The Kiwi Personal Digital Video Recorder
A PC-Based Personal Digital Entertainment Centre
A project diary describing the process of building a PC-based home entertainment center based on regular off-the-shelf computer components and software.

The Hardware
A system such as the one described in this series of articles can make quite severe demands on a system's CPU, disk drives and video system -- but high-performance hardware is not cheap.

The most sensible compromise between raw performance and affordability resulted in a box with the following configuration:
Hardware Placement Considerations
It's worthwhile giving some thought as to where the PC itself will be located.

I've found that it looks and fits just fine and dandy next to the large cabinet that houses my other home entertainment electronics, however there are some caveats:

  • Don't place the PC on top of a speaker cabinet -- the vibrations, especially the low frequencies from bass, explosions and other loud noises may cause problems.

  • Don't place the PC right beside the TV set. TVs have a powerful degausing system that emits a very intense magnetic field each time they're turned on and that could, in theory, fritz the data on your hard-drive or crash your system.

  • If you're using a CRT monitor, don't place it near a speaker cabinet because it will really screw up the colors.

  • Don't be tempted to stuff the PC into a small cupboard unless there's very good ventilation available. Modern PCs create quite a bit of heat and this can rapidly build up to a harmful level if operated in a confined space.

    • Processor: 1.8GHz Intel P4
    • Memory: 256 MB
    • Hard disk: 2 x 40GB 7,200 RPM ATA100 drives
    • Video: Geforce MX440 with 64MB DDR-RAM and TV-out
    • CDRW: Sony 16x
    • DVD: Sony

    Visit the sponsor
    If you'd like your own system, it is recommended that you purchase the parts, or a ready-configured version from the project's sponsor.

    Perhaps my biggest concern was that a regular PC in a mini-tower case might be too noisy. What's the point in having a smart gadget that emits a distracting whine or roar?

    The system provided by Advantage Computers is astonishingly quiet however.

    Just about the only time you can hear any perceptible noise is when one of the hard drive is having hysterics moving its heads back and forth between two different files -- and even then you have to actually be listening hard to hear it. Even the boring beige minitower case doesn't look at all out of place as part of an entertainment centre and it's certainly not visually intrusive.

    The 1.8Ghz processor is enough to provide reliable realtime MPEG-1 (VCD) and MPEG-2 (SVCD) compression, although its limitations begin to appear if you try to create a high-res DVD capture in realtime. Fortunately that's not really a problem since SVCD quality is adequate for the casual recording and short-term archiving of free-to-air broadcasts. There's also no way that single-pass realtime MPEG encoding is actually going to give you DVD-quality results.

    The Sony CDRW/DVD drives to a perfectly good job of reading and writing virtually everything I've thrown at them. The only caveat is that the Sony DVD drivers seem a little more sensitive than some others to the CSS encryption used on DVD disks. This would only affect those who might choose to break the law by illegally copying DVD movies onto SVCD (with freely available "ripping" software -- and even then it's simply a case of ejecting/reinserting the disk and hitting "retry".

    As with most TV-out cards, the GeForce MX440 produces a TV image that doesn't quite reach he very edge of the TV screen. This is because an automatic "overscan" border is added by the card -- on the assumption that you don't want important information being out of view.

    Fortunately, the borders are nowhere near as large as they are on my old ASUS V3400 TNT card and tend to go unnoticed after you've been watching for a few minutes. The card has an SVideo output and a very impressive 1024 pixel horizontal resolution. When watching DVDs, the output of the system and this card is virtually indistinguishable from that of a dedicated DVD player.

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    Published and © 2002 by Bruce Simpson and Aardvark Net Publishing. All rights reserved