Thursday, December 31, 2009

Kicking Cable TV and The Dish: Part Two

Let's round up an inexpensive computer, and a good video card. I'll let you decide how you're going to do your audio. Most of what you will get online is stereo, so you may just opt to run the audio out of the on-board sound card to the speakers on your TV. You already have your high speed internet.

Now, you all know you can watch video, and even TV shows right on your computer without building a specialty box. If I was single, I'd just get a nice 21 inch flat screen monitor and be done with it. What we're going to do is sort of build a stripped down, low budget media server, but primarily designed to handle streaming media. Unlike a true media server, it doesn't always have to be on, thus saving you money in power consumption.

You don't have to use a specialized version of Windows to do this, such as Media Center. You can build up a machine that uses a version of Linux, as long as drivers are available for your selected video card. Apple Macs have also been used to do this. If you go a used MacMini route, select a MacMini with the Intel CPU that uses the Intel GMA950 Graphics Processor. The GMA950 is optimized for HD video. You won't need a video card if you get this machine. I've seen these Macs for around $350 used in the SF bay area.

So in keeping with the wide variety of possibilities in the selection of hardware, this is going to be a general how to. Everything we'll discuss can be translated into working with Linux, and Macs.

Since Microsoft still seems to have a major (although weakening hold) on personal computing, we'll stay over here on the PC side of the road.

You'll need to find a cheap computer that has a PCI Express slot, often denoted as PCIe on packaging. The reason is you'll need a PCIe video card is to deliver your streaming video to that nice big LCD or Plasma TV in your living room.

Finding a cheap computer could be as easy as asking your kids. Teen geeks often upgrade hardware, and they may what you need just laying around. In fact they could probably whip up the complete system for you in an afternoon. Just tell them what you're going to use it for.

There's also Craigslist, Freecycle, and Ebay. You could also just purchase a barebones style system from a retailer such as MicroCenter. Microcenter has a prospect for this project right here (link will die after product is sold) for $199.00. Make sure you check their clearance, refurbished, and hot deal tabs at the top of the page. Sometimes they have insanely low prices.

Okay, so now you have your PC.

Next comes selecting a graphics card. You're looking for a PCIe graphics card.

A very good budget choice is the Sapphire 100253HDMI Radeon HD 4650. The Radeon 4650 line will even deliver excellent Blu-ray playback if you install a Blu-ray capable drive in your cheap computer system. It has a built in HDMI connector, eliminating the need for cable adapters. The other nice thing is this particular card does not require an external power connector like some of the higher end video cards.

Tiger Direct has this card for $59.99

E-Bay has a wide range of prices for this card. One was as low as $15.50 at the time I wrote this article.

There are other cards out there. Now that you've seen this card, you know what to look for. You can evaluate the hardware that is easily available to you.

Tomorrow, part three: Software and sources of content online.

Additional reading:

Popular Mechanics - How to Build Cheap Linux and Windows Home Media Servers in Three Easy Steps

Hot Hardware - High Capacity $300 Budget Media Server

MaximumPC - How To Build A Media Server

Have The Know How - Step By Step Ubuntu Media Server Build

Build A Media Server - How To Build An Apple Media Server


HermitJim said...

Thanks for the information, my friend!learn something new every day!

Anonymous said...

Great info, THANKS ! Have a safe and happy New Year with the family, Catman!
I hope for a better outlook for 2010 but, I know better . I Look forward to part 3 and all the rest of your articles in 2010 .

Catman said...

Hey 3%4freedom,

Thanks for the wishes. Hope you had a nice New Year's eve!

Happy New Year!