One of the things that I love about my wife is how she indulges my love of technology. Six years ago she entertained my obsession to build a home theater PC (HTPC) which has been serving us well until last week when it finally bit the bullet. Hard drive and primary CPU fan failures finally put it in the grave; considering that it was running almost 24×7 for 6 years straight it’s quite amazing! When I first put the machine together, low power processors were not readily available and anyone who’ve built one understands the constant battle between heat and fan noise issues especially if you wanted it to naturally have a place in the leaving room. Move the clock forward and the rebuild of my HTPC can take advantage of the new technologies that can make it smaller and more power efficient and still look good within my television stand. However there were a few things I had to keep in mind:
- Costs down. I can re-use some of the existing parts of my original HTPC to keep new parts below $600(including taxes).
- I had one week to get the parts and build. This means I couldn’t wait for any long delivery times and basically had to use what was readily available at my local Canada Computers store. Having children who do not understand the linear delivery of television can prove to be an interesting challenge.
Although there have been dramatic improvements in the technology that would make rebuilding the HTPC easier than before, there were several caveats that proved challenging, and will challenge anyone from rolling out their own solution:
- Maximum height for the case. My original case was an Antec Fusion 430 was over 14cm high, but finding a CPU cooler for such a small height is a challenge. Maximum height in the television stand is just about 25cm.
- To keep heat down in the case I would either reuse my fan less AMD 5770 or go with an integrated graphic solution. Playing games isn’t even a consideration for this build as the Xbox 360 sits right next to it.
- To keep noise down, large slow spinning fans are required. 120mm would be the minimum fan size I would need for intake and exhaust.
Selecting the parts that would be part of new HTPC involved quickly researching processors, graphic cards, motherboards and cases. I cannot stress enough that before you start building one you really need to determine the location of where it will live. This factor alone creates a chain reaction that starts with the case you will be using.
- Location affects your case selection. Is the HTPC going to be prominently displayed or can you hid a mid-tower somewhere. It also affects your noise tolerance; depending on the area you may want it to be whisper quiet or if there is enough foot trafic you might be able to get away with fans that are noiser.
- Location affects the maximum width, height and depth of the case you can use. It also means that you may need to look at more expensive options if its going to be visible to people in the room
- The case affects the cooling solutions that are available to you. If you are using a case that looks like a piece of home theater equipment, your after-market CPU coolers most likely won’t fit in the case. Many cases now include the maximum height for the cooling solution that can be used effectively (they didn’t provide this information 6 years ago). Ventilation fans will also be an a concern – the larger the fans the slower they can rotate and move large amounts of air. Smaller cases sometimes means smaller fans rotating faster resulting in increased noise.
- The case affects your choice of motherboard. Mini-ITX boards and actually smaller that Micro-ATX with less expansion options (i.e. only 2 memory slots and a single PCI-E slot). Make sure that you are getting a motherboard and case that fits your expansion needs.
In my situation the HTPC will be in the living room housed within an enclosed television stand. I have a maximum height restriction of 25cm and 50cm in width; because it’s enclosed low heat / power consumption is essential to keep parts from failing. Also due to it being enclosed, noise and vibration needs to be kept low as the reverberations actually are amplified being in such an enclosed space. Of course since it is visible to everyone, it also needs to look good.
So small, compact, low heat, low noise and looks good…
The Antec Fusion 430 case was a blessing and a curse in my original build. It’s low profile design fit perfectly within the television stand and looked great! Unfortunately that was also it’s curse. At the time of my original build, I used an AMD X2 6400 which generates 125 TDP – it’s a really hot operating processor and every time I opened the stand I would be hit with a wave a heat emanating from within. Being forced to use a low profile CPU cooler in such an enclosed space just compounded the issue as cool air couldn’t reach it and removing hot air wasn’t done effectively. This time around I decided to I would go for something higher to allow for a better cooling options.
The case I chose is the Fractal Design 304. This case supports mini-ITX (mITX) boards and although it stands at 21cm in height, it fits well in the television stand and takes half the width of the former Antec case. The additional height would allow me to quickly locate a CPU cooler for a replacement if the stock fan died or proves to be too noisy. This case supports CPU coolers up to 165mm.
It is an extremely well made case with a modern, minimalist flare. Although it lacks support from an optical drive, it can hold up to 6 3.5 inch drive bays, use ATX power supplies of lengths of 160mm, and use graphic cards up to 310mm in length. The case has 2 extremely quite intake fans at the front and one exhaust fan at the rear. Rubber grommets are included to reduce noise from hard drive vibrations.
There is a switch at the rear that controls fan speed and I keep it at the lowest setting to keep the fan noise down to a minimum if you’re not worried about heat.
What is missing is the optical drive – this case doesn’t support it. To install your operating system you’re either going to need to connect a drive via USB or temporarily connect one to the motherboard to get thing started. My movie watching on DVD (which I hardly do anymore) will be done on the XBox 360 – no big deal and worth the tradeoff for a sleek design.
Cost: $99 from Canada Computers.
The Antec Fusion 430 case that I originally used came with a 430 Watt power supply. The Fractal Design case didn’t include one so for my rebuild I had to locate one that was of good quality, but since I would do very little gaming (if any) it didn’t need to be a monster. I chose the Corsair CX430M; it’s compact, power efficient and at full low generates 35db. I doubt I’ll ever need to push it to its limit, but if I do I’m confident that this power supply will be up to the job.
Cost: $49 from Canada Computers.
The last motherboard I chose was a Micro ATX from ASUS and at that time I thought I chose properly but several things made that build more complicated. The integrated Nvidia 6150 built into the motherboard, was not up to the task of decoding high definition content and S/PDIF audio bracket apparently had to be purchased separately. So in both of these cases additional cards had to be used to get around the board’s deficiencies. I vowed this time would be different, and would have to as I would be going with an even smaller mini-ITX motherboard. These boards are small, compact with loads of built-in options, but usually only have a single PCI-E expansion slot.
Luckily, AnandTech did a review of several mITX motherboard just after Christmas of 2012 and I managed to snag their platinum recommendation – the ASRock Z77E-ITX. With Gigabit Ethernet, built-in 802.11 b/g/n, S/PDIF audio output and HDMI it has all of the connections I needed. With an additional PCI-E slot I can throw in a Hauppauge Collossus if my HD-PVR decides to stop working.
Cost: $98 from Canada Computers (on clearance).
There were several things I was looking at for processors. Integrated graphics capability, heat/power usage, and performance. The HD 4000 integrated graphics unit has some good reviews for its ability to decode 1080p videos, at peak load consumes only 55 TDP, and supports hyper-threading (in a pinch some light gaming as well). Worse case scenario I can still use the AMD 5770 if for some reason the integrated GPU wasn’t up to the job.
Cost: $139 from Canada Computers.
I’ll admit I didn’t give much thought to my choices in memory. I just needed something that would perform reliably and work in dual channel mode. For this I chose a 4GB kit from the G.SKILL Ripjaws X Series (DDR3 1600). Inexpensive but does the job and this brand is a solid choice from the different reviews I’ve seen.
Cost: $41 from Canada computers
I reused an old 60GB drive for the Windows 7 operating system, while picking up WD 2.0TB Green drive to store recordings. Low power and quiet.
Cost: $94 from Canada Computers.
Recycled Parts from the old HTPC
Although the majority of the part’s couldn’t be reused, I did salvage:
- The Hauppauge HD-PVR that records high-definition content from my cable box.
- MCE IR Blaster and Logitech Harmony 520 remote
- A 60GB hard drive.
- Windows 7 for the OS (deactivated and re-activated for this build).
- Windows Media Center (recording software)
- Plex for web video content (i.e. Revision3, CTV.ca and others)
Windows 7 Media Center (MCE) has never failed me. It’s the easiest to setup especially now that Hauppauge supports it natively. The others always have some quirk that made didn’t pass the WAF. MCE is a very polished, comes with built-in/free TV guide listings and for the most part does a very good job at recording series and removing duplicates. The other solutions don’t do nearly as good of a job in this area.
If I had to choose an alternate PVR software, NextPVR is a good choice for people looking for something easy to start off with – I used GBPVR, it’s predecessor and has always been extremely stable if slightly unpolished. For those looking for a polished experience, MediaPortal would be a good choice – if only it recorded television series as well and MCE this would have been my choice for this build.
I use Plex for web content as well as transcoding / slinging content upstairs to the bedroom. My WDTV Live can play content from the Plex server surprisingly well in high definition; it also handles music and photo distribution as well. Plex has apps for iOS, Android and Windows 8, and also supports a plain browser front end so your content can be with you on whatever device you choose.
I was able to keep things below the $600 dollar mark thanks primarily reusing the TV Tuner, IR Blasters and remote. $587 was the total cost including taxes, but if I had to add the additional components costs would probably be closer to $800 which isn’t bad for a HTPC experience that is shoulders above what Bell and Rogers provide.
The Fractal-Design case is fantastic. Small, yet it has plenty of room for expansion and has great ventilation capabilities.