Saturday, June 28, 2014

Media Center PC Build

I'll admit it, I've been lurking around in various PC build forums for probably 6 months.  Ever since I cut the cable cord I've been using an older Alienware M11X laptop as my media center pc.  While it has done a decent job it is not a perfect solution.  It is lacking in CPU cores and also only has 4 gigabytes of ram.  Now, you can argue that this should be plenty for a media center pc but when you want to play the occasional steam game using big picture mode things start to get a little more difficult.  Couple this with using an (also older) D-Link D321 NAS for streaming videos and things get even more complicated.

Last week I finally bit the bullet by picking up the last few parts for my build.  This is what I ended up with:

My primary goal for this box is to serve as a media center to drive my 60" Plasma Television.  For this I will be running XBMC Gotham version 13.1.  As a secondary use I want it to be used as a steam box in big picture mode that will share the steam library from my primary account using family sharing.  Other than that some karaoke, light web browsing and maybe some music streaming.

Once all the parts arrived I had to familiarize myself with the hardware.  It has been awhile since I've built a pc from the ground up.  The last desktop I purchased was directly from Dell.  While i've done some modifications to that box it was still something that was built for me.  One of my main concerns was having minimal sound from the system and also minimal heat.  This box will also be sitting right next to my television so it needs to look halfway decent or my wife won't like it all.  Migrating about a Terabyte of data from the NAS to the internal hard drive of this new box is not going to be much fun either!

After laying everything out on my table I was ready to get started, this is what it looked like before I began.

Motherboards can be picky things.  You can do all the research in the world but it is really not going to prepare you for the subtle differences of one over another.  This was my first foray into the world of Micro-ATX motherboards.  To be fair, it is small, but not so small as to be impossible to work with.  I just promised myself I would stay grounded (literally) and take my time.  I wanted to get everything hooked up and not worry about cable management just so I could confirm that all hardware was good to go.  Once I had everything in and working my plan was to pull all the cables and really focus on the management so airflow would be good.

My first problem came when I looked at the memory sticks.  These things are tall, I mean like twice as tall as the memory modules I was used to.  I realized that I'd have to seat the secondary hard drive either high or low as to not interfere with the memory.  
Since the spike has 5 internal bays I was able to use the bay below the 5.25 in order to keep it out of the way enough.  The modular power supply worked out wonderfully here.  I was able to use one cable for all sata power connections and then I needed one molex connector for the front mounted fan.  Once all of it was together I took it in the office and hooked it up.  I put in the hdmi cable, the keyboard/mouse cable (wireless, this will mean something in a minute) the power and the network and pressed the power button.  Crossing my fingers as I saw the Gigabyte logo pop up, I was in business!

The first thing I noticed was the GUI BIOS, very nice!  Also I was surprised the wireless keyboard mouse combo worked without any drivers.  Usually I would have to go digging for a wired keyboard mouse until I got Windows up and running.  I confirmed a few things in the bios and then found my windows disk.  I popped 64 bit windows DVD in the drive and then restarted the computer.  It asked me if I wanted to boot from the DVD drive and after about 10 minutes I was into the windows environment.  Even I was amazed at how fast this thing was.  I should note that I made sure the SSD was hooked up to the 6Gbps SATA port (this Mobo only has one of them).  The boot time after restart was less than 5 seconds, amazing!

Once I had everything working with basic windows I shut the computer down and got to work on cable management.  You know, when I bought the Cougar Spike I pretty much bought it for the price.  It was fifteen dollars after a rebate so it was a no brainer for me.  Saving money though can sometimes turn around and bite you.  After looking for a few examples of cable management on the spike I found that there was almost nothing that the manufacturer had done to make our lives easier.  I went to the workshop and grabbed a few zip ties of various sizes, some twist ties and a couple of rubber bands and got to work.

I think that you'll agree what I came up with works quite well.  Idle temps on the CPU are around 25c and the system stays around 27c.  The highest I've seen it go so far has been around 45c but honestly I've not really taxed it yet.  Once I get into a long intensive gaming session I may come back here and update this post but I really don't think there is much more I can do to bring them down short of adding more fans and I'm not sure I want the added noise.

Here is a before picture after I hooked everything up and before I performed my cable management.

And here is the final product with everything in place.

Finally here is a shot of the front of the case, all closed up and ready to be integrated into my media center in the living room.  Oh wait, I still have about a day's worth of data migration to do.  This DLink NAS will sustain only about 10MBps so this will take some time.  I hope you enjoyed my post!