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Bank Holiday Geekend

Three days away from work, so obviously I thought I’d get away from technological matters by breaking a computer. Er, I mean, “upgrading” it.

About two years ago I built a Media Center PC for the flat. For anyone unfamiliar, Windows XP Media Center was a special version of Windows designed to be used as a TV recorder. Instead of a monitor, mouse and keyboard you use a TV and remote control, and a set of big blue menus allow you to watch and record TV, view photos, listen to music or view any video files that you might have acquired that may or may not contain US television programmes not yet shown in the UK. Like Sky+ it can record a series of shows at the touch of the button, making it, when it works, a fantastic thing.

But that’s only when it’s in a good mood. XP Media Center proved more than a little cranky, and to compound matters I built the PC using odds and ends that I had lying around rather than the best parts for the job. Slightly iffy software combined with hardware of dubious provenance combined to produce a PC that worked fantastically well most of the time, but which spent days on end stubbornly refusing to do anything. Eventually, persuaded by a colleague, I decided to try to fix it by installing the new version of Media Center, now a part of Windows Vista.

Should take an hour or two, I thought – something to do while waiting for the washing machine and before going out to get a newspaper. Did it take an hour or two? Did it bollocks.

Vista and the old system might have got along famously had the motherboard manufacturer ever bothered to publish any drivers of any kind, or indeed any information about what parts it used, on the web. Sadly it hadn’t, but in London you’re never more than an hour or two away from even the most esoteric product, including computer parts. One quick trip into town later and I’d picked up a cheapo processor (Celeron E1200, £30) and motherboard (Gigabyte GA-73PVM-S2H, £40). Rip out the old stuff, stick the new bits in the case, wrestle with Intel’s completely stupid “push it until you’re certain you’ll break something” heatsink design, and voila:

Media Center v2

.. a Media Center that actually works. The old one had an ancient integrated graphics chip that struggled heroically with the menus but would often mess them up, but the new one shows Vista’s newer, spanglier Media Center in all its fanciness. The old one ran at alarming temperatures, but the new one sits idle at less than 30 degrees and runs to just 36 going full tilt. The old one had to hibernate when not in use – and that required extra software – but the new one slips into S3 standby. Better yet, it found all the Freeview channels first time and compiled the programme guide automatically.

In short, it’s bound to break down spectacularly in the next seven days, probably taking the TV and/or our central heating system with it. Watch this space.

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