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Most of us have toyed with the concept of using a PC as a media center device, or in plain speak. hooking a pc up to a television in order to have a huge screen and stream media, as in movies, TV and music. with the video availability of online content through services like Hulu and Netflix its very easy now days. also turning your DVD’s into digital files and storing them on a hard drive is also a reality. many of us also have that old AMD or Pentium 4 PC of 6 to 8 years ago collecting dust in the closet or maybe your using it as a secondary PC but are seriously considering just tossing it. well you can probably turn that PC into an awesome media center PC for next to nothing.

here’s my older PC from around 2006. it served me very well for 6 years as my main computer but after skipping windows Vista I decided it was time to upgrade to something a little newer. the original specs of this computer are:

AMD 3500+ CPU
onboard video/sound
250MB SATA hard drive

It was a decent PC for its day and ran Windows XP media center very well. The built in S-video connection would have been acceptable for video output but I wanted to be able to output HD quality video since it was being hooked up to a HDTV.

over the years I had added 2.5 GB of RAM making the total 3.5 GB as well as a Creative Audiology sound card. since these were prior purchases I did not consider them an expense for creating the media center PC. This particular PC uses socket 939 and i discovered that a AMD Athlon XP 4000+ CPU were selling for cheap on eBay so I snagged one for $20 giving my PC a significant CPU power increase. I also by good fortune came across a Nvidia 9800GT video card at goodwill for $9.99. this is a very good card for the time and offers good video quality as well as having a HDMI out connector allowing me to stream HD content to the TV. I would strongly suggest using a Video card with a HDMI connector for your media center PC though I did get lucky in my find, as such cards can go for about $50 on Ebay.

here’s the internals

In the end I spent roughly $30 on upgrades to create a good quality media center PC out of my existing hardware. you could always spend a little more if you wanted a more recent video card but the idea is to make one on the cheap with what you have. Internet connectivity is also a must since this will allow you stream Youtube, Netflix as well as Hulu and other online video content. I was content to use my PC’s built-in wired ethernet port but a cheap wireless adaptor should work just as well. currently I am also using existing wired optical mouse and standard keyboard but an upgrade I plan in the future is to replace these with a pair of wireless mouse/keyboards. another thing to consider is a PC remote, or a remote control designed to control your PC. I do not have one of these either at current but its a cheap and easy component I plan to add in the future as well as perhaps a larger SATA hard drive if I ever come across one. Also if you want to spend a little more and do some more work you can always find a little media center PC case and put everything in that but I personally didn’t feel like doing the work, putting up with the hassle or unnecessarily spending more money when I felt my standard silver case looked pretty spiffy.

so, in review to turn your old AMD or Pentium 4 into a fine home media center PC i would strongly suggest maxing out the RAM and finding a decent video card with a HDMI connector. the cpu upgrade isn’t very necessary but nice and older cpu’s are mostly cheap now. I mostly stream my content so I didn’t need a huge hard drive but if you are planning to save and use digital media you can find an extra 300 – 500 GB SATA drive for not too much if you don’t already have one. any version of XP will work fine. I think windows 98 or even ME is a little to old, slow and buggy for this kind of thing and windows Vista and 7 eat up to much memory and resources for this.

lastly there are plenty of software packages out their for free that may make the process of picking your movies easy as well as give it a better look. I sometimes use XBMC media center.

One issue I did have was sound. because of how my TV and surround sound is I had to use separate PC speakers instead of using the TV speakers. it sounds ok but it’s slightly cumbersome and takes up an extra power socket. This is because the HDMI port on my cheaper TV does not have a separate means to input audio and so far I havent tinkered with my video card to set it to output sound through the HDMI port. I’m fairly sure it can be done but I just really havent bothered.  In the end my home media center stats ended up being

AMD 4000+ CPU
Sound Blaster Audiology
Nvidia 9800GT video card
250GB SATA hard drive

a shot of the current setup

You can even use much older PC’s if you don’t have anything this new on hand but you will take a quality hit. Prior to this my home media center PC was thrown together from a PC purchased in 2000. it was a pentium 3 1ghz with 512MB RAM and a PCI video card with S-video out. I believe the card was a 5000 series Nvidia Geforce. it was sluggish, only outputted SD quality video and wasnt great at streaming from the internet but it played DVD’s and movies/files off USB flash drives quite well.

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