Rolling Your Own LINUXWindowsPC-TV/Home Theater System


Francis Vale

Linux is rapidly emerging as the prime time platform for your alpha geek home multimedia system. This platform decision has become a no-brainer as a huge, and daily getting larger selection of excellent Linux multimedia software is free for the asking. And even fully supported commercial Linux OS distributions cost a fraction of what Windows XP Professional (the only serious XP choice) will set you back. The Open Source point is also not lost on consumer electronics OEMs, For example, TiVo PVRs run under Linux, and there is a whole community devoted to hacking this box.

The Mandrake Linux Standard Edition distribution, for example, offers a wide variety of multimedia goodies. There is an RPM of ALSA for Mandrake that allows you to play CDs. MP3 files, video clips and even digitize your dusty old 8-track tapes and clean up your pop and tick vinyl LP's. Via ALSA, as well as OSS, support is offered in Mandrake for motherboard audio and add-in high-end sound cards, like RME Audio's terrific cards.   Mandrake also has an RPM for iiwusynth, a sound font synthesizer, which provides wavetable sound in software; i.e. wavetables in sound font format can be used with any sound card. A Mandrake RPM is also available for AlsaModularSynth, a modular synthesizer and effect processor, which is also substantially expanded. Both AlsaModularSynth and iiwusynth are compatible with the JACK audio connection kit that assists in sending audio data across the machine in various ways. For example, you can play an audio CD with alsaplayer, accompany the playback with vkeybd and iiwusynth, and - depending on the performance of the machine - add effects with AlsaModularSynth. Meanwhile, the patchbay QJackConnect keeps you in control over the various audio connections.

Also available in the upscale Mandrake PowerPack 9.1 distribution is MainActor V3.0, an easy-to-use video editing program with which you can save those family outing recordings from your analog or digital camera onto hard disk and process them with filters, do slow motion effects, and perform slick cross fades. Its simple to use text insertion tools let you title your video opus, as well put your name up in lights on the ending credits. Ripping and burning CDs to mp3, wav, or Ogg Vorbis files, which latter format most critical listeners prefer to mp3, is also a snap with Konqueror. Audacity, a feature rich recording studio, is available in Mandrake just by typing (as root) urpmi audacity . Mandrake also ships with MP3 support, and Ogg Vorbis files can be imported directly into Audacity, which also can do noise removal and sports a number of other features. Finally, for all you wannabe rock stars, there is NoteEdit, which turns your PC into a powerful composing system, and is available as a downloadable Mandrake RPM.  Apart from guitar chords and text, even complex polyphonic structures can be set in a single note line. Using the MusiXTeX system, which is also a Required Package for NoteEdit 2.1.1 on Mandrake Linux you can print out your Grammy shoe-in compositions with true professional quality. NoteEdit can also handle MIDI files. Quantization functions facilitate the conversion of MIDI files to legible sheet music. When exporting MIDI, you can save your entire arrangement, including the orchestration and full stereo panorama.

But for all you passive couch potatoes who would rather just watch and listen, Mandrake lets you watch TV with kwintv via an add-in TV tuner card like those from Hauppauge; listen to the radio with kradio; read teletext with alevt; and browse the electronic program guide nxtvepg. Lastly, you can watch DVDs with programs like VLC or Xine, which works right out of the box.   In sum, pretty much your entire entertainment universe, from music to movies, can be handled with just one general purpose, low cost PC running Linux.  

And hey, let's not overlook MacOS X, a UNIX-based platform that still sets the gold standard for ease of use, power, and stability, and when running on Apple's new 64-bit G5 machines will smoke any currently available processor from either Intel or AMD. With the ever-increasing number of integrated multimedia MacOS X applications from Apple like iMovie, iTunes, and IDVD, plus the terrific iPod, you also get seamless ease of use. A good source for finding MacOS X applications in all categories is .

However, for this DIY project article the focus is on Linux-based PCs. Despite the rapid pace of new processor introductions from Intel and AMD, you can still get 24-30 months of useful system life if you take the DIY plunge and build your multimedia Linux PC from scratch. Advantages of building your own Linux PC multimedia center include:

•  You get complete control and flexibility over what goes into your system.

•  The ability to easily upgrade only the parts you want, like CPUs or graphics cards.

•  Elimination of format lock-in as you can freely pick and choose, e.g., either a DVD+R or a DVD-R drive, or even have both.

•  Broad choice of Open Source software, from games to operating systems, many of which are no cost products.

•  The ability to cherry-pick best of breed Open Source software and non-proprietary hardware for each application type.

•  You can stay abreast of new technology developments without turning your home entertainment space into a floor groaning collection of gizmos and gear that rivals Circuit City.


The first and most essential thing you want in a multimedia PC is getting what you don't want"hNoise! There is nothing more irritating and disturbing than watching a DVD or listening to music via a PC with a power supply and cooling fans that roar like a 767 on takeoff and has disc drives that chatter louder than freezing monkeys. So a sturdy, well-designed PC case that runs ultra quiet is an essential. For this review we used the terrific Sonata PC tower case from Antec, . It has four hard drive bays, 3 optical drive slots, plus floppy drive bay, and comes in a very cool gloss piano black finish. Not only are its fans quiet, the hard drive bays with their easy pull out chassis have rubber mounting points for the disc drives, perfect for isolating disc chatter. The $100 (street) Antec Sonata looks good, is built tough, offers ample room to grow, runs as quiet as a mouse, and is thus a natural for this DIY project.

The next big decision is the CPU for your singing and dancing penguin"hwill it be Intel or AMD? You won't go wrong with either one, but a couple of factors tilt the balance towards AMD. One is cost. AMD processors almost always cost less than Intel processors. If the DIY strategy is to upgrade as needed over an extended period, then saving several hundred dollars every time you move up in speed is a win at the bottom line. The second thing going in AMD's favor is that the company has introduced a new CPU product line that seamlessly runs existing 32-bit software and new 64-bit software on the same CPU, a technical feat that Intel has thus far failed to pull off. 64-bit systems allow you to deal with truly humongous amounts of data, and run more powerful applications faster than 32-bit CPUs. The new AMD Opteron 64-bit CPU, which will be supported by both Microsoft and Linux operating systems, is showing up first in server class computers.   But low cost desktop AMD Opterons cannot be far behind.

For this review we used an Athlon XP 3000+ processor, a new design in AMD's 32-bit CPU family that has a 512KB L2 cache and a 128 KB L1 cache, for 640 KB cache total. That figure makes this new AMD CPU design the current cache king, topping even the latest offerings Intel P4 offerings. Briefly stated, the bigger the CPU cache, the faster your software usually runs.

We plugged this AMD hummer (about $300 street) into an Abit motherboard (, the AT7-MAX2 model, which comes with all the bells and whistles.   It sports on its back panel four USB connections (with USB 2.0 support), two 1394 ports ("Firewire"), an Ethernet connector, and audio outputs for surround sound, plus an optical S/PDIF port.   The board has five PCI expansion slots and an 8X AGP slot for gonzo graphics cards.   It also supports both serial ATA and Ultra DMA 133 drives, both of which can be run in RAID mode. The Abit AT7-MAX2 motherboard, (about $120 street) uses the high performance Via KT 400 chip set, and in its maximum RAM configuration supports 3.5 GB of memory. What really sets Abit apart from other motherboard vendors though, is its numerous BIOS settings that allow users to tweak the speed of their systems to no end, getting case melting processor performance (and CPU melting if you are not careful) that is way beyond factory spec.

Which also means you want some really high performance DRAM that can support aggressive overclocking. One really good high performance DRAM vendor is Corsair, ( ). 512MB of Corsair's XMS 3500 DRAM (about $260 street) was plugged into this Abit board. Corsair also sells microprocessor-controlled, high efficiency external water-cooling units expressly designed for cooling down wildly overclocked CPUs, just in case you want to go crazy with those Abit BIOS settings.

Next up are the hard disc drives, which for multimedia work, means the faster and bigger, the better.   We got excellent results with a 7200-RPM, 200 GB Maxtor unit with 8 MB cache buffer, which is a member of the company's 7200 RPM Ultra Series ( Because the Abit AT7-MAX2 motherboard natively supports Ultra ATA drives, there was no problem in its recognizing this very large capacity drive, and hence no need for an add-in ATA card to fully recognize all 200 GB.

Then there are the optical drives, and at a multimedia PC minimum, they must be capable of reading and writing both DVD's and CD's. Currently, there is a format war between DVD -and DVD +. A DVD-RW/-R unit for your PC gives you the best compatibility with your regular DVD player. You can write once ("dash R") or erase and rewrite repeatedly ("dash RW"), and the media is good for a 1,000 read/write burns. But DVD-RW/-R is 30% or so slower in burning a disc than the competing (and incompatible) DVD +RW/+R technology. However, the latter's "plus" media typically costs more and its compatibility with older DVD players and drives, industry hype to the contrary, is not as stellar as DVD-RW/-R. And unlike DVD-RW/-R, which is an industry standard, DVD +RW/+R is a proprietary format being aggressively pushed by Sony, Philips, HP, and some others.

So we tried two different optical (internal) drive approaches, a DVD+R, DVD+RW, CD-R, CD-RW, CD-ROM drive from Plextor, their model PX-504A. The other optical unit tried was a Sony drive, the DRU-500AX, which could read and write both DVD- and DVD+ formats, as well as do CD-R, CD-RW, and CD-ROM chores. For DVD format universality, the nod obviously goes to Sony. But if ultimate performance is your game, then Plextor gets the win, as it can read DVD discs at 12X speed (but is fixed at 2-5X for video), versus the slower 8X speed for the Sony. The Plextor also won the CD speed race by reading CD-ROM and CD-R media at 40X speed, versus 32X for the Sony. As both optical drives performed perfectly, your ultimate choice comes down to deciding which is more important to you, speed or format flexibility. There is also a web page primarily devoted to using DVD+R/+RW and DVD-R/-RW for storage applications (but not about video) under Linux that you should check out,

Next there is the all-important graphics card. For the longest time, Nvidia has held the speed champ crown in 3-D performance, an all-important issue for hardcore gamers. It's primary competitor, ATI Technologies, perennially ran a close second. But now that has all changed. Thanks to some recent corporate and technology acquisitions by the company, ATI is now on a performance roll. Its new Radeon 9800 series cards have (for the moment, at least) trounced Nvidia in the 3-D specmanship game. And the upcoming Radeon 10000 cards should help to continue the company's game winning streak.

Up until recently, Nvidia was also the reigning champ when it came to Linux driver support. ATI instead opted to let 3 rd parties like Xfree86 do all the Linux driver work. This was OK, but it was far removed from the kind of OS optimization that full factory support offers, like Nvidia's.   But in just the past couple of months, ATI has had a major change of Linux heart. You can now go to ATI's home page, , and find complete ATI Linux Driver packages for its cards, ranging from the Radeon 8500 model up to the 9700 Pro.

For this DIY project we used an Nvidia GeForce FX 5600 card with 256 MB that sits, performance-wise, below the FX 5600 Ultra and also the top of the line, really screaming FX 5900. The GeForce FX series represents Nvidia's latest efforts in building consumer-oriented high performance 3-D cards for graphics and gaming.   The 256 MB GeForce FX 5600 (about $150 street) was designed to compete with or exceed the standard ATI Radeon 9500 and 9600 cards, and it pretty much succeeds. But the FX 5600 lags behind the Radeon 9500 and 9600 Pro cards, which latter two ATI models the FX 5600 Ultra is meant to conquer. For watching movies and TV on your TV set instead of on your Linux PC monitor, the FX 5600 card has TV out. All recent Nvidia cards work with the nvtv drivers, which are available at http//; and also from Nvidia at

For the TV tuner card, we used the venerable WinTV-GO PCI card from Hauppauge (, which sells for $50 or less (street).   kwintv had no problems using this card. However, the WinTV-GO card is mono-audio sound, only, but Hauppauge also sells a stereo sound TV tuner card, the WinTV-Theater that may work under SuSE 8.2. Just note that the SuSE hardware database lists a question mark concerning full support for the WinTV-Theater card.

For PVR (TiVo-style) software that turns your Linux PC into a TV VCR/show shifting machine, users have some very good software application options. One of them is the very popular MythTV ( ). Note that when installing MythTV under SuSE you must download and install an updated version of libexpat. According to the MythTV documentation, the version that ships with Red Hat Linux 8.0 and SuSE 8.1 (version 1.95.4) is buggy, and will cause problems with XML::Twig. XMLTV is the program that goes out to the Web to grab all programming information for all your TV channels.

Also in the MythTV documentation is this note: "While inexpensive video-capture cards just capture raw frames, leaving encoding to software, some higher-end cards incorporate hardware-level encoding. Using either a G200 MJPEG encoder card, or a WinTV-PVR-250 or 350 from Hauppauge and the driver from the IvyTV project will allow you to use dedicated hardware encoders rather than your CPU. Release 0.10 of MythTV is able to use the PVR-250/350 cards as an input device for live TV and for scheduled recordings. Using the onboard MPEG-2 encoder drastically reduces the CPU requirements for encoding."

Be all that as it may, the AMD 3000+ CPU showed only very sporadic visible signs of strain while doing encoding chores. Decoding was no problem at all, as even an Athlon 1800XP can decode a 720x480 8Mbps MPEG-2 file with just 10% CPU overhead. All in all, MythTV worked as advertised. There are also pre-built MythTV binaries out on the Net for various Linux implementations if you don't want to roll your own and you may want to search around for one that's right for you. Another Linux PVR application is freevo, . This particular PVR application was not tried, but it appears to have many admirers.

DVD playback via the Nvidia FX 5600 graphics card was superb, and the Linux user now has several excellent, no cost Open Source choices for DVD playback software:

One is Ogle,

Another is Xine,

Still another is Video Lan Client,

And here is another, Mplayer,

Video Lan Client, now known simply as VLC, quickly emerged as this reviewer's personal favorite. It quickly set up and ran without a hitch. VLC started as a student project at the French École Centrale Paris but is now a worldwide project with developers from 20 countries. VLC is a true cross platform application, and runs under all GNU/Linux flavors, all BSD flavors, Windows, Mac OS X, BeOS, Solaris, and even QNX. There is also VLS (VideoLAN Server), which can stream MPEG-1, MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 files, DVDs, digital satellite channels, digital terrestrial television channels and live videos on the network in unicast or multicast, VLC can be used as a server to stream MPEG-1, MPEG-2 and MPEG-4/DivX files, DVDs and live videos on the network in unicast or multicast; or used as a client to receive, decode and display MPEG streams under multiple operating systems. The feature set in 0.6.1 of VLC, the latest release, is quite extensive. More information can be found about this release at   Both DVD video and sound quality while using VLC were excellent under Linux.   The MacOS X version of VLC was also tried, and with similar excellent results.

Finally, on the audio side, you have some choices to make. The built-in audio on the Abit AT7-MAX2 is OK, but not great, plus motherboard audio usually eats up system performance. One add-in audio option is the Revolution 7.1 sound card from M-Audio. The "7" moniker means it supports seven PC multimedia speakers. The Revolution supports both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (6.1 DVD) decoding. That seventh speaker is typically another rear-mounted unit positioned directly in back of your viewing eat. This sub $100 audio card also has an S/PDIF interface (non-optical). The Revolution is terrific for games, music, and DVD watching. And fortunately, there is Linux support for the Revolution card, available from ALSA, and also from OSS, Noteworthy is that OSS 3.9.7 fixes SuSE 8.2 problems with kernel compatibility and automatic boot setup. Unlike ALSA, OSS drivers are charged for, but they are very inexpensive, costing only $20 for a Linux PC.

But for the absolute best in Linux PC sound, be it music or DVD, and presuming you also have an external DAC unit or a home theater surround processor, you want RME Audio's DIGI9636 Hammerfall "Light" card ( ). This $500 card is all about high-end audio, and is meant for recording pros. But regular audiophiles can still enjoy all the benefits this card brings to the audio table, which are substantial. If you have high-end audio gear but still want a PC in your big rig, then the DIGI9636 will get you where you want to go. And like the M-Audio Revolution card, Linux support for the DIGI9636 is available from both ALSA and OSS.


Building this particular PC from scratch was really quite easy, but plan on a weekend to get everything, most especially all the software, up and running just right. The Antec Sonata comes with clear instructions, and it also comes with plenty of nuts, bolts and screws, so losing a couple of anything won't make your screws come loose in DIY panic, either. The Abit board also comes with explicit instructions, and if you bother to read them and do what they say, you should be in pretty good shape. Similarly, all the other components mentioned in this article were well documented and installed in the system without a hitch. Just be patient, and at the end of it all, a small prayer before first power on never hurts.

[Quick Tip #1: Burn these DIY PC words into your frontal lobes: ALWAYS UNPLUG THE MACHINE! Even though all the PC power switches are off, juice is still running into the motherboard if the system is plugged in. You can fry your DRAM, or worse, if you do anything with the PC power supply plugged into a wall socket or an active power strip.]

[Quick Tip #2: High performance PCs generate lots of heat and it's critical to keep the air ventilation going and unobstructed. Take those big, flat, wide, air flow-obstructing disc drive cables and wrap them up into tight narrow cylinders using electrical tape.]


Antec Sonata PC case, about $100 street.

AMD Athlon XP 3000+ processor, about $300 street

Abit AT7-MAX2 motherboard, about $120 street

512 MB Corsair's XMS 3500 DRAM, about $260 street

Hauppauge WinTV-GO PCI card, about $50 street

200 GB Maxtor 7200 RPM Ultra Series Disc Drive, about $250 street

Nvidia GeForce FX 5600 with 256MB, about $150 street

Plextor PX-504A optical disk drive, about $275 street

Sony DRU-500AX optical disc drive, about $300 street

M-Audio Revolution 7.1 sound card, less than $100 street

RME Audio DIGI9636 Hammerfall "Light" sound card, less than $500 street

January 2004

Copyright 2004 Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved

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