Build Your Dream Media Centre For Under $700

Between the Blu-Ray player, laptop, digital tuner and everything else hooked up to your TV, your home theatre situation can easily become a mess. Here's how I rolled all those devices into one awesome media centre — the media centre of my dreams — for under $700.

What This Media Centre Can Do

You can put together a home theatre PC (HTPC) using all sorts of options: an old PC, a cheap laptop, or even an Apple TV. . However, if you really want to get the most out of your HTPC, building it yourself is the way to go. We've tried a lot of different builds over the years, but not every build can handle everything you throw at it. This build will allow us to play virtually anything, including:

  • All of your ripped or downloaded movies, TV shows, and music;
  • All of your DVD and Blu-Ray discs;
  • Streaming media services such as ABC iView;
  • Any video game you can install on a computer, from old school emulators to modern PC masterpieces.

Part One: Choose Your Hardware

In order for my media centre to accomplish everything I wanted, I've found that I needed a very specific set of hardware. A lot of basic HTPC builds are too low-powered to handle things like video games or streaming TV. This build is powerful enough to handle nearly anything you throw at it, and at a very reasonable price.

If you're already set on your hardware choices but still want to know how I set everything up, skip the parts list. You're free to tweak certain aspects of the build to fit your needs, but here is what I recommend. Australian pricing is indicative based on what staticICE throws up. (Ultimately, buying from one supplier can save you money depending on postage costs, so shop carefully.)

  • CPU: AMD A4-3400 2.7Ghz, $60: This processor is inexpensive but more than powerful enough to handle any tasks your home theatre PC will require. It has an AMD Radeon HD 6410D graphics processing built in, which makes gaming possible without a separate card. If you want even more graphical power for advanced games), you can upgrade to the slightly more expensive A8-3850.
  • Motherboard: ASRock A75M-ITX, $95: This tiny motherboard has support for 7.1 HD surround sound, HDMI out, and some nice features for managing the speed (and noise level) of your fans, which is great for keeping your home theatre quiet.
  • RAM: Corsair 4GB DDR3 1333 Memory, $25: It's inexpensive, high quality, and gives us enough memory to do the aforementioned gaming, since the built-in graphics chip uses your regular memory for video.
  • Hard Drive: Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB, $110: We like Western Digital's Green drives for their low power consumption and quiet operation, which is ideal in a home theatre PC. 2TB should be enough to hold a stack of movies on your HTPC, but if you're storing them somewhere else — like your own home server or NAS — you can grab the cheaper 500GB model for your HTPC.
  • Case: MI-008 Mini-ITX, $46: It's small, attractive, and has a few USB ports in the front for your gaming controllers. It doesn't come with any fans, which is great for silence, but if you feel like you want a bit more cooling, the side vent holes are perfectly sized to fit a couple of 80mm fans that you can buy separately. It also comes with a power supply.
  • Blu-ray Drive: LITE-ON Blu-ray Combo Drive, $60: If you want to watch DVDs or Blu-rays on your device (not just ripped and downloaded media), you'll want one of these. Blu-Ray isn't perfect, and if you really wanted to, you could skip this part and save a few bucks, but the price difference from a regular DVD drive isn't that high.
  • OS: Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit, $299: Despite the popularity of Linux as a HTPC solution, Windows is the only OS that will give you true play-everything capabilities. Blu-Ray and video games are all difficult or impossible to play on Linux, so we'll be using Windows for this build. Home Premium will set you back $US100 off-the-shelf, but you may be able to find it for significantly less elsewhere.

That's a total cost of around $695 (paying full retail for Windows). If you're happy with Linux instead of Windows, it drops to under $400.

You might want to add various options, included coolers, a case fun, additional XBox controllers or a specific remote, but this will be enough to get you started.

Once you've got all your hardware rounded up, it's time to put everything together. Check out our complete guide to building a computer from scratch if you're unfamiliar with the process. The only thing you'll want to take special note of is that your CPU fan should go into the CPU_FAN1 socket, and your case fan should go into CHA_FAN1.

Part Two: Set Up Your Operating System

Again, we're going to be using Windows for this build, not Linux. It may cost a bit more, but Linux has trouble with some streaming media services (blame the providers), doesn't play games very well (blame the developers), and is far too complicated when it comes to Blu-Ray, so Windows is the only OS that really gives us that "play-anything" experience.

Grab a spare keyboard and plug it into your computer. Turn it on, and press the Delete key as it starts up — this will bring you to the BIOS screen. Go to the "Boot" tab and make sure your CD drive or USB drive — whatever you're using to install Windows — is first in the boot order. Lastly, insert your Windows CD or thumb drive and go to "Exit", saving your changes. This will reboot you into the Windows installer, which should guide you through the process of installing your OS. When you're finished, reboot into the BIOS and set your hard drive as the first boot item.

When you're finished installing Windows, you'll need to install a few drivers. If your internet isn't working out of the box, install the LAN drivers from the CD that came with your motherboard first (if your internet works, just skip this step). Then, open up Internet Explorer and head to your motherboard's driver page. Choose your OS (which should be Windows 7 64-bit, if you followed our build guide above) and download the following drivers:

  • AMD All-in-1 Driver
  • Realtek High Definition Audio Driver

Unless you have a specific reason to install one of the other drivers, don't download them, because we won't need them. Once you've installed all these drivers and restarted, you'll need to tweak your graphics settings.

Right-click on the desktop and head to AMD VISION Engine Control Center. I found that on my TV, my desktop didn't fill up the whole screen, so I had to go to Desktops and Displays > Scaling Options and turn my Overscan setting up. You may also want to browse around the Control Center and see what other tweaks look best to you on your display.

Next, you'll want to adjust fan speeds. Restart your computer and head back into the BIOS. Under the Fan Control tab, you'll see the speed of your CPU fan and, if you have one, your case fan. Here, you can adjust your target temperature for your CPU and Motherboard, as well as the target speeds of your fans. You may need to play around with this over time to find out what nets you the best balance between good temperatures and good noise levels, as everyone's home is different. I just turned my case fan all the way down so it keeps up good airflow, but doesn't make very much noise.

Lastly, bring up the Start menu and type in "Power Options". Click on the first result and click "Choose what the power buttons do" in the left sidebar. Change "When I press the power button" to "Sleep" in the dropdown menu. This means your computer will sleep instead of turn off completely, which makes it much quicker to start back up. It also means hitting the power button on your remote, if it supports the power function, will put it to sleep instead of shut it down.

Part Three: Set Up XBMC

Lastly, it's time to set up the central piece of this box: the media centre software. We've shown you how to create a kickass seamless media centre with XBMC, so I won't go into much detail here. Check out that guide to get your fully customised XBMC box up and running like a champ. Here are the things you'll want to know specific to this build, though.

First, download and install XBMC. Then, head to its installation folder — by default, that's C:\Program Files (x86)\XBMC, and right-click on the XBMC.exe program. Choose "Create Shortcut", then drag that shortcut into your %APPDATA%\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs\Startup folder. This ensures that XBMC will start up automatically with your computer. You may also want to go to %APPDATA%\XBMC/Userdata and add the following line to AdvancedSettings.xml, under the first line:

<fullscreen>true</fullscreen>

This ensures XBMC will always start in full screen.

Next, open up XBMC and head to Settings > System > Video Output. Set your Display Mode to Full Screen if it isn't already, and check the "Use a fullscreen window rather than true fullscreen" box. This will solve some video problems XBMC has in full screen mode.

If you want to set up video games, check out our feature on turning your XBMC media centre into a video game console with Advanced Launcher. It has everything you need to know.

Set Up Blu-Ray Playback

Lastly, if you want Blu-ray playback, you have a few options. Our old Blu-ray playing method doesn't work in the latest version of XBMC, so we're going to use a Blu-ray playback suite to get the job done. Your Blu-Ray drive probably came with a program like PowerDVD or WinDVD, and you can use those to play Blu-rays right from XBMC. All you need to do is head to %APPDATA%\XBMC/Userdata\ and create a new file named playercorefactory.xml with the following code inside:

<playercorefactory>

<players>

<player name="Disc_Player" type="ExternalPlayer" audio="false" video="true">

<filename>C:\Program Files (x86)\CyberLink\PowerDVD9\PDVDLaunchPolicy.exe</filename>

<args>"{E:}"</args>

<hidexbmc>true</hidexbmc>

<hideconsole>true</hideconsole>

<warpcursor>none</warpcursor>

</player>

</players>

<rules action="prepend">

<rule name="Blu-Ray" filename="D:\\.*" filetypes="bdmv" player="Disc_Player"/>

</rules>

</playercorefactory>

Change the filename="D:\\.*" and <args>"{E:}"</args> lines to correspond to the letter of your Blu-Ray drive, and change the C:\Program Files (x86)\CyberLink\PowerDVD9\PDVDLaunchPolicy.exe to correspond to your Blu-Ray program of choice. For more info, see the XBMC Wiki entry for External Players — your config may differ depending on your hardware, Blu-ray program, and other factors.

If you don't have a Blu-ray capable program, or the one that came with your drive isn't working correctly, you have a few choices. We've rounded up some of our favorite Blu-ray playback suites, but the bottom line is that all Blu-ray programs will cost you money. AnyDVD HD, while the most expensive, is going to be the easiest bet. You won't need to go through any of the above hassle; just install it, run it at startup, and XBMC will automatically detect Blu-ray discs and play them when you select "Play Disc" from your main menu.

There you have it. With the right build and the right software, you can unleash the full power of XBMC and put together a media centre that plays anything your heart can desire, from streaming TV to modern video games and everything in between. Again, be sure to check out our complete guide to creating a media centre with XBMC, as well as our guide to building a computer if you're unfamiliar with the process. When you're done, you'll never have to use those old DVD players and other junk again.


Comments

    What heat sink did you use? It looks like the standard AMD heat sink wouldn't fit in this case.

      I have used the same case and motherboard but the a4-3870 processor and the psu wont fit with the stock heatsink and fan. They are about 3 or 4 mm too high. Still trying to find a heatsink/fan combo that will fit. The stock is pretty noisy as well otherwise would just trim the heatsink.

        Sorry meant the A8-3870 not A4.

    $300 for a fully blown OS being used just for the media centre...? Win 7 is good, but that's sledgehammer-peanuting it a bit. Maybe do an article on the best Linux options.

      Good luck with Blu-Ray playback.

        Live Blu-Ray playback is still difficult (if possible at all). But ripping Blu-Ray isn't a major problem.

        And who actually *plays* optical media any more?

          I do. Daily. It would cost far to much to store my DVD/Blu-Ray collection, not to mention how long it would take to rip. I see no value.

            I ripped all my (legitimately owned) DVDs for convenience, to save physical storage space, and to prevent disks getting scratched (by kids mainly). It's great having them all available in XBMC. Unfortunately Blu-Ray iso size is quite prohibitive but you can use programs like handbrake (free) to reduce the size of the main movie. I haven't yet done this as most of my Blu-Rays either are for adults or have a bonus DVD with them that can be ripped instead.

            It is possible to rip just the main movie to mp4/mkv etc, but my view is that storage is getting so cheap that you're better to have a full backup rather than muck about with the much more time consuming and inferior ripping methods. Seriously, a 2Gb drive would store most people's legit media for about $100, which is worth it for the convenience IMO. I have a 4Gb drive with all my DVDs, some of my BDs, all my music ripped at 320k mp3, photos for over a decade, and all the stuff I've recorded off TV too, and it still isn't quite full. The main problem is backup...

            The method for playing BD's above will only work with physical disks. The latest version of XBMC can actually play about half of the available BDs with only the help of AnyDVD HD to deal with copy protection, but the ones that use BD+ (I think, going from memory) in the menus are problematic as BD+ isn't a publicly available protocol and is only partly reverse engineered at present. There are some slightly more complicated methods of playing BD ISO's that involve an intermediate step to mount the ISO on a virtual drive before running PowerDVD etc, which I have been using for a little while happily, and the software players play anything BD related regardless of menu technology.

    You can pick up an OEM copy of 7 from Umart for around a hundred bucks!!

      While you can do that, and the software will 'work just fine' including activation.

      Technically it is in breach of the license. The OEM copy is supposed to be installed by the system builder and sold to you as a complete 'box'. Microsoft knows everyone just gets OEM and installs it themselves - thats why they are bringing out personal use licenses in W8.

    Did this a couple of years ago, cost me about $700.

    I bought an ASRock Ion 330 w/ Blu-Ray drive. Windows 7 & XBMC for Windows.

    I also have a a Logitech Harmony XBOX 360 remote (& Microsoft USB IR receiver) which I programmed to perform all XBMC functions (as if it were a keyboard), including a shortcut button that automatically starts xbmc and another one to window/full screen xbmc.

    It works really well, plays everything I throw at it, doesn't choke.

    The only 2 things I would suggest, don't buy the blu-ray drive from ASRock, it's a crappy OEM Sony drive that you can't upgrade the firmware on and are notorious for crapping out.

    Replace the fans in the case as they're of low quality and die quickly, you'll notice they're dying by the horribly loud sound it makes followed by silence and your HTPC running like crap. Only costs a few dollars.

    These 2 things may have changed since I purchased mine.

    Overall, I'm quite happy with my setup. I've since added an SSD drive.

    I tried using xbmc/ubuntu and xbmc live (installed to hdd), but it was too much of pain in the ass to get it to work with my Logitech Harmony, thankfully the WIndows version of XBMC has grown leaps and bounds since then.

    I use the box as my usenet download machine and my HTPC, works great.

    Maybe someday the Raspberry Pi will be able to replace this.

    Why not just build one with Raspberry Pi, they go for like $35.

      R-Pi doesn't do large video playback well

        While much more finicky about codecs, it streams 1080 video from my other XBMC box just fine.

        I wouldn't use it as my main XBMC player because the onboard audio is only 2.0, and the current lag in other parts of the system is pretty annoying.

          Erm, the Pi will actually output both Dolby Digital and DTS via HDMI without an issue - the main problem is your TV/home theater needs to be capable of decoding these streams, as the Pi isn't able to decode either stream via software particularly well. That said, your SOL if your home theater is optical/coax SPDIF.

          There has been rumors of a DTS hardware decoding licence (similar to the MPEG2 hardware decoding licences released last week) bouncing around, so time will tell what comes of that.

    another feature needed in a dream media centre pc is the ability to record TV. So you also will need a TV tuner card. Windows Media Centre will provide the TV interface and TV recording.

    Hey I'm looking at doing something like this but just as an Audiofile media player, so I'm just interested in really high quality sound, nothing else. Ying and old Mac Mini and putting in an SSD for better sound play back with Amarra plugin for iTunes.

    Preferably not having a screen, a mouse or keyboard connected and solely using my old iPhone to control it. Also especially interested in sound/fan dampening so it can run pretty much noise free.

    Does anyone have any tips?

      I'm interested in this solution too if anyone has any tips! Thanks

        Cool well if I may, I have seen lots of examples on the web but they are complex multifaceted media centers. What I'm after is a specific audiofile setup that would replicate that of a Sonos or Olive system. With the familiar connectivity of iTunes and the ability to utilise the high end plugins like but not limited to; Amarra, Audio Nirvana, Pure Music etc. Here is the challenge

        1. Primary device has to be a Mac Mini second hand or straight off the shelf
        2. Has to run iTunes + audio plugin
        3. Has to be able to plug in to a DAC preferably by USB
        4. Controlled by an iPhone/iPad
        5. Be as silent as possible even when in use. Preferably passive cooling.
        6. Be easy to turn on and off.
        7. Utilise an SSD as primary mode of storage (this is for speed and the plug ins to work effectively)
        8. This is only a preference but for it not to cost the earth.

          It actually sounds like you've pretty much answered your question: Any mac mini from the last few years does all this after just changing a few settings:
          -Has itunes
          -can have itunes controlled remotely from iphone/ipad
          -can have the whole device controlled remotely from anything via vnc (apples built-in remote desktop is vnc based)
          -is very quiet, especially if you use an SSD (not passively cooled though)
          -can sleep at the press of the button or using the apple remote.

          What I'm not sure about:
          -DAC. that'll depend entirely on what DAC you get, but there are OSX compatible models that should work great.
          -SSD. if you get a second hand mini (and why not? a 2006-era core duo has more than enough power) you'll have to swap out the Hard drive and re-install the OS...but SSDs are damn cheap now. What size you get depends on if the music is stored locally or on a network share.
          -If you buy second hand make sure it's turned on before you buy, just to make sure it's quiet (although you can always chuck it in a cupboard, they run pretty cool)

      Itunes is fine, but if you are into Audiophile level sound, then plugins wont help. Sound quality is about hardware, not software. An SSD is irrelevant to sound quality.

        Really? Cause I have tried Amarra on my MacAir pluged into a rega DAC with amazing results.

        I also have Foobar2000 on my PC and it is good but no where near as good as the Mac. IMHO
        Though audio is a subjective quality. So what do you use or recommend?

    huh? You can get xbmc on ubuntu, don't need to fork out $300 for windows 8

      Henry: For more accurate Windows 8 pricing - have a look at http://www.lifehacker.com.au/2012/06/microsoft-confirms-14-99-windows-8-upgrade-price-for-australians/

        as much as i'd love to use linux on my htpc... i've decided to go the windows route because getting HD audio to bitstream through hdmi on linux was just not happening for me.... *your results may vary.

        woops, i meant win7

        anyway, it's an "upgrade", i'll "assume" you should have a win 7 key

    Good article.
    But without a TV tuner card, there is no point building a media centre.
    You need one of these,;
    http://www.digitalnow.com.au/product_pages/Quad.html
    And yes you will use all 4 tuners !

    Build Your Dream Media Centre For Under $900

    get cracking ! ;)

      Your assertion that there's anything worth watching on broadcast TV is amusing. :P

    You could get a Coolermaster Silencio 550 for ~$89, they are near silent and have plenty of room for expansion in the future. I got one a month ago, and it meant I could use the one machine for a server and xbmc in the lounge room and no noise from it! its great

    Or you could save yourself $200 worth of windows license and make it super fast to boot by putting on Openelec...

    Is a no brainer to install, 130Mb kernel

    My mate & I built something similar but using a pentium D processor which worked out to be cheaper, we built the thing with speakers, keyboard & 22" monitor for a little over 600, running Ubuntu with XBMC.

    You really need to include instructions on how to get TV tuners/PVR's set up in XBMC. This is nothing more than a glorified Blu-Ray player right now.

      Why would you PVR anything? Everything is on the net. A waste of time and money to worry about pvr'ing .

        Actually not everything is. I find it hard at times to find some locally produced content on torrents or the legal form of viewing them, simply due to the fact it would seem not enough are interested in them.

          Use Mediaportal as it can do it

        I see no point in wasting download allowances on downloading content first broadcasted over FTA in Australia.

        Also as stated, not everything is available for download. In fact quite a lot of stuff isn't. And not just locally made stuff, but smaller shows you find on SBS/ABC.

        Live sport. If I want to pause/rewind live sport to see that catch/mark/goal again I can't use torrents for that.

    Wasn't this article previous under $500
    http://lifehacker.com/5936546/how-i-built-the-media-center-of-my-dreams-for-under-500
    or are you just adding the extra $200 for the Australia Tax ?

      Check the prices in your own source - you can chalk that extra $200 solely down to local Windows 7 pricing...

    Programs that people use to scrape metadata under WinOS for TV shows and movies?

    Media Centre Master is becoming buggy and slow for big libraries.

      How big is your library?

      I'm using Media Companion for movies and Ember Media Manager for TV shows. Works quite well.

    as someone with a htpc including bluray player. i would ditch this part of the htpc and just use a standalone bluray player. so much less dicking around. bluray playback on pc's is a pain in the a@@

    I reckon for $700 I could get a darn good cable to run from my PC to my TV no problem. I may even have some money left over for wireless peripherals.

    $699 for a bran new mac mini and run Plex - completely silent and small. No Blu-Ray, but you can 'rent/buy' in HD from itunes

    jailbreak apple tv2 with xbmc cost $100

      - ATV2 doesn't provide Blu-Ray playback
      - Where exactly can you buy an ATV2 from for $100 these days?

        They cost $109 in store, go figure

          Not sure if troll, but those are ATV3's and non-jailbreakable at this stage.

    Looks like I've spotted this thread a little too late...

    Seems like FM1 CPUs and motherboards have gone out of fashion and the FM2s are coming in. What's the recommendation for a good FM1 chip and board. Will they fit nicely in the same case?

    Searching for that RAM (or using the link provided) shows a lot of different results, are they all the same or do I need a product code to get the right stuff. Again, is this still good with the motherboard change?

    I'm thinking of the old one HDD for OS and another to for data, would this make the system perform better? It might be a slight increase in cost, but it should be easy enough to find a smaller cheap HDD (any recommendations), would a SSD provide much MORE benefit? Although I expect an SSD would wear out pretty quick if the HTPC is kept on most of the time.

    Really keen to setup my first HTPC, was going to press the button today until a supplier told me about the FM1 issues!

    Cheers

    This looks awesome - it's inspired me to build my own, however, most of the links to what I need to build this don't work, or, I can't seem to find.

    I'm wondering, if all I wanted to do was build a nice, streamline, little (quiet) unit that played ripped movies/TV (in any format), and bluray/dvds, with around 3 - 4 TV storage, a couple of high speed usb outlets (for portable hard drives to slot into), and a decent remote control that plays 1080 seamlessly, how would I go about it? (Or, alternately, where could I go to learn?)

    I've never built a computer before, but, being a stubborn bastard, I will get it eventually.

    Thank you for all your help in advance.

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