My Media Center parts and price list

My Media Center parts and price list

Summary: Several readers have written to request a list of parts and prices that I used for my Vista Media Center system. Here it is, with the caveat that the prices are bound to fluctuate. If you're planning to build your own, start here.

TOPICS: Amazon, Dell

Several readers have written to request a list of parts and prices that I used for my Vista Media Center system. Here it is, with the caveat that the prices are bound to fluctuate. A few parts are more expensive now than they were then, some are cheaper, and the Dell C521 has been discontinued but can still be ordered from the Dell Outlet.

The system itself cost a total of $668. Here's a detailed breakdown of parts and specs.

Dell Dimension C521: $422 (Dell Outlet)

  • AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual Core 4000+
  • 1GB DDR2 RAM 667MHz
  • 256MB ATI Radeon X1300 Pro
  • Onboard 10/100 Ethernet
  • 160GB SATA drive (replaced with Samsung drive below)
  • 16X DVD+/- RW w/ double layer write capability

Samsung HD501LJ 500GB SATA drive: $110 (

Creative Sound Blaster Audigy SE: $32 (

Sound Blaster Digital I/O Module: $16 (

AverTV Combo PCIe (m780): $88 (

In addition to those parts, I used a Logitech Harmony Remote 680 that I purchased for a bargain $105 in late 2005. It's no longer made, but Logitech makes plenty of other Harmony models that should work just fine. They just won't have the green button.

I also added a Microsoft Wireless Entertainment Desktop 7000 Bluetooth keyboard. At $124 (, it's a little pricey, but it's so smoothly integrated with Media Center that it's worth it to me. Any Bluetooth keyboard should work just fine.

Update: As a reader pointed out via e-mail, I left out one part, a Media Center remote control with IR receiver. These are typically available for around $30; this model from PC Alchemy has all the hardware needed to connect additional IR emitters to two TV tuners. Although I use the Logitech Harmony 680 remote, the IR receiver is required to operate the system via the 10-foot interface.

Topics: Amazon, Dell

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  • Hourly Rate

    That's a bargain, if you consider a PS3 a bargain that is. Many do.

    What's your hourly rate? How long did the setup take, in contiguous time?

    Are these costs are negligible, or are they simply written off as an expense? For
    those writing about tech, setup time is part of work time. It earns revenue. The
    capital costs can be written-off. For the rest of us, its a cost. We have to exonerate
    the costs as a hobby. We have to justify the cost with our enthusiasm.

    Whereas I don't doubt the value of enthusiasm, I do wonder why hidden costs are
    not up for discussion?even with entertainment, when they can vary just as much,
    or more, than the capital costs. They can even exceed capital costs. The
    "experience" can change as a result. I also think that the write-off and the revenue
    from this exercise... let's just say it probably doesn't detract from that enthusiasm.

    Can never argue with anyone's enthusiasm over anything. There's no point. It's
    safe to say though, that if the setup time is a little onerous, and the
    troubleshooting and skill set requirements to make it work, are higher, the review
    grade can drop sharply, particularly for the non technical person.

    The review could come with a caveat, this particular captain's bridge is better left
    to those who have that peculiar combination of higher technical skills, lower value
    of time, and the higher income (inexplicably) that allows a $700 (+) discretionary

    Suburban male teenagers? It's certainly a big demographic!
    Harry Bardal
    • Still an enthusiast project

      Harry, I wrote this article for the kind of people who want to do this and who do not treat their time as billable hours. I know an attorney who bills $400 an hour and yet will spend a full day replacing, upgrading, or tweaking some piece of consumer electronics gear (not a PC or a PS3) to get better HD performance. Does he have a "lower value of time"? No, he chooses to spend his leisure time on a hobby that gives him pleasure. And ultimately, any sort of comprehensive digital media solution is going to be like that. Some people would be perfectly happy plugging their iPod into a tiny two-speaker docking station and calling that their digital media hub. There are plenty of people who, like me, want something more. Both points of view are valid, IMO.

      Having gone through this process once, I could do it again in probably two hours, and I think anyone who follows my advice with the same or different hardware could also do it as quickly. In fact, it would take roughly the same amount of time to set up any whole house media system, because most of the time is spent making connections to other CE gear and transferring files or setting up a library.

      By way of comparison, DirecTV was here yesterday to replace my HD-DVR and antenna. It took two hours. Imagine that.
      Ed Bott
      • Valid Points

        These are all valid points. This is the reason I might suggest you stick to this area
        of thicker ice. Hobbies, games, and other time sinks are beyond reproach. When
        the rubber meets the road, and time becomes money, time has to be tracked as an

        I've seen a Wall Mart mind-set applied to the most sophisticated and complicated
        devices we'll ever have in our homes, home offices, and small businesses. When
        you start moving away from entertainment and simple secretarial functions,
        computers require, demanding apps, fluid multitasking, and a dependable and
        unfettered OS. An impressive game or media app that prefers to commandeer a
        computer with a single run time, simply doesn't impress, nor does it produce
        much product or profit. It will never have to within the scope of this blog. That's
        ok, just be careful not to stray too far from time wasting. Increasingly, it seems to
        be your area of expertise.

        The fixation on capital costs will continue. the capital costs of this pro computer
        can be many times that of your Dell and still be infinitesimal beside the cost of the
        education of the person using the device, the income generated by the device over
        its life span, and by the cost of 3rd party software running on it. In a professional
        arena 1% gain in productivity over its life, pays for a computer times over. Sorry,
        but some of us need more than bread and circuses.

        I don't doubt the Dell is a capable box. It's probably fun, even if, as a computer for
        entertainment, it might have some unrealized potential. I'm not casting doubt on
        your conclusions, the means by which you arrive at them, or your personal choice
        of subjects. What I do now question are your criteria, the cherry-picking that goes
        on. Are you happier at the shallow end of the pool?

        In a moment of depth, you've said yourself. The complaint IS a better solution
        than the whine. Does it end there? You tell me. If, the complaint says "we deserve
        better" and the cheque says "thanks for the kick, can I have another", something
        additional may be in order. I've not seen this addressed. It can't be addressed
        from within a single OS's ecosystem. Again?you tell me if this option is not on the
        table, then why? Does this blog serve broad technology through comparison, or a
        single company through panderance. Leave it to the other guy right? For heaven's
        sake keep the chocolate away from the peanut butter. Technological coexistance
        surely can't be a good thing? Mac guys are Mac guys, and Windows guys are
        Windows guys. Just leave it alone!

        Teaching a man to fish is one thing, a sales pitch for a boat is another. The info on
        the setup and integration of the Microsoft XBox360, the Microsoft Home Server,
        and the Microsoft Media Center, is sure to be helpful. Each reader can decide
        whether this represents a conflict of interest and whether the choice of subjects
        will continue to be beyond reproach.
        Harry Bardal
  • disks, network, backup

    With all the multimedia files you will accumulate, how will you survive backing up without a gigabit LAN: there is no good time to back up a media center (though it should be done every day), so you want to rush those files off to your device of choice. No? Otherwise, say you can't sleep, you want to watch Terminator 1-3 straight through, and your backup program slows the machine to a crawl in the middle of the night so the disk slows or audio skips or you can't access web content at 2 am. You'll probably be scanning for viruses and Malware at that hour, too. And if you set these maintenance schedules for 10 am, woe will beset you on a sick day. So, fast (invisible) backup seems required.
    • Kind of an issue

      but not what your stating. I run GB-PVR, not Media Center, but AV and malware scans never affected viewing performance. After I turned them off, they didn't bother me at all.
      Seriously, where is my PVR going to get a virus? From CSI? Haven't been doing any AV/Malware scanning for over a year on my PVR, don't have so much as a tracking cookie on it.

      Backups, regardless, are a pain. I've taken to just imaging the OS and programs, and leaving the recorded material at risk. If it is lost, I can record it again. If it is important, I'll burn it off to DVD or own the DVD.
    • Backup not an issue

      Backups to Windows Home Server take less than an hour per night, done in the middle of the night over 10/100 connections.

      Recorded TV is not backed up. If I have a hard disk crash, I will lose the latest TV programs. That I don't mind. I won't lose music, pictures, home videos, or TV shows I converted to movie formats (and which are many times smaller than DVR-MS files.

      Honestly, gigabit ethernet is nice but totally nonessential for this system.

      And this system has no AV software. Doesn't need it.
      Ed Bott
  • A dual core hotrod isn't really needed

    What IS needed for a media center is drive space. LOTS of it.

    I have 1.5TB in my media center server and I am feeling the constraints. It takes a decent bit of space to make a mean setup.

    Of course that DC proc can go to good use playing Quake and other goodies on the big screen :)
    • Dual core useful for some tasks

      HD playback really benefits from the dual-core processor. Also, if you think you'll do any transcoding of video, it comes in handy as well.

      But I agree that storage is king.
      Ed Bott
      • One thing you might want to look at

        Now I come from the house of Myth, but it should still carry over. The nVidia geForce video cards and VIA Unichrome cards have built in MPEG2 decoding, which takes a bit of the load off the processor, especially when dealing with HD video. The Uni's from what I have heard can do MPEG4 as well, which helps even more.

        Transcoding, that does take a bit of oomph.
        • Yeah, 8500/8600 especially

          I'll be looking at those soon. When I spec'd this system, there were no Nvidia 8-series in low profile form factor.
          Ed Bott
  • Plus the price of Vista OS

    So what does that bring you too? $1000?
    • oh dell...

      It was a Dell Bundle. I still would have opted for a PS3.
    • Included with system

      Vista Home Premium was in the purchase price.
      Ed Bott
  • Backup Woes

    I noticed that Business Premium Edition of Vista also has media center. One of the things that comes in that version of Vista is the ability to backup files to network drives. With a little tinkering you could probably setup a little file server with a few overly large hard drives and make it so that the video files you have that are the oldest get moved off from your media center to a server.

    This might be able to keep some of the work off of the media center.
    • No such thing as Business Premium Edition

      Not sure what you're referring to here.
      Ed Bott
  • Connection detail?

    Thanks for an enlightening article. I think I'll take the plunge once I understand how to connect a few things:
    1- How do I get the output to the component input on my TV, I don't have HDMI
    2- How do I get the signal from my DISHTV receiver in HD connected to the media center? So I can record and pause live TV.
    3- Is it possible to have multipe outputs on the media center so that one would go directly to the TV and another would go to a TV modulator so I can distribute it to the rest of my house.