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How to Build a Silent PC or Home Theater PC
Step 1 – Choose your case.
While the availability of small form factor PC cases are becoming increasingly widespread, as is the availability of small form factor motherboards and components, the choices aren’t as varied as standard size cases and components. Also you’ll find that small form factor components tend to be more expensive.
The next thing you’d have to contend with is the problem of heat. Cramming the latest technology into a tiny case inevitably puts components that generate a huge amount of heat (CPUs, graphics cards, northbridge, etc) closer together which then puts a greater emphasis on cooling. While you could cool the tiny rig with large fans you then encounter another problem, sound. Sure your teeny weeny home theatre PC is smaller than a poodle puppy and looks good near your TV but it generates the equivalent sound of a 747 during takeoff. Defeats the object I think you’ll agree.
Ditch the dreams of an ultra small HTPC because it’ll just cause you headaches. Me personally, I value functionality over aesthetics, with that in mind I went for a huge full tower PC case which was built for quiet operation and has the bonus of looking good too. I went for the Thermaltake Armor case in black. After a while you do get used to it in the front room and it becomes part of everyday life. Don’t forget that you don’t have to place your HTPC case near your TV, you could tuck it away behind the sofa. If your case is going to be on show it’s a good idea to choose your components so that they match colour-wise.
Step 2 – Choose Your Processor.
There are only 2 manufacturers of processor that you should consider; Intel and AMD. There are other manufacturers of processors but they are relatively uncommon and you will have a hard time trying to find components that are compatible. Personally I have always gone for AMD processors with self build projects, they perform on par with Intel processors and are generally cheaper when compared like for like with the Intel chips. Your choice of speed of processor is entirely up to you, some people like to go for the fastest they can afford, while it is true that you need a fairly fast processor you don’t need to go overboard if you’re just using the your media center PC in the living room to watch TV and listen to music. If you plan to use your media center PC for anything else such as games or video editing then you ought to really focus on buying an upper range model of processor. Don’t forget though that generally the faster the processor the more heat it will produce, and heat is the one thing that we’re trying to keep to a minimum due to the cooling. In my HTPC I opted for an AMD Athlon XP 2400+. This processor is by no means fast by today’s standards but it performs the job well using Windows Media Center 2005 (and Windows Vista) and even copes fairly well with the games that I run occasionally. This processor is really cheap now as it has been superseded; a quick search on eBay sees some XP 2400+ processors selling for less than £40. If I were to build one again right now I would probably be opting for a processor that would fit a socket 940 motherboard as this would ensure that the PC is upgradeable in the future should I need to.
Step 3 – Choose your motherboard (or mainboard).
The motherboard will be your key purchase, it might not be the most expensive component but choosing a motherboard wisely can maximise the performance of all the other components that are going to attach to it. You don’t want to be spending £200 on a processor which isn’t performing to its capabilities due to a wrong choice in your £50 motherboard do you? Your choice of motherboard will be primarily determined by your choice of processor. If you have chosen a AMD XP 2400+ processor like the one I have then you will need to choose a socket A motherboard. If you have chosen a newer AMD processor like the AMD Sempron 3600+ for instance, then you will most likely need a socket 940 motherboard. If you’ve chosen a newer Intel processor like the Pentium D 930 then you will most likely need a socket 775 motherboard. Look at the manufacturer’s documentation that accompanies the processor and it will tell you which socket of motherboard that it will fit into. Please note that you must buy the right motherboard that will fit your processor, otherwise the two will not fit together in anyway and they will be entirely incompatible.
Now you have determined which ‘socket’ of motherboard you need it’s time to shop around. Make sure you buy a motherboard with a decent chipset manufacturer such as Nvidia (nforce chipset), Intel, or VIA (the chipset of the motherboard is handles data traffic between your processor, memory, and any peripherals you may have installed). If you plan to use your Media Center PC primarily for watching TV and listening to music then you might want to consider opting for a motherboard with on board graphics (graphics card built on to the motherboard), on board sound card, and on board LAN/wireless card. This would pretty much take care of most of the components you would need all on one board. If you’re going to use your Media Center for games at any point then my advice would be to choose a motherboard that doesn’t incorporate on board graphics as the on board graphics built in to motherboards, though they will perform the job of displaying video adequately, don’t tend to be that powerful when it comes to gaming. You could also opt to have a separate sound card that provides higher quality sound it all depends on how serious you are about the sound that’s going to be coming from your HTPC, for most I think the onboard sound would do (tip: whether going for onboard sound or a separate sound card, make sure it’s capable of at least 5.1 surround sound for use when watching DVDs. Even if you only plan on using 2 speakers, these cards can be configured for 2 speaker output). In my HTPC I opted for the MSI K7N2 Delta-L socket A motherboard. It came with onboard LAN and onboard 5.1 sound but I chose to add a separate sound card for reasons I shall divulge later.
Step 4 – Choose your hard drive (HDD).
This should be quite an easy one. Basically bigger is definitely better. You want as much space as you possibly can if you plan to record a lot of films and programs. Don’t be tempted to go for the 10,000 rpm models of hard drive though as they are louder and generate a lot of heat, you probably won’t notice much of a performance gain by using this type of hard drive in a Media Center environment anyhow. In my setup I went for the Maxtor Diamondmax 10 300gb 7200rpm IDE hard drive which is plenty space for all my film recordings and music, I also use my Media Center PC as a file server for my other PC and laptop, so my suggestion is that around 300gb of hard drive space will suffice. Be sure to choose the type of hard drive interface connection that suits your motherboard, i.e. if your motherboard supports the SATA interface choose a hard drive that also uses the SATA interface. Note that the two interfaces (SATA and IDE) are not interchangeable. The most recent motherboards usually come with both interfaces integrated into the board so you shouldn’t have a problem.
Hard drives are also a big contributor to the noise and heat problem, it might be a wise idea to invest in a hard drive silencer/cooler, I want my HTPC to be as quiet as possible so I went for the Scythe Quiet Drive which is a HDD silencer and cooler all in one.
Step 5 – Choose your memory (RAM).
The main thing to look for when buying RAM (Random Access Memory) is making sure it is compatible with the motherboard you have purchased. If your motherboard says it supports DDR400 then this means that it only supports RAM which is Double Data Rate (DDR) and will only support speeds of RAM up to 400MHz (yes RAM has a speed it operates at too). In some cases if a motherboard says it supports up to DDR400 it also means that it will support the formats below it, for example; a DDR400 motherboard may also support DDR333, DDR266, and DDR200 RAM modules. It has to be noted that you cannot use SDRAM in a DDR interface and vice versa. Another thing to look out for is if your motherboard supports Dual Channel RAM. The idea behind Dual Channel RAM is that you install 2 identical RAM modules on you motherboard in the banks that are designated for Dual Channel operation. The data that comes from your processor is then effectively split into 2 parts, the 1st part is sent to the first RAM module and the 2nd part is sent to the other RAM module. Because the data is split into 2 in an interleaving way this has the theoretical effect of doubling the read/write performance of data that is sent to and from the processor. If this is the way you want to go with your HTPC then you should be looking for a Dual Channel kit of RAM. It has to be noted that just because your motherboard states it has Dual Channel capabilities it doesn’t mean you have to use a Dual Channel kit of RAM, you can just use 1 module of RAM if you wish and it will still do the job, just not as quick as it could be. Once you have determined the speed and type of RAM you need it’s time to look at how much RAM you actually need. Again my advice is bigger is better but don’t go over the top. I have used a Corsair 1gb DDR 400 Dual Channel kit (2 identical 512mb modules of RAM) in my setup and it manages perfectly well.
Step – 6 Choose your DVD Drive.
This is quite straight forward as you will need a DVD drive that can read all available formats of disc and also able to write to all formats of disc for when you need to backup films or music, pick a DVD that writes Dual Layer +R and -R formats. The speed at which it writes is totally up to you, generally the faster it can write to a disc the more expensive it will be. Be sure to pick one with a colour that is going to match your case though or it’ll stick out like a sore thumb. Generally a good make of DVD burner that will write all formats costs around £30. The make of DVD writer that I chose was a LiteOn. I’ve had a lot of experience with this manufacturer of DVD drives and I can tell you that they are good value for money.
Step – 7 Choose your graphics card.
If you have gone for the motherboard with on the on board graphics then you can skip this part as it doesn’t apply. If you have chosen to go for a separate graphics card then I assume it’s because you also intend to use your Media Center PC for games. With this option the sky’s the limit with graphics cards, some top end cards can cost you more than all the other components of the PC combined. I have found from previous experience that cards that cost around the £120 mark usually perform really well with games and they won’t break the bank. Don’t forget though that the more powerful the graphics card then generally the hotter it gets and the more cooling that has to be applied to it. Graphics cards are renowned for have the worst sounding cooling fans that whine at just the right pitch that it drives you mad. If you have chosen to go for a separate graphics card then it might be worth spending that bit extra and buying a fanless heatsink to go with it. This is the option I have gone for and you will really appreciate it in the long run. Also worth noting is the different sorts of output present on the card such as S-Video etc, as this will determine if the card is compatible with the inputs on your current TV.
Step – 8 Choose your power supply.
Power supplies generally put out quite a lot of noise due the amount of power they have to cope with while running all the components in your system. Remember generally speaking power = heat = noise due to cooling. If you have an unlimited budget then I’d tell you to go for a fanless power supply as these are ideal, they generally have large heatsinks and use heat pipe technology to dissipate the heat. The downside to this is that they cost a small fortune for one that’s any good. My recommendation would be to go for a power supply with a fairly large power rating that is billed as ‘silent’ and contains a 120mm fan. Remember that you need a power supply that can provide more power than the sum of the maximum power ratings of all the components that make up your system. My general experience with power supplies is that you can’t really trust what it says on the box. If it says it’s silent and costs £10 then what you’ll find is that it’s silent for about a minute before you turn it on, once you turn it on it sounds like a small hovercraft! In order to achieve a near silent power supply using a large fan it really is a case of you get what you pay for. In my opinion you need to spend between £30 and £40 to get a decent power supply that you could call silent, unless you’re feeling brave then you can do what I have done. I’m quite reluctant to spend money where I think I’m being ripped off. In the case of so called decent ‘silent’ power supplies I think people are being charged over the odds for what is basically a bog standard power supply with a slightly better fan (no doubt someone will point out to me the other factors which justify power supplies costing more). With this in mind I took my 500W Qtec ‘silent’ power supply with 120mm fan which cost £15 (this power supply is about as far from silent as possible!) and exchanged the fan for a truly silent Zalman Silenx Vario 120mm fan from Puresilence. Hey presto, a very very quiet power supply and all it cost was £25 in total and a bit of screwdriver action!
*DISCLAIMER* If you choose to swap out the fan in your power supply to one other than the manufacturers’ specifications then you do so at your own risk. It could cause a fire and will certainly invalidate your warranty. I won’t be held responsible for any damages that may occur due to malfunction of your power supply.
Step 9 – Choose your Cooling.
Now this is a biggy, what you want is as much cooling as possible i.e. a number of case fans. While also being as quiet as possible i.e. the bigger the fans the better, bigger fans = slower rotation (while still providing the same throughput of air) = less noise. You also might want to think about swapping the standard heatsinks, that come with your processor, northbridge chipset, and graphics cards to fanless ones. I already chose a graphics card that came with a fanless heatsink so it was just a case of finding a suitable fanless heatsink for my processor and northbridge. There were many options to choose from but I opted for the Thermaltake SilentTower which cost £20 from DCS Doncaster for my processor because it will run perfectly well fanless but also allows you to add 2 large 90mm fans for extra cooling should you want to. For my northbridge I opted for the Zalman ZM-NB47J Silent Motherboard Heatsink which was £6.00 from QuietPC. Of course if you’re going to use fanless heatsinks in your setup then this puts even more emphasis on the need for case fans, if you don’t have adequate heat exhaustion in your case then the heat from your heatsinks will warm up all the components in your system and thus compromises performance, or worst case scenario a component fails. This is the main reason why I chose the Thermaltake Armor case, it has shed loads of ventilation and is provided with 2 x 120mm and 2 x 90mm quiet fans. If you need to buy quiet fans I recommend the Pure Silence website. I bought one of the 120mm silent fans from their site to replace the one in my power supply and I can confirm that they are deathly silent.
I also recommend that you buy a fan speed controller, this is a device that usually fits into one of the 5.25″ drive bays on the front of your PC, it allows you to control the exact speed of all your fans, i.e. you can make you PC as quiet as you like but also be able to ramp up all the fan speeds should you need that little bit of extra cooling.
I opted for the Thermaltake Hardcano13 which cost £36.75 from DCS Doncaster as it matched my case and also came with a built in card reader to boot.
Step 10 – Choose your TV tuner card.
There are many different options you can go for when choosing a TV tuner card. Some cards have just a single analogue tuner, some have digital HDTV capabilities, some have 2 tuners on the same board so you can watch 1 channel while recording another, and some are combinations of the previous. You have to think to yourself what you’re going to use your PC for, is it just to watch TV or are you planning to download any home videos from your camcorder any time soon, if the answer is yes then you want some sort of AV input.
Bearing in mind that all TV is due to switch to digital transmission in the UK, and the advent of digital HDTV, I opted for the Dvico Fusion dual HDTV DVB-T tuner which cost £114.95 from theglowlounge. This card comes with a well built remote, works brilliantly, and also has AV input, you can read a detailed review of this card at johnsreviews.
Step 11 – Choose your control device.
Now that you have chosen all the necessary components it’s time to choose your control devices. You have the option of the classic TV style remote or you can be really flashy and go for a full media centre keyboard, or both!
Microsoft produces good quality products for Windows Media Center, which of course are 100% compatible and require little in the way of setting up. There are many other third party products that are well worth looking at though; I chose to go for the Logitech Cordless Desktop S 510 with Media Remote which cost £49.99 from what used to be Dixons, the remote requires a little bit of setting up due to the customizable keys but nothing too difficult even if you have little experience with PCs. What I liked about this remote is that it is smaller than most of the other media center remotes and it has a unique scroll wheel in the centre which allows you to fly through menus and TV guides at lightning speeds! Most media center remotes will do the job, it’s all down to a matter of personal taste.
Step 12 – Assembly.
So that’s it you’ve chosen all your components, laid them all out in front of you, but haven’t the faintest idea where to start. Well I could spend another month writing pages and pages of instructions on how to install every component and configure the PC for optimal performance but I think the following videos can explain it just as well and in less time!
Please note that the instructional videos apply to the general building of PCs but exactly the same principles apply to building a Home Theatre PC.
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