Atom-based Media Center: Part 1

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I elected to give myself a little project this weekend and it started with this small mountain of boxes:

Boxes, boxes, boxes.

Don’t worry, there’s a method to my madness. It isn’t often my crazy ideas have a purpose, so this time I’m making an exception. I also promised to share some of my experiences with a friend of mine who was interested in the project so he could freeload some information share in the learning experience.

The idea started about two weeks ago when I was mulling over some way of providing my mother with an entertainment system that could replace a few aging devices. Since she’ll be having back surgery next week, I figured it would be much easier for her to contend with a single device than to muck about with several. Plus, she has an old video cassette recorder that is on the verge of going wherever it is electronics go when they pass on into the afterlife, and it occurred to me that bringing her kicking and screaming into the digital age might not be such a bad idea. She’s in desperate need for a video recorder of sorts and being as I inherited her frugal nature, I wasn’t about to purchase a TiVo unit for her. TiVos are too limited anyway. She needs a relatively decent computer to sub-in for the period of time she won’t be able to sit at an actual desk. Plus, with her “real” computer being in an upstairs room and her refusal to let us bring it downstairs, I started mulling over a solution.

So far, I’m fairly impressed. There have been some teething problems–the project is still a work-in-progress–hence I’ll be posting this DIY walk-through in multiple parts.

A Small Mountain of Parts

Before I link the roughly two dozen pictures of my little project in various stages of construction, I’d like to share the list of parts I selected specifically for this project. While I will be including approximate prices next to each component, please be aware that the cost of commodity parts changes so dramatically (and frequently) that 1) you might not be able to find these components and 2) component prices are guaranteed to be in a state of flux. If you purchase the exact same items, you might wind up paying more or less than I did depending on promotions, product supply, and our good old pal “demand.”

If you’re more interested in my review of these components, you might wish to skip ahead.

Component Est. Price Comments
Athenatech Glossy Black Mini-ITX Tower $47.99 Includes a 150 watt power supply.
LITE-ON iHAS124-04 SATA CD/DVD Burner (black) $28.99 OEM.
Logitech Cordless Desktop S520 (black) $59.99 Retail.
CORSAIR 1GB DDR2 533 (PC2 4200) $19.99 Cheap enough to be a steal.
Anyware GP-IR01BK MCE Remote (black) $24.99 Includes IR receiver.
D-Link DWA-140 USB 2.0 Wireless Adapter $48.99 Retail.
Intel Atom 330 + Intel 945GC Mini ITX Motherboard/CPU Combo (BOXD945GCLF2D) $71.99 Retail. CPU included; dual core + x64 extensions.
Link Depot 1.64 ft. Mini SATA II $2.79 Retail. Wish I bought two; the one included with the motherboard was almost too long.
Seagate Barracuda 160GiB SATA 3.5″ Drive (ST3160813AS) $39.99 OEM. Want more than double the space? Pay $20 more.
TRIPP LITE 550 VA 300 Watts UPS $49.99 Some with RS232 data cable.

The grand total, plus shipping, was a little over $400. I was expecting to spend about $200 on the motherboard, so my estimated budget was between $500-600. I haven’t purchased a video capture card yet precisely because I wanted to test the system out first. Thus, video capture will be covered in part 3. The plus side is that I can spend a little more on the card given that I’m about $100 below cost.

I could have gotten away with spending less than $300 on this system if I hadn’t purchased the UPS, used an existing hard disk, possibly delayed purchasing an IR remote, and used an existing keyboard/mouse setup. Eliminating these would have resulted in a cost of about $270 and doing without the USB wireless adapter would’ve reduced the cost to just a little over $200. Here’s my rationale for making this large a purchase:

  • My existing spare hard disks aren’t SATA; they’re PATA drives. PATA ribbon cables are notorious for blocking airflow and rounded cables often come in the maximum allowable length for ATA/133: 18 inches. Guess what mini-ITX cases don’t have a lot of?
  • I could have purchased a larger disk. For a meager $20 more, 500GiB Seagates are a real steal. I chose to shave off some of the cost on this component because I think 500GiB would have been a bit excessive. We’ll see.
  • The UPS is a necessity. My mum’s LCD television was plugged in to nothing more than a power strip. $50 could save several hundred dollars in costly repairs and replacements.
  • The Anyware remote was a fairly cheap investment that includes a really good IR receiver. The remote isn’t all that great (more on this later–this was a slight mistake).
  • Existing keyboards and mice don’t have cables that are quite long enough to reach where my mother would be using this system. I also wanted to avoid an unnecessary tripping hazard given her temporary handicap. Her cats also have a penchant for chewing peripheral cables if they get annoyed. (Oddly, they leave power cables and network cables alone–I guess they know what carries a nasty current and hwat doesn’t.)
  • I wasn’t about to route 50′ or more of networking cable from the network switch (in another room), over (or under) the porch door, over (or under) another door, and then pray that it doesn’t look too tacky or cause someone to trip. The inside walls of my parents’ living room are stuccoed and running cable through them is out of the question. Wireless network devices are a must.

As you can see, I had a few constraints to work with. I certainly could have worked around them, but given how cheap the Atom processors are it’s almost senseless to cut corners and risk delaying the final product because something I had sitting around didn’t work. For example: Imagine if I stuck an old hard disk in the box, put in hours and hours of time getting the media center tweaked just right–and then it dies! Sure, new disks can die, but at least I can RMA it! Using an old spare that kicks the bucket would mean I’d be out the funds anyway and the shipping time.

Let’s take a look at the pile of parts and get started with the box itself, shall we?

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2 Responses to “Atom-based Media Center: Part 1”

  • Grimblast writes:

    Took me awhile to get around to reading this but very informative! Your shopping list of hardware and the picture examples were a lot better than some of the sites I read on the topic of mythtv type boxes and hardware. It helps to have visual examples and it’s too bad a lot of pages dont seem to be very creative in that sense. I look forward to seeing the next part about the software.

    I’ve started saving up to get some of the hardware so this way I can start building sooner rather than later.

  • Benjamin writes:

    One thing I think I didn’t stress much in the article is that the Intel 945-based boards are a little under powered (or feel that way). The NVIDIA Ion systems might be a bit more appropriate, but I haven’t found one that has a decent expansion option! I’m hoping this will change. All things considered, though, the Atom 330 + i945 is a pretty decent mix for a basic HTPC. It probably won’t do HD well and flash movies are a little jerky (maybe it’s just the Youtube videos–some of them are pretty awful quality-wise).

    If you want something a little more powerful, there’s a lot of mini-ATX boards out there that support Core 2 systems–I even found one by SuperMicro that’s based on the Atom. Though, one thing about the Core boxes–they can’t beat the Atom when it comes to power consumption. I think the processor idles at about 8 watts.

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