Just Add Power - Building a Portable Media Center/Theatre
Written by Erik Neff   
Saturday, 21 October 2006
Along with the onslaught of HDTVs, a plethora of pretty cool 'alternative' hardware has come along that can enable consumers to do some very powerful things.  The point of this editorial review is to show you how to skip the T.V. entirely, and go straight to a laptop-based media center with a wall projector for around the same price as your buddy's cool new HDTV, only 3 times bigger, more portable, flexible, and functional, (oh, and thanks to Microsoft being thrown in the mix, 3 times less reliable, but that's for another topic of discussion, that being, this topic of discussion).

Anyways, the question on the chopping block for today is this: How can one build an affordable, yet portable, 10 to 20-person theatre for watching movies, tv, or playing video games.


To start off, being from Canada, it has historically been quite difficult to get bleeding edge technology at prices seen in the US.  However, Canada Computers has changed everything.  Call it "conspicuously grey-market", call it "messing up the supply chain's pricing structure by massively undercutting the competition", call it "only offering 30-day warranties and lots of refurbished, open-box, 'stolen off the truck' items" - it doesn't matter what you call it, those who know, go to Canada Computers, and are generally very happy.

So, the idea here is to utilize the exceptionally low prices found at Canada Computers to lay out a complete theatre system based on a laptop running Windows Media Center that uses all Dolby THX-certified audio components, and costs around $2000 CND (for a decent low-end version) or $3000 CND (for a high-end version that supports the holy grail of HD, the 1080p standard of 1920x1080@60Hz, a resolution unheard-of in projectors or TV's prior to this year).

A few things worth taking note of:

Sound:
Perhaps the most ingenious part of the whole setup is ithe speaker system - the rear speakers are wireless, which is very good for portability and ease of setup.  The add-in Audigy2 sound card for the laptop supports 7.1, but as of the date of this article's writing, Logitech hasn't released their 7.1 version of the z5450, but it should be coming soon, and when it does, that will be the ideal choice for this system.
Computer:
The whole system will use a laptop as its central controls hub.  For the purposes of extreme portability, a laptop makes the most sense, particularly because laptops are now being offered with Windows Media Center.  The laptop that was chosen was the cheapest media-center laptop that is available in Canada at present.  It was important to choose a laptop with Media Center on it, because it makes the system very easy to control and do some pretty diverse things from far away with an infrared remote.  It's also very important to make sure the laptop has Media Center pre-installed on it, because Windows Media Center Edition is notorious for being extremely picky in regards to hardware compatibility, so by getting a laptop with it already installed, you're sidestepping the matter altogether.  One other note about this laptop - it may not have a t.v. tuner.  In that event, there are many USB TV tuners that are compatible with Windows Media Center, so that may be necessary to have the computer display live T.V. assuming it doesn't already come with one.
Projector:
The 1080p standard is right on the bleeding edge of projector technology.  Thus, there isn't a lot of choice, and so ebay was needed as the source of the high-end system's projector.  The link for the high-end projector is to an ebay auction whose operator is advertising a straight $1,500 US sale of a Sony projector whose suggested retail price is nearly $9,000 US.  Perhaps it's being a little optimistic that ebay could be consistently relied upon to locate a ~$1,500 US projector that natively supports the 1080p standard, but as time goes on, this standard will become the de-facto standard.  It's also worth mentioning that the projector screen doesn't come with a stand, so it is presumed that the operator will need to "pull a McGuyver" in setting it up each time.  If that's not appealing, a generic portable projector screen stand can be had for about $50-$100.


So, without further ado, here are the systems:

***********************
The ~$2,000 106" Portable Theatre/Media Center
***********************
$839.99 Acer Aspire AMD Turion 64 X2 1.6GHz 1GB 120GB 80211g WinXpMCE
$349.99 Logitech z5450 5.1 THX 315W with Wireless Rear Speakers
$109.99 Creative Sound Blaster Audigy2 ZS 7.1CH PCMCIA
$629.99 BenQ PB6110 800x600 DLP 1500ANSI Lumens 2000:1Contrast Ratio
$159.99 Da-Lite Model B 106" 16:9 White Matte Screen
$42.84 Microsoft Infrared Media Center Remote with USB Receiver
-------
$2,132.79

***********************
The ~$3,000 106" Portable Theatre/Media Center
***********************
$839.99 Acer Aspire AMD Turion 64 X2 1.6GHz 1GB 120GB 80211g WinXpMCE
$349.99 Logitech z5450 5.1 THX 315W with Wireless Rear Speakers
$109.99 Creative Sound Blaster Audigy2 ZS 7.1CH PCMCIA
$1,700.00 Sony VPL-VW50 1920x1080 1080p 15,000:1 CR 1200 ANSI Lumens
$159.99 Da-Lite Model B 106" 16:9 White Matte Screen
$42.84 Microsoft Infrared Media Center Remote with USB Receiver
-------
$3,202.79

As always, I hope you found this original Neff.ca Ad-Free News Editorial enjoyable.  Take care,

Erik Neff

Last Updated ( Saturday, 21 October 2006 )
 
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