For a while, particularly since Windows Vista Ultimate released with integrated Media capabilities, I've been interested in building out a home Media Center for use by our family.

I've played around with the interface for music and pictures, but really, my main goal is to have a rich Media Center PC for Recorded TV and Movies.

The Computer

This past weekend, I finished migrating PCs to free up my Dell Inspiron 9300 to turn into a Media Center for our main TV room.  This is not a new system, I got it about 18 months before Windows Vista released to home users, but it is a nice system for multimedia and support Vista just fine.

dell-inspiron-17in While we won't be viewing the laptop LCD most of the time, it is 17" widescreen that supports 1900x1200 and runs a 2.0 GHz Pentium M processor, 1GB memory, 80GB hard disk, and has an nVidia GeGorce Go 6800 video card that supports SVideo output in addition to a normal VGA out connection.  It also has integrated sound and DVD, with playback controls on the front.

dell-inspiron-9300-closed Also, an important consideration, the system looks nice with the lid closed when it is sitting under the television.  I don't know about you, but having an old mid-tower PC sitting out in the living room was not a feasible option in our household.

What you can buy...

I did a quick check to see the latest budget box on ArsTechnica, but it was $653 excluding monitor and OS.

Alternatively, you can get a slim desktop from Dell (customize this C521 with Vista Home Premium, 1GB memory) for less than $600 - and this system would have more hard disk than my PC hardware and include the OS and Media Center.

The Media Center Software - Windows Vista Ultimate

vista-ubox

Selecting the PVR/media center software was easy for me, given that I have access to Windows Vista from the company store - in fact I already had it running on a laptop partition.  However, I wiped the machine clean to get rid of my older partitions and reinstalled a fresh Windows Vista Ultimate.  I didn't encounter any problems with this and did use WindowsUpdate to apply a few updates, including some updated drivers for my sound hardware.

Additionally, I went to the Dell site and downloaded the latest nVidia drivers and software for my system and installed that so that I could use the nVidia control panel for configuring multiple monitors (I prefer it, but you can do it from Vista without the nVidia control panel).

Our TV - JVC 56" Rear Screen Projection

Decided to update and add this just to be complete.  When we moved last fall, sadly, I had to give up my Projector (9' diagonal) because we don't have a good blank wall area in the new house (sniff, sniff).  I don't like to pay for the cutting edge of electronics, so after a lot of time consuming reviews of Plasma, LCD and rear screen projector options, we went with a JVC 56" Rear Screen Projection TV. It has been great.

HD56G787

My primary cost/feature tradeoff was that this TV didn't support 1080p, but that has been okay so far.  In connecting to my Media Center, I use 1280x720 resolution. 

Next:  Selecting a TV Tuner 

I'll stop there for today, but this is where things just start to get interesting.  Next time, I'll tell about my mis-steps in selecting a tuner, so you can avoid similar problems yourself...