HTPC Guide

Zertz technodanvan tacohunter52 - 2008-05-27 19:52:39 in OCC News
Category: OCC News
Reviewed by: Zertz   technodanvan   tacohunter52   
Reviewed on: March 15, 2009

Introduction:

With the ever increasing popularity of digital music and streaming video, it was only a matter of time before consumers demanded these technologies in their living rooms. The Home Theater Personal Computer (HTPC) has had its place in some homes over much of the last decade, but only recently have they gained popularity among the mainstream market. WebTV could arguably be considered the first production HTPC, and many companies bundled Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) along with their computers in an attempt to push consumers in this direction. It never really caught on back then as few people owned more than one computer and were still learning the ropes.

Nowadays, everything has turned digital - music and movies especially. You'd be hard pressed to find yourself in a position without internet access. The new breed of HTPC brings entertainment to your fingertips with the ease of pushing a button on a remote. You don't even need to leave your seat, unless of course nature takes its course. Then again you could always set up your home theatre system in your bathroom! An HTPC gives you the ability to call up a moive instantly, set recordings for future broadcasts, and hold your entire music collection in one medium sized box. These conveniences, along with other full-fledged features of a complete PC, has pushed the HTPC so far into everyday life that the market for them will only get bigger. Companies around the world have begun making HTPC's, and one day soon you may find yourself joining the bandwagon.

Pre-built HTPC's tend to be extraordinarly expensive, for no apparent reason. An HTPC is basically a cheap computer with a few features added. So why pay the big bucks for a machine you could easily build yourself for half the cost? Just about every member here has the knowledge to build a computer. In this guide I'll be helping you decide which parts you'll need for an HTPC.

At this point I want to make explicitly clear that this guide is just that, a guide in helping you decide what you need. The products that I suggest only represent a small fraction of those available. Depending on the brand, model, and any sales going on you'll probably be able to find better equipment for the same (if not lower) price. It all depends on what you need and how much patience you have. Now then, let's begin!

The Parts - An Overview

The majority of you already know what goes into a computer, but there are a few extra considerations to make when it comes to building an HTPC that you might not normally think about. Things like noise and temperature begin to play a huge part in its operation, as well as physical size. When it comes to the components, you first need to examine what your use for this computer will be. Some may be building a brand new system, but you may be constrained by using spare parts you already own and coupling them with a few new ones to complete the system. Keep in mind you might be limited in functionality depending on the components you choose. Some of the typical uses of an HTPC are listed below, and depending on your needs this will greatly affect the cost and components of your project.

These all have an impact on what goes in your HTPC - if you intend to store your entire DVD collection you will need a number of large hard disks. If you want to run ffdshow in the background with a de-interlacer or digital scalar, you'll need a powerful processor. If you are going to play Blu-Ray disks, you'll need a discrete graphics card. I'll discuss each component individually and make suggestions depending on your needs and budget. The list below shows the parts I will discuss in the order I'll do so.

I will examine each of these in more detail in the following pages. You may be somewhat surprised to see the motherboard so low on the list. Most of the time you'll see that as one of the defining criteria for a computer, especially on a performance-oriented site such as OCC. However, in the case of an HTPC the motherboard must meet the criteria that the other components define. Such things as SATA ports and PCI slots as well as layout of the board become critical as opposed to minor annoyances. More on that later.

I attempt to use Newegg and OCC links wherever possible as the majority of users will be able to utilize these fantastic e-tailers. However, many other vendors support these products overseas as well. If you don't live in the United States, chances are you'll still be able to utilize my recommendations. Keep in mind that prices change over time and some products may not even be available any longer. If this is the case, let me or another OCC staff member know so that it can be removed from the list. I realize that a lot of people reading this probably know a lot about building a computer already, but I have tried to make this guide suitable for all skill levels. There are a lot of people coming here with a very basic knowledge. I want those of you new to computer building to give this a shot! It's a great way to get the most out of your money while gaining valuable knowledge at the same time. If you have any questions, feel free to post them in the forum.

Alright guys, let's start by talking about the processor.

The Processor:

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.

The Processor

 

The basic HTPC is your entry level computer; nothing special just a basic computer. In fact most any computer from the past 5 years should work. Unless of course you spent these past 5 years dropping it or using it as a drinks coaster, then I'd be surprised if it even turns on. Most current processors will be overpowered for your basic HTPC needs. You'll be hard pressed to find a reason for sticking in an i7. In HTPC's this may be the one case where less is better. The total price of the hardware for this computer should be under $500 (after all, it's basic). So I'd keep the cost of the CPU under $100. $75 will probably suit your needs. Yes, I said earlier it's the most important component in an HTPC and yes, for only a few bucks more you can get a lot more power. However, at this level there is simply no reason to spend the extra money. Note that I said 'small' DVD collection above. I say this because lower powered processors won't be able to compress movies nearly as fast! It could take the better part of 6 hours a piece. Now if you just want to backup a full copy of the movie without compression, this shouldn't be a limitation. I would have added 'home server' to the list above, but while it could stream music and movies throughout your network just fine, it probably would get bogged down if you were actually using the computer for something else at the same time.

If building a new computer, I would choose one of the least expensive dual-core processors you can find. Be it a Celeron or Athlon, either will do the job without complaint.

 

 

The Processor - Intermediate HTPC:

 

The intermediate HTPC is the prototypical HTPC. This HTPC is usually the result of being built to one's needs, while taking the future into consideration. With the right graphics card it should be able to both effortlessly play Blu-Ray discs and can run moderate image enhancements on movies. The additional power of these HTPC's should also give you the ability to compress movies faster, making backing up your DVD collection more feasible. I'm giving a $150 budget for the processor in this level.

Although AMD CPU's are generally slower then the Intel counterpart, I'd easily choose one for my HTPC. The main reason for this is price. You get what you pay for, and when you buy an AMD CPU you get decent performance for what you need. You can easily buy an AMD quad core for less then an some Intel dual core CPU's. However, even an AMD Quad is a bit much for an HTPC. I'd suggest either a Tri-Core CPU or AMD's new 7750. If I was making one now, I'd go with a Tri-Core Phenom 8650. If your one of those "I hate AMD they need to die" types, a 2.5GHz Wolfdale should do you just fine.

The Processor - High End HTPC:

 

If you're building a rig and calling it a High end HTPC you're insane, but some people just are. At this point you can really pick up any CPU you want, although I'll expect you'll be wanting an extremely powerful high end quad. After all H.264 decoding is a stressful process. Lesser processors may require a good graphics card to offload some of the strain. The processors listed in this category may be able to do this all by themselves. Keep in mind the new quad core AMDs as well as Intel's put out a lot of heat. You will definitely need an aftermarket heat sink for these, especially if you'll be using a small case. If you can control the heat, you can rest assured that you will have enough power to do most anything without the need to upgrade for a considerable amount of time. Personally, I don't see any reason to get this machine unless you absolutely intend to run high definition games without needing to upgrade for some time. I cater for everyone, and enthusiasts are people too.. sort of. My one request is please don't by the $1000 enthusiast-class processor for this. Go ahead and buy a car instead!

For this computer it's a tough call between AMD and Intel. If you're actually going to build this HTPC, you'll want the best. Both companies offer high end quads that would probably not be needed. You could go with one of AMD's new phenom 2, or try out Intel's new space heater, the i7. Keep in mind that there isn't currently a large selection of mATX boards for these CPU's, although you can put the Phenom 2 in an AM2 slot. For a real life HTPC in this class, I'd pick up either Phenom 2 920 or a Q9550. Some of the best mATX boards (if you're going that route) still use AMD processors.

 

The Processor - Overclocking

Given that this site has “overclocking” in its name, I feel that people will be asking about it, so I might as well get around to discussing it now. I'm not going to talk about how to do it, if you've never done it before then this probably isn't the rig you should start on. There are guides all over the place (including this site) that discuss that in great detail. For those that are experienced overclockers though, yes, of course overclocking is beneficial and very well could be done on an HTPC. However, there are a few things to keep in mind.

 

#1. Heat

You need to worry about heat not only from your processor, but from your motherboard as well as your power supply. If you use a monster case, this likely won't be a problem. If you want to integrate your HTPC among the rest of your stereo equipment it will be in a much smaller case and possibly in a restricted environment. You might not even be able to get the nice big heat sink in the case, due to height restrictions. In addition, the case itself may be in an enclosed area resulting in even poorer airflow than it would have sitting out in the open.

#2. Stability

Some people have yet to discover true stability. If you overclock and use your machine for folding, go ahead and skip this because you're awesome! But for those that don’t fold and only run Orthos or OCCT for a few minutes on their overclocked rigs, that just might not cut it. Keep in mind if you run image enhancement programs on these rigs that they will run 40-50+% throughout a movie even on a powerful processor. Compressing a DVD in Divx format can load them up to 100%. The point is it will use much more than the average game does for hours on end. That added in with the additional heat problems may cause crashes you might otherwise never see. Just be forewarned.

My recommendation would be a slight overclock only. Certainly don't increase the voltage on anything, and ensure that you have better than average airflow. If you are using a dedicated HTPC case, this likely means modding, since most only come with one or two 80mm intakes and maybe a 60mm exhaust. Obviously, if you intend on overclocking, the CPU recommendations above may not apply to you.

The CPU Heat Sink:

Although the CPU is arguably the most important part of any rig, you're going to need a way to keep it cool. If you purchased a retail CPU (as opposed to an OEM), it will come packaged with a heat sink. These are only adequate at best and really aren't designed for performance in any sense of the word. An aftermarket heat sink is almost a necessity for any new computer - in an HTPC it is even more important. Stock heat sinks are not only inefficient at removing heat, they tend to be noisy. With just a bit more money you can drastically improve the temperatures, as well as the noise of your computer. For the lowest end processors you may argue that it wouldn't be worth buying a new heat sink. You may end up spending nearly as much on your heat sink as on the processor itself!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To me, spending an extra $30 for a heat sink that ensures I can listen to some nice quiet music without interruption is $30 well spent. That doesn't even take into account how much cooler the processor will run. Based purely on noise alone, it's money well spent. Remember, that one of the main purposes of this machine is to play back movies. Even the bloodiest action flick has quiet moments that will reveal any fan noise your computer makes. It may not sound like a big deal now, but if you're unfortunate enough to experience it, you'll be very annoyed.

While there is always the possibility of passively cooling a CPU, I would not try it. It could work, but the probability is that you'll end up melting your CPU like ice cream in a microwave. If you manage to get a passive heat sink that works enough to keep your processor running under 50C even under load, something along the lines of a Thermalright Ultima-90, cool! You could drop 10°C from that by simply adding a low-speed fan, cooler. A decent fan at low speeds won't produce any noise worth mentioning, and the benefits of a cooler, happier CPU are gained as well. I really can't see any reason to run a passive system. If you know what you're doing it can be done, but for the same price you could run a cooler, more efficient system, coolerer!

 

Anyways, back to the heat sink discussion!

 

In the last few years there has been a veritable explosion of heat sinks on the market. Companies such as Thermalright and Zalman have built their reputation on these products. Larger, more diverse companies such as Asus and OCZ have branched off and added heat sinks to their product list. Many smaller companies have sprouted up as well, in order to try their hand in the market, with mixed results. From perhaps hundreds of available heat sinks a few stand out from the rest. These I'll list here. But keep in mind that buying the correct heat sink can sometimes be a real pain. A few things you should think about:

 

Okay, now that that's covered, here are my choices and a few words about each:

 

HTPC-Style Case:

The standard height of an HTPC-style case seems to be around 120mm from the motherboard to top of the case, so I will choose heat sinks that are a little bit shorter. Some cases have support brackets crossing in the same area, reducing maximum height to only around 60mm. These brackets are usually unnecessary and should be removable with a screwdriver. Most of the sinks listed here are short enough to work with the bracket. However, I expect most people to remove it, so this is not a defining criteria.

 

 

Standard Case:

The following are heat sinks that offer absolutely stunning performance but are probably too large to fit into a typical HTPC-style case. The heat sinks above could be used in a normal case of course, and depending on your processor there may be no reason to get anything bigger listed here. However, for those running quad core processors these definitely warrant a hard look. 

Again, I want to stress that just because I say these are great heat sinks doesn't mean they are your only choice. Many other heat sinks are available and may prove to be a better option depending on your CPU and case choice. Also, you should purchase an aftermarket thermal paste to go with most of these. I always use Arctic Silver Ceramic and highly recommend it to anyone that is new to computer building. It's very easy to use and still ranks among the best you can buy.

 

The Memory:

There really isn't a whole lot to say about picking your memory. An HTPC won't require the massive amount that a good video editing machine would, and really doesn't need anything insanely fast either. Given the prices of DDR2 there is really no reason to go less than a 2GB (2x1GB) kit of DDR2-800 (PC2 6400) memory unless you really want to save some cash. You can get a 2x2GB kit if you like, but you really won't see any benefit from having the added memory for standard HTPC functions. If you're going to be using this rig as a full multi-media system—this includes playing games—the extra RAM might not hurt. In fact if you know you'll be playing games, 4GB is certainly something to consider. Here are a few things to think about before purchasing any RAM:

 

 

Okay, here are my choices. Again, there are many other kits available. These are brands I know and have had very good experiences with. You don't need to be spending a whole lot on RAM, so I've tried to keep all kits under $50. With of course the exception of high end builds. Assume all RAM is DDR2 (800) unless otherwise stated.

Basic HTPC:

Intermediate HTPC:

High End HTPC:

 

Now that we have a few choices of RAM, let's move on to the graphics card.

The Graphics Card:

One of the most frequently asked questions is, "What graphics card should I get for my new build?" In the case of an HTPC this should hardly be on any users mind. Onboard video chipsets have improved greatly over recent years, and while they aren't anything you would want to play new games on, they have more than enough power for anything an HTPC should be used for. That being said there are two exceptions:

  1. If you own a Blu-Ray drive you can opt to offload some of the strain to a dedicated card that supports it.
  2. If you absolutely must play video games on your HTPC, you'll clearly want a powerful graphics card. I'm not going to go crazy on recommending these, and certainly won't go out of my way to support guys wanting to use two or more cards. The needs of these types of people aren't that of a typical HTPC user. They'd be more suited to a gaming computer with a TV tuner installed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I really feel purchasing a card without an actual need for it is a waste of money. Not only are they not needed in most cases, they also add extra heat and power consumption. You don't want a huge GTX 295 taking up all the room in your case blocking your airflow. If you're on the fence and not sure what you need, just purchase an appropriate motherboard (and power supply). This way you'll have the option to upgrade in the future.

For the sake of argument, let's say you decide you do need a graphics card. Well first of all you're going to need to figure out which one will best suit your needs. When choosing the proper graphics card for your system, there are a number of considerations:

These days there are so many graphics cards it could be extraordinarily hard to choose. If you have an older card laying around it should work just fine, if not well there's a lot out there. You can buy a new 4550, or pick up an older 7600gt. Just don't plan on purchasing an older card, because they may be harder to find. For this reason the cards I'll be choosing will be newer, and more easily available.

 

The Graphics Card (cont'd):

Basic HTPC:

For the purposes of this guide it should be assumed that you purchased a motherboard with onboard graphics. However, if you're using a motherboard without such capabilities the cards listed here should be nice substitutes. These cards are all better than onboard graphics and should give you the ability to play most new games. On lowered settings that is. Ideally the model selected in this segment would utilize passive cooling for silent operation and will cost around $50.

 
Intermediate HTPC:

Graphics cards for this level build should primarily be chosen with the intent of playing Blu-Ray discs and some light gaming, as opposed to a large card capable of playing Crysis. Once again I have chosen mainly ATI cards, but that's not to say they are better. Both companies have their pros and cons, one of ATI's pros just happens to be affordability. ATI has done a great job making lower end cards with extremely low costs. It turns out that cheap, decent, low end cards are perfect for HTPC's. Who woulda thunk? The cards I would use in this class of HTPC are as follows.

High End HTPC:

Now for the super crazy ridiculous HTPC class build. In this class you can pretty much use any graphics card you want. If you're going through all the money to build one of these HTPC's, but are still planning on using an HTPC case, you'll definitely run into some restrictions. It is very unlikely you'll be able to stuff any high end cards in an HTPC case, but at this point I don't think you'll be using one. I'm not going to suggest anything bigger than a GTX 260 because, even for a super crazy ridiculous HTPC a GTX 295 is just a bit much. Basically I'll be listing ATI's, and Nvidia's current mid-rangish cards.

None of these cards should even be considered for an HTPC, but I know someone out there is going to try and shove a 4870x2 into an HTPC case. Out of the five cards listed, I'd probably have to choose the GTX 260 BE. Then again I'm pretty sure most people would. For any of the users that are going to use one of these cards in their HTPC case, all I can say is "good luck."

A final note on video cards:

Notice the fan orientation when looking at pictures of the card. Some tend to exhaust hot air to the back end of the card, which means this hot air will be inside your case. As mentioned before, hot air can be a nightmare to remove from the smaller mATX HTPC cases. Note that newer cards exhaust to the front of the case (ie: where you plug in the monitor cable). I always like these better as they take heat from the video card directly out of the case instead of venting back into the case. It is up to which you choose, depending on the brand both designs may be offered. If you aren't worried about blocking an extra slot then I would definitely choose a bigger cooler that moves heat out of the case. In any case, many stock coolers would be too loud for use in an HTPC (in my opinion) making an aftermarket cooler very viable and something you may want to look into.

 

The Sound Card:

Now this is a difficult subject. Many people wonder if it is even worth purchasing a sound card in the first place. Integrated audio is getting better, and some people will not notice any difference. If you're one of the audiophiles that can tell the difference, or if you've somehow convinced yourself you need a sound card, you'll run into the simple problem of "which one should I get?" There is a sound card for pretty much every price range, and you'll find that just about everyone has a different opinion. While Creative's Sound Blaster may be the most commonly referred to card, many people just don't like it. Sound cards come in all shapes and sizes, and can range from PCI, PCIe, USB, and IEEE 1394. I'll attempt to help you chose a sound card that will work for you.

The cards that I selected will be based upon the following criteria:

  1. Since this is a dedicated HTPC it is assumed that you will be using a multichannel receiver with a real multichannel setup. Nothing against Logitech, Klipsch, or other companies that have designed 5.1 computer speakers. They just aren't the same and the vast majority of people won't be using them in their living room.
  2. Since you are using a dedicated receiver it is very likely that you will want to use a digital cable. Whether optical or coaxial, the cards I have listed here come with a digital output that is fully capable of carrying a multichannel signal.
  3. Dolby Digital Live (DDL) is a relatively new technology that simulates surround sound. It's great for movies and music alike, along with a lot of games as well. This isn't a requirement, but it's really nice to have. DTS Connect is a similar technology.
  4. I'm not concerned with pro-audio cards here or the features they provide.
  5. EAX support isn't necessary for the average HTPC, if you intend to game it'll be more important so a couple of these cards will offer it.

A sound card will perform the same in any computer regardless. If you're looking for a cheaper card grab the cheaper card. If you don't mind spending a bit more then by all means spend a bit more.

ASUS Xonar D2X 7.1 

Auzentech XPlosion 7.1 Cinema

HT Omega Striker 7.1

Bluegears B-Enspirer 7.1

Auzentech X-Fi Prelude

Final notes on sound cards:

 

Some newer cards offer replaceable OPAMPS to custom tailor the sound to your ear. These kits can add a few hundred dollars to the original price of the card. Even further, some people recommend replacing cheap capacitors with high quality ones. Doing all this can make sub par cards sound great, but can drastically increase the cost of the card. If a card needs modding you really shouldn't consider it in the first place. Unless of course the overall cost is way cheaper then any alternative.

There are many other cards available that don't offer real digital outputs. If you don't need them, Creative sells many cards that support games for less money. The Creative Audigy2 (if you can find one) is possibly the best card you could buy given that criteria. Personally though, I feel the above cards are better suited for HTPC use. If you feel you need a more expensive "pro" model by all means grab one; but I feel the top end cards here are more than up to the task of handling even the most expensive of home theaters.

 

The HD Tuner Card:

TV tuners have become increasingly more popular. If you purchase the right one you can record, pause, and rewind T.V. quality shows without a DVR. If you purchase the wrong T.V. tuner however, you could end up heavily disappointed. Don't go out and buy the cheapest model you can find in the hopes that some program is out there that has the ability to improve bad purchase decision quality. It is very difficult to tune T.V. channels and that is the main reason T.V. tuners cost as much as they do. As with all things, you get what you pay for. If you don't mind poor quality T.V. by all means purchase the cheapest tuner you can find.

Before continuing, I want to make perfectly clear that absolutely NONE of these cards will allow you to record (or watch, for the matter) any high definition programming on a “premium” HD channel. These channels would include HBO and Starz, along with every other HD channel that you pay extra for every month. These are encrypted, and no tuner can get them. Sadly, no home-built computer can either ... yet.

Now what these cards DO allow you to do is watch and record any channels that don't require a set-top box to watch. This includes any standard definition “basic cable” channels as well as the HD variants of ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and PBS.

Now then, if you want to record premium broadcasts over cable on an HTPC you have two realistic options:

  1. Invest in a computer from one of a handful of manufacturers that comes with a digital cable tuner installed. This tuner would accept a CableCard you would purchase from your local cable provider, which would decode all of the channels that you purchased. This tuner cannot be bought separately and is only licensed to OEMs for the foreseeable future.
  2. Contact your local cable company to determine whether you can connect a set-top box to you computer via USB or Firewire. It is apparently possible depending on the model though I have never seen it done. Likewise, it seems this may be the only way to get a satellite connection to work.

QAM Functionality:

 

QAM stands for "Quadrature Amplitude Modulation." This is the format that digital cable channels are encoded with. In all likelihood you will need this feature in order to watch any cable broadcasts without the need of a separate cable box from your local provider. Obviously this is necessary for use as a DVR/PVR so the computer can set the channels by itself without relying on any other hardware. Hardware based decoding is better, but some cheaper cards have software based decoding. Don't confuse this for being a descrambler, because it's not.

 

OTA Sensitivity:

 

Depending on your needs OTA (Over The Air) signals may be more than suitable. This is a great way to get local HD channels, though you may want to try and get a decently sensitive tuner and good antenna to ensure you get a strong signal.

Dual Tuners:

Some cards offer dual tuners, which essentially means you can watch a program on one channel while recording on another.

Linux capability:

While many people will likely use Windows Media Center there are many free operating systems available that are designed entirely for HTPC use. Unfortunately, most companies don't fully support Linux-based operating systems so you should ensure that drivers are available for your particular card if you intend to run Linux.

Now that we know a little about what certain cards can do lets start to look at some. TV tuners come in all shapes and sizes. There are three main interfaces PCI, PCIe, and USB. While other types do exist they are rare, and I will not be covering them.

PCI Cards:

PCIe x1 Cards:

USB Tuners:

First of all, USB tuners are great if you'll be traveling a lot, because you can pack it with your laptop and take it anywhere. They do not however give the best quality. If your HTPC is going to permanently be in your house, which it should, I'd strongly suggest a more permanent tuner.

 

Hard Drives:

These days, hard drives can run anywhere from 80GB to 2TB with just about any price for any budget. For less then $100 you can get yourself a 1TB drive with capabilities of storing massive amounts of data. When choosing a hard drive there are really only two things you need to consider; how much money you want to spend and how much disk space you think you'll need. If you'll be storing your entire collection of movies, music, and games, and intend to record every T.V. show that exists, you're going to want to pick up as many 2TB drives as you can fit in your case, or attach to your motherboard for that matter. Another thing to keep in mind is that hard drives are like a box of chocolate. Gump always says, "You never know what you're going to get." Strange quote aside, it is definitely something to think about. Some HDD's will be loud and hot while others will be soft and not so hot.

RAID

RAID stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks. Basically this means you can use multiple hard drives to either increase performance (RAID-0) or increase integrity (RAID-1). RAID-0 can also be referred to as striping and RAID-a as mirroring. Other forms of RAID exist as well, such as RAID-0+1, RAID-2, RAID-3, RAID-4, RAID-5, RAID-6, RAID-7, and RAID-10. These however aren't the most popular and are more commonly used by businesses with large servers. Every once in a while you may encounter someone using RAID-0+1, because it gives you slightly faster DATA access with a little fault tolerance. Although I'd suggest sticking to the two basic forms, options are out there and you can chose what best suits your needs.

RAID-0:

RAID-0, as stated above, is striping. It divides your data between the disks in your array. So if you have two disks, both will have half your data. If you were to look at a diagram of this, the two disks would appear to be striped with blank spots, hence the name striping. If you are using two disks your data will be divided relatively evenly, but that doesn't mean it will be accessed two times as fast. You will however notice a huge difference - RAID-0 can make two 1TB drives faster than a Western Digital Veloci-Raptor. I would not recommend RAID-0 for any HTPC as it does stress your HDD's. It makes their death not a question of if, but one of when will my hard drives die. Although some people are lucky and will never have a HDD die on them, if you're unfortunate enough to experience a disk failure while using RAID-0, the chances are high that you'll never get your data back.

RAID-1:

RAID-1 is mirroring. You should be able to tell what it does by the name, but for those of you who aren't entirely sure, RAID-1 will take two disks and make them the exact same. This means that everything written to disk one will be copied bit for bit over to disk two. The disks are copied exactly so the two drives must be the same size, but you can have more than just two. All this does however is create more copies. RAID-1 can be extremely handy if you're trying to store data that cannot be lost. Say you have a small movie collection and you store the whole thing on a 2TB drive. If you have a few of these drives in RAID-1 and one dies. All you will need to do is take the dead drive out, insert a new one, and the controller will begin to rebuild the array.

I don't feel that any form of RAID is needed or should be used in an HTPC, but I will not stop anyone from using it. For this reason I will not cover how to setup up an array, but if you decide you must have one, feel free to ask around in the forums.

Moving on to hard drives. You will have three basic options for your HTPC build. The first and most important is internal hard drives. I'm going to suggest that this is all you use, because for most people a single 1TB drive should suffice. For those that run out of room inside the case, there are external HDD's. For the crazy users that need 20TB of overall space, there's the NAS box.

Internal Hard Drive

Every one has different opinions about hard drives, and some people won't buy one just because of the brand. I can't say I'm indifferent to this, because I tend to prefer Seagate drives. I don't mind Western Digital, in fact I often use their HDD's in builds. The one brand I will not touch is the Hitachi Desk Star. Other people love Hitachi drives and think I'm crazy for liking Seagate. What I'm saying is just about any drive will be fine for you. Get which ever model you can afford from which ever brand you prefer. No matter what hard drive you buy it will eventually die, so you should back up your data. Just don't let petty arguments keep you from buying the $89.99 1TB drive.

Hard drives are inexpensive these days, so I'm going to recommend either a 1TB or a 1.5TB hard drive. That amount of space will let you store a reasonably-sized DVD collection, as well as leaving you a little room for future storage. If you're only going to be using your HTPC for recording T.V. shows and don't plan on storing any DVD's, you might be able to get away with a 500GB drive. Just don't let the 1TB drive scare you with thoughts of "How can I possibly use that much space?" Remember, people used to say the exact same thing about 1GB. Look how far that gets you now.

 

External Storage Solutions:

You should be able to find an external enclosure that will fit any drive you own. If not, then you can probably sell your HDD to a museum. As for how many external enclosures you can have, well that would depend on how many USB, Firewire, and eSATA ports you have. You can purchase an external enclosure for all three of these interfaces. This means if you're a real data whore, you could probably stick 4 to 5 extra drives onto your case, possibly more depending on what motherboard you bought.

If you do end up using a RAID-1 array, the eSATA port can be very useful. You'll be able to plug an additional drive into an eSATA port and make multiple backups of your disks. Be aware the eSATA port must be on the same controller as your array.

NAS (Network Attached Storage)

Another option I will not be recommending would be to run a NAS hard drive. This is basically a hard drive that gets it's own IP address from your home network. Setup is generally easy. You'll require a wall outlet, and a router. You'll first plug the NAS box such as a Cavalry Storage CAND3001T0 1TB Network Drive into your router and then into your wall. You'll be able to store and access this box from any computer on your home network. This could be extremely useful if you own a laptop and travel a lot, because you'll be able to access your movie/T.V. files from anywhere.

Hard Disk Speeds:

Many people will choose a hard drive just because it is faster than the other. Remember, your HTPC will primarily be for storage of movies, music, and T.V. shows. So while a fast hard drive may be nice, it is not in any way needed. Your best bet would be to completely forget about the 10,000RPM raptors and pick up whatever is cheapest. If you're like me, you'll probably end up with a good 7200RPM drive.

Optical Drives:

There is really nothing to choosing an optical drive. You'll need to decide whether or not you'll want Blu-Ray capabilities or if DVD will suit you just fine. I've had good experiences with drives from LG, LITE-ON, and Asus. There are many other companies out there, so I would suggest getting the most affordable drive you can. The only real difference will be read/write speeds, and even these shouldn't matter too much in the case of an HTPC. You'll probably have a few older DVD drives just laying around. These should work perfectly fine, and if you don't want Blu-Ray, you can skip purchasing an optical drive altogether.

DVD Drives:

The current most commonly used optical drive is a DVD drive. The name should tell you exactly what they allow you to do, which by the way is watch and play DVD's. DVD drives are fairly basic, and this also makes them extremely cheap. You can pick up a pretty decent drive for just over $20. In truth you can easily use an old IDE drive, but I find IDE to be a little irritating while trying to manage wires. The reason for this is because of the big bulky ribbon cable, as opposed to the skinny, little, red SATA cable on the newer drives. Another thing SATA brings to the table is the fact that you can easily add more than one drive. With IDE you'll have to set one drive as master and the other as a slave, whereas SATA will automatically detect your new drives. On top of that you can add as many drives as you have SATA ports. That of course is considering you didn't use all your ports on HDD's. If so, an IDE drive might be something to consider. $20 really isn't that much, so buying a new drive really shouldn't be a problem.

Blu-Ray Drives:

As I'm sure all of you know, Blu-Ray was the competitor of HD-DVD. Of course they have long since won the competition. Now that HD-DVD is out of the way, prices have gone down, but you can still multiply the cost of your cheap DVD drive by ten and be under the price of many Blu-Ray drives. However, if your HTPC is going to be for current and future multimedia, you'll deffinately want to at least consider owning a Blu-Ray drive. They can also be added in later. For someone under a strict budget, adding a Blu-Ray drive later may in fact be the best option. As for which Blu-Ray drives I would use, well I'd probably go for whatever is affordable to you. So far I have only used three and was equally happy with each one.

The Motherboard:

If the processor is the brain, then the motherboard is it's stem. There are two basic ways to choose the right motherboard for your computer. The following method I DO NOT recommend, but I know some people will do it. The method I'm referring to is going to your favorite online vendor, such as Newegg or Tigerdirect, going into advanced options, and then typing in a price range you're okay with. After you've done that, you choose the cheapest board on the list and build your computer around it. While this works and will definitely get you a motherboard in your price range, it will NEVER be the best way of choosing one. The best method is to actually take into considering what you want.

 

 

 

 

 

You still need to consider a price range, and this will limit your overall choices. I consider a suitable price range for an HTPC to be $50-$100. It is extremely easy to spend more or less, so you should decide what you are willing to spend. You'll then need to take a few more things into consideration.

Processor Support:

Determining if your CPU is supported is a fairly easy thing to do. Hopefully you'll be using either an AMD or Intel CPU. If not you need to get out of the 70's and go buy one right now! You should be using either an AM2 or LGA775 socket type for your respective CPU's. An older or newer CPU will work just fine, but I will not be talking about them. On top of that I don't think you should be using either an i7 or a Phenom 2 for an HTPC, as it will be an insult to their capabilities. Some older motherboards don't support newer AM2/LGA775 processors so you should check to make sure your CPU is supported. However chances are your LGA775 CPU will work with your LGA775 board.

Expansion slot support:

If you are purchasing either an AM2 or LGA 775 socket type motherboard it should at least have one PCIe X 16 slot. This means support should be a non issue. You will need to make sure that the motherboard you choose can support all the expansion cards you buy. Do not expect six GPU's to fit on one motherboard. Make sure you look at a picture of the motherboard you're considering. This way you'll be able to see the exact number of expansion slots, which types they are, and if something like a GPU will block any. As long as you take your time at this, you'll be able to find the perfect motherboard.

Drive Support:

Ealier in this guide, I suggested using only SATA drives, and I'm sticking to that suggestion. This means you'll want to find a motherboard with enough SATA ports to fit all your drives. You should keep in mind that cheaper boards tend to have fewer SATA ports, and even the most expensive mATX boards will only have up to six. I'd suggest getting a six-slot board, but if you find you need more than that, you can pick up an ATX board with ten slots.

Motherboard Layout:

This is not the most critical part of choosing a motherboard, but it can take away a few annoyances before they happen. You should look for the following:

 

The Motherboard (cont'd):

For an HTPC a mATX board should be used. As I stated before, you may be able to use an ATX board, but I wouldn't unless you really need the extra slots. Although I don't suggest using an ATX board, I'll be choosing both mATX, and ATX boards that should work well for an HTPC.

mATX Motherboards:

AMD:

Intel:

ATX Motherboards:

I do not recommend using an ATX motherboard for an HTPC, but I know some of you will. The reasons why are obvious. You'll have more PCI slots, more PCIe slots, more SATA slots, and bigger is better, right? Many of the ATX boards I frequently use would be out of our $100 budget, so I won't list them here. Just keep in mind, better boards do exist if you don't mind spending the money. If you would like help searching for one, either ask around in the forums, or if this is too embarrassing (and it shouldn't be), go ahead and shoot me a PM. I'd be glad to help you spend your money. An obvious problem you may run into is the size requirements. If you're using an HTPC case you may have trouble fitting in an ATX board. This doesn't mean that they won't fit. It will just be tight. In the end the choice remains yours.

AMD:

Intel:

The Power Supply:

PSU's come in all shapes and sizes with varying qualities and wattages. So what type of PSU is most suited for an HTPC? Most mid-ranged 400-600W PSU's should prove to be sufficient. You may however have to deal with noise. Because of this, it's recommended you purchase a PSU with a fan that is temperature controlled. This way your fans won't blast unless they actually need to. It is also recommended that you purchase a PSU at least twice the size you think you'll need. This means if you think you'll be needing a 200W PSU, you should purchase a 400W one instead. One reason is expandability, and another is that it won't get to full load so the fan will stay quiet.

 

 

 

 

 

    

 

 

So how do you decide how big of a PSU to get? Well there are a few guidelines:

Below are a few of my choices. Keep in mind I kept them 600W and below. This is all you will need for any HTPC. If you're one of those people who must have a 1200W beast, then be my guest. I'm also going to list some passive cooling PSU's. While some may not like the idea of a PSU without a fan, others may find it to be the best choice because they should make almost no noise.

It is important to remember that some PSU's may not give you accurate power ratings. The label on a PSU might claim 80% efficiency, but what it's not telling you is that this rating only applies when operating at 25C (77F). This is completely ridiculous because an average PSU will run temps of at least 40C. The airflow in an HTPC case will not help this situation, as there usually isn't any. The fan on the PSU will help a little, but remember the air in your system has already been heated by your other components. For this reason I wouldn't buy a PSU from a brand you've never heard of before. Stick with a trusted brand, as this can save you a lot of trouble.

I'd also shy away from PSU's that come bundled with cases. While the company you purchased the case from may be great, the PSU they include probably isn't. Some off-brand PSU's might claim a 700W rating, but a quick read of the label will show this is only the peak rating. If you want to save some money by using an included PSU, you'll probably be fine. Just don't expect it to work as well as it says it does.

 

 

HTPC Computer Case:

It's never easy to choose a computer case. You have so many options, and you're going to want it to look nice. You may decide you like some features better than others. Or you might just pick the case based on the materials it's made from. No matter how you decide on your case, you'll want to make sure it performs as good as it looks. You're not going to want all your expensive hardware in a case that gets so hot the side door explodes. This is extremely critical for HTPC cases, as they're notorious for not having good airflow.

You should know that an HTPC case is not a slim case. If you buy a slim case for whatever reason, be aware that most expansion slot cards will not fit. Slim cases use a highly retarded half height expansion slot called low profile expansion slot. A real HTPC case is smaller than a usual case, but can fit most cards. They come in all shapes and sizes, with different price tags and different features. Below are a few cases that I like, but many many more exist. If you do not like the looks of these, but would like help deciding, feel free to ask around in the forums, or shoot me a PM.

 

When deciding which case to use consider the following:

Now for my choices. Remember these are not the only cases out there. You can easily find cheaper and more expensive cases by just spending five minutes on Google.

Final Thoughts:

Hopefully by now you have a good idea of what kind of components you'll need for your HTPC. Of course most of you should already know the basics, such as processor, motherboard, RAM, PSU, video card, and optical drives. So what exactly should a finished HTPC look like? Here is a picture of both ccokeman's and Verran's setups. As you can see, they have all the basic parts, the wires are neatly tucked out of the way, and neither went overboard with multiple GPU's. To someone used to a gaming computer it may not look like much, but it does what it is supposed to do perfectly. What I'm getting at is that anyone can build an HTPC. It may not be something you want to spend $500 on right away, but if you're buying a new HDTV, it might be nice to pair it up with a slim, sexy, HTPC.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now that you have a basic idea of what your components should look like, what does a completed HTPC setup look like? Verran just happens to have two great setups. His first setup is what most people should expect an HTPC to be. As you can see the computer is neatly tucked in with the rest of his equipment. Of course you do not have to mimick his setup. You could put the computer standing like a tower near the T.V., you could put it on the T.V., or you could just throw it up in the air and leave it wherever it lands. Just make sure wherever you set up, it looks the way you want it to look. Take your time and don't rush through things. If you want to be extremely extravagant why not do what Verran did in his bedroom. I have no idea how he managed to mount his monitor like that, but who cares - that is just plain awesome.

 

 

In truth, any computer can be used as an HTPC, if all you want an HTPC to do is record TV. Just go grab a TV tuner and install it in your gaming rig. I'm sure many of you have already done this. If you happen to have an old PC lying around and would like to use it as something other then a door stop, have a go at it! You can easily turn it into a cheap HTPC. For those of you that want a brand new top of the line multi-media center, well I hope my guide has helped you decide on some parts. If there's anything you're unsure about, feel free to ask around in the forums. The crazies that troll around there are full of information. I'm sure they'd be glad to help you with any problems you might encounter during your HTPC building process. They can also help you with suggestions with your quest in building a HTPC that is right for you.