HTPC GuideZertz , technodanvan , tacohunter52 - March 15, 2009
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The CPU (Central Processing Unit) is the core entity of a computer and is in charge of virtually all calculations. Anything you do will be routed through it. Faster clock speeds and more cores (i.e. multiple processors) allow you to do more calculations at a given time. An HTPC can benefit drastically from this increased processor power. While virtually any processor can be used, older ones might not be powerful enough depending on your needs. You have to sit down and determine exactly what you'll expect from your HTPC and what you think you'll want it to do. If nothing else, set up your main computer in the living room and try stuff out for a while. See what you like and what you don't. It's better than buying something that might not do what you want it to. Otherwise you could just do what I do. Just aim high to ensure you have the power later on.
There may be a number of things you might not be aware of when it comes to HTPC uses. Keep in mind that Blu-Ray has won the battle of hi-def formats and prices of these drives have fallen drastically. While still not terribly affordable, they may be something you want to plan for in the future. Decoding a Blu-Ray disc is a very CPU-intensive process, especially if you don't have a suitable graphics card to offload some of the strain. If you intend to upgrade to one of these drives you should consider grabbing (at the very least) an inexpensive dual core. Likewise, many new video games and video compression programs take advantage of dual core processors. Using a multi-core CPU can cut down on compression time drastically.
A big thing you might want to consider is running background image-enhancing programs on your DVDs and saved movies using programs such as ffdshow. These programs increase the original resolution as well as making the picture sharper and clearer. As far as I'm concerned this is one of the biggest, most important uses an HTPC has to offer. As this runs in real-time, it understandably requires some serious processing power when running these programs at full speed. As an example my 3.7GHz E6400 'Allendale' would average 35-40% load throughout a movie (I tested both Kill Bill and Star Wars Episode II). If you have a nice HDTV and would like to use it to its fullest extent , I'd heavily encourage you to grab a dual core processor.
I know I'm pounding this in, but I really feel you'll get the most out of your HTPC if you bypass single core processors completely! Companies are now focusing on quad core CPU's. Because of this, dual cores are becoming extremely cheap. A 2.5GHz 4850e can be had for just slightly over $50, and a 2GHz Allendale can be had for slightly less. Just because the processor will be such an important part of your HTPC, any thing less should be disregarded. Unless of course you'll only be using it for T.V. every once in a while.
Now if you know for a fact that you just need a very basic system, or you have another computer to fill the other needs, virtually any computer from the last 5 years will more or less suit you. So if you've got spare parts hung on the wall or in the pocket of those jeans on the floor, pull those suckers out and give 'em a shot! For my purposes, I'll be assuming you're interested in building a brand new computer. I'll try to lean towards the best hardware that will have the ability to do pretty much everything any one would want. I've ordered this section by performance and will use the same format throughout this guide for components that require it.
Overclocking will be discussed very briefly. While it will be useful and increase performance for some users, for the most part it will not be needed.
Note: I'm only including processors readily available from online vendors. Older processors from AMD Socket 939, 754, or 462 families and anything predating the Core 2 family of processors from Intel won't be included here. If you happen to own one of these processors and would like to put it into an HTPC, feel free to ask if you aren't sure what it can do. Many of them are more than capable, though some tend to run hotter than newer models. An easy aside for all you owners of old 939 hardware (I know there are a lot of you, that's why I bring it up) - it's all pretty comparable to Socket AM2. So if you see me talk about a 2.2GHz AM2, you can assume anything I say can also be applied to a 2.2GHz Socket 939.