Home Theater PC

A Home Theater PC (HTPC) is in some ways this is the ultimate home theater accessory. There are a few companies that can sell you a ready to run HTPC, but in most cases you are better off builiding it yourself. Below are the necessary components along with some recommendations.

Case

Case

Those most visible part of your HTPC, you will want a case which compliments your home theater system. The standard PC case does not look right sitting next to your receiver and blu-ray player. Fortunately, there are cases out there which are designed to fit right in with a stack of AV components. The options here have a huge variation in features and prices. You can go from a simple case which only has a light to tell you it is on for $50 up to a case with a built in touch screen and advanced menu controls for nearly $600. Be aware that there are cases designed for two different sizes of motherboard, ATX and MicroATX. MicroATX is smaller but will ususally fit in a case designed for an ATX motherboard. Also, some cases are shorter than others and will either need to use low-height expanson cards or a riser card to put any expansion cards on their side. Be sure you find what you want, what looks best to your eye, and what will hold the components you want to use.

The Thermaltake Bach VB8000BNS HTPC case is a reasonably price case which can hold a full size ATX motherboard and won't look out of place with your other home theater components.

Motherboard

Motherboard

The motherboard is truly the heart of a computer, everything connects through it. In the past, the motherboard was more of a backbone supporting all the components that make up a computer. These days, most of the components are actually part of the motherboard. For a HTPC it is possible to get a motherboard which will supporting most of the functions of a computer including video output directly to a TV or receiver.

I'm recommending the Asus M4N78 Pro full size ATX motherboard. This motherboard is built for HTPC systems. It uses NVIDIA's GeForce 8300 chipset which supports direct output to HDMI with 8-channel sound. No video card is required as it is integated on the board. Also, the 8300 chipset has video functionality included to reduce strain the processor when decoding video streams. This motherboard only works with AMD processors, so if you insist on having an Intel processor you'll have to go with another option such as one based on the NVIDIA Geforce 9300/9400 chipset which provides similar functionality to the 8300 but for Intel chips.

Processor

Processor

The brain of your computer, you will want to size your processor (or CPU) according to what you will want to do with your HTPC. A computer which will just be used to watch Internet videos does not need as much power as one which will be acting as a four-tuner DVR.

I'll go with the AMD Phenom II X2 550 processor. This is a dual core processor running at 3.1GHz. One thing to keep in mind with processors, fewer cores running faster are better than more cores running slower. For a similar price to this processor it is possible to get a three core processor but the speed in each core will be 10% slower. Since most applications out there can not take advantage of more cores you will end up running slower overall. This processor also has the advange of being low power, only 65W. This will save in heat which is always an enemy in your computer.

Memory

Memory

The type of memory (DDR2 or DDR3) will be determined by your selection of motherboard and processor. The amount of memory you install will be driven by what you will be doing with the computer. This is one case where more is almost always better. Fortunately, memory is now cheap enough that it is not usually necessary to compromise.

Memory needs to be matched to the motherboard. For the motherboard above I'm going to recommend the Corsair XMS2 PC2-6400 800 MHz DDR2 memory kit. Although the Asus motherboard will support 1066MHz memory, there have been reports of problems going beyond two memory sticks. Since there isn't a significant boost in overall system speed going with the faster memory, and to preserve the option to upgrade memory capacity later, I would suggest to stay with the slightly slower memory. 4GB should give you enough capacity to run any home theater related applications.

Optical Drive

Optical Drive

With a good optical drive in your HTPC you may be able to do without a separate Blu-ray player. There are a number of read-only Blu-ray drives on the market that can go in a PC. These drives typcially also have the ability to read and write to standard DVD disks. You can play Blu-ray and standard DVD disks and also record to standard DVD disks.

The Lite-On IHOS104 Blu Ray ROM is the most cost effective optional available for a Blu-ray reading capable drive. Although this drive will read from Blu-ray, DVD, and CD disks, it will not write to any disk format. Fortunately, for a HTPC writing to disk is typically not an issue. If you want to write to DVDs, you will pay about 50% more for the drive. If you want to write to Blu-ray disks, you'll pay at least three times as much.

Tuner

Tuner Card

If you want to watch or record television with your HTPC then you will want a tuner card. There are single, dual, and soon four tuner cards available. These allow you to view and or record one or more television channels at a time. Unfortunately, most TV channels are now encrypted. To view these encrypted channels using a device other than a cable provider's set-top box you will need a CableCard. This is a card with decryption logic which the cable company provides (for a fee) to use in devices like TiVo and HTPC. There are only a few PC tuner cards out there right now which support CableCard.

This is one component I can't recommend buying yet. You can buy any number of single and dual tuner cards out there now for under $150. Unfortunately, these do not support CableCard and won't be able to receive most of your cable channels. The only cards out there today which support CableCard are single tuner and cost over $200. Fortunately, that is about to change. In the near future Ceton is due to release their InfiniTV 4 quad-channel, CableCard ready tuner card. This card won't be cheap, nearly $400, but will allow you to receive and record four channels at once. They are also expected to release a dual-channel tuner card at some point as well if you don't want to spend quite as much. I recommend holding off for one of these cards. Once available, this card will let your HTPC act as a full function DVR allowing you to record and watch your shows when you want.

Hard Disk Drive

Hard Disk Drive

You'll need somewhere to store your download content as well as any shows you wish to record from cable. This is another one of those places where more is better. Fortunately large capacity disk drives are not very affordable. There is no reason not to put a 1TB (terabyte, or one trillion byte) or even larget drive in your system. You will want an efficient (low power), quiet, and reliable drive. If that drive fails you loose everything on your HTPC, so the more reliable the drive is the better. Reliability is usually measured in MTBF, mean time between failure. This is the average number of hours the drive can be expected to last. Of course your drive could last longer or shorter than this average. Keep in mind that a HTPC will usually be on 24 hours per day, so you can figure out the expected days of life for your drive by dividing the MTBF by 24.

The Western Digital 1TB Caviar Green hard drive is a low-power drive advertising capacity to store 120 hours of HD video.  This drive is designed to run quiet which is esential for a home theater enviornment.

Power Supply

Power Supply

You'll need power to run all the goodies in your HTPC. Some cases come with a power supply built in but most will require you to add your own. You want to make sure your power supply is strong enough to support what you have in your computer but not too far beyond that capacity. If you get a power supply rated for far over your need it will actually use more electricity due to lower efficiency at the load you are running under. With this lower efficiency comes more heat which can cause other problems such as noise for fans to remove that heat.

The Thermaltake 430W Dual Fan ATX Power Supply will provide ample power for your HTPC. Being the same manufacturer as the case listed above you can be assured that this power supply will fit properly in the case. Although not overly equipped with connectors, it has the right ones and enough of those to work with the components you are likely to install in your home theater PC.

Remote, Keyboard, and Mouse

Keyboard and Mouse

Many HTPC cases and tuner cards come with a remote control design for HTPC environments. Also, many universal remotes can be programmed to work with a HTPC. Still, this is a computer, and there are times when a remote control is not enough. You will want a wireless keyboard and mouse which you can use to control your HTPC from the comfort of your sofa.

I really like the nMEDIAPC HTPCKB wireless keyboard and remote combination. The keyboard is designed to sit in your lap and has integrated mouse buttons and a track ball controller. The remote can also act as a mouse as well as controlling many other functions of your HTPC.

CPU Cooler

CPU Cooler

The processor in your computer throws off a lot of heat. Most processors come bundled with a heat sink which uses a small fan to get the heat away from the processor. These small fans can make a lot of noise. You don't want the sound of your movie to be overtaken by the sound coming from your HTPC. Fortunately, there are after-market coolers which provide a lot more metal to radiate the heat and a bigger fan for quieter operation. In a home theater environment one of these may be necessary. Most coolers can be put on after the system is built so you may wish to try using the cooler which comes with your CPU first. If you find this to be too noise you can always add a cooler later.

If you choose to add a cooler you may like the Zalman CNPS7500-ALCU. The best feature of this cooler is the huge 110mm fan. A bigger fan typically means slower speed and quieter operation. This cooler is rated at only 17dBA of noise (very quiet) when running at its normal speed.

Operating System

Operating System

Without software your computer is nothing but a big paperweight. The most basic part of the computer's software is the operating system. In HTPC environments there are only two real choices for an operating system, Microsoft Windows and Linux. Windows has built in home theater support in the way of Microsoft Media Center (MMC). Linux requires add-on home theater packages, but there are several to choose from. If MMC doesn't provide enough capability for your Windows machine then there are add-on home theater packages available for Windows as well.

My recommendation is to go with Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium - 64-bit. This version of Microsoft's consumer operating system comes with enhancements to Microsoft Media Center which puts it on par or ahead of most other HTPC offerings. The 64-bit version is recommended as 32-bit will not support more than about 3.5GB of RAM in a computer and most new computers are being built with 4GB or even more memory.

Cost

How much is this going to set you back? Not as bad as you might think. As of April 2010 the cost of everything above except the tuner card comes in to just under $800. Of course, if you let yourself get out of control you could easily run the price up over $2000, but you need to ask yourself what you actually get for that much more. Build a HTPC you can use, not one that is just the best.

Disclaimer

Please note that I have not built the configuration above and can not guarantee that all of these components will work together. They should, but computers can be odd at times. As new components come on the market and old components go out of production the list is being changed. As I'm not a professional reviewer I don't have access to every new component out there to test for myself. Fortunately, most vendors have good return policies so if you find that a component doesn't fit or doesn't work properly you should be able to return it and try something else.


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