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Media Center PC (Friday, February 9, 2007)

As usual, I've gone several weeks without posting. There are many things afoot, but in this post, I'm going to talk about my latest acquisition. Several years ago, I purchased a PC with the intention of hooking it up to my HDTV. I wanted to be able to convert my VHS to VCD, watch downloaded videos on my TV, and listen to my collection of MP3s on my stereo system. Needless to say, my goals were way ahead of the technology of the time. I was able to use the TV-out from the video card to connect to the TV... but only with an NTSC signal, not an HD signal, which meant that it was impossible to actually read any text on the screen at any meaningful resolution. I bought a box that was supposed to convert from VGA into component RGB, but it required custom timings which I was never able to get working. I had a video capture card with a break-out box, which worked, sort of, briefly, and then stopped. I got a nice wireless keyboard, which was the only true highlight of the system, but after several years, it stopped working — and yes, I tried replacing the batteries. The only thing that worked seamlessly was the digital out from the sound card. The other problem is that a noisy tower PC in a generic beige case does not look that great sitting next to a high end A/V system.

So, a little more than a year ago, I purchased a new HDTV and a new stereo system and speakers, and there was no longer room for the ugly failed PC that had been collecting dust on the floor next to the old TV, and the PC was shuffled into semi-retirement in my office/data-center, upstairs.

I had been going along this past year without a PC in the living room, unless you count my laptop, which (unfortunately) has been living on the floor in front of my couch. My laptop runs Ubuntu Linux, which is great for just about everything I do, but (along with the laptop) is wholly inadequate as a media center system. The final straw was my inability to get my laptop to talk to my TV... after many attempts, I finally realized that it has nothing to do with ATI's Linux drivers, and everything to do with the fact that the TV-out on my laptop is dead. Whoops. And I had been set on playing my NES ROMs on the TV, using a NES style controller. As my 20+ year old NES died during emergency surgery a few years ago, ROMs have been my only recourse. The setback with the laptop was a serious let down for me.

Which leads to my new acquisition. Two weeks ago, I ordered a nifty little gadget from RetroZone that allows me to connect one of my perfectly functional original classic NES controllers to my PC as a joystick via USB. Then I realized, as I was still unable to connect my laptop to the TV, it was time for a true media center PC. So, I went to the computer show at the Expo Center, and after much deliberating, purchased a new system. It has a sleek compact black case, an Athlon64 3200+, on-board digital coax audio, a gig of RAM, and a 128 MB NVidia video card (which the salesmen lyingly assured me would run Vista's fancy new interface) with a DVI output.

The DVI output is the really cool part — it allowed me to connect the PC directly to the HDTV, and with only a little fiddling, get full 1280x720p resolution... well maybe not full. There's a fair bit of overscan, but Vista was able to correct for that with only a bit of nudging.

Since I haven't been able to find another wireless keyboard that I like, and since my laptop is always in my lap, I decided to run the new system without a keyboard, and instead connect to it remotely from my laptop as a sort of remote control. (Incidentally, I could get a real remote control from Microsoft that would take care of most of the basic functions of playing music and movies and stuff.)

As for Nintendo games, well, I haven't tried yet. But I will just as soon as I have some time. But the Media Center software is really spiffy — once I got all the hardware set up, I was able to get streaming video in super cool high definition... it was amazing — I don't actually get an HDTV signal with DirecTV, so it was the first time I'd seen a video with this high quality on my new TV. Ice Age 2 in very high definition. Scrat's every twitch in crystal clear awe-inspiring beauty. Very neat.

So my next task (aside from testing out my new joystick interface), is to resurrect that old tower PC, pop in a StarTech.com SATA RAID controller, add a couple of hard drives, and have a network storage system that's perhaps a bit more reliable than the USB hard drive sitting on the floor in my living room. In addition to RAID being more reliable, it has the advantage of, well, not being on the floor in my living room.

After that, it'll be time to find a place to hide the living room laptop when I'm not using it, or when I want to have guests who aren't so into the cyber-punk decor. Some sort of ottoman with storage. It's all very exciting.

—Brian (2/9/2007 02:00 AM)
(1 comments)

Comments

So I don't forget, the motherboard is an ASUS M2N4-SLI which will support Athlon 64 X2 Dual Core 6400+, which is about four times faster than the processor I bought, as well as on board SATA, and gigabit LAN.

-- Brian (2/22/2009 12:55 AM)

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