Beginner's Guide to Building a Home Theater PC

May 02 2011

We have covered a number of Beginner’s Guides in our effort to help out newcomers to the world of home theater computers. Topics covered include the basics, video resolutions, codecs and how they affect you, media players, frame rates and more. So hopefully you have read and enjoyed those as now the fun part begins--building an HTPC!

There are a variety of reasons why you might be interested in building a home theater PC (HTPC); perhaps you are intrigued by the idea of consolidating all your music, movies, and pictures into a central location. Or maybe the cable company upped their rates again and your only means of striking back is to build your own digital video recorder (DVR). Actually it's my personal opinion that most people build HTPCs just because it's fun! It is always a great feeling showing off your system to someone who's never heard of an HTPC and they can't quite figure out how you can have so much stuff available on your TV. This beginners guide is an attempt to introduce a relative new comer to the world of building your own HTPC. Hardware was chosen with a beginner in mind; a balance of cost, performance, flexibility and simplicity were considered when choosing the following components.

We often start with the motherboard first as it’s the central brain of any computer and is the most difficult to change in the future. The first big decision is Intel or AMD. There are pros and cons to each and they often trade places as the top contender every few generations. For our beginner build we chose AMD, but nobody will fault you if you go Intel (Editor’s Note: Several editors use Intel boards for their main HTPC, and if you can afford it, Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors [Core i5-2500K, Core i3-2100T, Core i5-2400S] reviewed by Andrew, are very capable). Given the current state of hardware acceleration and capabilities of recent integrated graphics processors (IGP), AMD offers good performance at an affordable price.

The ASRock 880GMH/USB3 was selected for the motherboard. It’s based on the AMD 880G chipset which supports a variety of processors with the AM3 socket and the integrated ATI Radeon HD 4250 GPU supporting D-Sub, DVI-D and HDMI outputs. In addition it has on-board 7.1 channel HD audio with optical S/PDIF output available. Please note you can either stream uncompressed 7.1 audio as LPCM using HDMI or send 7.1 channels of analog HD audio using the stereo 3.5mm jacks. This level of connectivity will allow the builder to connect to just about any HDTV and/or receiver on the market. The board also has five SATA connections, a variety of PCI slots, four available memory slots, and one USB 3.0 port! An impressive number of features in a relatively small MicroATX form factor. Why do we comment on the form factor? This will have an impact on how much room there is to work with inside the chassis as well as things like heat and expansion--usually the smaller you go, the less you have to work with. [Editor’s Note: if size is an issue, lots of good Mini-ITX chassis exist that are even smaller than Micro ATX and are fully capable of HTPC duties]

Coupled to this board we chose the AMD Athlon II X2 250 Regor 3.0GHz processor. Don't be fooled by the low price tag on this chip; as the workhorse of this HTPC it is quite capable. Keep in mind much of the video decoding will be handled by the Radeon GPU, so you will find the processor easily keeps up with all your HTPC needs.
As your journey into the world of HTPC grows, you will find the Socket AM3 allows for a wide range of performance options with the ability to upgrade to a pretty serious Phenom II X6 down the road if you choose (Battlefield 3 on the big screen perhaps?!).

Memory is not really a big deal unless you are a serious gamer looking for extremely low CAS latency or overclocking capabilities. There's no reason to go with less than 4GB especially at current prices. For this build, Mushkin Enhanced Essentials 4GB (2 x 2GB) 240-Pin DDR3 1333 (PC3 10666) Dual Channel memory was chosen as it is amazingly cheap and well reviewed. The ASRock motherboard also has room for two more sticks for future use.
Next up is the hard drive. To keep this build simple we chose a single large drive that will handle the operating system as well as provide adequate space for media content. The choice of hard drive manufacturer is often based on user experience; if someone loses all their data to a hard drive failure there is no way they will buy from that brand again! Conversely, if you have never had an issue with a particular manufacturer you might stick with them for life. Choose a drive you are comfortable buying, it is your system after all. For our beginner HTPC build a Seagate Barracuda 1TB 7200 RPM drive was chosen. This particular drive supports the latest SATA 6.0 Gb/s interface and will prove a nice balance of speed and capacity while still keeping noise levels down. A logical upgrade path could be one of the following--either a smaller and silent SSD drive for the operating system with the 1TB drive dedicated to media content, or the addition of an even larger drive such as a 2TB or even 3TB drive when you get serious about backing up Blu-rays!
To power this build we chose the Antec EarthWatts Green EA-380D 380W power supply. The Antec is an 80 Plus Bronze certified unit providing power efficiency of at least 82% and 380W is plenty of juice for our system especially given the 65W CPU. Often you will find a no-name budget power supply included with the case. This is tempting due to the lower combined cost. However you will rarely find a quality power supply with high efficiency or Active Power Factor Correction (PFC). Andrew explains the benefits of 80+ and PFC in his Basics Guide
All this stuff needs a home, right? When it comes to choosing an enclosure there are a host of options to consider. You may also find that your needs will change as you become more experienced and your system expands. The case we chose for this build exemplifies a typical HTPC case that would fit in your living room among other A/V equipment. Key features of an enclosure not hidden away in a closet or basement include the following: first, it needs to be quiet--some would argue it needs to be silent. Fans are typically the source of most noise, however some hard drives are noticeably audible when crunching data. 120mm fans have the benefit of moving lots of air while not turning too fast and making much noise. But they are not always feasible in smaller enclosures. Smaller fans will work fine but you may want to spend a little more money on quieter fans and utilize fan speed controls typically found in most modern motherboard BIOS. Secondly we don’t want too many flashy lights blinking away while settling in for a good romantic comedy, so stay away from gaming cases! Other desirable attributes include adequate room for components, proper ventilation, and good aesthetics!
The case pictured above is the NMedia 1080P, an affordable enclosure which encompasses most of the criteria described above. It comes with a pair of 80mm fans and has room for two more, and also has three 3.5” internal bays allowing for future storage options. The ability to fit a standard ATX power supply in such a low profile enclosure is appreciated due to cost and availability.
 
Remaining components necessary to start using this bad boy include a keyboard, mouse, and monitor or television. A remote control is also highly recommended for the 10-foot experience. For more on controlling your HTPC, refer to our Beginner’s Guide to Controlling Your HTPC. We also need to mention tuners. Many of us started out with a simple analog tuner. However PC based tuners have evolved to include ATSC, QAM, DVB-T/S, and even CableCARD such as the Ceton InfiniTV 4. Connection to your HTPC can be via PCIe, PCI, USB, or Network. One final comment on tuners is the option to have NO tuner. A growing number of people are happy receiving their content exclusively over the Internet. Companies such as Hulu, Boxee, Netflix, and Amazon are competing to be your primary source of entertainment, rather than a supplement to your existing cable or satellite subscription.
 
Although this guide is focused on hardware, we should quickly talk about software. The obvious operating system is Windows 7 since most people are comfortable with it and almost all versions include Media Center. SageTV is a popular alternative that offers similar functionality for a cost. For Linux users, a popular solution is Ubuntu or Mythbuntu coupled with Xbox Media Center (XBMC). We’ll save setting up WMC or XBMC for another day.
 
One other item worth noting is the availability of pre-assembled HTPC systems such as the Dell Zino. There are several companies such as Dell and ASRock that sell prebuilt HTPCs containing hardware specs similar to those above. Obviously these systems are designed for the user not interested in building their own and typically come complete with an operating system and remote control. What you will find is the cost quickly ramps up as you click the upgrade options and future upgrades are typically limited.
 
If you’ve made it through this beginner’s guide up to this point you are most likely a future enthusiast looking to get your hands dirty. However some people may prefer the simplicity of an OEM system. If you want to go for the build process, start adding parts to your wish list and keep an eye out for sales or combo deals. The system described above will provide you a great entry into the world of HTPC--powerful enough for 1080p content while flexible enough for future expansion. Once you've got your parts and are ready to assemble, follow our Beginner's Guide to Assembling an HTPC which takes you through the build process.

 

Build Summary

Comments

As much as I love the cost savings of an AMD system I think Intel is in my future. I always have to put another 30 bucks into the components to buy an Intel NIC to replace the on board RealTek NICs. 

Love the article....makes me want to build a new one! Thanks

What a great resource! Thanks for putting this together. Just to make sure, the components you've listed won't support HDMI 1.4 correct? AMD support for that starts at 5450 if I remember right.

3D support isn't important to me right now, but if I'm building this thing to last a while, I may be better off getting an Intel Core i5-2400S. Thoughts?

You're correct that this board's on-board 4250 GPU will not support 3D BD because it is not at least a 5xxx series. While AMD does support Frame-sequential 3D BD playback (let's stay away from the generic "HDMI 1.4" because it offers more than just 3D), the 5xxx do not HW accelerate MVC (which is the codec required to decode 3D BD). If your budget allows, there's no reason not to go with an Intel board and CPU. If you are keeping it a long time, there's even more reason to go with Intel because you'll probably make up the savings in power usage.

PAPutzback, I have both an AMD system and a Core i3 rig. The Intel system definitely offers more, however I found the AMD system able handle everything I threw at it, just not quite as fast. For me it was a perfect bedroom solution. The cost benefit was the main driver and may help a beginner take the plunge. I would say most experienced builders would go for Intel at this point. Especially when considering Sandy Bridge supports HDMI 1.4 and bitstreaming audio.

Thanks Techbutton!

joeywan2002, AMD officially states HDMI 1.4 on their HD6000 series cards, but I think you can get 3D to work on a number of 5000 series cards. I don't think this board is capable of 3D. A Core i5 would be great. As long as you are OK with it costing $129 more than the AMD chip above. Another option is to buy a 3D capable video card. Both systems will last you a while. I recommend you determine which CPU to buy based on your specific needs. Definitely go with the i5 if you run lot of processor heavy applications. If you just run WMC or XBMC as a basic front end you wont really see the benefit.

It is good to see an article about building an actual HTPC.  I've grown tired of seeing people switching to extenders.  As you said, building it and seeing it in use is fun; extenders just aren't fun, LOL.

My advice to beginners is to not only follow someone's guide, but think long and hard about what they want out of their system and what it will take to accomplish what they want.  I have been through several revisions of my HTPC, and if I had done a little more research I could've saved myself time and money.

Some simple tips I have:

1. Go with an ATX case.  It might be a little bigger but it gives you more flexibility in the motherboards you can use.

2. Get a good power supply first time around.  I'd definitely go with a modular power supply on my next build.  HTPC cases are small, even ATX ones, and although I love my Seasonic P/S, it has a lot of long, bulky cables that clutter up the inside of the case and makes it a little hard to find somewhere to stuff them.  Less cables means less clutter and better air flow.

3. When connecting everything up, don't connect the power light or hard drive light from the case to the motherboard.  I've never heard of anyone else doing this, but to me it makes no sense to do it on an HTPC.  I connected mine the first time I built it, but after one night I pulled it back out and unplugged the lights.  I have no trouble knowing that my system is on or off or what my hard drive is doing.

4. I said go with an ATX case, and I suggest an ATX motherboard too.  I know most people who build seem to go with mATX, but if you want several tuners you'll need those extra slots.  Also take into account that if you add a pci-e video card, most will take up the slot beside it as well.  It's bad enough when you use up slots with actual cards, but it's worse when you lose a slot and never even put a card in it.

5. Get as big a hard drive as you can afford or go with 2 hard drives; 1 for OS and 1 for recording.  I haven't become a fan of SSD yet because I just can't seem to justify the price vs. the storage space, but in an HTPC I would consider going with one for the OS.

I'm sure there are some things I've left out, but that's a few things that I have either learned or would like to do next time.

Good advice, except for one I definitely disagree with and another I'd offer an alternative to:

1.  I see no benefit to disconnecting the HD lights, unless it's super bright and lights up the room (very poor case design in that case, though).  I use the activity light to determine whether a program has frozen or the HD is just thrashing.  Obviously, in one case, I'd kill the program and in the other, I'd wait it out and investigate the cause.

2.  This pretty much negates the purpose of the guide, but I wanted to throw it out there.  While I do agree with building an HTPC right the first time, it's difficult for everyone to justify the cost when you're first starting out.  If you aren't sure you're going to stick with it, repurposing an old PC is a wiser choice, especially if it's an older gaming PC.  The extra power you put into it for gaming will probably serve you very well (overkill) for an HTPC.  This will also enlighten you as to how quiet you'd prefer your HTPC to be.

I agree you should try and repurpose an older PC first.  You will likely have to rebuild it, but even a single core CPU can handle BD playback with the appropriate graphics card.

 

Start with a computer with a PCI-e x16 slot, and stay away from Intel P4 chips. If you have an AMD or Intel chip with reasonable power consumption, you can start from there and save a lot of money.  You can get a new case, new fans, and you'll probably want a new video card.  6450 is my recommendation. 

 

I'm sure most of you can find a friend or family member who has an older PC you can start from.  See what you can find and post it here so we can help you decide if it would make a good first HTPC.

My lights on my Zalman case are pretty bright, at least in a dark room while trying to watch a movie.  In a dark room, even a normal light will look bright and be distracting...especially the hard drive light since it's constantly blinking.  That's why I chose to disconnect mine.  My other computers, the ones that aren't in my family room, I have the lights hooked up.  If you're an inexperienced user then you might need the lights, but for the pros you can pretty much tell when things have locked up or know about how long it takes for something to launch or start.

I agree with your 2nd point.  Instead of buying the parts for a first HTPC, use what you have to see what areas need to be changed or improved.

htpc_user wrote:
If you're an inexperienced user then you might need the lights, but for the pros you can pretty much tell when things have locked up or know about how long it takes for something to launch or start.

I don't think I've ever been quite so politely insulted.  ROFL!  For we "inexperienced" folks, who've been using computers for 25+ years and have worked in IT for the last 15, we find it more "professional" to use the quickest and simplest tools we have on hand first.  Quickly glancing at an activity light is faster and easier than switching between programs, checking Windows' responsiveness, or pulling up task manager.  Time is money in IT and customer service is paramount.  Wink

htpc_user wrote:

My lights on my Zalman case are pretty bright, at least in a dark room while trying to watch a movie.  In a dark room, even a normal light will look bright and be distracting...especially the hard drive light since it's constantly blinking.  That's why I chose to disconnect mine.  My other computers, the ones that aren't in my family room, I have the lights hooked up.  If you're an inexperienced user then you might need the lights, but for the pros you can pretty much tell when things have locked up or know about how long it takes for something to launch or start.

Might want to consider leaving a light on the background.  http://www.missingremote.com/news/2011-03-29/black-hole-ideal-home-theater  (Unless you're running a low lumen projector where you need pitch black to see it)

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