Building a Home Entertainment PC
Andy builds a decent home theatre as cheaply as poss..
What's New
As technology surges forward, today's computers are capable of performing an increasingly diverse range of tasks. No longer the mundane word processors of yore, the average PC today lets you listen to music, watch television broadcasts, enjoy DVDs, surf the internet and heaps more. Just the sort of thing I'd like to be able to do from my living room in fact. So, why have separate boxes for all these functions when a PC can do everything and more. The buzzword of the moment is Home Theatre. Time to look into the possibilities.

I had already dispersed network cabling around the house so I could surf the net from upstairs on the mobile. A priority now was to have a system which, like a laptop, had low visual impact on the living area. With a room full of computery things in the downstairs dungeon, I don't want them taking over the whole bloody house. Although not a telly fan, I do love watching films so another priority was good sound and a big picture. My modest priorities were stated thus:
  • PC-based system, for ultimate configurability and versatility
  • Home network connectivity
  • Low Geek Factor - doesn't turn living room into another computer lab
  • Low Spaghetti Coefficient - minimal wires and cables everywhere
  • High on the Bejeezuz! Factor - BIGGEST picture with best quality for lowest price
  • Ditto sound system
  • Allows arranging of furniture without being the focal point
  • Doesn't require a second mortgage

The Fun of the Screen Savour

Perusing the big screen merchandise available around Launceston is always good fun. Probably the best places for a good look are Wills on the Quadrant and Harvey Norman. Plasma screens are the current flavour of the month and that may be about as long as they last according to some sources; what with the need for re-gassing, tendency for screen burn-in, viewing angle problems and of course, their staggering price ($8000+). So I gave plasma the arse straight away.
LCD is probably the better technology, what with most of the benefits and
few of the drawbacks and I've got nothing against LCD really, apart from
the price. There were some problems with refresh rate such as fast games
becoming very blurry as the screen struggled to keep up. Apparently
more recent screens are much faster in the refresh area. Pixel quality
has also been under scrutiny with problems relating to warrantying
against a percentage of 'dead' pixels on screen.

I think once the screen size gets bigger and the cost starts to drop, then
LCD screens will be a viable option for the average buyer. But for now, LCD is not for me..
So a projector then. Ah, those childhood memories of cosy family slideshow nights around the fireside. More recently I'd already been messing around with the PC projector in the Network Lab at work and those fine girls in the TAFE library had been kind enough to let me borrow a variety of projectors for er, home assessment purposes. As with plasma and LCD, there's a stack of information on the web (where would we be without it these days), so I got stuck into some serious research.

As with every piece of technology, it seems everybody's got an opinion. Projector People rave about the real cinema experience of projecting an image. In fact some of them get so worked up about it that they dedicate whole rooms to the Ultimate Home Theatre Experience, with curtains and lights and rows of seats and probably even a popcorn lady. I must say that when I invite friends over to watch a film, I don't want dorky stuff like making them sit behind me, I mean how sociable is that!? We can go to a real cinema for much less money and throw popcorn at someone else's screen. In addition I'm not interested in dedicating a room just to watch videos, although I'm sure this would be just grand if you're lucky enough to live in a mansion.

The TAFE library had recently purchased a couple of Hitachi projectors and for a while there the weekends were filled with testing screens and tripods and knocking up projector holders for tripods and lugging PCs upstairs and downstairs and tripping over bits of wire. The cat however, apparently thought it was immense fun.

To cut to the chase, I decided the Hitachi was just what I needed and a dedicated screen was just what I didn't need. Now, Pedantic Projector Purists out there I am sure, will rant on ad nauseum about how important it is to have the proper equipment including the proper screen (costing a proper $1000 naturally). However after a good drop of proper paint (i.e. white and cheap) I must say that I am really pleased with the image quality projected onto the wall, right above the fireplace. So there you go.
The Hitachi CP-S318 comes in at a cool $3000 which is probably
a mid-range projector price and while it's a fair bit of dosh,
still costs less than half of current big screen offerings.
The image quality is superb and size can be massive!

A bit of fiddling revealed that the Hitachi is easier to set
up when running upside-down. A new dedicated carrier
platform was crafted accordingly and suspended from the ceiling.

PC Priorities

With the Projector on order from TOPS Office & Business Systems in Launceston, it was time to turn my attention to the computer itself. I was running a rather pretty silver full-sized tower case upstairs and while it looked the part sitting next to the rather pretty silver television, it was still obviously a PC in the living room and hence taboo according to my rules of living room aesthetics.

I contemplated building a PC into a cupboard and similar activities but couldn't really justify hacking up perfectly good furniture just to hide a bloody computer in. So I went and had a bit of a chat with my mate Geoff-the-Knowledgable at JTEK Computers. M'man pointed out the rather cute Shuttle case on display in Miztek's window and said,

"You need one of those, Andy".

Of course I do Geoff, how silly of me not to realise..

As soon as I perused the range of XPCs in the rather spiffy Shuttle catalogue which Geoff was enthusiastically waving at my face, I knew he was right. This is definitely the way to go. A great little compact system which doesn't even look like a computer to the untrained eye. Marvellous.
Shuttle XPC I spotted the AMD Athlon Range of Shuttle XPCs and there was no going back. The Shuttle SN45G fitted well into the price range at $360 and for this you get a compact, half-sized case with motherboard and power supply.

The SN45G does not include CPU, Memory, Hard Drive, Video Card, Mouse or Keyboard, but it does have on-board LAN and Sound and one PCI and one AGP slot. I chucked in the Athlon 1.1, MX400 and 256MB of RAM from the donor box, together with the Western Digital 80GB drive containing all my music collection and my Pioneer DVD drive. Had to be a bit careful with the XP reinstall that I got the right partition there, heh-heh.
One thing I particularly like about the SN45G is the onboard sound. This Shuttle model uses the new NVIDIA nForce2 Ultra 400, South bridge with six channel audio. The surround sound really is superb and all those MPEGS suddenly gained a whole new audio quality which I never knew they possessed. I had just thought they were crap.

Sound Advice

Speaking of naff quality, I had this massive pair of four foot high speakers which I procured from some market somewhere and an old Yamaha amp upstairs. What with the move to modern surround sound, there seems to be an interesting development in better quality PC-based sound systems. Anyway Geoff's got a sub-woofer on his computer so I had to have one as well. Harris Scarfe of all places had this sale on; ATD 6-speaker surround sound home entertainment systems down to $200. The tiny front tweeters on those spindly stands really are tiny and spindly. More like a one-legged daddy longlegs standing in the corner really..

ATD Surround System


I did some shop evaluations in my lunch hour and it certainly sounded good and the price was alright. I'd been looking around and had paid a visit to one of the local hi-fi emporiums, only to walk out somewhat disappointed at the 'you only get what you pay for' angle of the otherwise friendly salesman. Yes you pay for quality for sure, but I think there's a large amount of snob value in dedicated hi-fi shops and perfectionistic sales talk is rife.

You can pick up good sound for a lot less. Anyway I'm not willing to pay $1000 for a sub-woofer and then as much again for an amp, however good it sounds. It just isn't money I wish (or can afford) to spend. I left the shop thinking no wonder the stuff costs so much, I wonder how many sales they make with prices like that.

What did blow me away though is how great the tiny ATD system sounds compared to my dinosaur-like big boxes. There's just no comparison. And those little tweeters are hardly noticeable around the walls, gaining me lots of extra cat-swinging space - hurrah!

Putting It All Together

Using the standard PC VGA output for the projector definitely gives the best quality image and a 20 foot VGA lead was obtained from Active Electronics in town for the very reasonable sum of $40. Three 8-metre extension leads take the sound for front, middle and surround channels from the XPC's sound output around the room to the ATD sub-woofer/amplifier lines-in. The ATD's remote control flicks between inputs from the XPC and the separate DVD player, used mainly for music CDs.
There's not much point in setting all this gear up in your living room unless
you're gonna go wireless with your input devices now is there?
Tandy Electronics is always worth a look for computer
and electronics gear. They had a special on recently
and a rather sexy black and silver Belkin wireless
keyboard and mouse were obtained for $50
- a third of the price of the equivalent Microsoft
offerings. Yes there's name branding and snobbery
in the world of PC peripherals too. But to pay extra for
a Microsoft Logo..!? Jeez..
Looking at the specs, most of the components are what you might expect from a brand new cutting edge PC system; the only radical difference being a PC projector instead of a monitor. I do have a Spirit PCI TV capture card, although it can only get 2 channels with any quality for some reason (the television gets them all). I know a few people with TV cards and no-one seems to use them after a while for some reason.

So wossit like? Well I've now got a 6 foot wide screen - equivalent to 200cm diagonal - of excellent quality on which to view films and surf the internet. The surround sound is brilliant. Once I thought there was a heavy breathing alien in the house standing approximately over my left shoulder, but that was just Jethro-the-cat hyperventilating as he watched the film with me. Jaws. DVDs and CDs sound awesome as I'm sure the neighbours will attest to. Moreover I have more room in the place after consigning the old stuff to downstairs and I can arrange the furniture around the fireplace as the screen is right above it.

Contacts and Links

Links

Do you need a ButtKicker? Suspended Projector Shuttle PC Proj and PC The Big Screen

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