Piggy's Computer 2007
This page was last modified 2007-06-07 17:06:59 by Puchu.Net user Choco. (Show history)

Karen and I have not been watching TV for a few years, since we stopped our satellite subscription. Recently we decided that we'll be spending a lot of time at home, because it's just tough to go out with a (at times fussy) baby. Digital video recording is an important requirement, because then we can pause the TV to take care of the baby, and resume from where we left off.

I've been working with digital TV's for several years now, and so I thought we should get our TV-watching habits back in high definition. Stations in the Bay area have been transmitting HD streams over the air, and in a few years there won't be any analog broadcasts. Building our own DVR is cheaper than buying a TiVo or similar equipment, and we won't have to pay monthly fees.



  • Antec Fusion
  • Asus M2A-VM
  • GeIL GX22GB6400UDC
  • AMD X2 4800+
  • Edimax EW-7128g
  • Card reader

After my experience with the Antec P180 I became a firm believer in computer cases with separated thermal zones for better cooling and consequently less noisy computing. The Fusion case comes with a 430W power supply, have all the external connectors we use, and a spiffy but mostly cosmetic VFD and volume knob. It shares many features to lower noise generated by fans and drives via using large 120mm fans and rubber grommets to dampen vibration. The only (minor) disappointment is the lack of memory card reader built into the case.

I wanted to connect the computer to a TV. The case only takes micro ATX motherboards. With these two restrictions there are only a few choices left for motherboard. My first choice, the Asus M2A-VM, was a disaster and cost me much time and money (Newegg charged me restocking fee for a defective motherboard) because Vista installation always fails randomly. Its replacement, the MSI K9AGM-FIH, had none of the issues and came with more features (FireWire and HDMI ports). It doesn't come with a wireless network interface, and I didn't want to pull network cables all over the house, so I bought a PCI wireless network card. The EW-7218g comes with a placeable antenna and the signal strength is great.

A limitation of micro ATX boards is the few expansion slots. With two PCI slots given up for the wireless and tuner cards I have no PCI expansion. So for the second tuner I went with an external USB tuner. At first it kept on dropping packets, but a little search online reveals the solution of inserting a powered hub in between the tuner and your computer. The USB tuner was drawing all the power from USB host, and motherboards often don't provide enough.

After selecting the motherboard, I am limited with which processor I can use. So I went with the one AMD processor I know is 65nm, hoping it'll consume less energy. The computer has been very responsive with a dual core processor and 2GB of memory (low latency memory and comes covered with shiny orangy heat sinks; I like shiny stuff, even if it's hidden in the case) running Windows Vista.

Heat Sink Modification

  • Scythe SFF21D
  • Thermalright SI-128
  • Arctic Silver 5

I knew the stock AMD fan is noisy. So I bought separate heat sink and fan to replace it. However, I forgot to factor in the height of elevated motherboard, so in the end the heat sink plus fan would be touching top of the case if assembled.

Without enough room for sufficient air flow, the heat sink is useless. I briefly considered drilling holes on the case to create an air intake, but (wisely) decided that it'll create a bigger problem later when it is clogged up with dust.

Finally what I did was taking the stock AMD heat sink, remove the fan and chopped off some part of the plastic mounting bracket. Then used Epoxy to fix a 120mm fan on top, blowing against the CPU. It works a lot better than it looks. Yay.


  • Samsung SH-S183L
  • Seagate ST3320620AS

The hard drives use perpendicular recording technology, so on paper they are quiet and perform well. However, when both tuners are recording HD programs and we are watching a recorded show, the seek noise is much louder. Not loud enough to interfere with TV watching, but from time to time I can hear it. I am weird like that. I don't think there is a simple solution to this problem, unless I go to the extreme and suspend a large-capacity notebook drive (expensive), or go for a network attached storage (no place to hide it). Oh well, can't have everything.

The DVD drive supports LightScribe, which looks neat and I've never played with it before. But really the reason why I bought it was because it's SATA.

Input Devices

  • MS Wireless Entertainment Desktop 8000

This is the only wireless keyboard I can find with backlit keys. It won't be released until later this year, so I can't say too much about it. On paper it has everything we need, including a wireless mouse and all the buttons for Vista Media Center. I think the backlight won't be all that useful, but Karen once jokingly complained that we don't have a keyboard that glows, and it got stuck in my head. See? I listen.

Upgrade Path

  • 1 unused x16 PCI-E slot
  • 1 unused x1 PCI-E slot
  • 1 empty drive bay

I am currently looking to see if I want to buy one of those sound cards with replaceable opamp chips for higher quality sound. Other than that there isn't much more to be done. Vista Media Center will only support up to 2 digital tuners so I've already hit the maximum.

Recording HD programs is eating a lot of hard disk space very quickly! For 1 hour of HD program, a little over 8GB of storage is needed. Vista Media Center only use one volume for recording, and I prefer to keep media and system files separate, so right now we can only record about 40 hours worth of stuff with 320GB of media storage. I think it'll be the first upgrade on the computer, so that we can keep at least a few weeks worth of programs.

Software (June 2007)

The new media center is very nice, but it has two serious flaws that prevents it from being perfect. I also evaluated several other software packages, such as BeyondTV and found that they all have their own quirks (such as missing digital closed captioning, etc.). In general, digital TV is still stuck at the newborn stage and engineers have yet to figure out how to work with it. I hope all these bright people figure it out soon.

Vista Media Center so far is still the one I like the most, due to its highly integrated interface with the underlying system. The biggest one being its ability to wake up from sleep to record shows. All of these software seem to work better with cable and analog sources, and make no use of PSIP data. Sigh.

Finally, the ATI 690G/X1250 drivers have bugs that degrade the experience. For example tuning to an HD channel cause green screen. Not being able to configure the underscan/overscan means I see a black border on TV. Deinterlacing performs poorly on some streams. Audio over HDMI is stereo PCM only, which means you can't hear the 5.1 digital sound broadcast unless you redirect the audio via separate connectors.

Product References


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