DesktopReview’s How to Build Your Own HTPC Guide — Part V

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During this series we’ve gone through most of what I would deem the fun stuff (shopping) and the slightly more difficult stuff (assembly). Now we’re at the last leg and mercifully, it’s a fairly easy one.

Hopefully up to now you’ve been paying close attention to my recommendations, because this is the point where they may pay dividends. I’m going to show you how to install Windows Vista and, more specifically, help you understand what drivers are and why you need them.

Note: This is the final part in an ongoing series on how to build your own home theater PC.  Be sure to check out parts one, two, three and four.

A BRIEF WORD ABOUT THE BIOS

The motherboard in your computer employs a small piece of software called the BIOS which allows any other software installed on the machine to interact with the hardware itself. Without this BIOS, any software you run has no way of knowing how much memory you have, how fast your processor is, or if you even have a hard drive or not.

Configuring the BIOS is generally a simple affair, but it oftentimes looks daunting and the BIOS itself may be full of Engrish or just terms you don’t understand in the slightest. That’s okay. If you don’t know what it does, it’s probably safe to leave it alone.

The manual that came with your motherboard will prove invaluable here, because you need to make sure the computer will boot to the optical drive, otherwise you won’t be able to install Vista – or any operating system for that matter. You’ll want to look in the manual for where you can find either “boot order” or something synonymous with it – the word “boot” will be in the name. Configure your optical drive (the BIOS may simply refer to it as “CDROM”) to be the first device the computer boots to, then pop the Vista CD in the drive and exit out of the BIOS, saving your changes.


INSTALLING WINDOWS VISTA

The installation of Windows Vista should go fairly smoothly. For this version of Windows, Microsoft has designed a more intuitive installation process that will handhold you the whole way, right up to the Windows Vista desktop. Installation should take no more than an hour.

Should.

If your installation hangs toward the end, there’s a good chance the driver the Vista installer uses to handle the hard disk is freaking out and locking up. If the screen sits on “Finalizing installation…” for more than an hour, reboot your machine and enter the BIOS. Use the manual to find “Serial ATA Mode” or “SATA Mode” and switch it to some variant of “IDE.” This can potentially incur a minor performance hit (read: imperceptible), but motherboards with AMD chipsets have been known to have problems running in what’s called AHCI mode. You don’t need to worry about AHCI mode.

This solution should fix your problem. It bears mentioning that the Vista installation procedure can also tease out potential problems in the hardware. If it blue screens frequently, there’s a good chance your RAM is bad. You can use a program called Memtest86+ (http://www.memtest.org/) to test it; download the “pre-compiled bootable ISO” in .zip format and use the CD burning software of your choice to burn the image to a CD, then boot to that CD. The Memtest site can guide you through everything.

On the other hand, if your system cheerfully boots into Vista – as it should – then you’re ready for the next step.

DRIVERS AND VISTA

Drivers are the software the operating system needs to interface with the underlying hardware beyond basic functions. Your video hardware, for example, will output a picture just fine without a proper driver, but installing the driver will allow it to accelerate computer games properly and decode video. Some hardware such as sound or network adaptors may not even function without proper drivers installed.

Mercifully, everything you bought should have come with its own drivers on a CD. Your processor, RAM, hard drives, and optical drive won’t need drivers, but just about everything else may. These drivers can be easily enough installed by just popping the CD into the drive and letting autoplay open the software. There will be several reboots involved, but when all is said and done your system will be fully functional.

There’s one big change you’re going to want to make if you’re using just an HDMI cable to connect your shiny new media center PC to your television: you’ll need to set the audio output to the HDMI. This is fairly simple to do. Right-click the speaker icon in the bottom right corner of the screen, in the system tray. Choose “Playback Devices.” Select the HDMI output and click “Set Default.”

The next thing you’ll want to do is set your resolution to the highest your television can support. For this, you’ll want to right-click your desktop and click “Personalize.” Then click “Display Settings.” Drag the slider all the way to the left and click “OK.” The text on your screen will become much smaller, but movies will also play at a higher resolution, allowing for crisper detail.

As for the rest of it, you should of course run Windows Update and make sure the rest of your system is up to date with the proper patches and updates from Microsoft.

CONFIGURING SOFTWARE

The one major piece of software you’ll want to get up and running is also one of the easiest to configure, and that’s Windows Media Center. Windows Media Center, like Vista, handholds you through the entire configuration process and is designed to be as easy to use as possible.

Playing Blu-ray and HD-DVDs on the other hand may prove to be problematic. The LG HD-DVD/Blu-ray combo drive I recommended comes with a free copy of PowerDVD 7 that will play your high definition movies, but that software only supports stereo audio. While that was fine for me when I built my machine initially, it may not be optimal for the rest of you.

From here you have two options to get full 5.1 or 7.1 sound in your movies: PowerDVD 7 Ultra or WinDVD 9 Plus BluRay. If I had to make a recommendation, I’d go for WinDVD. Cyberlink removed support for HD-DVD in all versions of PowerDVD beyond 7, so I doubt it will be making a comeback anytime soon. Since the software does need to be updated fairly often as new Blu-ray discs with new and exciting DRM issues are released, Corel’s commitment to maintaining HD-DVD support (at least at the time of this writing) makes it the logical choice.

BUMPS ALONG THE WAY

The chiefest hiccup is honestly one of the most irritating: while DVDs have been around for ages now and have no playback problems, HD-DVD and Blu-ray are another story entirely. Compatibility issues have abounded for me, enough that I’ve basically had to run both PowerDVD 7 AND WinDVD 9. My HD-DVD of “The Matrix,” for example, runs fine in one program but not the other. Getting “Iron Man” to play at all was an exercise in frustration (though fair is fair: “Iron Man” is a great movie but a lackluster Blu-ray), though it did happen in PowerDVD 7 with much coaxing. I can’t possibly be the only person that’s had problems, either, and I’ve read horror stories about discs coming out that proceed to play on maybe half the players on the market.

A lesser issue is wireless connectivity, but this is so par for the course that it almost doesn’t even bear mentioning. Suffice to say, if you’re going to be streaming movies via Netflix, for example, you may want to consider running a cable for your media center. I strongly advise against using USB wireless adaptors, though, as for some reason I’ve found them to be much less stable than internal ones.

BONUS SOFTWARE: MyNetflix and CalebSchmerge’s PowerDVD/Blu-ray Media Center plugins

Anthony Park’s MyNetflix plugin (available here) provides a fairly comprehensive Media Center front end for your Netflix account, including your physical disc queue along with Netflix’s “Watch Instantly” service (which I highly recommend, especially for dedicated film buffs seeking slightly more obscure or forgotten material). When you use the “Watch Instantly” service, the software minimizes Media Center and brings up Internet Explorer, running a script that gets the movie running full screen. When the movie’s over, Internet Explorer closes and shoots you back to Media Center. It’s not 100% seamless, but it does have one major benefit: playback controls on your keyboard/remote will function.

Of course, probably the best part is that Park’s MyNetflix program is free (Netflix account notwithstanding). It’s surprisingly well designed and I have a hard time believing Netflix themselves could make a much better plugin for Windows Media Center.

The other program, we’ll have to ask forum regular CalebSchmerge to post a link to in the comments on this article. He has been working studiously and been in contact with me about a small plugin that allows you to watch HD-DVD and Blu-ray while running Media Center (as opposed to having to close it and run a separate program). While lacking the polished front end of something like MyNetflix, his plugin works simply and effectively: while Media Center is up, just pop in a Blu-ray or HD-DVD disc. When the computer has read it, Media Center will minimize and pop up the player you designated when installing the plugin. When you close the player, Media Center will pop back up again.

CONCLUSION

So we’ve gone on this journey together, and I’ve shown you from start to finish how to put together a media center PC of your very own. I’m not going to lie: as you can see, it’s not quite perfect. Windows Media Center in Vista isn’t as capable as it needs to be just yet, which forces you to operate the HTPC a little more like a PC and a little less like the appliance it should be. But the benefits are in spades: Netflix’s “Watch Instantly” service is surprisingly high quality and makes you forget you’re watching movies on a computer, good video hardware in a PC can do a fantastic job of upscaling DVD video and gives you precise control of how you want that video to look, you can have a fully featured Blu-ray and HD-DVD player for less than buying a combo unit, and you can even game if you want to. It’s a PC! It’s up to you how you want to use it!

It’s the flexibility that makes it such a solid option. The cost-to-benefit ratio is quite high in my opinion, ignoring the fact that I personally now have a computer in the living room that I can play LAN games on with my roommates. And then there’s something quite satisfying about building your own computer.

Of course, if you’ve been playing along at home, feel free to ask questions on the forums here. DesktopReview has an excellent burgeoning community with a healthy number of experienced users who can certainly help you along.

At the end of the day, though, I’m quite happy with my HTPC, and I recommend it well above buying a conventional Blu-ray player or game console. What you get for the money is a fully featured PC that you can tailor exactly to your needs, and no matter how many applications Sony or Microsoft release for their systems, that’s a dynamic they just can’t touch.


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