How to build a small media centre PC for standard definition TV for less than $A 500

May 5th, 2009

I decided that I needed a new TV to put in my bedroom. Also, it’s been a year since I played with building a computer, so I decided to try my hand at building an Intel Atom based PC.

Parts

A quick glance over AusPCMarket, and a quick email to Dan of Dansdata led me to get the following parts (all prices in Australian dollars):

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After that I just needed one more parts, which I got from JB Hi-Fi:

  • ASUS 13″ Widescreen monitor, $98.00

Total cost was $445.02.

Building

Step 1: Open the case up.

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The Aywun case is quite small, and just needs two thumb screws removed to take it out. There’s a frame to attach the slimline CD drive and a hard drive, but I won’t be needing those for this configuration.

Step 2: Insert the port template into the case.

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Step 3: Attach the motherboard to the case.

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It’s a small case, this was a bit of a tight fit and needed a little bit of juggling around to fit everything in.

Step 4: Insert the memory into the motherboard.

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As always with memory, I put it in the wrong way around the first time I tried. Fortunately it’s pretty hard to get DDR2 RAM wrong. Just push gently and the RAM locks in place.

Step 5: Attach the front panel cables to the motherboard.

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These fiddly cables were a lot easier than the last PC I built – this is normally the bit I end up cursing, but this time it only took a minute.

Step 6: Attach the power cable to the motherboard.

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Step 7: Close the case up.

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I’m leaving the drive frame out, so keeping the cables neat is pretty easy. With a CD drive and a hard drive power and heat management would start to be a problem.

Step 8: Attach monitor.

Step 9: Boot and check configuration.

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As it turns out, the BIOS for this motherboard is well set up to use with a USB stick rather than a hard drive – it was probably easier to set up than if I needed to boot from HDD…

Software

To run this computer I chose XBox Media Centre, mainly because I’ve used it before and been happy with it, but also because it comes with a live CD.

Step 1: XBMC Live image.

The version of XBMC to use is the live version, which includes a cutdown version of Ubuntu.

Step 2: Install to USB stick.

The slightly tricky bit is that, by default, you can’t simply copy the XBMC live onto a USB stick, as it needs a Linux file system. So to run the thing most easily, I downloaded VirtualBox.

I then just set up a simple virtual machine with no devices attached other than the USB stick and the ISO image in the CD drive.

After that, these instructions got me the rest of the way. The only tricky bit was it didn’t recognise the USB stick initially, so I had to remove it from the computer and put it back in again, after which it worked fine.

Step 3: Boot computer from USB.

To make sure that there weren’t any problems with the software, first I booted my main PC from the USB. Once that was confirmed to work, I moved on to the new box.

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Everything worked first time with little problems.

Next Steps

So now I have a small PC that boots and runs XBMC.

Still a couple of things to get working before it’s ready to go:

  • The remote control needs to be configured. At the moment the buttons aren’t working properly. It turns out that rather than showing up as an IR receiver, it’s showing up as a keyboard. I just need to find some way to map the keys properly.

  • A slightly bigger issue is networking. The USB wireless stick I have isn’t working out of the box at the moment, so either I need to get it working, or go to the backup plan (using an old router I have set up in bridge mode).

  • I haven’t tested the sound yet – it’d be surprising if it was a problem, though.