So for Christmas I really only wanted one of two things. Either a used Nook or a new HTPC so I could finally move my desktop back to where it belongs, my desk. I missed the Nook refurbs on Ebay so I took my search to craigslist.org. While I’ve had great luck in the past using craigslist for finding stuff this time was less then stellar. The few people that were selling were wanting too much in my opinion. So after talking to my wife about it, we decided it was time for me to build a proper HTPC.

I’ve had a wish list going on newegg.com since may of this year. I’d update it with newer parts or a better case to suit my needs but never had the money to fit it into our budget at the time. After talking with my wife I got motivated to finish it and buy it. (An hour after I purchased everything, B&N put their refurbed nooks on sale again, oh well.)

Parts List

APEX DM-318 Black Steel Micro ATX Media Center / Slim HTPC Computer Case w/ ATX12V Flex 275W Power Supply

ASUS M4A88T-M LE AM3 AMD 880G HDMI Micro ATX AMD Motherboard

AMD Athlon II X2 255 Regor 3.1GHz Socket AM3 65W Dual-Core Desktop Processor ADX255OCGMBOX

A-DATA 4GB (2 x 2GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1333 (PC3 10666) Dual Channel Kit Desktop Memory Model AD3U1333B2G9-DRH

Western Digital Scorpio Blue WD5000BEVT 500GB 5400 RPM 2.5″ SATA 3.0Gb/s Internal Notebook Hard Drive -Bare Drive

So I ended up going with a Athlon II X2 because when monitoring performance on my triple core desktop, CPU usage was never very high, even while watching 720p mkv files. I went with the 500gb 2.5″ drive for heat and noise reasons and couldn’t be happier with the performance for the price. I’m not too thrilled with my case selection only because the stock case fan is too noisy. I’m planning on replacing that and the cpu fan with much quieter models before moving it all to the entertainment center in my living room. The case had decent build quality and I didn’t have too many space issues except where the ATX power plug is on the motherboard is directly below the back of the DVD drive.

My total build time was around 4 hours from unpacking to being able to watch live tv in MCE. I’d much rather have a 64gb SSD for OS to speed up the boot and switching between MCE/Boxee/Hulu Desktop/XBMC but I can live with the few seconds during transitions.

I’ve spent time since cleaning up MCE with Media Center Studio by applying a beautiful theme, cleaning up the menus a bit removing stuff we don’t use. Automatic logon for Windows 7 is much needed for any HTPC that uses a password (I use one because I map shares from my WHS).

Overall I’m very happy with my purchase and build. In the next few months I’m hoping to upgrade the DVD drive to a blu-ray drive and replace the case fan and heatsink/fan for the CPU with much quieter alternatives. I did ask my wife how she liked it and she said she didn’t even know I had swapped it out. So I guess I did my job well enough.

So one thing we’ve been missing since cutting the cable is news. I’m ok with using Justin.tv via Boxee to watch CNN but local news was lacking. I thought about writing a plugin to grab the videos from local news sites but it wasn’t live, and they don’t offer a live feed of weather.

So we decided to purchase tv tuners for the HTPC. Now I’m using a AMD Phenom II triple core with 8gb of ram in an Antec Sonata III so resources or space were not a concern for me. My biggest concern was cost as it is with most people. I was really set on grabbing a refurbed HDHomeRun but Newegg was out of stock for so long that I decided to skip it.

I had ordered two 2.5″ USB drive enclosures from a new to me website called meritline.com (great deal on them btw!). I decided to check their site for HD OTA tuners and found a nice small USB tuner for 24.99 or two for 44.99. Decided to pick up two of these since I figured we wouldn’t be using them more then that. Side note, thanks for putting these on sale an hour after I purchased them.

So a week later I was finishing up putting christmas lights on the house and the postman stopped by with my early present. Since the wife and kid were gone doing whatever they do when I’m not around, I decided to drop what I was doing and get these installed before they came back.

The installation went pretty quick once I decided to not read the description and just use the included CD for my Windows 7 x64 HTPC. Plugged them both in, ran the installer, scanned for new tuners in MCE and scanned for channels. Found every channel I should have been able to receive but of course as reviewers noted, the included antennas are junk. So off to Amazon to buy a new antenna Picked up a nice refurbed internal/external Phillips MANT940 for $23. Mounted it in the closet above the HTPC and fixed the quality issues I was having with ABC and PBS.

So with this setup we’ve finally rounded out our HTPC and our quest to forget about cable tv. We’re so happy with the extra $80 a month we’re saving. Even happier now that both Netflix and Hulu have dropped the price on their monthly fees.

Well I’ve been waiting for this day for quite some time. The chance to legally get live sports on our HTPC. Windows Media Center can give me scores, i’m sorry but this is like sitting outside the stadium and someone running out giving you updates. PlayOn does offer ESPN3 in it’s list of compatible streams but I really don’t want to dish out more money when my reason for cutting cable is to lower my costs.

Enter Boxee. We’ve been waiting for months for a Boxee developer who promised he was working on an ESPN3.com App and while their is a Justin.tv that does an ok job of delivering live sports, the quality does remind me of using rabbit ears to watch Dukes of Hazard when I kid in Enid. I did do something that most people don’t do. I did contact ESPN and ask them to create their own app for Boxee and was told my request was sent to the appropriate department, thanks guys.

Last week a forum member by the name of phikai posted screenshots of his ESPN3 app that he had developed. Sure it was rough around the edges but finally live sports on Boxee? Sign me up. So after installing his repository, I added his app to My Apps and created the long awaited shortcut to my home screen. So far I’ve watched around 8-10 hours of live events and could not be happier. Only once did the quality get stuck in “crappy” mode but all the other times the quality has been awesome. I really wish they would maybe simulcast more games from their other networks on their ESPN3.com brand but I can’t begin to imagine the contracts that would need to be tweaked for that to happen. Oh well, at least I still have justin.tv. :)

Resources:

ESPN3.com – Formerly known as ESPN360. Not available for all users, your ISP must pay for this access.

Boxee.tv – If you don’t know by know then move on.

A huge part of our content is from Hulu. A smooth fast interface that is very 10ft friendly is what all HTPC apps should strive for and Hulu Desktop is just that. I finally got my invite for Hulu Plus on friday and while I’ve been on the fence about paying to participate in a beta program, they sealed the deal the night before I got the invite.

I had seen rumors that Plus wouldn’t work with their Desktop app. This made me hesitant but after reading a forum post by a Hulu employee, they finally integrated the two. This was huge for me as it further fills the coffer of content we have on demand. Now along with back seasons of most of the shows we are watching (close to 70 subscribed shows) we can get most of them in 720p from Hulu.

I’m really glad companies are finally making it easy for consumers to access the content legally and for free or cheap. I have a problem with paying iTunes $0.99 per episode when a movie isn’t much more. I can tolerate that much for a song that I’ll listen to over and over but I don’t care to keep TV shows to watch more then once.

Now if the NFL and NCAA would quit being stall worts and give us the same access the NHL and MLB have offered life would be grand. Sites like Justing.tv can help fill the void but it’s comparable to watching a 10yr old VHS tape. Oh and local news, the finger is pointed at you too.

Update: It seems as though DirecTV is now offering the Sunday Ticket for $350 (source) via broadband. I doubt they’ll be giving any discounts for this like they usually do with current subscribers. Mighty steep price if you ask me, much more then the MLB/NHL offerings. But then again the NFL has a reputation for being very very proud of their brand, more so then any other sport.