I’ve been looking for an upgrade to my Xbox 360 used as a Windows Media Center Extender from my beastly desktop computer in my bedroom. The reasons for this are numerous. I’ve struggled with networking issues, Media Center native codec compatibility, and a lack of plugins. The Xbox 360 is and will remain an outstanding Media Center Extender, but I craved more features. My budget was around $300, and I achieved this but I did so by taking a couple components from my desktop that wouldn’t be needed there anymore. I initially looked at the various Intel Atom offerings now that they’ve paired up with Nvidia ION and they make a decent showing, but I’m an AMD fanboy through and through. When I heard they had this new “APU” out, it reminded me of the Athlon days when they combined the memory controller and CPU on one die. That really was the last time AMD really trumped Intel. Hoping this was the first step in AMD knocking Intel off it’s high pedestal, I wiped the tears of nostalgia off my face and got cracking on component selection.
For the motherboard, I just went with the absolute cheapest I could find. This one came in at $110 on Newegg and the next cheapest were $140-$150 and offered a few extra features like USB 3.0 but I wasn’t sold on them. This has one eSata on the back, which is good enough for me for future storage expansion. They all pack the same 1.6Ghz dual core E350 codenamed Zacate APU, or Accelerated Processing Unit. It combines an AMD Radeon HD 6310 GPU on the same die as the CPU.
Cheap is the key word here. I originally went with some Corsair XMS2, but got a bad stick and returned it to Amazon, but I was impatient so I found this at Fry’s Electronics for the same price as Amazon. Memory speed isn’t important, as the E350 tops out at DDR3 1066Mhz. You could theoretically overclock the CPU to make the memory run at the rated speeds, but honestly to me, it’s not worth the risk. I wanted to get the cheapest 2X2Gb of DDR3 I could find with a heat spreader. The reason being, the case I selected doesn’t have any fans, so I wanted to err on the side of safety.
I decided to combine an SSD for the boot disk with a large secondary traditional drive for media storage. I chose the ADATA Sandforce 64GB for it’s size/speed price combination. 64GB seemed like plenty of space for the current OS (Windows 7) plus essential applications and future iterations. The 40GB version would also work of course, but the 64 wasn’t much more at $120. This drive is lightning fast too. It has a max read speed of 280MB/s and a write speed of an outstanding 270MB/s. Most in this price range have a write speed of around 50MB/s. The drive also comes with a 2.5 to 3.5in conversion bracket with is always handy.
I went with a shuttle style Mini ITX case for the size, and storage. This case, at under $80, has one 5.25in external bay as well as two 3.5in bays which means enough space for my SSD and my 2TB storage drive. It also came bundled with an ample 200W power supply.
I happened to have one of these in my desktop storing my movie and TV collection so I just swapped it into the new case. I always go High RPM/High Cache for hard drives and this one had 32mb at 7200rpm which was pretty high at the time.
You can find cheaper drives, but this one has double the cache than most and a faster read time, which for Blu-rays can be substantial. At $70, you end up spending about $10 more for the added speed, not too bad. This was another component that I already had in my desktop so that I could rip Blu-rays.
Again, another component that I salvaged from my desktop to devote to the new dedicated HTPC. There really isn’t much to say about this card other than it’s the only currently available new CableCARD compatible card for Media Center. That is to say, you can find an old ATI Digital Cable Tuner card on ebay, but nothing new, and we’re still waiting on SiliconDust’s response to Ceton’s wondercard. Sure it’s expensive, but if you want to watch all of you cable content on your PC, there really isn’t another choice. Also, $100 per tuner isn’t that bad when you compare it to it’s ATSC/ClearQAM cousins.
After throwing it all together and running some basic tests I’m pretty impressed with the little box. I’ve always heard that disk I/O is more important for Media Center snappiness than any other element, and this seems to be true. All in all, I spent about $360 to complete this build, but including all of the above components my net cost is $930. That is to say, under $1,000 for a box that will do everything…to me, that’s not such a terrible price to pay. Some of the components have gotten a little cheaper since I built it, so you may have better results.
The bottleneck is of course the CPU. The little 1.6Ghz dual core low voltage CPU tends to run at 100% when doing a combination of multiple moderate intensity tasks. I noticed that when I was downloading Windows Updates, running the initial Microsoft Security Essentials scan, and installing a couple other programs while browsing the interwebs that the CPU was pegged at 100% for a solid 20-30min. Continued use I found the power of the CPU to be sufficient for daily tasks like browsing while watching something in Media Center.
The important thing is that Media Center is very fast. The combination of the Radeon HD 6310 and SSD hard drive seems to be a good one. Media Browser is quick and actually works well…unlike the 360. The major drawback of all of this is Netflix. Standard definition content seems to be fine, however when you switch to something in HD, although it’s a very clear, crisp image, it stutters continuously.
I also ran ESPN 3 from Firefox 4 and didn’t have any problems after the initial buffer. It stuttered at first but after about 5min it smoothed out, so I attribute that minor glitch to a lack of network bandwidth.
Yep, it’s a short little review, but I’ve had some struggles with Comcast, PlayReady DRM issues and personal time constraints. Still, I wanted to get an initial post up so you guys can get the feel of it. I’m going to work on a more thorough followup including test results for graphics, disk performance, Media Center performance etc.
All in all, it seems to be a fantastic little box at an excellent value. I could see myself building one of these for a friend. I might not give them the $1k build, sure…but for around $400 you can create a 1TB version with the same SSD, mobo/APU, and case. Most people I know are tied to their cable company’s VOD platform anyhow, so a $400 tuner card would be a tough sell. I’d reccomend this platform to anyone looking for a low cost solution to building a dedicated Media Center/do it all Wonderbox.