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 Windows Media Center part 4: Time for an upgrade    
 Dated:  Friday, October 31 2008 @ 09:27 AM PDT
 Viewed:  2,144 times  
TechnicalYou really can't run a media center on a low-end processor.

When I build up a new machine, I don't buy the latest and greatest. There is a "sweet spot" with computer hardware, somewhat behind the curve, where you get the most bang for the buck without too much danger of imminent obsolescence.

Back in 2006 when I first built the media center, the best choice for motherboard was an ASUS AM2-socketed beast with built-in nvidia video, DVI out (easily converted to HDMI) 5.1 surround and SPDIF out, and four SATA ports. For a CPU I picked a Sempron 3000+ because at the time it was positioned at the point where a small increase in speed resulted in a large increase in price.

Realistically, the system was a little sluggish. Although sound never faltered, video would occasionally bog down and then rush to catch up. Motion in movies wasn't terribly smooth. When manipulating the remote, it was easy to get ahead of the media center and then have to wait for it to catch up.

Some of this was mitigated by turning off anything unnecessary. A previous article talked about turning off the Nvidia firewall. I also keep the Windows firewall turned off. I keep applications in the tray to the absolute minimum. I make sure that any automated processes (like virus scan) happen after midnight. And so forth.

At the time I built the media center, 256 Mbytes was a reasonable amount of ram. About six months ago, when 1 gig sticks became affordable, I increased the ram to 1.25 Gbytes, which helped a lot. Performance still wasn't great, but the extra ram eliminated the occasional long pause while watching a film or recorded TV.

But now that opportunity increases to view 720P and 1080P content, performance has started to become a critical issue. A CPU upgrade is also the first step in supporting Blu-Ray in the future. (But this is a story for another time.)

Fortunately, CPU prices have fallen through the floor in the past couple of years, and a significantly faster CPU could be had for less than I originally paid for the Sempron.

This is where it's important not to be too far behind the curve. Had I gone with a Socket 754 or Socket 939 motherboard, which were dirt cheap at the time, my upgrade prospects would have been dismal. But the AM2 socket, although currently not the greatest still has some reasonable upgrade possibilities.

I looked first at the Athlon64 Dual Core 6000+. It would more than do the job, but was clearly ahead of the "sweet spot". The Dual Core 5600+ is only 6% slower, $10 cheaper, and half the power consumption. Heat dissipation is important in a media center, which is often sequestered in a hot stuffy entertainment center.

An additional $20 could be saved by going with the Dual Core 5200+, a further performance degration of 8%. This seemed the right choice.

Installation was pretty much mindless. It is important to actually pull the plug on the machine, not just shut it down. This is a good opportunity to vacuum out the box if you haven't lately. If you don't have a static strap, keep one hand on the frame of the computer. Pull out the old fan and CPU before you open the box on the new one. Handle the CPU with care. Unlock the ZIF socket, make sure you have the CPU oriented correctly, pop it in, lock the ZIF, carefully attach the fan, lock it down and (don't forget!) plug it into the "cpu fan" jack on the motherboard. All standard stuff.

Upon first boot, the system POSTed just fine, but stopped after that with "CPU changed" and a request to go into the bios settings.

This motherboard won't recognize the Microsoft wireless keyboard in the bios, so I keep an old PS2 keyboard around for situations like this. All that's required is to go into the bios, note that it's discovered the new CPU, and hit "save and close".

The difference in Media Center was immediately noticeable. Negotiating the menu was much more fluid. Video decoding was remarkably improved -- hesitations have gone away, and fast motion scenes are much better rendered.

Although I don't currently have proof, I'm expecting that the dual core will help a lot to prevent system tasks from interfering from media related tasks. Over the long term, having two cores may be as much or more of an improvement than merely increasing the CPU speed.

So far, so good. The next project (sometime in the future) will be to upgrade the system to Blu-Ray. This requires upgrading the video card (the onboard video doesn't support HDCP), adding more disk (currently 3/4 terabyte), and adding a Blu-Ray drive, (definitely a burner, so I can also use it to back up the more than 10,000 family photos and 26 Gbytes of music currently online).

And then the real fight begins. I have no illusions -- I expect trying to get the box to play Blu-Ray disks -- slogging through the driver, DRM, and inevitable Media Center issues -- is going to be an ordeal. When that time comes, the effort will be documented here.

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