Build a $300 HDTV media extender

Personal video storage on a home network is also getting very popular but getting that video to the HDTV isn't easy without paying for an expensive and extremely limited function HD media extender appliance. But with a little spare time and some cheap commodity PC hardware you can build a superior HDTV media extender that can easily be upgraded to a full fledged media center machine for $300.

HDTVs are getting cheaper especially when you're talking about older close out models that they're becoming very common in the home.  Personal video storage on a home network is also getting very popular but getting that video to the HDTV isn't easy without paying for an expensive and extremely limited function HD media extender appliance.  But with a little spare time and some cheap commodity PC hardware you can build a superior HDTV media extender that can easily be upgraded to a full fledged media center machine for $300.

List of parts (including shipping)*

45Tower case with 300 watt power supply
62ECS NFORCE4M-A AM2 socket motherboard
45AMD Sempron 2800+ AM2
68ATI X1300 with 256 MB RAM (no fan)
60160 GB Hitachi Hard Drive
23256 MB DDR 400 MHz RAM
0MythTV and Ubuntu Linux (free download)
303Subtotal before taxes

* Note that I simply picked some low-price online retailers at random and I'm not necessarily endorsing them.  I'm only including the links for your reference.  It may be worth it to get everything from one or two vendor and you may be able to reduce some of the shipping costs and it's easier to track the parts.  There are plenty of places on the web to search for these kinds of deals.

I did not go with a smaller format machine because it would actually cost a lot more money and lack the flexibility for upgrades such as TV/HDTV tuner cards and additional hard drives.  The smaller machines are also worse on noise levels because they're crammed in to a smaller space with louder faster rotating small fans.  The power supply happens to be 300 watts which is smaller than usual but it's still about 200 watts over kill for this particular application.  Keeping the power supply smaller also increases power efficiency so there is no point in going out for a 500 watt power supply.  A good 330 watt power supply is actually over kill for the highest end fully loaded Intel Core 2 Duo computer.

I went with the AMD Sempron 2800+ because it has plenty of computing power for a multimedia extender or even an HD PVR.  The motherboard has PCI-Express slots which you'll need for the video card and 4 SATA ports and 2 PATA IDE ports.  The ATI X1300 video card I listed is actually a superb performer for video play back and can even be used for some light gaming.  The X1300 is particularly attractive because it has no fan and therefore is completely silent and it has HDTV component analog output common on all HDTVs.  If you have a DVI on your HDTV then that would be ideal but HDMI would be your second choice although most versions don't support non-interlaced input.  If you have an HDMI interface on your HDTV, you'll need to get a DVI to HDMI cable.  Your worst choice for HDTV is the analog component option and you'll need a component cable.

The hard drive is just something to store the OS on if you're only going to use this as a media extender.  If you want to use this for DVR functionality, consider a $90 320 GB hard drive which offers a great bang for the buck.  You might even buy 2 or 3 of them if you're going to use this as a DVR and a centralized file server.  You will want a gigabit Ethernet card if you're going to use this as a file server which will cost anywhere from $15 to $40 for a desktop adapter.

The RAM is sufficient if you keep the number of services running to a minimum though it wouldn't hurt to add another 256 MBs of RAM.  MythTV has become a phenomenon on Linux and it installs fairly easily on any modern desktop Linux distribution like Ubuntu Linux and you can't really argue about the price of either.  MythTV may be the killer app for Linux that allows Linux to penetrate the home market.  An OEM license for Windows will cost at least $70 and that doesn't include media center functionality!  In a follow up blog, I'll go over some TV and HDTV tuner cards.