With the advent of digital media content for computers, Home Theater PCs (HTPC) have become much more popular. Individuals want to be able to show their pictures, music and videos on their TVs. A home theater PC is the perfect way to do that because it can connect to a network to get content and to a TV to display that content. I decided to build one and I choose the MSI Media Live platform to build it on.
- Slim design
- Slot-load Slim DVD Burner
- On-board Graphics of NVIDIA GeForce 6150LE
- Gigabit LAN
There were several reasons that I chose the MSI Media Live platform. One of them is because it is a bare bones PC. This means it includes a motherboard with built-in video, power supply, and DVD drive. All I needed to add was a CPU, memory and a hard drive.
Another reason I chose the Media Live is because of its slim design. I really didn’t want a big box sitting next to my TV so I wanted something that would fit in with my other equipment. The design of the Media Live makes it look great and provides all the functionality I would expect from a Audio Video component.
When I first pulled the Media Live out of the box it looked a lot like any other piece of stereo equipment. The front of the Media Live includes a slot loading DVD drive on the left side, a VDF display in the middle with controls underneath, and a power button on the right side. Under the DVD player is a door that flips down to reveal a 4 slot memory card reader, two USB ports, a Firewire port, and a headphone and microphone jack. The VDF display on the front is not customizable, meaning you cannot change the text that is displayed, but it does a great job of telling you what is going on. It shows the names of videos that are playing, the Channel the tuner is set to and it even shows when the tuner is recording.
The sides and top are bare except for a lot of vents for releasing heat.
The back is where you will find all the connectors you will need to connect this to your TV, Stereo or anything else you want. On the back are Component Video Out, RCA Audio out, HDMI, VGA, four USB ports, Ethernet jack, Firewire, SCART, AV out, S-Video, Digital Audio out (Coaxial and Optical). There is also a single PCI expansion slot for an add-in card of your choosing.
When you open the case it looks just like the inside of a computer. Right in the center is the CPU slot, in the bottom left is the power supply. Top left is the hard drive cage, and the top right is the slot loading DVD drive.
The Media Live comes with its own heatsink. This one is custom made to provide the best cooling possible and still fit in the tight space that you have. The Media Live also comes with Thermal Paste already applied, all you need to do is put the heatsink in place. I compared the heatsink with the one that came with the processor and it looks like they are the same height. This means I could probably swap them out if I ever needed to.
Putting it all together is not that difficult. Because the Media Live is a bare bones computer it is mostly assembled when you get it. The most you have to do is install a CPU, Memory, and a Hard drive, all this should not take more than 30 minutes. If you follow the instructions they suggest that you start out by installing the hard drive first. In order to install the hard drive you first need to remove the hard drive cage. This is done by removing the front cover and unscrewing two screws in the front. The hard drive cage then comes out very easy. Next, you put the hard drive into the cage and secure it with the screws that are included. After the hard drive is in the cage you should plug in the power and SATA cable, and then secure the cage to the case with the front screws. Luckily there is a SATA cable and a couple power plugs waiting to be plugged into the hard drive. I recommend attaching the cables before you put the cage back, because once the cage is back in place there is not very much room between the hard drive and the power supply. If you want to add a second hard drive MSI included a second SATA cable in the box. All you have to do is plug it in and you are good to go.
After you install the hard drive the instructions say the next step is to install the DVD drive. Lucky for me the DVD drive was already installed, so I could skip this step.
The next step, if you have one, is to install a PCI card. I chose to install a dual tuner TV card. As you can see it goes in nicely, but it also takes up a lot of space. If you don’t have a tuner you could put in a graphics card in case you need better video performance. There is a small lip that sticks out of the back of the case that the card will screw into. Normally this is on the inside of the case, but because things are so cramped it had to be put on the outside.
Instructions now say it is time to install the CPU and heatsink. This is by far the most difficult step, but that doesn’t mean it is difficult to do. Installing the CPU is the easiest part of this, all you need to do is lift the small lever on the side of the CPU socket, place the CPU in, and push the lever back down. You must make sure that the CPU is installed correctly, otherwise it will not fit and it could be damaged when you lower the lever. There is only one way that the processor will fit, so it is hard to mess up. If the processor does not fit all the way down then you know it is the wrong way. Make sure you follow the instructions precisely so you don’t run into any problems. Installing the heatsink is a bit more difficult than installing the CPU. To do this the fan needs to be plugged in first. The power connector is difficult to get to, so you may need to work at it a bit. Then you install the heatsink on the CPU. This is difficult, but if you follow the instructions then it can be done without any trouble. Normally you would need to put down some thermal grease first, but this heatsink already has some on it. Most hard core guys will probably want to wipe that off and use there own high quality grease, but for this installation I am going to use the thermal grease which has already been applied. The tricky part of installing the heatsink is there is a small little latch on one side and above that is a slot for a flat head screwdriver. So what you have to do is first get the other side hooked on to the CPU bracket and then use a screwdriver to press down on the side that has the latch, and then reach in with your finger and press the latch closed. When I first tried this I did not use a screwdriver and I was unable to get it attached. So if you don’t have a flat screwdriver you should go get one before you try this, preferably one with a long neck.
The last step is installing the Memory. This is really easy, just match up the slots and press down hard. The Memory will snap into place and the latches will close. It only fits one direction so make sure it is correct before you press down on it.
Once it is all put together it is time to load the OS. I first started out with Vista Ultimate, but ended up using Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, the reason for this I will talk about later.
Now comes the fun part, testing the capabilities and performance of the machine. To do this I moved it up to my TV and put it next to my VCR and DVD player. I used the HDMI connection to connect the Media Live to my TV. The first problem I ran into happened as soon as I turned it on. The picture was too big for my TV and it ran off the edges. I found out that this is a common occurrence when hooking up a computer to a TV, it is called overscan. There are some configurations in the NVIDIA drivers that can be used to compensate for this. Unfortunately, they did not work perfectly and I was left with a picture that fit on my screen but was off to the right a little.
The next problem came when I tried to play video. The video would play, but it was very jumpy, the oddest part was that the audio was fine, it was just the video that was jumpy. I checked the processor and memory in Task Manager, but they did not seem out of control, I checked to make sure all the latest drivers were installed, and finally I checked the Windows Experience Index rating in the Vista Control Panel. This is when the lights came on. The overall score was 2.3 out of 6.0 and this was because the graphics portion of the rating was 2.3. The hard drive, CPU, and memory all had great ratings, but the one that mattered the most was really bad. This is a really bad score and is probably the reason the video did not play very well. The Media Live uses the NVIDIA 6150LE chip. This chip is several years old and even though the NVIDIA website says it is capable of running Vista it obviously does not do it very well. In an effort to try and salvage all my hard work I went through and tried to tweak every setting I could think of to give the graphics chip more power. I went into the BIOS and increased the amount of memory for graphics to the maximum setting of 128MB, I turned off all the extras in Vista, and I made sure I had the latest nForce and graphics drivers. Needless to say, nothing I did helped the performance. At this point I was ready to throw in the towel, but then I got the idea to load on XP Media Center 2005 and give it a try. Fortunately, I bought a computer a couple years ago that came with disks for XP Media center, so I used those disks and installed it without a key so I could get a 30 day trial. To make a long story short I am happy to say that this worked much better and I did not have any problems playing video.
The next problem I had to tackle was the noise level. I could easily hear the Media Live from all the way across the room. All the fans were spinning full blast. This concerned me because I felt it would get in the way of enjoying my movies and other media. I downloaded a heat monitoring program and noticed that the system and CPU heat was way too high. In addition, the outside of the case was extremely hot. I tried to lift the case and I could not hold it because it burned my hand. I actually had to turn it off and let it sit for about 10 minutes before I could hold it. I decided to take the Media Live out of the spot I had it in and see if I could get better circulation by placing it on top of my entertainment center. After doing this and letting the computer run for several hours, I am happy to say the temperature was about 20° C lower. The fan noise was also reduced and I could no longer hear it unless I was within about 2 feet. When the system is idling I cannot hear it unless I put my ear right on it. The one remaining noise concern is the hard drive. As you probably noticed from above, when I put the hard drive in the case there was not padding or anything that would help reduce the noise level of the drive. Because of this I can hear the hard drive clicking as it records and plays back. It is quiet enough that it does not bother me, and when I am watching a show the sound form the TV easily covers it up, but when nothing else is going on I can clearly hear the hard drive from across the room.
At this point I had solved all the problems that I was having. Everything is working great and I am able to stream music, DVDs and photos without any problems.
Warranty and Support
The warranty is non-existent, except where each part has a warranty. It is up to you, the builder, to make sure you buy parts that have manufacturer warranties.
While I was very disappointed with the performance of Vista, I am happy I was able to get it working with XP. It seems the video chip is underpowered for Vista and it is getting harder to get copies of XP. Hopefully MSI will update it soon and in the next revision of the Media Live MSI will improve the video chip. If you are planning on using this case in your own HTPC, then I recommend that you use XP. I did not try Vista Home premium, so it is possible it would perform better. Additionally, you will need to make sure the case is out in the open so that it has plenty of air to keep it cool. I think the Media Live has a lot of potential, but it needs a few improvements to make it a really big success. I was able to put this system together for $564.96. Here is a list of all the parts I bought:
Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 ST3500630AS $119.99
MSI Media Live $339.99
Kingston ValueRAM 1GB KVR800D2N5K2/2G $44.99
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4000+ Brisbane 2.1GHz $59.99
|JusTech'n editors' rating|