If you’ve ever wondered if that old Pentium IV computer you’ve got collecting dust in the closet might just make a great media hub capable of full 1080p, you may be surprised to find that it’s got just enough horsepower to actually work. That’s what I discovered last night after installing a Samsung Blu-ray drive into my 3.4 GHz Pentium HTPC and watched Back to the Future in full 1080p with perfectly fluid playback. Something I didn’t think would be possible with such an old CPU. But I’ve finally made the jump to Full HD and I’m totally blown away. The detail is amazing, the colors pop and the picture just looks outright gorgeous. And I managed to get it all for less than the cost of a decent stand-alone player. Here’s why I finally caved and how I got my system up and running.
In 1998 I paid $375 for my first DVD player. I jumped on that bandwagon before most video rental stores were even carrying DVDs. Even then I still waited about a year after their initial release because I wanted component video outputs and needed the price to come down just a bit. Today I paid a mere $65 for a Samsung Blu-ray drive for my computer nearly 5 years after their initial release. So why buy a Blu-ray drive instead of a standalone player? I debated the issue quite a bit, but ultimately for me it came down to convenience, price, and overall tweakability.
Here’s some quick specs on the machine I’ve got running Blu-ray right now. I bought it used for $50 several years ago and have been using it as an HTPC in the master bedroom for the last year. It’s an HP Pavilion dc7100 running an i915P chipset and a 3.4 GHz Pentium IV (Prescott 550) with 2 GB of PC3200 DDR400 memory. I’m running Windows 7 32-bit that gets a WEI of 4.4. A 320 GB Western Digital hard drive takes care of recording space for TV shows using Hauppauge WinTV HVR-1250. I have a super old school Sounblaster PCI 128 sound card that has a built-in amplifier, so it drives a pair of stereo speakers surprisingly loud without the need for an external amp (for now). An old Radeon X1600 took care of the video, despite that no supported drivers for Windows 7 were available. Though this setup played 720p HD TV shows just fine, it struggled with 720p Netflix content. I never thought it would have the power to play 1080p Blu-ray.
I decided to upgrade the graphics card to a Radeon HD 5450 (Cedar) in order to ensure compatibility with my HDTV (and Windows 7) offering a native HDMI port, full HDCP compliance, DirectX 11 support and plenty of options using the latest Catalyst Control Center from AMD to tweak for a perfect picture on my 40″ Toshiba LCD. Additionally, this card offers support for H.264, VC-1 and MPEG-2 which should offload some of the HD rendering from the older CPU. There’s plenty of 5450-based cards out there but I ultimately settled on a GIGABYTE GV-R545OC-512I for $19.99 (after $20 MIR) with free shipping from Newegg.com. This is a PCIe 2.1 card and yes, it plays just fine in my old PCIe 1.0 graphics slot. This card runs a little faster than most of the other variants due to the DDR3 memory and even though I don’t plan on playing games on this rig, it was actually the cheapest of the 5450’s after the MIR. It’s not a fanless card, but the fan spins spins slowly and isn’t audible above the other fans cooling the PSU, CPU and case. This is a great card and offers plenty of resolution options to get what appears to be 1:1 pixel mapping at 1920×1080 on my LCD. At least text and graphics look perfect without being blurry. My TV has a 1080p PC mode which basically turns the TV into a perfect computer monitor. So I’m quite happy with the results. It’s a great card for HTPCs and I highly recommend this one if you’re in the market. Picture looks much better than that old X1600.
The Blu-ray drive I bought is the SAMSUNG Blu-ray SH-B123L/RSBP which is the latest drive from Samsung and features a 12x BD-ROM and has all the standard DVD and burning features found in most drives. While it claims 12x for Blu-ray, it only plays Blu-ray movies at 6X (even DL discs). Which is still faster than most players. I have no issues with the load times I’m seeing (about 8-10 seconds) and the drive is quick and responsive. The cool mirrored finish on the front panel is slick looking and dispite what most people in the reviews about the drive being loud, I find it no louder than any other CD/DVD drive I’ve heard and cannot be heard over playing a movie. It came with the latest firmware and Cyberlink’s Power DVD 9 for Blu-ray playback. Most people complain endlessly about the free version Cyberlink offers with most retail Blu-ray drives and how awful it is. I think considering the software is free, it’s actually not that bad. They make you install a whole suite of mostly useless applications, but Power DVD 9 works pretty good on this machine. I haven’t had time to tweak with it too much, but it works fine so far. I don’t suspect I’ll be purchasing the full version any time soon. There is one weird issue I need to work out, but I won’t dwell on it for now. I’ve been using Power DVD since version XP (which predated version 5) and have never had any (major) issues with them.
My first test Blu-ray was Toy Story 3 and it played perfectly. I seriously couldn’t believe how awesome the picture looked when it first started playing. This was the first 1080p content I’d watched on this TV (which itself I only bought 6 months ago) so I was really breaking in both the Blu-ray and the TV at the same time. Pixar movies in HD look absolutely incredible. I was impressed that not only is the detail better, but the colors are deeper, the blacks look better, there’s just more contrast and more color to the overall picture. I had to dial down some of the original picture settings I had on the TV with the old DVD player and old graphics card because they were all too high. So I was really happy about that. CPU usage was about 15% average throughout the movie, and the CPU frequency actually throttled down to 2.7 GHz throughout most of it. The next movie I watched was Back to the Future. This is a classic movie and one of my favorites. It played (almost) without incident. There were a few blips during the lightning/storm scene which shuddered and dropped frames. Turns out Windows was dowloading updates at that time. I went back later and re-watched that scene and it played through just fine. So I went into my Windows update settings and told it to not automatically download and install updates and to let me manage them. Should be okay for now. This is where a modern dual core CPU would be nice, but not absolutely necessary if you set Windows up right. CPU usage on Back to the Future was higher, up around 70%, but definitely still playable.
Now it’s time to start renting Blu-ray from Redbox and upgrade my Netflix account to Blu-ray and start enjoying all my favorite movies in HD. If you haven’t made the jump to Blu-ray and 1080p yet, what are you waiting for? Get off you’re duff and make it happen, you’ll be glad you did!
UPDATE – 9/5/2011 – While this setup worked well enough just playing Blu-ray movies, overall it was pretty slow running Windows 7 and flipping through Media Center as well as choppy playing HD Netflix (or any other) content. So this PC has been resigned to being my new Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) and I bought an older 2.66 GHz Core 2 Duo with 4 GB of RAM to replace it. The new machine really plays Blu-rays without a hiccup, but also serves as a much better and faster media hub for all my HD viewing. I’ll be blogging about my cool new DAW shortly.