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Carnal Self-Knowledge, A DIY Multimedia PC

Page 7

My DIY build goal was a DirectX 10 capable Home Theater PC that was as silent as possible, yet still offered decent gaming performance.  The nerds will probably scoff at this particular system’s gaming benchmark numbers. Yeah, sure, killer frame rates make for great bragging rights. But who wants to have to shout them over a roaring computer system, especially during DVD movie playback?

So for this DIY HTPC system, I went with an Asus EN8600 GT Silent video card with 256MB on board memory ($85, on-line). This card uses the NVIDIA GeForce 8600GT chipset and also supports DirectX 10.

The EN8600 GT Silent does not use a fan.  It utilizes passive cooling via a fairly large metal heatsink that draws heat out and away from the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) via several heat pipes.  The result is 0 dB noise, and one less decibel ruckus to worry about.

One sour note:  This card’s cooling sink gobbles up one of the two PCI slots on the Biostar TF7050-M2 motherboard, leaving you just a single PCI card expansion slot.

Like the CPU and memory, you can overclock a graphics card. Asus supplies a handy little utility for doing it.  I cranked the card up to the max, and the Asus Silent was true to its moniker.  It never uttered a protesting peep. Best yet, using 1080P content, this graphics card just screams. Video results were great, smooth as a baby’s butt and never, not once, got colicky during playback.

The card supports HDTV-out via its two DVI-D connectors, or you can use the supplied adapter cable for component video connection. As important, the EN8600 GT Silent supports HDCP, so that nasty little copy protection scheme we discussed in a prior installment of this DIY series won’t raise its ugly head. Hi Def Blu-Ray discs play without a problem, for example.

If you are so inclined you can also drive a pair of LCD monitors at 1600x1200, with the picture stretched out over both monitors. The mind boggles at some of the prurient possibilities.

Of course, if you are gamer, then you will want a faster, more powerful graphics card, like Nvidia's 8800GT series or better. You will also want a faster AMD CPU. Best yet, you will know how to do the upgrades yourself.

Now to the drives. Of course you will want to run Blu-ray flicks on this DIY PC to make all those dolts weep who spent more than $500 for a standalone Blu-ray player. The internal LITE-ON DH-401S SATA drive can handle all Blu-ray, DVD and CD formats. It runs like a champ, and can be had for about $100 bucks, including shipping (check out Newegg.com). Just be sure to check for the latest DH-401S firmware updates to play newer Blu-ray titles.

However, the LITE-ON Blu-ray unit does not support disc burning. So grab an internal Plextor PX-810SA SATA drive that supports all the popular DVD read/write formats, as well as CD formats. You can bag it online for as little as $50.

For holding all your ripped, er, sorry, home made DVD epics, you will want as much hard drive storage as possible. I say get a 1 terabyte or 1.5 terabyte Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 drive. These quiet puppies run like a detainee escaping Gitmo. The 1TB unit only costs about $180. And hey, partition this thing and store all your valuable stuff in a space other than the C drive. When Windows goes bust you don't want to lose all your data when you have to reformat the C drive for a clean install.

Speaking of the devil, we at last come to Windows Vista. Is the Ultimate version for a clean install (no upgrade from XP) worth $330+?  Are you kidding?  Is it worth close to $200 as an upgrade?  You think? Is Vista worth anything at all if you are using XP with the latest service packs?  No, it’s not. Stick with XP. 

But this is a DIY story, so that means a clean, full product license installation, so what to do? Easy, buy a heavily discounted version of XP--You can get a full product version of Widows XP Professional with Service Pack 2, a very serious OS, for about $110 or less on-line.

Or, if opt for Vista you must, get the cheapest Vista versions, either Home Premium, about $105 on-line, or Home Basic, about $70 on-line. But XP Pro is way more serious and feature laden than either of these two Vista versions.

Moreover, DirectX 10, probably the biggest reason gamers are thinking about Vista, is only now appearing in games, and not many games at that.  Also, driver support under Vista is still iffy, no matter what you hear. This is especially true for graphics cards drivers, which have not yet reached the same level of XP maturity. Gaming frame rates are still better under XP. 

Microsoft knows all about these issues, and in fact, was quietly allowing some PC vendors to ship an XP disc along with Vista.

So there you have it, soup to nuts, how to build your very own PC system as the centerpiece of your smart home multimedia extravaganza.

Next, absolutely download Search & Destroy (it's free) to keep the nasty beasts that live on the Net from crawling into your system and making it an unwitting zombie that can launch denial of service attacks by joining forces with tens of thousands of other unwitting zombified PC's.

Also, most anti-virus software turns the performance of your zippy PC into a sludge pit, but a notably speedy exception is Avast Home Edition (free download).

Finally, buy a copy of Iolo's System Mechanic software to keep your PC healthy and up and humming.

With your PC rig so software equipped, you will have the satisfaction of watching zombies on DVD or whacking them out in games instead of being turned into one. Moreover, no one can ever lobotomize you again in a computer store, as you now have real self-carnal DIY knowledge.

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