My MediaPC Setup

I spent the past six months getting my home media center configuration up and running and tuned, and had a number of requests for info on how I did it.  Here’s the recipe for my configuration:

The Requirements

When I set out to build this system, I had the following requirements:

  • Ability to watch our DVD collection from any room in the house (that had a TV)
  • Ability to stream our music collection from any room in the house
  • Ability to view digital photos from any room in the house
  • Ability to use the web with the TVs
  • Must have a very high WAF (wife acceptance factor)

I spent a bunch of time on the internet reviewing the options (avsforum.com is a great resources, as is thegreenbutton.com), and decided on the following configuration:

  • Windows Media Center 2005 PC in the family room
  • Mac Mini PC in the bedroom
  • A central network attached storage (from Buffalo) device for my storage of all of the media
  • A Logitech Harmony remote to address the WAF

With those decisions made, let’s get into the specifics.

Network

When I was in the process of a remodel, I opted to run Cat5e cable throughout my home since the walls were already open.  I then hooked up a Cisco/Linksys Gigbit switch in the garage, where all of the cables dead-end.  This gives me gigabit network which will more than accomodate multiple DVD viewings in different rooms in the house.  That said, I’ve read that other people have had success with some of the higher-end wireless routers (min. 54Mbps and above), so tearing up your walls isn’t necessarily a requirement.  You might also opt to simply store your media locally on the media pc, in which case there aren’t heavy DVD network requirements.

Storage

For my storage device, I opted for the Buffalo Terrastation.  This has pretty good capacity to get you started (funny, given that a 1000GBs wasn’t imaginable not too long ago), and it is a rock-solid device.  It took me about three minutes to set-up (plugin, connect to switch, login to admin from laptop, configure for RAID1 and fixed IP, done).  In the six months or so that I’ve had it running, I haven’t had any issues with it.  Unfortunately, with RAID1 configured, I’m down to about 700GB, and I’m almost full.  I’ll be buying another one shortly.

The Windows Media Center PC

The family room has a 50" plasma, and I wanted to make this the primary viewing room.  I opted for Windows Media Center as this was in the days prior to Mac’s FrontRow, and frankly, WMC had high WAF.  I ended-up building this PC from scratch, which in hindsight, was a mistake.  You can buy decent PCs now off-the-shelf from HP and other brands, and that’s the recommendation I’d make.  You need to make sure it comes with a USB-based IR receiver, for use with the remote (the whole point of a Media PC is no mouse/keyboard if you want high WAF).

After some trials with this box, its pretty stable and produces beautiful video and surround sound.  The first day we had this thing working, it was similar to the first day we had Tivo working (that "Aha" moment).  On the Tivo-front, there weren’t any cards out there that could capture HD Cable or DirecTV, so we’re still using an HD Tivo for PVR purposes.

This system is driven by the Logitech remote.  This is a great buy, and super easy to use.  I don’t like the bricks out there (Pronto, Crestron, …), so the peanut-shell style is convenient and worth a look (whether youre using a media pc or just need a universal remote).

Mac Mini HTPC

The Mac Mini is used upstairs in our bedroom.  This was selected because it was so small, and we were primarily going to use it for just movies anyway.  Once I had made the decision to use the central NAS, I also didn’t need to worry about local drive size, which is somewhat limited in the mac mini format.  This connect to the NAS, and I’m able to play back moview over it on an LCD monitor.  Video quality isn’t as nice as the media pc setup, but good enough.

Summary

It’s only a matter of time before we all have one of these setups in our house.  Its just like Tivo in convenience, although more flexible in usage options (web browing, email, etc…) given its a full-blown PC.