It’s done. I built it. It wasn’t the smoothest of rides, but the media center now sits by my television serving up….media. Like it’s supposed to do. I’ve got to kill the urge to install OpenOffice, Visual Studio, and other stuff on it that doesn’t belong on a media center. It’s not meant for those things despite being a general purpose PC. It’s an appliance for my living room that’s only supposed to do one thing. And do it well, I hope.
This is the second time I’ve built a computer, and its been two years since I tried to monkey with an entire computer system. So I would still consider myself a “n00b” at this. For those of you interested in how I built the machine read on. For those of you who aren’t, there are some pictures of my setup at the end of the blog post for you to enjoy.
So way back on January 30th, I got home and on my doorstep I found all the bits and pieces that I bought from Newegg in two giant boxes. One box contained the Antec Minuet 350 case and the other box contained everything else. I thought I’d wait until Saturday before putting the computer together, but I decided, “what the hell.” I opened everything up and busted out a screwdriver and got cracking.
There’s nothing too terribly difficult about building a computer. Certainly, if you don’t think you have the technical savvy to do it, you probably shouldn’t. Computer parts aren’t super delicate, but at the same time you don’t really want to chuck your motherboard across floor, scuff your socks on the carpet, and then go and pick it up. It’s easy to plug an AMD chip into the motherboard’s A-socket — it only goes in one way, but clamping the heatsink over top of it seals the deal. I’m still a little wary of it. Will all this pressure crack the chip? I’m sure it’s possible if your too rough with it, but no, it won’t if you take your time and place the heatsink on right. No rocket science involved. You really don’t even need to use a screwdriver as a lever to do it (at least in my case). One potential issue that could arise if you, for whatever reason, had to remove the chip. You’d have to scrape the thermal paste off the chip so that a new heatsink can make proper contact with the chip’s surface, but that luckily was not a bridge I had to cross.
RAM is easy to place in its slot and only goes in one way. The power supply connectors are easy the second time around. The front panel wires are a mess, but most of those wires control LEDs and a switch to turn on your machine, so if you foul it up, it probably won’t harm your motherboard. Lastly, SATA plugs are awesome. Just plug them into the mobo and then your DVD drive or harddisk and your done. I didn’t need a graphics card since the mobo has an onboard ATI Radeon 3200 HD chip. Forget a floppy drive, who has those anymore anyway? If you need something as a boot disk get a thumb drive, but I don’t bother. I’m living on the edge, which I’m sure I’ll regret later on. Usually though, if the shit hits the fan, especially for this PC, I’d just reformat it and start again. Sure I’d lose all my media. It’s not supposed to be important stuff anyway, just TV shows, pictures, music, and what-have-you. Alright the pictures do mean something, but they’re backed up.
I got it all wired up within two hours — I was also watching some TV while I was doing this so I could have probably done it faster, and then I POSTed.
Then nothing. No spinning fans. No beeps. No LEDs.
Dead. BTW, the Antec manual can bite my ass. It says there’s a switch for the PSU, but there clearly isn’t. Yet, in my desperation to figure out what the hell was wrong, I did actually look for the switch, and even thought that Antec put the switch in some clever hard to find place. For a while, I really did think that was my problem. Before I gave up completely I remembered a trick my friend showed me back in college: how to hotwire a PSU. I looked up some instruction online. You take a paper clip, unfold it, find the green wire and ground on the 20-pin plug from the PSU and connect them with the paper clip. If all goes well the fans start and the PSU is good. I don’t believe you can electrocute yourself, but I still feel somewhat dumb for trying something that seems reckless.
So I hotwired the sucker. No spinning fans. That’s pretty much when I got pissed at Newegg for sending me a dead horse. I went on their site and gave the Minuet case a good 1 star out of 5 to vent some anger — you can look it up under AlbinoGrimby. I got an RMA for the case and unplugged all the shit I put in there and shelved it. The prospect of waiting an entire week to try again just pissed me off. It wasn’t going to be fun having to send that case back and wait for Newegg to get me a new one.
Then on Sunday, I (re)learned that I was an idiot.
If there’s one thing I can confidently say about myself is that, I’m generally wrong, and I seem to have a decent sense of this these days. I sat there, that Sunday morning, looking at the Minuet box and thinking, “no way in hell can it be broken” I decided to try and hotwire it one more time and learned that Friday night, I picked the wrong black wire (i.e. ground) and hotwired it incorrectly. That Sunday morning I did it right, and the fans powered on in the PSU and case. I was pretty damn glad to be wrong just this once.
I unshelved everything and plugged it back into the case — this time it was a lot faster since things were already pre-assembled. I plugged everything in again and powered on. No go. What’s killing the power supply? I unplugged everything and tried with just the bare minimum of connected things: the power switch, harddrive, RAM, CPU, CPU fan, and viola, it worked. I added the other plugs one at a time: USB, DVD-RAM, Audio, and then Sys_fan.
Sys_fan. That fucker caused me the whole weekend’s worth of trouble. I don’t need it plugged in, and due to my n00bness, I may have plugged the wrong thing into the Sys_fan socket on the mobo. I thought the PSU would have to connect to it, but I was wrong apparently. There’s no Sys_fan on the mobo anyway. Without that connected the computer whirled to life with everything connected properly.
Now, I thought a lot about which OS I would stick on the machine. I’m going through a love-hate phase right now with Ubuntu Linux. I thought, I might use Ubuntu to drive my media center. Linux is stable. It’s fast, or should be, and hell, it’s open source and free. It was also a giant pain in my ass.
I won’t dispute that if your a really good hacker, Linux is for you. You can customize everything. It’s the ultimate DIY for computer OSes. Just remember the flip side to that. If you fuck something up you DIY’ed your on your own then it’s an unforgiving system of trial and error and hunting around forums and googling to feel your way back through the dark labyrinth of Linux’s arcane command shell to get things back to normal again.
I installed Ubuntu 8.10. Everything was good until I told it to go to a resolution my TV couldn’t handle. Now, good ole trusty Windows will just jump to the new resolution for 15 seconds, waiting for you to answer a dialog box question: “Do you want to keep this new resolution?” Ubuntu doesn’t have that safeguard. I had to break out an old spare CRT to try and salvage Linux. I eventually, in my infinite brilliance, managed to make Linux also become undisplayable on my CRT by choosing a resolution the monitor didn’t support. I’m a genius.
As a side note, Linux and ATI hate each other. Doesn’t help that I have an ATI chip on the mobo. Strike two for Ubuntu. Or another strike for me for not thinking ahead and finding a Mobo that uses NVidia.
As I lamented my poor choice of operating systems, I started getting hungry and at that same time I had an epiphany. Why am I shunning Windows XP? Microsoft might be the evil no-good Goliath of the computing world when it comes to OSes and everything else, but there’s a reason for that. Windows. Just. Fucking. Works. Yes, after 6 months it gets slow because it’s chock full of malware, bloated software (i.e. everything Microsoft makes), and a bunch of fucking bullshit you downloaded that’s hogging up resources in your system tray. But, it works, and since I use my computer to code and do all the wonderful “iLife” stuff that Apple touts, I want my computer to work. I don’t want to DIY my OS. In fact, I have for a long time considered going to Apple, but I don’t thing I’m going to them because I think Leopard is “the shit.” I’m going to Apple because the hardware for their Macbook and the liteness of their laptops is what I’m after. It’s the best package…running Windows XP Pro, of course. I feel that Leopard/OSX and Ubuntu are just OSes for people who enjoy dicking around. On one side, you have turtleneck, black sweater wearing hipsters with a Starbucks in one hand and their Mac in the other, and on the otherside you have ubernerds locked in their computing dungeons trying to make their desktop appear on a rotating cube. It’s just all screwing around. Windows is what people need to get shit done. That’s why businesses use it. That’s why it’s got a big install base. I don’t care how easy Ubuntu is, it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be unless you have an entire IT division. That’s the lesson I learned. That said, my laptop, is still Ubuntu because I haven’t given up wanting to try it. I just don’t think it’ll be my OS of choice for my media center.
I digress. I installed Windows XP on my media center and it’s fantastic. I also learned that getting Ubuntu off my computer was a bitch and a half since GRUB overtook the BIOS’s ability to boot from the CD-ROM first — I don’t know if that’s a feature of Linux or an issue with my mobo. I uninstalled Ubuntu by getting an ISO of GParted running on a stripped down version of Linux. BTW, GParted, is excellent for partitioning your drive. Don’t buy that Norton crap, just get the ISO for GParted and your good to go. I nuked the Ubuntu partition and handed the whole 500 GBs over to Windows XP.
I can do everything I want on my media PC. I can torrent; I can watch netflix streaming on my TV; I can use VLC and play DVDs; I can rip DVDs; I can watch 720p and 1080p content; I can play MAME and other emulator games using an XBox 360 controller; and I can serve up music on iTunes to all my computers in the house, and get FM radio stations to listen to via the web. There’s Hulu, Youtube, Gametrailers, etc. I want to find reasons to leave it on all the time except for *cough* torrenting *cough* “data.” I would like it to function as an iTunes music server, preferrably one I could get over the Internet so I could listen to my music from work. How hot would that shit be? If I could find some other NAS-like functionality to do with this PC, it would be fantastic.
It certainly has the potential to take care of my home theater and NAS (Network Attached Storage) needs. On the upside it’s also upgradable. If I want a Blu-ray later, I can do that. If I want a TV Tuner card, no problem. If I want to plug another 2TB of space, that’s doable. There’s also an eSATA port on the front/back so I can plug more shit into it.
For 438 bucks. Okay, really about 460 — I bought a new wireless keyboard and mouse (which I’m typing this up on), I think this was well worth it considering a NAS is 330 bucks for the enclosure itself and wouldn’t let me do half the fun stuff a general PC could, and nowadays, PC parts have come down in price and gone up in power. It’s fantastic that you can get a motherboard that has a built in graphics chip that can do HD and support DirectX 10. I doubt that an onboard DX10 chip could play Crysis in its full glory, but that’s not what I’m looking to do, and as this year continues, there’s the NVidia 9400M to look forward too. It’s the graphics chip in the latest revision of Apple’s Macbooks and soon it could be in other products. There’s a demo PC that NVidia put together called the NVidia Ion. It’s a small box that contains an Intel Atom processor and an NVidia 9400M and it can run HD video and DX10 stuff. It’s in a box that looks smaller than a Mac Mini. It’s incredible to see how far hardware is coming along when you can build a machine that tiny to do so much. Imagine adding a solid state harddrive or just a SATA harddrive to that and a bluray player. You’d have yourself a pretty small home theater or hell put an LCD on something like that and you’d have a small laptop with immense power. I’m looking forward to seeing what products come out with the 9400M. For one thing, Macbooks are pricy and I’m sure someone else can come out with something cheaper but retain all of the power.
I digress again. Now that I’ve had this box for a couple of weeks, it’s smooth sailing. I watch Hulu and Netflix on it. When friends bring their videos over we can just play them on my TV. I’m toying with getting MAME on there and when I get my hori xbox 360 joystick, I should be able to plug that into this box too.
Since we live in a “pix or it didn’t happen” world. Pictures are below.
These are the parts. On the bottom is the Antec Minuet case. Above that is the Logitech wireless keyboard and mouse. Next on top is the Lite-On DVD player, above that is the Gigabyte Motherboard, and then on top is the AMD processor and RAM.
This is the computer’s guts. It’s turned off of course. A nice feature of the Minuet case is that the case fan has a switch for “low, medium, and high” for the fan speed. I’ve kept it on medium, and yes, there’s some noise, but you know, I’d rather have the noise then not. It tells me that the computer is still working, and I’ve never minded fan noise as much as everyone else does.
There’s the computer itself sitting next to my Wii, which never gets turned on. If only they’d make a game that didn’t involve you waggling.