I recently bought a NAS box for media storage, and now I want to be able to play all our media stored on this box on our TV (over the home WiFi network). There are a few options available to accomplish this (hook up the laptop, buy an XBox, mac-mini, netbook, etc), but given the low cost of computer components these days, I thought it would be a nice little mini-project (and a good learning experience) to build a computer from the cheapest compatible components in order to achieve this. And by cheap, I mean a cheaper option than buying an XBox, NetBook, the cheapest possible Dell, or a Fit PC.
So, basic components wise, I needed a motherboard, chip, fan, memory, case, power supply & WiFi card. Note I didn’t need a hard drive (content is stored on my NAS box remember), the box would boot from a USB key, and I didn’t bother with a CD/DVD drive (although I might at a later stage). I wasn’t sure if I did or not to begin with, but it turned out that I did need a graphics card for playing video (they’re not just for games it seems, despite their marketing
After quite a bit of shopping around, here is the list of components I went for (and overall Misco.ie offered the best deal by far):
- AMD Athlon 3000+ processor and ECS GS-761 motherboard bundle €46.12
- Aluminium heatsink with AM2 retention clips 80mm fan €4.29
- Foxconn DH153B/SB silver and black desktop PC case €32.17
- D-Link Wireless 54Mbps PCI Adapter €16.30
- Kingston Memory 1GB DDR266 SDRAM CL25 €22.61
- PNY GeForce 7300GS 256Mb PCI-Express graphics card €24.91
Total cost: €146.40 (ex-VAT!). You obviously need a few more bits and bobs which I happened to already have (mouse, keyboard, VGA cable, USB key, etc).
Here’s what it all looks like (minus the graphics card, purchased after I took this shot):
Putting it all together is really quite simple, most of the connections can only go in one place so its a bit like a little jigsaw puzzle:
Once all the bits are in place, the next step is to install an OS. I used UNetbootin to create bootable live USB keys. I evaluated Puppy Linux and Damn Small Linux to see what the ‘mini linux‘ distros are like (quite impressive but not without some glitches). However, in the end I went with Ubuntu 8.10 (bit heavy weight for what I need, but everything worked out of the box, and I’m very familiar with Ubunutu since I made the switch to it a few months back).
Booting the box with the Ubuntu live USB key was fine, however, installing the OS from the live USB key to another USB key was a different matter. This was a bit convoluted, but in the end, this is what worked (unlike a lot of the how to’s which didn’t):
- I used 3 USB keys:
- Key #1: the live USB key created with UNetBootin
- Key #2: contains the full Ubuntu ISO CD image (downloaded from here)
- Key #3: the USB key that the OS gets installed to
- Boot with the live USB Key
- Follow the instructions here
here and point the ‘source disk image’ at key #2.
- Once the OS is installed and booting from Key #3 you don’t need the other two keys any more.
So once its all installed, how does it perform? Very well (its not a bad spec machine after all), once the OS is loaded its really quite nippy. No problems either connecting to the NAS box (via Samba/Nautilus) and playing movies/music/etc, so its far more powerful than I actually need. On the negative side, it’s not exactly silent, not annoyingly loud, but loud enough to know that there’s a computer in the corner! Also, disappointingly, the boot time from the USB key is quite poor. So much so that I’m thinking of either buying a very small cheap hard drive just to boot from, or alternatively buying a very large cheap hard drive such as this 1TB drive for €86 which is big enough to act as a backup for the NAS box.
Finally, the box itself if quite big, which is a bad thing as it looks unnecessarily big (and ugly), but on the plus side, there’s a ton of room in there for expansion, e.g. multiple hard drives, CD/DVD/Blue Ray player, etc. Also I just have a spare mouse plugged into it at the moment, and plug in a keyboard when needed. Going to shop around for a wireless keyboard/mouse combo which would be ideal, or look at installing some form of wireless remote.
Btw I’m connecting to our TV via our TV’s VGA connection and standard 3.5 audio ‘jack to jack’ cable, so the TV is effectively acting as a monitor. If your TV doesn’t have VGA input, there are a myriad of other ways to connect your PC to your TV:
Also, I also have XBMC installed on it (so when the box boots it loads directly into full screen XBMC). Kudos to the team behind XBMC, it really is shaping up to be a very cool piece of software. I really like the video and music libraries (which get music & movie thumbnails and information from various places on the internet) – it really makes your media collection really feel like a collection rather than a bunch of files on a drive.
So overall this was a nice little exercise, you do get quite a bang for your buck using cheap components, building a box yourself (and obviously free open source software). Not planning on doing this any time soon again, but taking what I’ve learned from this I’d try and try build something smaller/cheaper/better possibly by scrounging as much second hand components as I could.
I also like having a full PC box as part of our TV unit in the corner. Our TV has PIP feature, so we can do things like keep an eye on a show while having a web browser open as well (handy for tweeting about something your watching!). It would also be cool if this type of system was built into either your TV directly (would you pay an extra €100 for a TV which had a build in mini-PC? ) or into the set-top box, although this is probably just a matter of time before that happens, if it hasn’t already!