HMV Model 328A

Choosing the Computer

As far as I am concerned, Winamp is my number one choice as a music player.  With its superior player and huge range of third party plugins, it leaves iTunes and Windows Media Player for dead.  It does not rearrange and rename your files like iTunes, but if you're serious about maintaining your media library, the Winamp Media Library is the go.  I used the free version for years and was so impressed that I ended up purchasing the Pro version.

Winamp with Bento Skin

I use the SqrSoft Advanced Crossfading plug-in which beats everything, including Winamp's own crossfader.  It includes a very effective gap killer.  You can customise the crossfading and adjust the fade in and out curves.  You can store multiple presets and even control the thing in real time if you're keen.  Unfortunately it's old and sports an old Winamp 2 skin.  I would love to see this integrated into Winamp one day.

SqrSoft Advanced Crossfading Plugin

Theoretically, the demands on a system to play music should not be that high.  I had been running Winamp with the SqrSoft Advanced Crossfading plug-in under Windows XP on a Celeron 300A system with only 256MB RAM, which was well below the minimum requirements for Winamp.  It ran for many years with no problems, although there were times when it was so slow to get going you would swear the thing was dead!

I wanted to "future proof" the system against newer operating systems, so I didn't want to shoot too low.  Running HD video or visualisation plugins puts demands on the system and this was out of the question on my old computer.

I was also concerned about power consumption, since this machine would be running for long periods of time.  I thought about mobile computer technology but decided against it, since it would be harder to upgrade and more expensive in the long run.  The following decisions were made around July, 2009.

This is the MilkDrop 2 plugin by Geisswerks, which ships with Winamp.
I have yet to see any other visualisation software on any platform which comes close to this.  These pics don't convey just how good this thing looks in HD at 60fps!

The Components

For this application, I figured that a quad core processor was less important.  I carefully looked at the specs versus price at the time and ended up choosing an Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 3GHz processor with a 6MB cache and 1333MHz FSB.  Not the fastest processor on the planet, but still very good performance for the price at the time.  Maximum power consumption is 65W.  Many other current processors use up to double this.  Nevertheless, 65W is a lot of heat to dissipate from one chip and the size of the heatsink and fan that comes with it says it all!  The E8400 was amongst the first to feature VRD 11.1 technology to reduce power consumption during normal operation.

I chose the Intel P31 Express chipset after discovering that DDR-3 or higher speed DDR-2 RAM supported by some of the more up-market chipsets was either too expensive or not yet available.  The P31 Express chipset supports a Core 2 Duo processor with up to 1333MHz FSB.  It only supports 4GB of RAM, but this is adequate for this application.  The power consumption of the P31 Express chipset is lower than some of the more up-market chipsets.

The RAM is Corsair 4 GB TWIN2X4096-6400C5DHX 800MHz PC6400 DDR2 (two modules).  I have never before seen someone go to the trouble of making their RAM look so cool!

Corsair 4 GB (2x 2GB) 800MHz PC6400 DDR2 RAM
Corsair 4 GB (2x 2GB) 800MHz PC6400 DDR2 RAM
Looks can be deceptive!  Both these sticks have failed - one after about 18 months and the other after about 2½ years.  I have replaced them with generic types in disgust!

I have found GigaByte motherboards to be reliable over the years.  One reason for this is that they use high quality capacitors.  I have seen many other well known brand motherboards fail due to leaky capacitors.  I chose the GigaByte GA-EP31-DS3L, which has a reduced form factor that will fit in the cabinet.  It supports VDR 11.1 with LED indicators and has 3 older PCI slots as well as 3 PCIe slots.  This board does not support RAID, but for my requirements, this was not important and I did not want to have multiple hard drives to increase the noise level and power consumption.

Gigabyte GA-EP31-DS3L Motherboard
Gigabyte GA-EP31-DS3L Motherboard

A good graphics card can make a big difference to the overall performance of a system.  I needed at least two outputs - one for the internal monitor and one for a big screen, with support for playing HD video.  I chose a GigaByte GV-N95TOC-512I, with an nVidia 9500GT chipset, 512MB DDR-2 RAM, an HDMI connector, DVI-I connector and a D-Sub connector with various output combination options by using adaptors.  It has a composite, S-video or component video input.  This GigaByte implementation uses high quality capacitors.

Whilst I am happy with the graphics card, I hate fans on graphics cards!  Like small dogs, they make a lot of noise and achieve very little!  This is by far the noisiest component in the system and it began making extra rattling noises after about 12 months.
Gigabyte GV-N95TOC-512I Graphics Card
Gigabyte GV-N95TOC-512I NVIDIA GeForce 9500GT Graphics Accelerator Card

The Computer Power Supply is a GW 700SEL Supersilent 700W unit.  Unlike the graphics card, it is super silent!

The hard disk is a Seagate Barracuda 1TB 32MB Cache 7200RPM SATA2 drive.  Once again, I have found this brand to be the most reliable over the years.  It will be partitioned into 2 drives - one for the operating system (at least 20GB) and the other for data.  I have found that partitioning drives in this way makes life a lot easier if you ever have to re-install or need to upgrade the operating system.  Also, it makes defrag operations easier.  I decided not to bother with a floppy drive.

The optical drive is an LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive.  It is capable of reading both Blu-ray and HD DVD disks, with DVD and CD writing capabilities.  Only a few drives were available that were capable of playing both Blu-ray and HD DVD disks, yet both Blu-ray and HD DVD disks were on sale and it was unclear at the time which format would win out.  Blu-ray writers were at least double the price.  (I figured it would be stupid to buy one at this time, since in the future there would be much faster versions at a fraction of the price.  I could wait - Blu-ray burning was not a high priority for me.)  Due to world-wide chip supply shortages, it took me months to get this much anticipated drive.  The only thing I don't like about this drive is the in-your-face Cyberlink software that comes with it.  If I bought a stand alone DVD player, I would expect it to play DVD's.  Why after purchasing this drive should I expect to get pestered to pay even more money to "upgrade" the software?  Also, my avast! anti-virus software developed a problem with it which prevented PowerDVD from working at all.  I was forced to disable the Behaviour Shield.  Another problem is that I cannot configure PowerDVD to remember to use the second monitor unless I "upgrade" it.  Every time I want to play a video I have to drag the window over to the second monitor and then maximise it.  If I am ever forced to purchase more software just to play a DVD, I can assure you it won't be a Cyberlink product.

The tuner card is an AVerMedia AVerTV Hybrid+FM which receives analogue TV, digital TV, FM Radio and digital radio (but as with most tuners on the market, not Australian DAB+ digital radio, thanks to the stupidity of the Australian broadcasting authorities who apparently never learnt their lesson from trying to introduce non-standard AM stereo).  This card comes with a remote control, so the whole thing acts like a normal TV.  Unfortunately the software that comes with this card sucks!  There are inconsistencies between pages, some menu items don't work at all and the remote control is flakey, doing some really wierd things sometimes.  At least it does remember to use the correct monitor and it's useable once you get used to its quirks.  I have learnt my lesson - choosing a tuner card is more about finding good software than a finding good card!

Anyway, I am not that worried about any of these problems, because I know that I will only have to upgrade individual components if necessary rather than throw the whole thing away, thanks to it being PC-based.

I am pleased to report that the machine performs well.  I used it for a while as a workstation and it didn't bat an eyelid at rendering large graphics and sound files.  It seems to be a good balance between cost and performance.