Thursday, October 16, 2008

Junk to Jewels

I'm a creative guy, but as an artist, I suck.  I truly do not have a good eye for aesthetics (my best friend does, and it drives me crazy).
So when I set out to make something, it has to work.  It may not look good, but it's going to work (and if it works, it typically works very well).

I build computers on the side.  Friends and family get it for free, others pay a small amount, typically less than what they would be paying for a retail computer.  Oh yeah, you don't have to wait an hour to get me on the tech support hot-line.  And yeah, I do make house calls.

I've got a fair amount of compu-junk lying around in boxes, or attached to old projects (My last big build was a dedicated computer built into my truck.  Full nav, MP3 player, position and speed tracker, on board diagnostics, a real nice system.  Too bad I had to yank it when I sold the truck and bought a Prius).  Much of it is older stuff that has been taken out of a computer or other project that is being upgraded.  Every once in awhile, I get a new piece thrown my way.

This build started off as a "perfect storm".  Everything came together rapidly.  First, my sister bought me "Ironman" on Blu-Ray (great movie).  Unfortunately, I don't have a Blu-Ray player or an HDTV.  I went and did a little research, and those things are expensive, particularly if you want a good player:
I specifically wanted one that could output to a variety of sources, and would connect to a home network (it turns out that this last option is kinda rare, and not cheap).  I was looking at hundreds of dollars, probably over $500.

As a lark, I researched Blu-Ray drives for PC's.  While searching, I took a look at Blu-Ray recorders, and found a unit from LG for $190, including free media:
A Blu-Ray burner, for under $200?   This project started to have a pulse.

A friend of mine had recently told me he was going to give me a motherboard that he had bought for his office computer.  He had purchased the wrong one, and in exchange, I would help him get the right one (turns out he was doing something similar, he wanted to use his PC on his big HDTV on the wall).  So, I was getting a buff new board, from my favorite MOBO company (ASUS).

A friend had given me a shuttle PC case and power supply a couple of years before.  I'd never had a MOBO for it, but that was getting taken care of.  I went and grabbed it out of storage, and it looked perfect.  Unfortunately, it's a couple of years old, so I don't really have a weblink for it.

Memory was going to be salvaged, along with the processor (Intel Q6600) from an older motherboard.  As it turns out, the memory was not compatible with the new motherboard, so I had to get new sticks (thank god they're really cheap).
The price is off on the website, mine was $50 with another rebate on top of that.

The fan also had to be replaced.  The fan on the old motherboard was too tall for the shuttle PC case.  I splurged a little here, and got a Zalman fan with a 16dB sound rating, for $34 (Thermal paste another $7).  I was a little worried that it was going to be too broad for the motherboard, but it fit beautifully.  Even at it's highest setting I can't hear the fan noise over the background noise in my bedroom/office.  Certainly when the TV is on, I won't be able to hear it.

I salvaged another graphics board from an old PC.  This board (a Radeon x1600) had a VGA, DVI and S-Video output.  The S-Video is what I really needed (The MOBO has VGA, DVI, and HDMI outputs.  Unfortunately the DVI is not a full DVI output) to be able to get the computer to display on a standard TV.

So, the build was broken down like this:
ASUS P5Q-EM Motherboard Free
Intel Q6600 Processor Free
ATI Radeon x1600 Free
Zalman Fan and thermal paste ~$42
Corsair 4gb Memory ~$50 (minus a rebate)
LG Blu-Ray Recorder Drive $190
Windows Vista Ultimate Free from old computer

Total cost: $282 (I missed my original price point of $250 by 

I choose Vista because XP doesn't support Blu-Ray drives (or playback).  I also happened to have an extra license from an old computer that wasn't going to get ressurected (at least not right away).  I also have had pretty good experiences with Vista to date, and I'm not really sure what the griping is about (though I'll admit I would have like to see more of the promised features in the upgrades).

I'd like to thank the ASUS community forums real quick.  The memory incompatibilty issue really stumped me.  When I first started testing the board, it powered up, but nothing came on with the monitor.  This isn't my first build, so I spent quite awhile (hours) trying to figure out what was wrong.  Within hours of posting a plea to the forum community, I had a simple answer (that I probably should have come up with), and my fix was evident.  This is one reason why I keep going back to ASUS.

Once that was taken care of, installation was a snap.  I initially installed using a dedicated computer monitor.  I wanted to get the system up, drivers installed, and everything working before attempting to connect the computer to a TV set.

Once that was accomplished, I set the screen resolution down to 640x480.  I then shut the system down, and hooked the video and sound up to the TV.  Lo and behold, the Windows boot logo came up, and the desktop appeared.

I put in Ironman, which immediately booted through PowerDVD (bundled with the Blu-Ray drive).  Ironman immediately accessed the internet and pulled down additional content (pretty cool, but I have no idea what it actually pulled down).  I watched the first scene, and fell asleep, happy with my build.

I finished watching Ironman the next day.  While I'm really pleased with the build, I can't wait to see what this looks like on a true HDTV.  That's probably going to be a really long time in coming, as I had to reach deep just to finish this build (I'm actually a poor, not-quite-starving college student).

The interface is a little difficult.  I need to find a way to make my Harmony remote control the media functions of the PC.  I also need to find a decent wireless media keyboard for the system (my old Media Center Keyboard apparently has had a stroke or something).

I don't know that this is a viable option for the majority of the people out there.  Cost is close to a real unit:
Case ~$100
Processor ~$75
Memory ~$50
Motherboard ~$140
Operating System ~$150 (at least)
Blu-Ray Recorder ~$200

So around $700, call it $850-$900 with labor.  However, this system will RECORD to Blu-Ray disks (and CD's, DVD's, dual layer disks, and lightscribe).  It's incredibly hard to find Blu-Ray recorders for home theaters, and the ones I found ranged from $1000-$2,500.  Granted, that price is going to come down tremendously over the years.

However, this system will also do everything that a normal PC will do (email, internet, etc).  With the addition of a TV tuner board:
This thing will also be able to act as a TiVo/DVR (Approximately $150).  It won't be able to get premium channels (yet), because the consumer electronics industry hasn't jumped on the capabilities of the CableCard system yet (that's a rant for a later day).

I need to figure out how to get movies from this system to my iPod.  I've never watched a movie on my iPod (I don't really sit still long enough to do that), but I'd like to be able to do it.  Also, the Genius's at the Apple Store told me I couldn't.

Don't tell me "no".  It just eggs me on.

Be safe out there, and remember to vote.

Edit:  Quick update.  I under clocked the processor to run at 1.2Ghz (half the normal speed), which dropped the CPU temperature from 36-39 degrees centigrade, down to 26-29 degrees centigrade with the fan now running at the lowest setting.  Video playback seems to be unaffected, but the boot times seem to be slightly longer.

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