Monday, April 22, 2013

How to boost performance and convert an old laptop into a media center and file server.

Recently my old media center desktop died. I guess computer age counts in dog years. The machine was only 7 years old, but died on the operating table from a simple hard drive upgrade procedure that I have done many times (aka. it's not my fault. :) )

I debated for a while if I wanted to take this PC in for repair, but the estimated 1 to 2 hr to diagnose and fix the problem simply makes no sense for this old PC. Electronic recycle is the only way to go. I striped the hard drives, and dvd-burner. I should try to sell the working parts on the craiglist but it's not worth my time to bother.

The old PC was the file server, central backup, video transcoder, and media server for the home network. I needed to find a replacement fast. The cheapest new desktop I could find was a few hundred dollars and terribly under-sized in storage. I would need to upgrade the internal component to get the system working as before. It was not worth the hassle.

Geek out time! 

I have a 3 years old laptop (HP touchsmart tx2 with AMD Turion dual-core CPU) that was gathering dust. Instead of a new low-end desktop, I figured for the same price I can seriously beef up this laptop and turn it into a decent media center. I did a good amount of research to make sure I got maximum bang for the minimal bucks. I budget $300 and brought the following items:

Click on the links to get exact store and product that I purchased:

Solid State Drive 128GB : $130

USB 3.0 ExpressCard: $13

USB 3.0 hard drive docking station: $50

3.5" 1 TB 7200 RPM internal HD: $75

USB TV tuner: $50

USB enclosure : $6

MCBuddy: donationware

The experience was tedious but not too painful. I took some extra steps to ensure optimal system function. Here are the major steps.

1) Removed the original internal 5400 rpm HD from the laptop
2) Replace the internal HD with new SSD HD
3) Rebuild Windows 7 Home Premium from the installation disks
    3a) I thought about upgrading to Windows 8, but the media center is NOT included with the home edition, I would have to upgrade to Windows 8 Pro then pay even more to get the media center pack.
4) Installed the USB 3.0 ExpressCard and drivers.
5) Plugged in the USB 3.0 HD docking station into the ExpressCard
6) Inserted the new and old HDs from old desktop into the docking station
7) Insert the old laptop HD into the 2.5 drive enclosure
8) Plugged the 2.5 drive enclosure to the ExpressCard
9) Reorganized all the files for optimize usage and backup.
     9a) SSD is only used for OS and temporary files
     9b) New HD is for all the user files and recorded videos
     9c) Old 3.5 and 2.5 HDs holds the image backup for all the computers on the network.
10) Installed the USB TV tuner
11) Verified the important channels recorded in High Def and Standard Def.
12) Install MCBuddy to automatically transcode the recorded wmv videos to mp4 that can be displayed by iPad, iPhone, Android, and DLNA on various LCD TVs, xBox, media center players, etc in the house.
13) Setup DLNA on laptop and checked all the TVs throughout the house has access.
14) Put the laptop in power saving mode so the CPU doesn't get so hot . (I probably need to invest in a very quiet laptop cooling system. The fan noise is occasionally bothersome. )

Overall experience:
The easy parts:
1) The hardware upgrades were super easy.
2) Windows 7 on SSD was a nice change. Install was fast, Boot up was fast, too.

The painful parts:
1) Windows network setup with homegroup and DLNA configuration was confusing. A lot of trial and error until something worked. Not exactly sure what configuration I ended up with, probably all security disabled.
2) Painful research until I found the blog entry to change the Windows 7 registry setting to allow UNC connection from Windows XP.
3) Reorganizing and consolidating all the files spread out across multiple hard drives on the old desktop system took majority of the time.

Finally, we can kick back and enjoy the my home brewed DVR, and watch *mostly* commercial free shows on every TV, iPad, iTouch, iPhone, and Android in this house.

Could I have spend a few dollars and gotten a TiVo, Roku, etc? Sure, but where would be the fun in that? Also, I really dislike monthly subscription fees. All this setup doesn't cost me one dime in additional monthly service fees. I already pay enough monthly fee for cable, internet, and VOIP.

The end result with everything showing 

The final result. 
HD docking station is facing the wall. The LEDs are very bright and bothersome at night. 
**Need to get an attractive wire management system **


Paul Chang said...

Good use of old hardware! Last year, I did something similar with an old XP laptop, but instead of installing Media Server, I just installed PlexServer and an external USB drive to serve up ripped movies (from our DVD collection) and TV shows to our Roku box and other devices. In retrospect, I should've used better hardware, as the old laptop is straining under the load.

Ricky Chang said...

Hi Paul

It was really fun experience. I also debated if it I wanted to upgrade the OS, it was really tedious part of the upgrade process. In retrospect, I still believe it was a good decision. Windows 7 I/O is a HUGE improvement over XP. On the same hardware, I can get 50% improvement with better caching and drivers.

USB 3.0 is a huge improvement. I measured 50% to 100% improvement over USB 2.0 on the same hardware. The improvement is even more drastic if I'm accessing multiple HDs. On USB 2.0, backup from one USB drive to the other USB drive took over 16 hours. on USB 3.0 that time was reduced that to 4 hours with the same HD hardware.

So consider take the time to upgrade the OS and USB 3.0 and you can make good use of that hardware for another couple of years.

Vladimir Khruschev said...

Nice. I retired my old main computer after 5 years of use. It is now used as just a second machine at work. I really don't use it for anything except having my email and calendar up for convenient display, lol! And yes I love the USB3 + SSD + Core i7 combination.