Poor & Lazy Man's Music Player

The music player PC in place and ready to amuse!

I've always wanted to have a computer of some kind that would fit on my shelf of stereo equipment and have the ability to play music directly into a line input on the stereo.

I've seen lots of neat systems constructed, and I always wanted to build one of my own, but unfortunately time, lack of confidence in my skills and being as cheap as I can be have prevented me from becoming ambitious enough to actually build such a music player.

I recently decided on a different idea--using a prebuilt computer on the stereo shelf. Trouble is, very few computer systems are the size of an "average" piece of stereo equipment. Often the cases of even a small desktop PC are quite large and space on my stereo shelf is at a premium.

A Macintosh G4 "cube" might have been nice, and certainly would have had style, but those things are expensive even today! Instead I used a Gateway PC with a very slim form factor. (I don't know the exact model, but Gateway calls the motherboard inside a "Brookings" board if you want to try and find one...) This system wasn't quite functional--at some point the hard disk inside failed and the system was "scrapped" in favor of something a bit more repairable and capable of taking standard sized option cards. Eventually it got nearly parted out and donated quite a few things to other computers that needed them more.

I wanted to rebuild it especially for this purpose and to do so was very time consuming. I had to locate every piece that I'd taken off and stored. Naturally this took quite a bit of time. I also had to fabricate new IDE and disk drive cables. All of this was fairly easy to do. I found a grey floppy disk drive from a scrapped HP Vectra Pentium Pro. At first I wanted to use a 40GB Western Digital drive in the computer, and the BIOS did see it, but it failed POST no matter what. I think the drive was too big for the computer and "disk manager" software has never worked for me with Windows NT/2000 anyway. So I settled for a 2.1GB Seagate drive that had been gathering dust for a while. Sure, it is small, but all the machine is playing are audio files stored on other computers on my network.

In the rare event that I would need more storage space for any reason, I took a DVD-ROM drive that was also gathering dust and installed that in place of the original CD-ROM drive. With the DVD-ROM in place, I can simply burn a DVD containing all the music I own copies of.

Once I had the machine basically functional, I loaded Windows 2000 Professional on it, since that is the only way to run Apple's iTunes. (Okay, it's the only supported as per Apple way. Maybe there are ways to run it on earlier versions of Windows. I do not know and haven't researched it.) This wasn't too hard, but I learned that disk I/O performance is key with Windows 2000, more so than on Windows NT 4 as I remember it. The 2.1GB drive was a little slow, but after defragmentation the performance is acceptable.

Networking the machine was somewhat entertaining. I elected to go with wired networking to help avoid the chance of any audio interference getting into my stereo receiver. This Gateway computer uses standard PCI slots, but all of the card openings in the rear are not regular size. I've never seen slots with reduced size openings before. Thankfully the D-Link DFE-530TX NIC that I chose comes with a rear bracket that is a perfect fit for this machine.

Since space on the stereo shelf is at a premium, I elected to run the computer without a keyboard, mouse or monitor attached. I only have to attach the keyboard and mouse to boot the computer...it will produce POST errors if they are not both attached. Once everything has booted up, they are not required. In the rare event that direct input would be needed to do something on the computer, the keyboard and mouse are both USB and have no problem being hot-plugged. I use RealVNC to control the computer from any point on my household network. Should I want to turn the computer off, simply pressing the power button once gets Windows 2000 to shut down in an orderly way.

Getting the audio into the stereo was easy. All I needed was a cable with RCA plugs on one end and a stereo minijack on the other end. These are available everywhere and I have quite a collection of them.

That's pretty much all there is to it. While I realize that this project lacks the creativity and pride that would be taken in something I would have built myself, it was still an interesting project and the end result turned out much better than I hoped for, especially since the computer in question is more or less a standard PC.

Oh, and did I mention that when it isn't entertaining me, it is running Distributed.net around the clock?
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