Part 1 – Setting up a Home Media Center

I love technology – and I love doing things with technology that make my life easier.  Originally I had started with the goal of consolidating all my DVDs and media on to a single storage system.  At the time I was copying files to my PS3 so I could watch movies in the bedroom with my wife before bed – we were hooking up a laptop to the TV in the living room to stream music and TV shows, and I was copying content on to USB memory sticks to carry with me when I traveled.  Sounds like a lot of copying and waiting doesn’t it?

I knew there had to be a better solution.  It turns out, there’s at least one.  It takes work to keep it all running smoothly, but at the end of the day it’s awesome on a daily basis.

More in this series –

First Steps

Before you can create a home media system, you need the hardware platform that it’s going to sit on.  I spent some time going over my options – I wanted something cool looking, both inside and out, something I could expand in the future if I wanted to, and something that would fit in my media center.

GD08-34ViewI decided on a media center case from SilverStone – specifically the Grandia GD08

I decided on a media center case, because of their general dimensions and drive capacity.  the GD08 has enough room to mount 8 3.5″ drives behind the front panel.  Can’t ask for much more room then that.  It also has the capacity for a full size video card, motherboard, and cooling unit so I didn’t have to get specially sized parts and could just use what I normally would when putting a build together.

Inside the Case

So – my components are nothing fancy.  I have a standard Intel board, an i7 processor since I’m working with video and media – and 8GB or RAM since that’s all I had available at the time and I filled up all four slots on the motherboard.  As you can see I’m not even using a video card and just run the whole thing from the on-board controller.

case-interior

 

I did splurge on the power supply and picked up a modular power supply in the hopes of keeping some cable clutter down.  In the end I should have opted for a larger model, the Corsair CS550M I picked up is a good power supply, Gold standard and all that.  But I had just enough plugs to power the relatively few devices that I put case-interior-powersupplyin the case, if I want to expand I’ll need to buy something bigger and redo all the cabling.  Redoing all the cabling is enough to make me say no.

If you didn’t know – modular power supplies have little slots for the cables to plug in, they don’t have a huge mess of wires hanging out of a whole in one side.  They are much more configurable, and it allows you to run individual cables where you need them without them all being connect back to the same place.  It also allows you to leave off the cables you don’t need, which saves space.

I also picked up a SSD (Solid State) hard drive for the operating system to speed up boot times and overall system access.  I’m only storing system files on that drive so am not too worried about the rewrite lifetime limitation of the SSD.  You can see it in the first image of the case, it’s mounted above the DVD drive right beneath one of the silver handles.

Those silver handles are actually a lifesaver, that whole front compartment unscrews and lifts out so you can more easily mount the drives.

Cables …

I have built a lot of computers, and never really thought of the sheer amount of cables that were inside.  Computer case designers are really smart people.  I am not nearly as skilled.

It didn’t take long after determining where I was going to mount everything that I started running in to problems.  Now, part of my problem may be I’m working with the components I have available, which means I have all the same length SATA cables, but they are the least of my problems.  The majority of my problems still stem from case-interior-cablesthe power supply cables.  I tried to mount everything close together, but still ended up with a ton of excess plug ends that needed to get stuffed somewhere.

Now that I think about it, I wonder if there are different types of modular cables that only have the ends I want, but I never looked in to it and just worked with what came in the box.

In the end I put the extra cables in the empty slots for the 3.5″ drive bays.  It works, it keeps them out of the way, and at first look the case doesn’t look too cluttered.

All the Fans

The case came with 3 fans, one on the left side, and two beneath the drive bays.  I added a fourth in the back and of course the processor fan.  Since the case supports three more fans I wanted to be prepared for expansion in the future.  To that end, I bought a fan controller.

I always thought they were so cool, checking internal temperatures, setting RPM speeds for individual fans.  I think it was my need to fiddle with things that led me to my initial love of the idea.  In practice, it’s not fun, not fun at all.

I settled on a Bitfenix Recon controller.  It’s network accessible, which was a key for me – I wouldn’t have direct physical access to it, since it was going to be in my home theatre setup.  It also had 5 thermal zones and fan processors.  Since I was geared up on fiddling with things, the touch screen interface was also a big selling point for me.

case-exterior-fan

When it arrived I realized I couldn’t just mount it internally somewhere, it was too cool.  So I mounted it in the second front facing 5.25″ bay.  The bays close up nice and tight with a smooth front surface, so I ended up having to put a small piece of electrical tape on the inside of the bay so I could pull it open to access the controller inside.

With the controller mounted, I had a giant octopus of cables coming out from the back.  I hadn’t done -that- much research so had no idea what I was getting in to.  I don’t know how I thought it controlled and managed the temperature settings, but tiny temperature probes wasn’t anywhere on my list.

Now, I have big thick fingers, working with tiny wires is not my forte.  This was no exception.  I ended up cutting of small pieces of electrical tape and sticking the probes to things in the general area that I thought things might get hot.  Super scientific process involved here – find things that get hot, put probe nearby.  I have no idea if that’s the right way to do things, but it works for me.  Unfortunately the electrical tape doesn’t stick very long and now I just have a spaghetti mass of wires inside the case that blow all over the place when the fans are spinning.  Whatever.

In addition to the probes, the fans all have to be connected to the controller, that means their power cables clip in to the 3 prong pins on the controller.  That allows the controller to spin up the fans at the appropriate RPM.  The challenge is connecting the fans to the right places on the board that correspond to the sensors that I already randomly distributed around the case.  Want two fans running from one temperature probe?  Too bad!

NOTE – Your fans must be variable speed capable.  Not all fans are, I discovered the fan I mounted on the back plate wasn’t so just connected it to the motherboard directly.

At this point of the fan controller install I had to remove the drive bay, unhook the controller and remove all the probes, then start over.  I couldn’t reach the controller to hook the fans up while it was mounted, I hadn’t thought of that before doing all the other work.  I hope you read this far before getting started on your own project and don’t make the same mistakes I did.

Fin ~

Finally with everything connected I put it all back together, re-mounted the controller and I was finished!  The controller is actually pretty cool, sometimes I pull the drive bay open just to check on it (it’s animated on the touchscreen).  But I can really just leave it alone.  The fans are never spinning very fast, and the case is kept pretty cool.

It mounts well in my TV stand, not perfectly of course, it sticks out about 2.5″, but not far enough to cause any problems, and when you’re sitting back you barely notice.  If I can find a flatter power profile plug somewhere it’ll slide back another inch or so, mostly right now it’s hung up on that cable.

case-exterior

Final Thoughts

I’m continually impressed by the case.  It’s sleek and smooth design looks awesome, the brushed finish on the front meshes nicely with my other components, and it’s a solid piece of hardware.  No plastic, all metal.  I’m anticipating being able to use it for a very long time.

There is one small LED light on the front that alternatively glows blue (system is on) or flashes red (HDD utilized).  It is very dull and muted and difficult to see in bright light.  Which is perfect, because I didn’t want a bright glowing light staring at me all day.  You could put this in a dark room and it would be less obtrusive than the clock glowing on your PVR.

If I was planning to do it all over, I would definitely put in a larger power supply, and higher capacity drives.  I started with 2x500GB drives thinking that would last for quite some time, but both of them are almost full and now I’m having concerns about them crashing and my losing all my data.  There is definitely space for more drives, and of higher capacity.

I’m debating on whether to purchase NAS storage and have everything run over the ethernet backbone, or if I want to put more drives inside the case and get that faster access time.  The problem with putting them in the case is reformatting everything and setting up a RAID controller.  I’m leaning toward the NAS idea so that I have easier access when I want to swap things around – or if I need to replace a failed drive.  Now I just need to find a NAS that fits in with my other components 😉

Other than that I don’t have any regrets, it’s a great piece of hardware and kudos to those guys are SilverStone that put the design together in the first place.  Stay tuned for more posts in my Home Media series where I outline the software I use to organize and display my media.  Sure I could just open VLC and play things fullscreen, but I wanted a more integrated solution that I could easily control with a keyboard, or even a remote control (if I really wanted to go that far).

Let me know what you think, and ask any questions you may have, I’ll do my best to provide answers, or think them up on the spot if necessary.

6 Comments for “Part 1 – Setting up a Home Media Center”

Patt O'Connor

says:

Ok, I read this whole thing and have no idea what you are talking about but it sure sounds impressive!

says:

I’d like to say it gets easier from here, but it actually gets harder. Definitely not for the faint of heart. I do appreciate you taking the time to read through and enjoy 😉

Shawn

says:

You could get a Nas run a cat 6 in a closet and network map to it . I have seen some nice ones over rhe last few years and I expect the demand for them to increase over the couple of years .
I ran a similar case when i built my htpc.
Of I were to do it again I would skip ms media this time and just right to xbmc.
But my back bone is automated with boxee and roku front end via plex. It’s simple enough the girls use it with out question.

says:

I’ve looked at a few, I really want to run something with RAID so if a drive fails I don’t lose absolutely everything. Even getting in to entry level NAS with 2 drives is a few hundred dollars, and 2 drives just isn’t going to cut it anyway. I’m thinking of putting a “server” together in a tower and stuffing a bunch of drives in it with a nice RAID controller card. It’s easy to spend the money, I’m just trying to save at the moment.

At the end of the series you’ll see my whole setup – but in brief I’m running and Emby server with Kodi (XBMC) on top of it. I was using PLEX for a while, but Emby as the back end makes more sense, and it does the same local streaming as well as remote streaming that I was looking for. It can also build out to networked storage (my end goal). It works really well.

You know seeing your setup was what initially inspired me to put something together, years ago.

Shawn

says:

Over the years everything progresses . As things change and and prices drop . At one point I ran a htpc in a Silverstone case . I never did get it to where I wanted . It has taken years for tech to drop in price and size that if I went back to it . It would be closer to where I would like it .
Noise and ease of use is my key for my front end.
The host of HD nation has a very nice set up .with a raid back end.

Now I look for automation with auto updating . File orgination naming and notification of new data entry on the server.
remote connection of back end server programs was key to my current sent up .
Being able to load web based programs from a tablet and adding new files to search query.

In the future for mine is the same as you with a raid back end .

Front end running kodi and controlling everything with the ir built in to many non apple tablets
and we watercooling the cpu . Got to keep things cool.

says:

Next time we’re over you’ll have to give me a tour and show me how everything clicks together. I’d love to see it. I think part of how great these kind of things are, is how many different ways there are to put them together.

I’m really looking forward to being able to put a nice server together, I think I might dive in for a cheaper 3g RAID card rather than trying to save up ($500) for a new 6g card. Can always upgrade later, or just expand with a faster card and start building out another array.

Cool is definitely important. So far my case has nice airflow and really isn’t working very hard so things are staying pretty nice. I’ve never done water cooling, though I’ve seen some cool setups for it.

What did you think?