If you are buying a new Windows 8 computer system then what do you do with your old PC once you have all the data? Today we are going to look at your old computer and how you can turn it into a media centre for your lounge, home theatre pc (htpc) for your bedroom or any other room in the house; looking at what components you can use and what you might want to change and how to get new life into your old computer parts.
We are going to discuss here the hardware that you need to turn your old computer into a new media centre and to the point where you would install an operating system. If you have already done this then you should head to my article about media centre software.
Small disclaimer. I build and repurpose my old computer equipment for a hobby; not all computer components are re-usable and you might find you have to spend something out to get it working.
Why Re-use an Old Computer?
Let's be honest. If you have spent a few hundred dollars (or pounds) on a computer, then the last thing you want to do is throw it away just because you have a brand new computer. Look at all that extra value you are losing, look at all the waste you are throwing out necessesarily. The computer parts being thrown away after a few years of use is scary; I used an original Core2Duo processor from 2006 from my computer and built a back-up server and it is still going strong, albeit after I installed a new 2TB hard drive.
One of the benefits of using an old computer for another purpose is the licensing of Microsoft Windows. If you have a PC built with an OEM (or computer builder) based license then you are not premitted to transfer it from one computer system to another. I do acknowledge that it is possible, but I would not condone it or advise how to.
In order to build a HTPC you need a minimum specification of computer parts. I suggest that you would need:
- A motherboard with a dual-core (or more) processor
- A Graphics Output
- 2GB RAM
- A TV Card
- A suitable hard drive
- A DVD Drive
If I was building a media centre computer from scratch with more freedoms I would be looking for a quad-core processor, 4GB Ram and an energy-friendly HDD like the Western Digital Green series or a solid state hard drive (SSD).
What Hard Drives are Suitable?
This is a question of what you want to get from your new media centre. If you will simply use it for on-line TV Catch-up services, DVDs and NetFlix then you could use a small 32GB or 64GB SSD Hard Drive and the HDD would be silent as a whisper. This would not allow you to store much video internally but installing a massive "traditional" hard drive would mean that you would have extra noise to contend with.
As a mid-point, you might have a server elsewhere in your house, or a computer with a large hard drive that you can stream your video library from. You might want to consider installing an unobtrusive powerline computer network in your home to transmit data for your new media centre.
You might even want to consider installing powerline and buying a brand new Network-Attached Storage Devices off-the-shelf and installing that somewhere in an unused corner of the house for ALL your computer storage needs. Hard disk drives though are a huge section of the computer part market and I have commented on hard disk drives before.
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Technology To Avoid
If you are going to re-purpose your old computer parts then there are a few things that you want to avoid. The biggest thing to avoid are single core processors such as the Intel Atom, AMD Celeron and low powered Pentium CPU's will have performance issues.
What About Graphics?
It is very rare for a motherboard to have an on board HDMI connection. You might have to purchase an HDMI graphics card to make the best use of your old computer but many also have other options for output on the motherboard.
There are some simple rules that you need to remember; if you are happy with standard definition TV (do you REALLY need HD in the bedroom?) then any graphics adapter will be good; if you want one that does HD as well you will need to make sure that you get a component that is up to the job. There are a few micro-ATX motherboards with HDMI on the market now, so if you are building something small you can save on the power and bulk of a dedicate card.
and the TV Tuner?
If you are going to take a digital TV feed from anywhere then you are going to need a TV card. These should slide right into either the long PCI slots on your motherboard, the slightly shorter PCI-E slot on your Mobo or more commonly the USB slot on the back of your HTPC.
There are many on the market, but I have not needed to include a TV Tuner in any of my recent builds, so it would be unfair for me to recommend any particular brand. Indeed in the research I have done for this the two most recommended TV Tuners are not even widely available in the UK.
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There are many options now that bring together a built in touch pad as well as a reasonable sized keyboard, such as this one from Logitech.
Building Your Media Centre
The idea of building an efficient and effective HTPC is to make the demands as low as possible both in terms of processing power and electrical draw. This will make your home theatre not only quiet, but also effective when the extra resources are needed; we therefore want to make sure that there is as little installed as we can get away with.
If you are re-using your old computer then you need to strip out many of the additional expansion cards that you have installed over the years. It would be very rare for you to need any more USB ports than what are installed on motherboards, firewire cards and maybe even dedicated graphics cards (subject to the priviso above). The less power you draw means the less your fans have to work and the less noise as a result. Make sure you are careful as you are building your computer though as one mistake can mean much more work.
If you are swapping any components out to make your media centre more effective then with the exception of your motherboard itself, there are very few computer parts that should be removable and replaceable relatively simply with a bit of care - there are always exceptions though, so don't force anything! - and it is only if you are making wholesale changes in your computer case that you might have to take many components apart to complete the task.