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I could just tell you exactly what I bought … but it’s not there anymore.

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Your gettin’ a Dell, Dude!

Stuff goes obsolete too fast — and yesterday’s choices are sometimes more expensive than better choices that have appeared since I built my rig or wrote this post. Instead, I will share the logic and criteria for the choices — and give you a tool for judging the many, many hardware options that are out there, Some are a no-brainer and you should just go get the thing, Example — the HDHR Connect. Other items are selected based on a blend of technical specs and personal preference. The brands and individual components that work well with linux have proven themselves over the years — while complete OEM computer systems (HP, DELL, Compaq) built just for Windows sometimes don’t have linux compatibility because they were never designed to do that. You can try and use that old beater Dell from your Mom for this job … but it might really suck. On the other hand, I saw an ebay listing for a Dell Optiplex 390 Micro Tower Computer-Core i3 3.3GHZ,4GB RAM,1TB HDD,Linux for $129, free shipping. These business-grade machines are solid — you could re-install the linux system, add the right graphics card and have a great setup. So keep an eye out.

Criteria for the computer

What the computer needs to do: fetch TV schedule info from the internet, record two TV shows at once and store lots of them, post-process the recorded shows to skip commercials during playback, deliver HD picture and sound to the TV (or receiver) via HDMI, work well with the Linux operating system (we’ll use mythbuntu which is a specially-prepared linux distribution that has been setup to succeed with the mythtv DVR program). Since the computer will be in the den or living room with the TV, it’s best if it is a quiet pc that does not rattle or generate too much heat and fan noise.

Let’s start with the video card (it’s important)

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If its called a “GeForce” it uses a chipset made by a company called Nvidia. Nvidia does a better job than its competitor AMD when it comes to Linux software. This a GeForce 210 that features passive cooling. Works great and stays quiet.

I prefer to use a computer that uses a “dedicated” video card as opposed to video that is “integrated” or baked into the main board of the computer. This means that you will need a motherboard that has a slot you can plug a video card into — and these slots are usually referred to as PCI Express  x16 slots. Go with Nivida-based cards that support a standard called “Video Decode and Presentation API for Unix” or VDPAU for short. Lots of companies make cards using the Nvidia chips (ASUS, MSI, EVGA).

Then pick out the case (computer enclosure) and power supply.

If you are going to have your media center PC in the room with you (as opposed to hidden behind stuff or in the silver1basement) and you want the benefits of cheapness without it all looking like guano, you want a decent case, Mine was cheap but looked ok (they don’t make it any more). If I was a beginner buying one today, I’d focus on something that could hold a “micro ATX” size motherboard and expose at least two add-on cards (one of which will be your video card.)  Get a decent power supply. It will need to be a modern ATX unit that has a 24-pin ATX connector for the motherboard, plus an 8-pin EPS connector — and a variety of SATA connectors for all the drives. I like the Corsair CS450M — plenty of stable power, not a power pig, and features modular cables so you just use the ones you need.

Next, choose the CPU and motherboard (the main logic board of the computer)

We are looking for a Micro ATX board — and we do not need integrated graphics. We need some power, but not something that runs hot. The important criteria for the CPU is the thermal power expressed in wattage. I have had good luck using less expensive AMD gear, and have also done well with Intel stuff. For example, you could go with 65-watt AMD A6 7400K Black Edition 3.9GHz Dual-Core Socket FM2+ Boxed Processor for about $50 and pair it with a GA-F2A88XM-D3HP for $70. 

The drives

You might want an optical drive — for looking at the old stuff maybe, they are like, $20. Next you might be tempted to get an SSD for the system drive. I guess so, but really, I don’t think they are bang for the buck for an appliance like this. I like Western Digital and Toshiba spinning platter drives and always try and get the best grade of 7,200 rpm sata drives they have on sale. I don’t trust drives over 2TB — superstition is all.

Keyboard, Mouse, and Remote442103-logitech-wireless-touch-keyboard-k400r

mce_remote_control_media_center_remote_infraredGet a logitech K400r — it’s a no-brainer. For the remote, which may not be needed if you have the logitech wireless keyboard, I have done well with “MCE remotes and infrared receivers” Tons of them on ebay — they all work out of the box with MythTV.

In  my next post in this series,  we have learn linux pep talk and cover a few preliminaries.