OK, so a follow up to my previous to blogs about my homemade Media Center, also known as an HTPC (Home Theater PC). The first two blogs can be found here and here.

Well all the parts arrived before my week-off from work. Except one. The CPU. Newegg (who has ALWAYS been good to me) sent me a box that was supposed to have the CPU and a power supply in it, only it was missing the CPU. So after I freaked out a bit, I called them up and they agreed to send me a new one. No hassles at all. Well, except for the hassle of waiting another week and a half for it to arrive (grrrr). I was a bit surprised at how easily they just send one out, but I guess I have a pretty long history of using them and have not caused any trouble or had wierd issues before. So it got here on the 3rd of January and I immediately got to putting the whole thing together.

As is typical, not too much trouble putting the thing together, at this point I’ve probably built about a dozen boxes and upgraded many more (including my own several times). Click on the read more link below to see some camera shots I took while putting the box together.

With each of these photos just click on it to bring up a larger version and then hit your back button to come back to this page.

Starting with the Motherboard a DFI RS482 Infinity. In this photo you can see the back panel I/O ports. There is the standard keyboard and mouse at the far left followed by Digital Optical out (audio to connect to external receiver) and TV-Out, VGA, and DVI-D (to hook up a monitor or TV). Then you’ve got 4 USB and 1 Firewire port and a gigabit-LAN connection (more on that later) and finally audio jacks for connections that support up to 7.1 surround sound (if you don’t use an external receiver).

The big silver block with “DFI” imprinted on it is the heatsink on top of the NorthBridge (by ATI) and to its left is the CPU socket for AMD chips (socket 939 supporting all the way up to dual-core X2). To the right of the board are one PCI-e x16 slot, one PCI-e x1 slot and 2 regular PCI slots (this is where my wireless card and TV Tuner will go). At the far side of the board are the memory slots, SATA ports, SouthBridge heatsink, IDE ports, and floppy connectors, but there is another shot below that shows a better view.

DFI RS482 Infinity Motherboard

Here is a better photo of the top half of the board. Note that there are 4 memory slots (2 black and 2 blue) color coded for dual-channel support. One black floppy connector, two blue IDE connectors (so you can put a total of 4 IDE devices). The 4 SATA ports (SATA 1 unfortunately) are just above the SouthBridge heatsink (silver colored thing in upper right corner). Interestingly enough, the CMOS battery is upright in the far right corner of the board.
DFI RS482 Infinity Motherboard

Here is a picture of the tried and true AMD Athlon 64 3200+ (this is the CPU that took an extra week and a half to get here). At the top is my tristy swiss-army knife. This AMD series is about equivalent to a 3.2GHz Intel chip (single-core only, not Hyper-Threading or dual-core) but uses considerably less power. I got it at newegg for $56. I really don’t think you can beat that price/performance ratio. Yes the new Core2Duo line from Intel uses little power and is significantly faster, but I was trying to keep the cost down on this (I did however purchase a Core2Duo for my desktop computer).
AMD Athlon 64 3200+ OEM version

This is a photo after installing the CPU and Zalman CNPS7000B fan. This is the mixed Aluminum/Copper version, the all copper version is a bit more expensive but is also a little better at reducing heat.

As you can see… it is quite large. It blocks the first memory slot completely and i presume any memory in the second slot would touch the heatsink. With a stock heatsink and fan (HSF) you wouldn’t have this problem. However the silence from the Zalman is well worth it, in my opinion. Nothing else is blocked as far as I can see. However, it was *almost* a hassle getting the motherboard power connected as it stretches over the fan and is close, but doesn’t touch the heatsink (more in photos below).

The CPU was a snap to install, but the thermal paste that comes with the Zalman fan was a PAIN IN THE ASS to apply. The tube is soooo small and rather dificult to squeeze out the paste. In the future I would probably buy a seperate (larger) tube of thermal paste. This wasn’t a huge deal, but took me about 10 minutes to apply which I would rather have spent doing something else.

In the background of the photo is the mounting bracket for a stock HSF which I removed since the Zalman came with its own brackets/parts. Also notice the beer in the background.

Zalman CNPS7000B heatsink on AMD Athlon 64 3200+ in a DFI RS482 Infinity Motherboard

Same photo but from a higher angle… to the right of the fan you can see the motherboard power that I had trouble getting to. Other than the 1 (maybe 2) memory slots nothing else was blocked by the fan. To my great relief.
Zalman CNPS7000B heatsink on AMD Athlon 64 3200+ in a DFI RS482 Infinity Motherboard

Below is a photo of the memory. This memory was reused from my desktop computer which had 2GB of RAM. I used 1GB of it in this system (the other 1GB went into another box that I eventually sold). This was the good stuff that served in my main computer for a couple of years now. It is Corsair XMS memory (CMX512-3200C2PT), very high quality and very fast timings. Keep that in mind when I get to the good part of the story below. I used 1GB of RAM in this box because I always feel that 512MB is just enough to run Windows smoothly, but I want this to run real smooth so there shouldn’t be any bottlenecks anywhere in the system. The memory is shared with onboard graphics so I wanted there to be plenty left over.
Corsair XMS Memory

Next we have the case, the ARK 1012. The main selling point is its cheapness. $30 including a 350W power supply. The sheet metal is *very* thin and easily bendable so you have to treat it with a bit of care. It flexes if you pick it up wrong, so make sure you have a solid grip on it. I have no trust in the power supply, so I yanked it out right away (photos below). The paint was decent and the silver/black style looks good. It has nice ventilation and the front panel connectors were well labeled and easy to attach to the motherboard (for front audio, USB, power, reset, LEDs). Note the dude in the background is my brother home from school in Florida.
Case by ARK

Below is the power supply from the ARK 1012 case. There is nothing inherently wrong with it, I just don’t know the brand of the power supply so I suspect it won’t last long. The last thing I need is the power supply to burn out and possibly take with it other pieces as well. Also it only has one small fan (80mm?) and small fans = noise = bad. Notice the Tuppers Hop Pocket Ale. Mmmm, good stuff.
ARK 1012 Power supply

Here is the new power supply before I put it in the case. It is a Dynapower 300W. It was inexpensive ($20), but at least I recognize the name brand and it had good reviews over at newegg. Notice the large fan (large fan = low noise = good).
DynaPower 300W Power Supply

Here is a photo of the power supply, motherboard, CPU and fan installed. There are 3 bays at the top of the case (left in the photo) for optical drives and 3 bays for internal drives. That is a bracket for a fan in the bottom front of the case (top right of photo), but it did not come with one installed. I did not put one in there nor at the rear of the case for noise reasons. Doesn’t seem to negatively affect temperatures though. The beer in the upper left of the photo is an Anchor Steam something or other.
ARK case with DFI motherboard, CPU, and fan installed

Here are the two PCI cards I needed to install. On the right is the Linksys WMP54Gv4 Wireless network card. On the left is a Hauppage PVR-150MCE. The PVR-150 has one tuner which I can hook up to basic cable and receive channels directly, or attach a settop box (for digital cable) to the coax, S-Video, or composite video inputs. It also has an FM tuner. Encoding is done on the card (meaning converting from TV signal to files on computer) so there is no burden on the CPU to do this. The less the CPU does, the better since that means less power consumption, less heat, and less noise.
Hauppauge PVR-150MCE and Linksys WMP54Gv4

Here is the case with everything installed. Can’t see real well at this distance, but the 24-pin power to the motherboard has to go *over* the Zalman fan to reach the plug. It is tight, but there is clearance and nothing is touching the heatsink. I used a rounded IDE cable for the DVD burner. The hard drive is close enough to the Zalman fan that the cables will bump the heatsink unless you use right-angle SATA cables. If you don’t have them handy (luckily I did) you can just tie them firmly out of the way and I think it should be OK. The memory is in slot 3&4 (remember 1&2 were blocked).

Case with everything installed

OK so that completes the hardware installation part.

And I thought everything was going real smooth after installation of Windows and MediaPortal software. After a lot of trial and error I finally got the remote to work (very NICE!) and change channels on the cable box as well as navigate through MediaPortal (Many of you will recognize my “ghetto Tivo” software) to listen to music, watch TV, watch videos, etc. Then… it started.

The MediaPortal software would consistently crash while watching TV. I was mortified since this is the main application I wanted this box for. It also crashed while playing a DVD, and a video file (1.5GB DivX recording as a test). This started several days of troubleshooting including me installing, removing, re-installing, adding and deleting drivers for mainly the TV card (since that was what consistently would produce errors). Then I looked into the network card which as it turns out I had drivers for version 4.1 while the card was only version 4.0. I tried swapping the position of the PCI cards (this has helped me before) to no avail. Then I took out the network card, and finally even the TV card and STILL had crashes. So at this point I was fairly confident (and somewhat relieved) that the cards were probably good.

At this point I re-installed Windows. And to my fury Windows said I had installed this software on too many computers!!!!!!! So I then had to call Microsoft to get it activated. I needed to activate it before the Windows Update site would let me download updates. Now keep in mind this is right in the middle of my bout with the flu and I could barely talk. By the time I got off the phone I went into a coughing fit that lasted about 20 mins.

Now here I did what I SHOULD have done in the beginning which was run Memtest86+ and Prime95. These are “burn-in” programs that essentially stress your system to make sure that everything is working OK. Well with 1GB of RAM installed I got a ton of errors in Memtest86+ (which test memory ironically). BUT each stick passed individually. Now I’m really confused. So i start googling around looking for memory that works with this board and all I find are enthusiasts who use this board for over-clocking, so they are using really high-end RAM. I price out a few and I might have to drop $110-$150 for 1GB.

Hmmm. Something doesn’t quite fit. Other than my wallet that is. This memory (which is fairly high-end) worked flawlessly for a long time in my old main system, and it works well individually, but not installed as a pair. Weird. So I goto DFI’s website and look up the newest BIOS. They had one from October and the one that came with my system was dated from March so I installed the newer one. Errors in Memtest went away so I thought I was on the road to success.

But… no. I boot into Windows and run Prime 95 which stresses the CPU mainly and also some memory. It ran for about 30mins consistently before rebooting. So I took out one stick and moved back to 512MB and again passed Memtest. BUT it failed Prime95 again, altho it lasted a bit longer before crashing. At this point I’m probably about to cry as I think of plopping down another $100+ for new memory. Then, I come across a post in a forum which I can no longer remember where (I went to so many its ridiculous) somebody mentioned they ran their Corsair XMS memory at 2.7V instead of the standard 2.6V. I had originally not paid it much attention since they were referring to overclocking their memory and using very aggressive timings, but I tried it anyway on the one stick that was in the box.

That was last night. It ran overnight without rebooting! Eureka!!!! Success!! I was ecstatic and put in the other stick of RAM to bring it back up to 1GB and have had it running since noon. It’s now almost 6 o’clock and it hasn’t rebooted yet. I think its all OK, but I will let it run for a few more hours until I goto bed tonite. Then comes the arduous task of re-installing all of the software again, but at this point I’m happy to have that problem :)

Look for more updates in the near future.