Tuesday, January 12, 2010


It started a few years ago with me hauling my 17" LCD monitor and my Dell notebook into the living room so that we could watch videos on the computer while sitting on the couch.  The advent of an LCD television made this process easier, as the monitor no longer had to travel, the notebook connecting nicely via TV-out S-video.  A new notebook for work allowed the old notebook to stay attached to the TV full time.

Until it died, that is, whereupon I realized that I had created for myself a need that had not existed before.

I needed a media PC.

Well great.

So I tried to replace it with various computers I already had.  This turned out to be a learning experience.

From my desktop machine, an AMD 64-bit (2.8 GHz) monstrosity that looks and sounds like a garbage truck, I learned that there is such a thing as too large and too loud when it comes to a piece of machinery that's going to spend its time next to your TV and stereo.

From the Dell notebook that I cobbled together from a scrounged machine augmented with parts from my recently deceased notebook, I learned that there is such a thing as a computer that is too dumb to play video.

And from the lovely Mac notebook that I tried as an experiment (as a work computer, I couldn't consider using it for that purpose), I learned that there is such a thing as a computer being too expensive if its sole purpose is to play video.

So, if I was going to acquire a dedicated media PC, what did I want?

1) It had to have a brain big enough to play video well.
2) It had to be quiet.
3) It had to be cheap...or rather, inexpensive.
4) It had to have low power consumption, as it might get left on for extended periods of time.

And let me tell you folks, there ain't too much at the intersection of that particular Venn diagram.  Even the Mac Mini, probably the best option I could find at first, was (at $600) more than I cared to spend.

And then I read about the NVIDIA Ion.

To put it briefly, the Ion is the Intel Atom processor (a tiny, somewhat feeble processor) souped up with high-end NVIDIA graphics processing unit, i.e., lots of graphics power in a small, energy-efficient package. 

So I took the plunge and started building the MediaSpud:

The motherboard is a Zotac IONITX-A-U (purchased from Amazon) with 4 Gb of compatible dual-channel DDR2 RAM.  This was connected a Western Digital 320 Gb hard drive (2.5", 5400 rpm) and a DVD burner.  To top it all off, I added a combination wireless mouse and keyboard - probably the trickiest part, as both keyboard and mouse had to operate properly at a distance of at least eight feet from the receiver.  After reading a number of reviews of such products, it became painfully apparent that manufacturers' claims about range were a bit, well, optimistic.  I did manage to settle on a combo from i-Rocks that was both well-reviewed and relatively inexpensive.   And I'm happy to say that it has worked as advertised.  The computer communicates both video and audio to the TV via HDMI.  A serviceable HDMI cable can be purchased on Amazon for less than $5 (most of which is the shipping).

All these components came to about $325.  The IONITX-A-U comes with a wireless card and with a built-in power supply, so there was no need to purchase either.

The enclosure is made mostly of 0.5 cm-thick plywood and measures 37 cm wide by 21.5 cm deep by about 8.5 cm tall (including the little cork feet that it stands upon).   I had originally planned to make the case as small as possible, but decided that having a little extra space would make the whole project much easier to execute.  I was right.

The power button I got from Radio Schlock.  I soldered it to a connector wire that I happened to have lying about so that I could turn the machine on without having to short across the power pins in the motherboard with a screwdriver or paperclip.  There are none of the other front-panel connectors and indicator lights that we've become accustomed to having on our computers, but I figure if I need any, I can just add them later.  I have a drill.

Proper (I hope) ventilation is performed by the CPU/GPU heat sink fan, which blows out through the hole in the top of the case.  Air is drawn in through several holes drilled low in the sides of the case.  This fan is the only part of the MediaSpud that makes any appreciable noise - having no variable speed setting - but is still very quiet when running full-tilt.

Both the hard drive and the DVD burner are SATA-2, so the internal cables shouldn't obstruct air flow much.

The four corner posts are cherry and help rigidify what would otherwise be a rather flimsy box.  The motherboard rests on four small posts that are also made of cherry - these pieces are tiny by necessity and the hard wood can take screws without splitting.  The DVD burner and the hard drive are affixed to the case with pieces of steel corner bead which have been snipped to size.  The hole in the top of the case is protected with a bit of screen.  The shortest wood screws I could find at the local Home Deplowe's were slightly longer than the plywood was thick, so I tried to use washers where I could, but the occasional screw does peek out on the outside surface of the case.  It's not pretty, but it does the job.  I will tell everyone that I eventually plan to replace it with a more elegant, better constructed case, but to tell the truth, I'll probably just stain this one and Case version 1.0 will be Case version Only.  Not too bad for under $10.

My mother-in-law having gifted us with a Kill-a-Watt, I decided to see how the various computers around the house fared.  My desktop machine pulled 100 watts when idle and about 130 when playing a Hulu video full-screen.  By contrast, Lobelia's souped-up G4 Mac runs at about 40 watts when idle and a little over 70 when under load (running a Youtube video, which is about the most intense thing it is ever asked to do - we don't dream of playing Hulu vids on it).  The MediaSpud running Windows XP, however, comes in at 22 watts when idle, 25 when running Hulu full-screen, and still only 30 when running the World of Warcraft free trial (which it does quite nicely, despite its tiny brain).  Of course, our 26-inch LCD TV pulls 120 watts, so make of the likely overall power savings what you will...

We're still exploring this computer's capabilities, but I can say that it does everything that I expected it to.  It can handle both 720p and 1080i HD video, though I find I like it better in 720p.  It can't handle streaming HD from Youtube, but I expect that's because those videos are CPU-intensive rather than GPU-intensive.
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