Building my own Perfect Machine

With $450 and some eBay savvy, I tried to give TiVo a run for its money.

By Farhad Manjoo
Published March 11, 2005 4:47PM (EST)

In building a home media center, one of the most important things you need is a cool-looking PC case, the package in which all your components fit. The machine is going to be sitting in your living room, remember, so it can't really look like a traditional computer. You want something that looks more like a DVD player or a TiVo. You also want a machine with some kind of innovative cooling system because you don't want the drone of a computer's fan marring the monastic silence you need to properly enjoy a "Wanna Come In?" marathon on MTV. Gadget blogs and build-your-own-PC forums are always advertising stylish new PC cases, some of which can cost several hundred dollars.

On eBay, I went looking for something very cheap, and after some digging around I found a gently used, small silver case made by Shuttle, one of the most popular firms among enthusiasts of what are called small-form-factor PCs. Together with other standard computer parts -- a relatively fast processor, some memory, a hard drive and, most important for a media PC, a good video card and a TV-capture device -- I cobbled together an adequately powered system for about $450.

After acquiring the hardware, I needed software to record TV shows and play other media. There are many different choices, one of the most popular of which is Snapstream. There's also a neat-looking open-source system for Windows called Media Portal. But since my media center PC was completely without software, not even an operating system, I decided to buy an all-in-one OS and media application -- Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition. This set me back $120 on eBay.

If you know what you're doing, setting up your own system should take you a few hours. Since I barely know what I'm doing most of the time (ask my editors!), it took me several days, working on and off, to get the Windows Media Center system up and running. (For real professional help, check out this guide in Extreme Tech.)

I have to say that for the most part, I was pleased with how the Windows system worked. Connected to my cable system and TV, the device recorded TV shows just as easily as TiVo does. The system is missing some of the basic features of TiVo -- for instance, having it predict what you might like to see based on previously recorded shows -- but it's also free to use (TiVo charges a monthly service fee of $12.95). The main problem is that my system has a look and feel that's more reminiscent of a PC than of a TiVo. It can take some time to respond to the buttons you press on your remote, especially when the computer's performing extra tasks in the background. And even though I'd shopped for a quiet case, I could still hear the whir of the fan as I watched TV.

I'd heard excellent reviews of MythTV, the open-source system that runs on the Linux operating system. So after I built the Windows Media Center machine, my next project was to set up a Linux version. There are some great online resources for how to do this, but I'm sorry to report that my attempts weren't fruitful. When it comes to Linux, I don't know my bash from my elbow, and as I delved into the project I realized I would need many days to build my MythTV. I'm sure it's possible for people better schooled in the open-source OS than I am to set up something fantastic using MythTV; there are rollicking discussion groups online, where people expound on this adventure, and I'd encourage anyone with some knowledge of Linux to pursue the Perfect Machine this way. But I don't have the time, or the inclination, to do it: I'd rather spend my weekends watching TV than building it.

The other thing I didn't try to do was convert a Mac Mini into a Perfect Machine. But this, too, is a pastime of many people online, and several Mac enthusiasts told me that a Mac Mini (which, unlike a PC, is quiet and not ugly), boosted with an add-on digital video recorder made by a company like Elgato, would constitute a Perfect Machine.

I do wish these people luck. But I regard my foray into the media-center-PC-building world as a cautionary tale. I spent a few hundred dollars and ended up with a machine that was satisfactory but not killer. I'd prefer if Apple purchased TiVo and sold me a pre-made Perfect Machine for $500.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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