 for this project. What sort of cool applications have you seen for spare PCs?

- We have wireless in the house, but I don't have a wireless NIC, so the cost of that would need to be taken out of the $250.
- Linux is cool. Whatever the solution, I'd like there to be linux involved.
posted by bryanzera to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You might look to O'Reilly's Smart Home Hacks for inspiration (or this article by its author.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 3:17 PM on November 1, 2005

not a spare PC project, but an awesome ~$300 project that I've been wanting to build is the "DIY Projector"

Combine that with a little media jukebox and you've got a home theater.
posted by fishfucker at 3:18 PM on November 1, 2005

Get some dance pads and run StepMania!

It runs on Windows or Linux and it could be combined with the PVR idea.
posted by sveskemus at 3:37 PM on November 1, 2005

Voice controlled kitchen computer?

(say you're cooking/cleaning - it's easier to issue a voice command to change the song that's playing or turn on the lights or display the next page of a recipe than it is to go wash & dry your hands first then to it manually)
posted by PurplePorpoise at 3:44 PM on November 1, 2005

something i've been thinking of doing for some time is a reactive(?) image. something rectangular that sits on the wall, in a frame, which changes, in some way, according to its surroundings. recently i saw this hardware, which seemed suitable, and which is within your budget.
posted by andrew cooke at 4:09 PM on November 1, 2005

What I have running on my little linux server:

LAMP: Linux, Apache, MySQL, PERL. These are the things that enable good stuff to happen. Choose whatever distro you like (I'm currently using Gentoo, but Ubuntu and Mandriva are good for those starting out. Most every distro should either have Apache2, MySQL and PERL included or make it easy to download and install them. They'll also include (or make it easy to download) Xorg, on which you can run a desktop like for a graphical interface.

Samba is the next step, which will allow you to use your machine as a file server compatible with Windows file sharing. Just connect through My Network Places on Windows or the Network icon in the Mac OS X Finder, enter your login and password, and it's like having an external hard drive. Of course, you can bypass Samba by using scp (or FTP) to copy files if you wish, but Samba makes sharing files on your network easy.

Calliope is an open source MP3/Ogg jukebox that's simply wonderful. It has a web interface that runs on your server that works like "Party Shuffle" in iTunes, creating random playlists on the fly and then allowing you to add tunes that you pick from your collection to the queue of tracks to listen to. While it outputs through your sound card, it'll even stream them remotely as your own private radio if you install Icecast.

mt-daapd is software that takes that same MP3 collection that you have on your server and makes it available to remote machines on your network running iTunes. It's completely seamless (your server shows up like a normal iTunes share) and it works great.

Next, you can get your machine playing movies with MPlayer. Lots of people like VLC for that, but MPlayer integrates well into other media jukebox applications (and looks prettier, honestly). For ripping and burning, you may want to look into K3B. You may want to look into getting a universal remote for your box and LIRC if your box has an ir port (or take an IR port and universal remote out of your budget if it doesn't).

You may want to look into MythTV or FreeVo even if you don't want to watch TV -- both will manage your video library for you and give you a nice user interface to output through the TV-out of your server (if you have one).

I don't do it myself, but you can also control appliances using an X10 kit and linux software for it and engage in full-home automation. The Smart Home Hacks mentioned above make great use of that kind of gear.
posted by eschatfische at 4:11 PM on November 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

You can get a decent touchscreen on eBay for around that price: make a touchscreen-controlled media center. FreeVo would work great for this. You can mount it on a wall, on an arm, in a coffee table... it's definately the thing in my flat that gets the biggest "wow" but then most of my friends are geeks.

Buy a second-hand XBox and install Linux / Xbox MC / Mame on it.

Digital photo frame.
posted by blag at 4:24 PM on November 1, 2005

The key with a media center is that if it's in your living room, you need it to be quiet, and not output a huge ton of heat. A tough combination to achieve.

I say this not to discourage you, but to suggest considering how much the fan noise of an always-on media center will bother you if you do not have the money/means to make it a really quiet PC. If you go and make the thing and find it's loud and annoying - you've spent your time and money for something you may end up just shutting off.

However - if you come up with really cool ideas for keeping it quiet and cool - I'd love to hear about them! I want a media center PC, but haven't had the time to research making something quietish.. :-)
posted by twiggy at 5:35 PM on November 1, 2005

I've always wanted to make a Mame-arcade cabinet. You'd have to find or build a cabinet, and the controls, but Mame will run fine on old equipment.
posted by Jomoma at 6:20 PM on November 1, 2005

I built a MAME cabinet. It's a fun project though you need access to some power tools to make the cabinet. If you can find a cheap 19inch + monitor and limit your controls to a couple of joysticks and some buttons you should be able to do it for $250.00. I added a spinner and a trackball, which jacked the cost up a bit.

If you don't want to make a cabinet you could just make a control panel, or just spend your $250.00 on an X-Arcade panel.

PC equipment: free

Controls: $250.00

Watching your three year old finish the first level of Marble Madness: Priceless.
posted by bondcliff at 6:38 PM on November 1, 2005

Better yet with the MAME idea, do what me and a friend did. We found an arcade collector and took an old hell-fire cabinet off his hands for $20.

After that we spent something like:

$20 paint
$40 ipac (convert buttons to keyboard)
$75 19" crt from goodwill
$40 computer parts from goodwill

So for $175 we had a sweet cabinet. Of course this plan is dependent upon finding a cheap arcade cabinet in pretty good shape.
posted by meta87 at 9:22 PM on November 1, 2005

Make that $195, my math is weak.
posted by meta87 at 9:23 PM on November 1, 2005

Girder is an automation application indispensable to build anything from a PVR to a full-blown media center to a very sophisticated remote control of any and all appliances in the house. While it does run under Window$, it is probable the best software investment I've ever made. Truly great technology at very reasonable prices.
posted by magullo at 2:42 AM on November 2, 2005

(Oh geez - I need more coffee. Anyway, I hope you get the idea)
posted by magullo at 2:47 AM on November 2, 2005

Right now Gateway connected DVD players are going for about 25 bucks on ebay. I have one and I love it. I use my main PC as a PVR and can then stream the captured content to the Gateway DVD player in another room. You can also stream MP3s and photos. You could also look into something like the Netgear Wireless Digital Media Player. (I use Netgear's Media Server Software to stream content to the Gateway). More info on media servers here.

I'd never heard of Girder...gonna have to check that out.
posted by Otis at 5:32 AM on November 2, 2005

Check out Mr. House
posted by jackofsaxons at 6:40 AM on November 2, 2005

twiggy, if you want to know all there is about quieting a PC, check out Silent PC Review.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:55 AM on November 2, 2005

Or use a fanless Mini-ITX board for your PC and an external (laptop-style) power supply. The only noise you'll hear is the hard disc spinning.
posted by blag at 3:32 PM on November 2, 2005

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