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Cutting the Cord Part 3: Building your HTPC - OS Install and Tuning

Subject: General Tech
Manufacturer: Microsoft

Installing Windows 7 Home Premium

I’ve chosen to use Windows 7 Home Premium, but any Windows 7 version other than Basic and Home Basic will work fine.  I will be installing the 64 bit version (x64) so I can take full advantage of all 8 GB of the RAM I’ve installed in my machine.  There’s certainly no reason you couldn’t use the 32 bit version (x86) if you have 4 GB of RAM or less.  There was a time when the 32 bit version offered better driver and application support, but those days are pretty much long gone.  You can be comfortable with the fact that whatever version you go with, you should be able to find everything you need.

OEM versions of Windows 7 that include an install DVD and a license are available for ‘System Builders.’  Since you are building a system, you fit the ‘System Builders’ category, and can go that route if you want to save a few dollars for Windows.  There is one thing to understand about OEM versions though.  An OEM license key is tied to the motherboard you are using the first time it is installed.  Unless you call Microsoft and tell them your motherboard died and had to be replaced with a different one, you won’t be able to use that license key for any other machines.  Whether you choose the OEM version, the Full Version or even and Upgrade version, they all will include everything you need to build your media center.

My Experience: If you happen to have a Windows 7 upgrade DVD,  you can still use it to do a ‘Clean Install’ on a new hard drive with a little bit of fudging.  Check out Paul Thurrott’s article on how to do just that over on his Supersite for Windows website.

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If you are veteran of installing Windows 7, you can likely skim or even skip this section and move right on to the next page on tweaking Windows 7 for Media Center.  There are many tutorials/walkthroughs on how to install Windows 7 on a new PC online, so I won’t dive into every detail, but will attempt to cover the highlights.

My Experience: Two quick things.  First, it’s much easier to use a keyboard, mouse and a monitor to do the Windows and Media Center install and setup as opposed to trying to do it all hooked to your TV.  I usually don’t hook the HTPC up my TV till I’m completely finished with my install and setup.  Then from the Settings menu in Media Center I can easily tweak the video settings to match my TV with the remote.  Second, if you did not include a DVD/Blu-Ray drive into your build, you need to temporarily hook one up to your HTPC either using a SATA or USB based DVD drive for the Windows install, unless you have the Windows 7 install media on a USB key.

Now that we’re ready to start our Windows 7 install, pop in your DVD (or USB key), boot to it and press a key when it asks you to “Press any Key to boot from CD or DVD…” and off we go.

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After Windows works through some preliminary tasks you’ll be greeted by the “Install Windows” screen where you can change languages, formats and input methods.  If needed, make any changes and hit “Next”.  Then on the next screen simply choose “Install Now” and the installation will begin.

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Next up, accept the license terms by checking the box on the bottom left and hit “Next.”  Then for our installation type, we want to choose “Custom (advanced)” since we are not upgrading from a previous Windows installation, but doing a ‘Clean Install.’

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Now we pick the drive we want to install Windows 7 to.  Depending on what hard disks/SSD’s you have in your HTPC, your screen may look different than the screenshot below.  Choose the drive you want to install windows to and simply hit “Next.”  Just ensure if you have multiple drives that you choose the correct drive.

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Windows will then begin copying and unpacking files as it starts the full Windows installation.  The machine will restart a few times as it finalizes the installation routine.

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Finally, you will be greeted with the final Windows setup screens where you will be asked for some information such as:

  • User Name and PC Name - Use a name/password that seems logical for a Media Center PC like “MCUser” and “WMC-Main”.
  • A Password – You can skip putting a password, but it’s recommended to have one.  Use something easy to remember, or jot it down because we will need it again later.
  • License Key – You can skip entering your license key at the moment if you’d like.  Microsoft gives you a 30 day grace period to enter your license key and activate Windows 7 (Windows 8 requires the license to install.)  I generally do not enter the license key during setup as I like to get my machine up and running to make sure it’s stable for a few days before I waste the activation.
  • Updates/Recommended Settings – I generally “Use Recommended Settings” so the machine will automatically update itself as patches come out.
  • Time Zone, Date and Time – Change them if they do not match your local date/time or time zone.

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And with that we’re done.  You’ll see one more final windows setup screen as Windows takes your information and finalizes a few settings.  After a few moments you’ll be greeted with the Windows 7 Desktop.

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December 7, 2012 | 11:38 AM - Posted by YTech2 (not verified)

Thanks for showing the Win7 Install process. I tend to miss this portion because I am so used to older WinOS where it takes hours to install. Then I usually go for coffee, etc.

Thanks for the note about the Activation Key :) Will remember that in the event a components choose to be defective.

Nice note about auto-login. I was wondering about a feature like this to use the computer as a wake-up alarm system, etc. Is there a feature like this available on Windows XP?

Nice Guide :)

December 7, 2012 | 12:13 PM - Posted by Chris Barbere

Yeah, there's actually the capability to autologin in Windows XP as well, just takes a little bit of registry hacking.

Check out the MS KB article on how to do it: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/315231

December 7, 2012 | 11:41 AM - Posted by KTL

I didn't set the SATA controller to AHCI mode during setup and left it at IDE mode, would switching to AHCI mode now require a reinstall?

December 7, 2012 | 12:10 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Let me point you to our MOST POPULAR forums thread ever: 

http://forums.pcper.com/showthread.php?444831-HOWTO-enable-AHCI-mode-aft...

December 7, 2012 | 12:13 PM - Posted by Chris M (not verified)

No it doesn't but you do have to go through some steps before you make the switch over.

http://www.neowin.net/forum/topic/987378-how-to-switch-from-ide-to-ahci-...

Those are the instructions I ended up using when I had to do it.

December 8, 2012 | 02:49 PM - Posted by KTL

Thanks for the information (to both), I was able to switch to AHCI from IDE and W7 home premium was able to boot up properly, recognize the drives (HDD & ODD), install the drivers, and restart.

December 7, 2012 | 05:36 PM - Posted by allen (not verified)

Where's the linux love?

December 7, 2012 | 10:43 PM - Posted by Jason Nevins (not verified)

Hope you mention the gory codecs details next.. i've been using Shark007's set which has been awesome so hopefully that's still the way to go? shark007.net then of course you have to have mediabrowser.tv then your HDMI with audio via AMD video card. Then you have your Steam Big Picture Mode and you're SET.

December 8, 2012 | 07:27 AM - Posted by Chris Barbere

Hmm, what kind of codec issues are you running into?  There's only thing I install to get MKV's working, otherwise I just run with what's out of the box.  99% of what we watch video wise is avi, mpg or mkv.

December 8, 2012 | 09:57 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I see you covered making sure your system time stays up to date. That's pretty darn important when you are recording TV shows on a set schedule. For my HTPC I don't rely on Windows to get it right so I use a 3rd party app that syncs every hour.
http://www.thinkman.com/dimension4/

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