CPU and motherboard considerations
To understand which CPU you will need, you need to make a few basic decisions.
The first step is to ask yourself what exactly you'd like to use this system for. If you intend to make this a kick-ass gaming rig, as well as a Media Center, you'll need a CPU that is appropriate for that - probably something in the Athlon 64 range. If you're happy just creating a box that does Media Center functions, then you'll need a less powerful chip or, more accurately, one that's good at different things, like video decoding.
Step two is to decide whether or not you want a dual-core chip. Ideally, there's no doubt that you do: Media Center is always doing about a million different things at once (such as recording TV whilst browsing the net and listening to music), and it is an application where you will actually see a big benefit from having a processor that has two cores. Don't expect a dual-core chip to boost gaming performance - they're typically no faster than their single-core counterparts - but one would allow you to record TV while playing Half Life 2.
We're going to proceed along with the assumption that this is going to be a 'pure' WMCE box, tailored for the ultimate in entertainment, rather than gaming.
Narrowing it down
As with any system, your initial decision is - AMD or Intel? Both have their own advantages in this context.
AMD obviously have a great advantage when it comes to thermals on mainstream chips. If you're looking to build your system into a media-style chassis or a small form factor case, which probably has fairly average cooling, then AMD will be a lot easier to keep cool without having huge fans on top of the CPU. Single-threaded AMD chips are a little cheaper than Intel's, in general. AMD offers a number of chips that are perfect for a Media Center system. Building a good system in this context is all about balancing power with thermals and in this case, something like a 3500+ is a perfect choice.
AMD also have the X2 family of dual-core processors - we put the X2 4800+
through its paces a while ago - have a read and you will see where the dual-core really shines.
On the other hand, Intels Pentium 4s have HyperThreading technology, which is a (fairly lame, but better than nothing) substitute for dual-core. However, you'll find the heat that is generated a problem on higher-end P4s, no doubt, and you'll struggle to find a cooler that will keep things running smoothly and quietly.
Intel's best chip for Media Center is the fantastic Pentium D 820. This is a cheap-as-chips dual-core processor that operates at 2.8GHz, but offers performance far beyond what you'd expect from that clock speed when using WMCE because of the threaded nature. We gave it our Recommended award
a couple of weeks ago, and it's a great little chip to put in this box.
If you're on a budget, you can just about
get away with a Celeron or a Sempron, but you'll probably want the fastest model you can get for the money. With all the video encoding and decoding going on, you'll have a hard job squeezing the performance you want out of these chips. You may be ok if, as we note below, you're using digital standard definition TV.
Of course, there is one more option that you have to consider, and that's the Pentium M. Originally designed for notebooks, it's a low-heat, high-performance chip that is perfect for building a silent system. Intel have already cottoned on to this, with its new range of Viiv PCs being built around a Pentium M dual-core (check out the fantastic Golden Gate concept system
). Undoubtedly, the P-M can handle WMCE tasks with ease. However, the problem you'll encounter is that it is incredibly expensive, with the 2.2GHz chip current only the shelves at around £450 and a motherboard costing another £150. If you can afford it, then go for it - but you'll probably be in the minority!
Lastly, the type of TV signal you have will impact on your CPU choice. Digital standard definition TV is transmitted as an MPEG 2 stream. Since this is how Media Center stores its TV recordings, all a digital TV system has to do is stream the content to hard drive to be saved. However, with analogue TV, the system has to encode the stream to MPEG 2 on the fly - this requires a faster processor. You will also need to think about high definition content if you live in a country where this is readily available (damn you Yanks!) HD content requires far more processor power than standard definition - Microsoft recommends at least a 2.4GHz processor for TV content
, and a 3GHz processor for content encoded in WMVHD.
Picking a motherboard
Your CPU impacts on your choice of motherboard, in an obvious capacity - you'll need one with the right socket type - but also in a few subtle ways.
The basic choices are between an nForce 4 board for Intel or AMD, or an Intel 915/925/945/955 board. nForce 4 undoubtedly offers better performance in terms of speed and featureset, with a hardware firewall. However, boards based on Intel's chipset offer high-definition audio through 'Azalia'-standard chips from Realtek or C-Media. These chips provide fantastic quality audio, so if you intend on hooking up your Media Center PC to some decent speakers, this will have to be a major consideration.
You'll want a board with on-board LAN, since you probably won't have room for a network card if you're using a small form factor board. There are some boards with on-board wireless, and you may find this handy.
Some quick recommendations, then: if you want to use a Pentium M, have a look at this Aopen i915GMm-HFS board
. For Intel, think about this dual-core Shuttle SD31P box
. If you're going AMD for the ultimate in gaming performance, you owe it to yourself to get the DFI LanParty NF4 SLI-DR
This is fairly simple to choose - pick some RAM that is compatible with your system (DDR or DDR2, PC400 or PC1066) and buy 1GB of it. You don't need more, and you can't make do with less. Don't worry about buying the nutty high-spec ultra-low-latency stuff you might buy for your main gaming rig - it won't make a significant difference.