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New Life for an Old PC

A MythTV Media Server

Old PCs that are no longer fast enough for desktop PCs can still be quite usefull as a media server. I took an old 500Mhz Celeron Compaq Deskpro out of the closet and turned it into a media server for my kids. They can use a remote control and select the cover of a DVD they want and start watching. No searching for that movie that they HAVE to watch, no worries about scratched disks or skipping. My kids have been using this since they were 5 and 4 years old.

This can be done cheaply using the open source MythTV project for Linux, or more specifically, the KnoppMyth Linux distribution. What makes KnoppMyth so great is that even novices can install it. Just burn the ISO onto a CD, pop it in the drive and boot it up. It installs as easy as Windows, no Linux gurus needed. Its intention is to be used as a DVR, but face it, if you are doing this with a old doorstop computer, its likely too slow for DVR.

My Setup

Here's what I used to build my media server

  • Knoppmyth R5B7 burned onto a CD
  • Compaq Deskpro 500 Mhz Celeron (fanless CPU cooler! quiet!)
  • 256 MB SDRAM
  • NVidia GeForce4 MX4000 PCI graphics card with TV out
  • 250GB IDE hard drive
  • Airboard IR keyboard (these may be hard to find now, but check eBay)
  • a universal learning remote control
  • cables and an RF modulator to connect it to old TVs (optional)
  • gigabit network PCI card (optional, you can use slower cards)

This bad boy only had 128MB RAM in it, so I wanted bump it up at least to 256MB. I determined it would support two 128MB sticks of SDRAM. An eBay auction and $15 later, it was done. Then I knew I would need TV out to run the output to a TV. This system did not even support AGP, meaning I could not use one of my spare AGP cards lying around, so I picked up a cheap GeForce PCI card with S-Video out, which Linux supports nicely. I used a S-Video to RCA video cable and also a stereo headphone jack to RCA audio cables, and ran it all through an RF modulator to run to any old TV using channel 3 or 4. (I split this signal and run it through the attic to multiple TVs and it works great.)

The 6GB hard drive was not going to hold many DVDs, so it was replaced with a good sized 250GB drive. Luckily I already owned a IR keyboard from a previously aborted HTPC project (that's another story), so I was able to repurpose this with no further investment. The beauty of using an IR keyboard is that you can program any off the shelf learning remote control to any keyboard keys you want. So you can use the same remote for controlling the TV/DVD/cable as well as the MythTV box and stash away the bulky keyboard.

This box already had a ethernet card, but to make large file transfers faster, I replaced it with a gigabit card, which connects to my Windows PC using a gigabit switch. I configured MythTV to use Samba so I could map a Windows drive to it for ease of file transfers. I also added RealVNC to view the GUI and control it from my Windows PC.

All I have to do when we buy a new DVD, is use my Windows PC and some handy ripping software to rip the movie sans annoying previews and menus, which shrinks the size a bit, then write to a DVD ISO image using Nero. Move that file to the MythTV drive, let it add it to the video database and make sure it has a pretty picture of the cover, then put that DVD back in the case and stash it somewhere safe and never worry about scratches! I quickly filled the first HD with DVD images and Divx movies, so I later added annother 250GB drive, bringing it up to a half terabyte of storage!

MythTV has other cool features, like games and NES emulators, and MythMusic for playing MP3s. The games are a pain because of the controller interface, and the lack of standardizations on the key mappings, so we never use them. MythMusic comes in handy to play bedtime music to get the kids to sleep at night.

Oh yeah, I also spared one PC from the landfill and recycled it to do something usefull!

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