Before we jump into the software components of building a media center PC, having the necessary hardware is a must. Processor speed, graphics card performance, sound card quality, hard drive space, memory, DVD playback, and CD or DVD burning are necessary for building a comprehensive multimedia entertainment system. Having good speakers doesn’t hurt either.
Breaking these components down individually:
To meet the minimum requirements for most of the software I’m including in this media center project, an AMD or Intel processor should be no slower than 733 MHz. It may be possible to squeak by with less, but you won’t be very happy with results. Something in the realm of 1.4 GHz (or higher) would be even better. If you purchased your computer in the last 2-3 years, this aspect of your media center is probably covered.
Without getting into specific card benchmarks, your video card needs the following features to even consider building a home media center: TV Tuner; S-Video or RCA outputs; at least 32MB of video RAM; WDM support. If your current video card is missing any of these components, it’s time for an upgrade. If your wallet can sustain the damage, 64, 128, or 256MB of video RAM will make your system happy and speed up many of the video intensive functions of this set up. ATI and NVIDIA release new TV tuner products every year, you don’t need the latest and greatest, but something built in the last two years would be advisable.
The most important features for your sound card are a minimum of 16-bit audio support and 5.1 Surround Sound. 24 or 32-bit audio support is recommended for long-term support of digital audio.
Buy as much memory as you can afford (up to the limit of your motherboard). Memory will speed up things like video rendering and photo editing. You won’t really have a happy media center with any thing less than 512MB of RAM. 1-2GB will improve overall performance greatly.
Hard Drive Space
Hard drive space is another area where more is better. Especially if you plan on extensive use of video recording features, space is a valuable commodity. Plan on 60GB for video, 5-10GB for photos, another 10GB for applications, and additional space equivalent to the maximum capacity of your portable media player, add up to a minimum benchmark just under 100GB. Double that capacity if you want to keep all your favorite shows indefinitely.
CD/DVD Playback and Burning
Most computers built in the last three years have DVD drives for playback. Prices for DVD burning have finally reached affordable levels. For archiving TV and movies, a DVD burner is a must. Since the standards are still up in the air, get something that records both +R and -R for maximum compatibility, if you haven’t already purchased a drive. For anyone still waiting for the standards to shake out, CD burners still work great and playback isn’t a problem if you are outputting the video from your computer to your television.
Nothing ruins PC multimedia faster than cheap speakers. If your home theater has great speakers, output your PC audio to your stereo receiver. Otherwise, consider investing in speakers better than the ones shipped with your system.
In upcoming issues, I’ll breakdown each of these categories further, recommending several good models in each category. With the holidays coming, your wishlist will be growing.