Thursday, May 04, 2006

HTPC Project - Fans

Spire fan packaging

The three new 40mm fans arrived from PricePoint this morning. I'm focusing on the fans because of two things:

1. HTPCs generate heat - HDDs, DVB-T cards and CPUs that are in constant use produce lots of heat.
2. No one likes a noisy box sitting in their lounge room - fans can be the noisest items in a PC.

There is a balance between noise and heat - faster fans remove heat quickly but make more noise, quiet fans don't remove heat as fast. I opted for quiet fans because the Epia platform is inherently cool - low power normally equals low temperature. My main concern is how much heat the hard disk and DVB-T card will generate.

Replacing the CPU fan was easy, replacing the two case fans was a bit more involved.

40mmx10mmx10mm fan mounted on CPU heatsink

The Morex procase 2699 comes with two 40mm fans that sit under the PCI card (riser) and directly behind the HDD - basically where a lot of the big hot bits live which is good. The two fans are 'daisy chained' together so they can use the single system fan header on the M10000 board.

System fan header with 'piggy backed' fans connected

Two 40mm fans mounted at rear of Morex 2699 chassis

Because of this only one fan has its RPM sensed and the other fan simply piggy backs on the red and black power wires. So I had to get the two new fans and solder the red and black wires together where they meet the mainboard connector.

Once I had it all together I started it up and was pleasantly surprised at how quiet the new fans were. While they only push 5.4 cubic feet of air per minute they are hardly louder than a gentle breeze. Great for use in a lounge room where for one reason or another everything seems to be louder.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

HTPC Project - Hardware

About time I got something done in the HTPC area. Sure its the 'fashionable' thing to do but I like the idea of having one box replace, well, the one dvd player under the TV... I wouldn't mind being able to record stuff again anyway.

Its a joint project between myself and my brother - since we both live together we may as well share the costs. He buys the bits, I get to play.

Now the first thing is getting all the hardware together. The first bit is the DVB-T card - this gets the signal, it drives the TV side of things. Wise selection is of utmost importance and thus I settled for a DViCO FusionHDTV Dual Digital DVT-T card. Twin tuners and good support in Linux thanks to a lad at the UQ in Brisbane.

Second most important is the platform in which to host the DVB-T card. I've had a Via Epia M10000 kicking around for sometime now. I originally used it as a office PC for about 2 years, it did well until I wanted to run some more intensive applications on it. So it was replaced with my current Soltek Qbic 3401 and got left in a corner. Now I've purchased three new 40mm dual bearing fans for it (Spire FD04010B1M3 23dBA 50,000hrs MTBF), two for its Black Procase 2699 chassis and one for its onboard CPU - the fans it came with all died because they're shitty sleeve bearing types. Memory wise it will use single stick of 512Mb 266MHz DDR.

Now because I desire recording at little CPU cost (1GHz doesn't offer much grunt in a PVR role) I need a rather generous amount of hdd space to host the MPEG2 TR files - approximately 2Gb/hr. In this case I settled for a Western Digital Caviar SE 320GB disk - quiet, fairly reliable and quick. The M10000 doesn't support SATA so PIDE with ATA66 will have to suffice. I do have a fall back however - a good quality Oxford Semiconductor OXFW911 based firewire caddy.

Because this will be replacing the DVD player it will need its own DVD drive. To address this I got a Panasonic UJ-846-B black slot loading slim DVD-RW-DL drive. This makes it a very advanced DVD recorder - you can imagine the cost of getting an individual DVD recorder that has Dual-Layer capability... Slot loading is a handy feature - no ugly tray and less to break off.

So that's the DVB-T card, Mainboard/CPU, Chassis, Cooling, Storage, Optical items covered.

The Epia comes with onboard everything with its CLE266 chipset. Its onboard video is a S3 UniChrome with good MPEG2 acceleration (mind you that it your 'fuzzy' sort of accelerator, not your dedicated type), XvMC support and TV Out (RCA and S/Video). The nice folks at OpenChrome are churning out the Linux drivers for it now.

Sound is provided by the onboard VIA VT1616 6 channel AC'97 Codec. Linux supports it and it can provide 5.1 surround sound when I get around to buying a compatible sound rig. Mainly concerned with DVDs at the moment since there's no HD TV yet and its associated AC3 sound. It shares the RCA port with the onboard video - a jumper setting changes the RCA port from TV-Out to SPDIF Digital.

Now all these fancy bits make for a great frontend HTPC but what's going to display all this digital greatness? Well my current Panasonic 80cm CRT isn't quite up to the task of pumping out high resolution wide screen pictures. This leads us to look into purchasing a new wide screen TV of the Rear Projection DLP, LCD or Plasma variety. I'm kind of leaning towards LCD or RePro - LCDs have dead pixels and RePros have limited lamp life - Plasmas just haven't been around long enough for me to be comfortable in investing that amount of cash in them. So we'll be doing some TV shopping in the next few weeks.

What am I going to run on all this kit? I've been looking at MythTV mainly, its got good development steam behind it and does everything I want - for free. I want to use Linux because that's what I'm comfortable with and I like the flexibility of the OS and the option of running a backend to encode, compress and host files. The backend would be necessary if things get too heavy for the little epia - I've got a Pentium 4 1.8GHz box laying around waiting for just such a task, it can run down stairs out of earshot.

I'll describe my installation experiences when all this gear arrives from the suppliers. That's it for now.