4 Jan

My Media Center Setup

So the time finally came, TIVO had to go.  No worries, Tivo had a good run – 6 years.  But the analog to digital conversion was not kind to Tivo.  The digital converter box I got to be friends with Tivo, but it just never worked out between them.  Plus, I was wanting more than Tivo could deliver.  I wanted Hulu, Netflix, DVDs, games, etc.  It was time for Tivo to go.

So being a Microsoft kind of guy, the move to Windows 7 Media Center was an easy one.  The hard part was assembling the hardware was all I needed.  Plus being overly Dutch (I’m first generation American, but still) I really wanted to do it on the cheap.  That means cheaper than a comparable Tivo with a year of subscription costs.

I should also note here: I do not subscribe to cable, satellite TV, or even Netflix.  I don’t like monthly fees.  All I have is an antenna, which gives ms about 20 channels (four of which are PBS, which is fine by me).  So even though I get a lot fewer channels, I still like to record programs, sometimes two programs at the same time (double header football games on Fox and CBS).

My Hardware:

The PC: I got a Dell Zino HD (Inspiron 400).  You can get this machine for as little as $250, but after upgrades I ended up spending $400 ($40 was shipping).  I upgraded to a dual-core CPU, got the wireless package, and got the blue cover.  One thing I should have done was upgrade the hard drive.  The default is 250 GB, you can go up to 1 TB.  I’m going to make up the difference with an external hard drive.  I also have a few other computers with a bit over a TB of storage on the network.  Also, I plan on using the HDMI connection to connect to my TV (flat screen) for both picture and sound.

Signal Converter: SiliconDust HDHomeRun 250 ($130). one thing the Zino does not do is take an antenna signal.  This is a dual signal tuner which is exactly what I was looking for.  So the HDHomeRun converts the signal and exports it to your network.   The box also comes with software to install on your computer(s) that will connect your pc and Media Center to the HDHomeRun.  Downside of this approach was that now I needed a small router next to my TV (I don’t have a Cat5 line to my TV).  That wasn’t a big issue for me, I have a spare router.

Remote: Vista MCE Remote Control (VRC-1100). ($22).  Let me say, this was a mistake on my part.  The remote works, but this one kind of stinks.  There is a big round button in the middle that acts as a mouse – which is OK.  But the controls on the top half are all badly positioned.  I like a remote you don’t have to look at to use, this one fails that test.  Buy a better remote than I did.

Done.  Actually, that is all you need.  I spent about $550.  A comparable TiVo would cost $408 plus about a $13 monthly fee, that would run $560 for the first year.  So I don’t feel too bad about how I did.  But do note, this is a basic system.

How does Media Center compare to Tivo (software-y-softare   **cough** mono-y-mono)

I’m comparing Media Center to TiVo Version 2 here.  I don’t have the latest version.

  • I get 2 weeks of programming with Media Center – 3 days with Tivo (I don’t subscribe).
  • TiVo has a way to skip ahead 15 minutes.  I miss that with Media Center.
  • Media Center still plays sound when fast forwarding.  I love that feature.
  • Media Center can skip ahead 15 seconds.  Also a great feature.
  • Lots of Plug-ins for Media Center.  Lots.  TiVo…not so much. (that I know of)
  • Media Center is still Win7, I know what I can do with that.  TiVo is a bit more closed minded.
  • I can view the channel guide and still watch the current program with Media Center.  Then view a single channel, and sort by time or name.  Beautiful.
  • With home network, I can view all of my family pictures stored on other computers.  Same with videos.

Verdict: I’m happy with Media Center.

What is next? Lets start with what I’m missing. 

1.  Surround sound is one.  I need to figure that part out.   But for now I’m keeping my old DVD player and receiver handy (I also have an old receiver that does not take HDMI).  But this system is perfectly fine for all of my kids movies (they don’t like the subwoofer anyway).  But I’d like to find some USB-type surround sound device.

2. BlueRay.  I did not get a BlueRay player…actually, I don’t care about that.  I see BlueRay on the huge displays at stores, I just don’t see enough of difference to care.

3. Xbox 360 Controller.  I also want this box to be a gaming machine.  The more uses I can get of the machine the better.  I’m not serious enough to get really crazy, but a few games here and there would be nice.

4. WebCam?  I have a thought of installing Skype and turning it into a phone as well.  But maybe not.

So, in conclusions, I’ve happy with the Media Center system I was able to put together.  It does what I want, it is extensible, and there are plug-ins to do almost anything else I want (local weather).

11 thoughts on “My Media Center Setup

  1. Hi Chris.
    Great post…
    Im a bit confused about where to go with my setup at the moment though…
    I have just purchased a full HD tv that come with a free xbox elite…
    At the moment that’s all working super, and I have my main PC networked up so anyone on my PC I can watch on the TV… and thats great :D…
    But I want to take it the next step… What would you recommend?

  2. Great post, Chris. I just moved into a new house and was thinking about setting up my video center, so it’s really helpful. One component I think you missed in your description is the antenna. Do you use one? And if so, which one? Is it good?

  3. Really helpful, thanks for posting this.
    Dell charges an arm and a leg for the hard drive upgrade, couldn’t you do it by yourself?

  4. @Alek: I have a four foot antenna attached to my house. It is probably 20 years old. If you need an antenna, I also made one of these a while back: http://www.tvantennaplans.com/ I did it with my son as a science experiment. Works great actually.

    @Nip: My actual thinking was to hook up external hard drives to it. But I really want to get the saving/retrieving off of the OS Harddrive spindle.

  5. Interesting post, Chris. I have a 4 year old media center, that I want to replace with something newer with HDMI – and the ability to play 1080p stuff and blueray discs.

    Is your setup capable of doing that? Did you consider this?

  6. dude, I can’t even finish your post, I have to reply. I had the exact same thought and I bought ( or tried to buy ) the same freakin zino hd whatever, That was in early december. I still have not recieved my freakin computer!!! You know dell they are just giving me the run around but after many calls I’ve found out that they are waiting on the video card. As I don’t want to use the on board one I guess I have to wait. They tentatively suggested that it could be 3 more weeks.
    Sorry about the rant but you just triggered my Dell PTSD. I so want to set up my Windows7 Media Center. It’s killing me! I’ll read the rest of your post now and maybe I’ll have something productive to say afterwards

  7. Ok I’m better now. So here’s something that might be productive, there are several apps for the IPhone that let you use your phone, over your local network as a mouse or a remote control, so you can control media center with your phone, rather then there crappy ms remote, or a big old keyboard. As I STILL DON”T HAVE A COMPUTER I can’t vouch for how well this works as an interface for media center but I’m guessing pretty good.
    This may not be very helpful for you because based on your monthly fee policy I suspect you don’t have an IPhone, none the less maybe it’ll help one of your readers.

  8. @Raif: dude, breath! But, it also took a month for Dell to ship me my Zino. I figured it was the Christmas rush.

    As for the IPhone bit: if I had one I’d be willing to try it out. 🙂 And near as I can tell my Windows Mobile doesn’t have an IR blaster.

    But I will say that I am very happy with the setup so far. But I HAVE to get an 1T eSATA drive to complement it. NFL games take a lot of space.

  9. Yea I have a 2T eSata just freakin sitting there!!!!…. oh. sorry. yes I have one for movies that I will drive with my feakin zino.
    The Iphone apps actually talk to your computer through your wifi so it’s not unlike and in fact perhaps better then RF. I wouldn’t be surprised ( yes I would ) if windows mobile had a similar app.

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