Here are some pics of a Zenith console TV converted to a home theatre (HTPC) machine.

I don’t watch much TV. As a computer developer, I watch plenty of video monitor without needing non-interactive push-feed broadcast television. I think that maybe some of us remember when TV was actually paid for by advertising and broadcast directly to you for FREE. Paying for cable or satellite, and then STILL having commercials is just a bit too much for me. It’s not that good, I can’t interact with it. The biggest problem I have with TV programming is the sheer amount of fabricated malarkey… politicians that spout baldfaced lies (“non-factual statements”), fantasy garbage under the premise of “science fiction”, and “News” programs on television about television characters on television programs. The half-life of my “Willing Suspension of Disbelief” is about 10 nanoseconds, which is slightly further than I can barf at the speed of light.  So most of my personal video to eyeball input is pre-selected recordings playback.  I get a couple hours of live “TEEVEE” a week in the pub, but that’s mostly it.

I’ve never paid for a “TV” with a tube. I did own a television receiver, I have a couple actually. One of them I won in a raffle when I was pretty young, it is not in use as it is a model well-known to spontaneously catch fire and burn down houses (however it does work very well and was used many years).  I’ve purchased plenty of computer monitors and a few tuner cards to watch TV on them.

The one in my living room was a Zenith console.

It was manufactured in December 1989 (parts in Springfield, Missouri and assembly in Juarez, Mexico), and was “Rebecca’s Grandmother’s TV”.  It received VHF 2-13, UHF 14 – 83, in North American Analog NTSC format.  It’s big and cranky and I suppose nobody wanted it when Grandma upgraded to an eye-tap.  It’s more than just a TV, it’s a piece of furniture.  We got kinda used to it being around the house, and although it was perfectly operational, 1950′s analog television no longer exists, and it was less than stellar at producing viewable images for today’s video media.

The solution was clear to me, here’s how it went:

Step 1: Render harmless, disassemble, and recycle.  Note that touching certain connections in an old tube TV like this can KILL YOU.  DEAD.  And not just ‘play dead’, REAL DEAD.  So I avoided those.  Scared ya, didn’t I?

Step 2: Add computer parts: Aluminum Lian Li case, 1500 watt UPS, Gigabyte motherboard, AMD Phenom II Quad Core 965, 8GB RAM, 2TB disk, 40 watt sound system, wireless keyboard & mouse, silent very long life fans, dual Blue Ray / DVD / CD RW optical drives, NEC white LED backlight flat panel monitor

That’s the computer sitting on top of the UPS, the audio amp on the bottom right, the wall-mount speakers cut into the sides of the cabinet, and the flat screen center holding bolt mounted with some steel strapping to the old cabinet steel mounting ears.  The edges of the flat screen fit in the bevel of the old plastic frame around the picture tube from the front.

I’m currently trying MythBuntu Linux, which is a derivative of Ubuntu with MythTV packaged inside.  This gives access to the Ubuntu updates, but it doesn’t actually work that well.  It’s a nice try, but none of the nice features seem to actually work.  I like open source software, I like learning about applications, but I don’t feel the need to be an expert just to get the silly thing to operate.  The Linux itself is good, but XFCE using BIG FONTS (readable from a few feet away) isn’t ideal.

A nice HTPC with a remote control wouldn’t need big XFCE fonts, because the software would work.  Obversely, a huge flat panel display mounted on the wall might be readable without needing bigger font size.  Both of these are possible, MythTV will likely improve (and I will learn more about it) in time, and 45″ white LED backlit large form factor monitors are coming onto the market.

Two wireless USB transceivers are taped to the inside top of the cabinet.  The wood does need some acoustic dampening material, I have some nice foam I’ll cut up when things get situated a little better.  I plan on mounting a couple more fans in the back panel, and maybe an AC outlet.  The fans are very highly rated but not too expensive, they run silently with a speed control that I’ll tape down inside somewhere.  The old VCR goes on top, not internally mounted.  I think it needs a back mount USB or a top hub as well, the tuner unit needs USB and seems to be better just sitting on top for the antenna connections, so I’m not sure if I’ll stick with it or get another tuner card.  The infrared sensors on the VCR and the USB tuner need to face the front.

et Voila…

Front panel access: UPS power switch and LEDs, computer power and reset, computer power and disk LEDs, sound amplifier power cutout switch, computer audio out and microphone in, USB 2.0 port, USB 3.0 port, eSATA port, BD / DVD / CD.  The other optical drive is still inside, I haven’t decided on moving it yet.  The monitor controls are accessible.  It needs a black curtain around the back of the monitor to mask the steel mounting straps, and that mounting could be firmed up some.

So what does it do?

* Blue Ray disks, DVDs, and Video CDs
* Audio CDs
* Store a few thousand movies/albums to local disk
* Internet / YouTube / Flash video
* limited and difficult to use: NetFlix

There is still plenty of work to do.  MythTV is less than perfect (I won’t comment much more on that), and at this time NetFlix doesn’t stream instantly to Linux, so I run a virtual machine of Windows and Firefox with Silverlight to watch NetFlix, and it works fairly, sometimes good.  Firefox with Flash plays Aljazeera news in English very well, and YouTube is just fine.  VLC plays almost any AVI or MPG file.

I’m hooking up an antenna.  If I point a medium-long range UHF directional antenna at around 75 degrees from North, I should get a set of digital television signals about 35 miles away in Southfield.  I got a pretty big DB8 antenna for about $80 thinking I could get it in my attic.  So far I’m not getting reasonable results, and I haven’t narrowed the problem down to aluminum house siding, bad wire, burnt or mismatched transformers, or stupidity.  The weather is getting hot fast, so this will likely wait.  I feel the need for some type of remedial television reception for news and emergency purposes, but I’m not going to die because I’m missing American Idol.  I haven’t seen it yet, but I sure do see a lot of “News” about it.

How much did this cost?  I used premium components with necessary economic considerations, but my intention was to build a fast machine that would last 20 – 30 years with minimal recurring costs.  The optical drive will take some wear, but there is a spare.  The hard disk will take years of continuous use, but can also be replaced easily.  There is room for more disks and thousands of more movies.  There’s no fluorescent backlight in the monitor to burn out.  The UPS batteries will need replacement, but I don’t mind that very much.  If you bought a really nice laptop, it would easily cost more than the sum of all parts cost me as seen here, and this TV will last a lot longer.  It costs NOTHING when turned off, no subscription fees of any kind.  Internet access costs money as does electricity, the old Zenith was rated at 95 watts per the label.  This computer and the monitor and audio can take 125 watts, and that goes up fairly dramatically when the 4 CPU cores actually get busy.  I haven’t stress tested the CPUs yet.

2 Responses to “Television Upgrade”
  1. Larry Motylinski says:

    So why didn’t you go with a bigger monitor and eliminate the TV bezel completely ?
    If you use clear plastic to make a new bezel you can paint the back with flat black, looks like shiny black plastic for a fraction of the cost of real black plastic.. If plastic isn’t available locally (home depot, lowes, model shops) try Ains plastics on 8 mile in Detroit, they will even cut it for you. It doesn’t have to even be that thick.

  2. Hi Larry! The NEC LCD with the LED backlight is pretty new tech, and there aren’t that many sizes of them available right now. I do prefer NEC quality, and the solid state backlight was a must for long term durability, but the market will be better in a few years. A second video card that will support a very large monitor that’s mounted on the wall would be a nice addition, then I’d only use this one for tuning, info and control, maybe captions. 45″ LED backlit LCDs are coming onto the market now, a ceiling mounted DIY projection TV that uses a long-life high-brightness LED would REALLY be the tits.

    That said, yes, I could have chopped the front bezel, and I still can. This is a good idea.

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