Summary: People build HTPC's out of spare parts all the time. The problem is that you shouldn't be using spare parts - a high-end HTPC needs much more power than that. We're putting a 7800GTX in our HTPC, and showing off the design issues behind building a high-end HTPC with an off-the-air HD tuner. Even if you're not planning to build an HTPC, this is an important article to read to learn about PC video technology.
The story so far
We’re at the last event in our first biennial Eternal Battle. We’ve tried to do something that’s never been done before by writing the ultimate system building guide and we’ve taken the traditional video game cliché of having to fight the final enemy several times. You see, when you reach the final enemy boss of the game, you face the battle of all battles. So FiringSquad published back-to-back system building guides on Monday and Tuesday, showing you what goes into an ultimate gaming system and what goes into an ultimate workstation. That’s already two times more ambitious than anything FS has done in the past.
In contrast to the other computer systems, a home theater PC must be able to integrate in a modern home entertainment center. At a minimum, this should include an HDTV and a digital surround sound system. To interface with these technologies, the PC will need to output an HD compatible signal for the video and a digital audio signal to your audio processor, so we’ll start with our methods for accomplishing this.
Whereas the fundamental component of the desktop and workstation was determing the platform, for a HTPC, the video card is what’s critical. The most expensive video card may not be the best choice for a home theater PC. If you have an HDTV with HDMI or DVI inputs, then you need to have DVI outputs on your video card -- that makes sense. Some of the older HDTV displays may not have a DVI input, or may not have enough digital inputs. This is when you need a card that will output to component video in a HD compatible format. Going beyond that, you need a video card that will allow custom resolutions. To determine if your video card will do these deeds, check this list for ATI (http://www.ati.com/products/hdtvadapter/faq.html#2). Among the NVIDIA cards, only the 6600 line seems to ship with component video out adapters – the other GeForce 6 series cards only work with HDTV over DVI. The 7800GTX also has component video out.
PureVideo is NVIDIA’s marketing term for the video processing found in NVIDIA GPUs, so it means a lot of things. You actually need both a NVIDIA GPU and the NVIDIA DVD Decoder (also called NVIDIA PureVideo Decoder) which costs about $20. The NVIDIA “DVD” decoder is in fact a full MPEG-2 decoder and can deal with 720p and 1080i MPEG-2 Transport Stream demuxing and decoding. Only with the NVIDIA’s software can you take full advantage of the video features of the NVIDIA GPU.
De-interlacing is the process in which interlaced video is converted into a progressive scan format. We really need to dedicate a whole article for this, but the general principle is that de-interlacing is the critical determinant of final video picture quality when dealing with 1080i content. The difference between a $2000 DLP front projector and $15,000 one is largely the video processor that does the de-interlacing.
The HD Challenge
Most manufacturers have figured out clever ways to de-interlace standard definition DVD-quality video. The problem arises with 1080i HDTV content such as what you will see on HDNet, CBS, NBC, PBS, UPN, HBO, Showtime, INHD, Discovery Channel HD, and the WB (Fox, ABC, and ESPN use 720p). Since 1920x1080 represents six times the data, most deinterlacers, including those from Faroudja and the PureVideo in the GeForce 6600 are unable to intelligently deal with 1080i sources. For the majority of de-interlacers, 1080i HDTV is de-interlaced by ignoring one of the fields during each stage of processing. This means that 1920x1080i image is converted to 1920x540p before it goes to 1920x1080p. You can lose half your spatial resolution when considered on a frame by frame basis. This is an industry-wide problem. That ultra-high-end DLP for $5000? When you feed it a 1080i source, it’s likely using one only one-field with 540 vertical lines to convert 1920x1080i into 1920x540 before going to1280x720p. Even most high-end 45” 1920x1080 LCD flat panels will take 1920x1080i down to 1920x540p before going up to 1920x1080p.
In standard definition, PureVideo holds its own against “gold standard” products for standard definition interlaced sources such as the Faroudja DCDi and is even superior to DScaler (but not the scaling portion). When it comes to HD content however, HDTVs with Faroudja processing and HTPCs with GeForce 6 series products are virtually identical as they both rely on using only one field at any given time.
The key point is that the 7800GTX has sufficient horsepower to apply those same PureVideo calculations to 1080i HD video. This means that the 7800GTX decodes 1920x1080i at 60 fields per second to 1920x1080p at 60 frames per second while selectively preserving detail in areas that are not in motion.
NVIDIA is not the first manufacturer with region-based motion-adaptive HD deinterlacing, but NVIDIA is joining the company of only a select few. You’ll find this technology in Gennum’s VXP that powers a $15,000 Marantz DLP front projector or Christie Digital’s professional grade projectors. The impressive feat is that the 7800GTX actually brings this down to your desktop and the $600 for the 7800GTX suddenly doesn’t look all too expensive. (Of course, VXP does other stuff like diagonal filtering and noise-reduction which NVIDIA does not).
There is another
True per-pixel motion-adapative deinterlacing would imply per-pixel spatial and per-pixel temporal de-interlacing. So, not only would each pixel be analyzed but you would also need to determine whether that specific pixel had been in motion (as opposed to that region). This should in theory provide the maximum detail/resolution and such a product exists; it’s called Hollywood Quality Video (HQV) technology from Silicon Optix and Teranex.
The choices for HDTV tuners with MCE2005 drivers include a budget model from AverMedia, the ATI HDTV Wonder which includes a Silver Sensor-clone antenna, and the FusionHDTV 5 which uses a more sensitive hardware tuner than any other PCI-HDTV tuner. The ATI and FusionHDTV5 are the same price at $150, but the AverMedia is under $100. The FusionHDTV5 is likely the best choice, but we went with an ATI HDTV tuner, because we can use hacked drivers.
With Windows MCE2005, a HDTV tuner cannot be installed without a standard analog TV tuner. This would seem OK given that the HDTV Wonder has an analog tuner also, but Microsoft requires Media Center 2005 TV tuners to support hardware MPEG-2 encoding. This choice by Microsoft reflects narrow-minded design choices. While the requirement of MPEG-2 encoding is important for having “low-end” PCs with a slow CPU serve as acceptable digital video recorders, this isn’t the case for a high-end HTPC. Likewise, many HDTV owners including myself watch digital TV exclusively. This is because non-HD shows are broadcast as either digital 480i, or more typically sent as upsampled 720p or 1080i achieved through the Teranex devices at the station itself. The hacked drivers for the ATI HDTV Wonder tricks MCE2005 into thinking that there is an MPEG-2 encoder, allowing you to run the HDTV Wonder as the sole tuner in a system. Since the antenna is worth at least $25, this essentially means that we only need to pay a $25 premium over the AverMedia rather than having to buy an $80 TV tuner card.
The default ATI software is unreliable. It worked well for me initially but stopped recording reliably a few weeks later. On AVSForum, the HDTV Wonder is called the HTDV Blunder. Fortunately, with MCE2005 you do not have to rely on ATI’s software.
ATI HDTV Wonder
Running Total: $770
We did think long and hard and chose the MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum/SLI. It includes an onboard SB Live 24-bit sound card and has the ability to upgrade to a SLI setup. In addition it has a very competitive 6 SATA II connections with both nVidia and Silicon Image RAID setups, 10 USB 2.0 connections, and 3 Firewire 400 connections. Having two gigabit ports is also a necessity these days, since it enables you to have two independent networks, one to the internet and one to your local intranet. This physical separation of your networks improves speed and security.
The nVidia nForce4 chipset is our current favorite AMD 64bit solution for its speed and stability. The only thing this motherboard is missing is an integrated wireless networking controller. Many times the home theater PC will be placed at a distance from your primary computer and or network connection, and a high speed network connection would have been put to good use.
The Sound Blaster Live 24-bit is actually the same chip as the Audigy LS. That makes it more like an Audigy2 chipset with all the hardware acceleration taken out. In an HTPC environment where audio quality is more important than multiple concurrent streams, the SB Live 24-bit is a good choice. Unfortunately, MSI did not do the best job in integrating the SB Live 24-bit. They’ve chosen to have this component run on the -5V rail. The negative 5V rail was dropped from the ATX spec more than 2 years ago and since 2004, ATX documents don’t even mention -5V. This means that the MSI requires non-ATX-spec PSUs. We’re a bit disappointed – given that modern PSUs will not be able to power the on-board SB Live. The PC Power & Cooling 850? Nope. Silverstone? Nope. Seasonic S12? Nope.
Luckily, we wanted unmolested 44.1 kHz audio, so we had an Envy24HT solution but as an all-in-one HTPC solution, you need to be careful in picking the right motherboard.
The other disappointment was that the MSI heatsink retention system used a glued-down bottom plate and so we weren’t able to use our Zalman CNPS7000. The DFI and Tyan motherboards we used earlier did not have this problem.
Unfortunately, while we were testing the MSI K8N Neo4 Premium SLI, the plastic retention clip for the SLI selector card popped off and went flying. Although our system did not crash and there was enough friction to keep the SLI selector card in place, being conservative about stability, we have some concern about this mechanism especially if you were building a system that needed to be portable since it seems more prone to failure. This had us looking for alternative boards, and the A8N-SLI Premium looks like a good option as it not only has heatpipe cooling for the nForce chip, but it does the SLI switching internally so there are no parts to fail. In addition, the A8N-SLI Premium provides more space between the SLI boards for improved cooling. If you go with the MSI, you’ll want to pay extra attention to the SLI retention clip.
While waiting for the replacement part, we ended up switching back to the DFI LanParty NF4 SLI-DR for our build.
MSI Neo4 Platinum SLI
ASUS A8N-SLI Premium (not to be confused with the A8N-SLI Deluxe)
DFI LanParty NF4 SLI-DR
Running Total: $970
The same principles in choosing a power supply for a server or workstation, also applies here when building a HTPC. You need something that can handle the load, while also providing stability. Today’s fanless PSUs simply do not have enough power to handle something such as SLI graphics.
Initially it would seem like all you need is either a SPDIF or coaxial digital output, but it is a little more complicated then that. Redbook CD Audio is in 16-bit, 44.1kHz sampling rate, when you capture lossless audio it captures at this sampling rate, or if you play CD’s then they are read at this rate. The problem is that some sound cards only support the more “advanced” 48kHz output, which means that your audio signal must be resampled before getting sent to your receiver. The purists will argue that this will degrade audio quality since it introduces an extra processing step.
Memory needs to be fast and reliable, it doesn’t really matter if you are building a server or HTPC; do you see the recurring theme yet? This system will be tucked away in a cabinet, so we won’t need to spend extra money on any LEDs or displays. Since we aren’t reaching for the most overclockable system, we don’t need the fastest speed ram, but what we can use is the RAM with the fastest timings. Increasing memory timing increases performance without having to “overclock” so your components remain within spec, don’t overheat, or draw excess power.
You gotta go big with the HTPC storage. Recorded HD video takes up about 8 GB per hour, depending on the bitrate of the source. Don’t tell anybody, but when you record HDTV off the air, it’s truly a digital recording without any quality loss. Essentially, it is as if there’s global WiFi and studios are broadcasting television shows 24/7 in digital, and primetime with more than twice DVD quality -- just pretend you didn’t read that.
HTPCs do need a decent amount of processing power to watch HD movies or high-bitrate “EQ” rentals from MovieLink. You need to have enough processing power to decode HDTV and better videos along with the digital audio. You need enough power to re-encode your HDTV recordings so that they are more manageable in size. You need enough power to resample your videos to the native resolutions of your monitor.
Our choice for the CPU was the Athlon64 X2 4200. Although this is the slowest of AMD’s dual core Socket 939 CPUs and has only 512 kb of L2 cache per core, the X2 is fast enough to handle anything we can throw at the HTPC. Good alternatives include the Athlon 64 3500 Venice which will be fast, but limit your ability to effortlessly multitask. Just to refresh your memory, the Venice and San Diego cores add SSE3, with the Venice having 512kb vs 1mb L2 cache in the San Diego. This is almost as confusing as Intel’s new numeric numbering scheme, almost.
AMD Athlon64 X2 4200+
Arctic Silver 5 and the Zalman CNPS7000-Alu are once again our cooling choices. Obviously we don’t need to keep adding the cost of Arctic Silver 5 (we’re using the same tube from the last system build!)
Running Total: $2325
Linux or other alternative operating systems would in theory be the best for this application because they can be purpose built for this task, maximizing speed and efficiency. Unfortunately the driver support for the many peripherals needed in a HTPC is limited outside of Windows. Moreover, despite Microsoft’s reputation of less-than-ideal ergonomics, Windows MCE2005 really works.
MCE2005 is pricey because it’s sold only with the equivalent of a Windows XP license. I.E. You can only buy it as a full operating system as opposed. If you weren’t ready to jump to MCE2005, you could turn to several third party options including MythTV, SageTV, or SnapStream’s BeyondTV. Of course, you also have ATI’s Multimedia Center with EasyLook or NVIDIA’s nStant Media which comes with the NVIDIA DVD Decoder software (but does not do HD tuning).
The problem is that despite all these efforts from 3rd party developers, Microsoft’s solution is still the best overall system in terms of pretending it’s not a TV. It acts as a complete layer of abstraction for the end-user and once you’ve set up the dedicated HTPC, you never have to go into the regular Windows user interface. Perhaps more importantly, you can reach the point almost immediately whereas the Linux based approaches, for example, require considerably more effort.
Menus switch with MacOS X like animations and 3D graphics, and the subscription to the program guide is completely free. The listings are powered by Zap2It and I like the description and information far better than GuideTV. In addition, HD listings are also present. This is done via the Internet as opposed to the over-the-air EPG meaning that additional detail is available. Data for the HD subchannels are not present and you need to manually input them.
MCE2005 is a true PVR as opposed to a DVR. That is, instead of programming by “time” you can program it by show. Want to record the whole season of a show? You can just set it once, and the MCE2005 is able to take care of the rest. This is important because it can be flexible and for shows that repeat several times, it makes sure it doesn’t record the same thing twice and it can rearrange your recording schedule if there is a conflict and it knows that one of the shows will be repeated. You can also search by movie. Another cool feature in MCE2005 is that it can suspend-to-RAM seamlessly. In this mode, every fan is turned off, but then you have near
instant-on boot-up capability (faster than a set-top-box HD tuner) and MCE2005 is smart enough to wake up on its own to record a show.
It is interesting, of course, to see Microsoft’s split personality on the marketing of this product. While we did discuss the design mistake about not allowing MCE2005 to run with an HDTV tuner only, the other mistake is that Microsoft seems unwilling to fully promote and market this software. Now, you may ask how this can be true when FiringSquad had large MCE2005 advertisements on our webpage as did many other websites and because MCE2005 software can now be purchased by individuals. The fact of the matter is that Microsoft did not provide us with any support for the review of the OS. It’s as if they’re so used to discouraging operating system reviews given a history of disastrous products that they’re applying it to MCE2005. If there’s one comment that captures everything, it’s that Microsoft got it working properly with version 2.0 – they did not need to wait to 3.0 this time.
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005
Running Total: $2455
An ideal case for a HTPC will be once that will fit in with the other components in your audio/video rack. This often means a 17-19” component width and a streamlined faceplate. The drives shouldn’t all be different colors, it should look it belongs and your entertainment center should feel empty without it. With all those restrictions, the ideal HTPC case should not skimp on expandability, cooling performance, or value.
Our choice for this system is the X11 chassis from Uneed. Although Uneed might not be a name you recognize, you will immediately recognize their work. They produce the gorgeous case with the integrated touch screen used by VoodooPC in their Aria Media Center. Uneed has focused on the high-end of the OEM HTPC market, and we consider some of their designs the most stylish on the market. A lot of people consider Lian-Li to be the flagship of aluminum chassis design. However, the side panels on our PC-V1200 are just 2 mm; the X11 has 3 mm side panels and an 8 mm front panel.
The X11 is the non-touchscreen version of the X15e and is a full sized case with support for an external 5.25” and an external 3.5” drive and 3 internal 3.5” drives. With the MSI motherboard, we could therefore run 3 SATA-II HDDs, a SATA optical drive, and still have two remaining ports for external SATA. It integrates a vacuum fluorescent display and an IR port, along with front USB, Firewire, and audio ports. One of the best elements of the X11 is that it’s fairly subdued. True, the silkscreened “X11” text is a little bit big, but it will still blend in well with the rest of the home theater rack. We in particular are big fans of the non-door based DVD-ROM cover but find their design odd – they’ve designed it so that you have to remove the frnt of the drive tray (not the whole bezel) when in fact, it would work just as well pasting it over the existing front.
A great feature of the X11 is that the VFD is MCE2005 compatible. This is surprisingly not the case for many VFDs on the market. With MCE2005 compatibility, you can get track and movie information using the integrated software without using any secondary drivers. Likewise, the IR receiver is 100% MCE2005 compatible as well. This means that you can use any MCE2005 compatible remote including those such as the Philips Pronto or Logitech Harmony without requiring any additional programming. Of note, the Remote Wonder Plus that comes with the ATI is a very nice design as well. However, the RF-based technology from ATI is very sensitive to ambient noise. Likewise, it’s not 100% MCE2005 compatible and you end up relying on mouse-emulation plus keyboard-emulation for your tasks.
The VFD/IR unit in the X11 also adds one enormously cool feature – remote control powered start-up! Instead of simply being powered off a molex connector, the X11 has the option of connecting itself directly to the 20-pin or 24-pin PSU/motherboard adapter. This is a significant step in making the HTPC function as a true consumer electronics device. Clearly the next step will be to accelerate the boot process and hibernation process. Currently, the X11’s are shipping only with a 20-pin adapter but the 24-pin adapters will be provided at no extra charge when they are available in about 2 weeks.
I had procrastinated enough where it was impossible to get a new unit shipped out, so I needed to resolder the SMT capacitor myself and all I have is a 40 watt unregulated non-adjustable Hakko soldering iron with a 3mm chisel tip…
I was able to resolder the capacitor successfully. By this point, I thought to myself that that I encountered the failed MSI plastic part and now had to resolder a surface mount capacitor, and had seen the glitch for this system build. If you can learn anything from movies, anytime someone says or thinks that the worst is over (i.e. Apollo 13), something worse will end up happening.
The actual manufacturing of the X11 ended up being less than ideal. Although the case is made of thick aluminum and there are no sharp edges, their tolerances are clearly looser than those from other manufacturers. When working with cases from Lian-Li, Antec, Chenbro, Chieftec, and SuperMicro, the fit and finish was never an issue. Things fit together cleanly and securely, and things like drive cages are carefully thought out. With the X11, there were several problems.
I began by installing the HDD in the main drive cage and my DVD. In order to do this you essentially have to completely take down the entire chassis. The drive cages are not removable in the same way was they are with SuperMicro or Antec/Chieftec cases. You really do have to unscrew all of the screws that hold up the drive cage. As I progressed to the install the motherboard, I discovered that the motherboard stand-offs weren’t quite aligned perfectly. That is, while they screwed into the motherboard perfectly, there was quite of bit of tension on the ATX rear I/O shield and the inserted PCI and AGP cards had a fair amount of space where the card should screw into the chassis, as much as 2 mm (or even to cause danger motherboard flex should you screw down the cards tightly). Trying to fit the motherboard into the misaligned rear I/O shield and led to the case making me bleed my own blood. J
Since the PSU is located adjacent to the DVD-ROM, spacing is tight, particularly with all those cables lying around. A better design would have been to place the PSU on the opposite side, or having a deeper chassis to give a little bit of extra room. With the motherboard and drives secure, I proceeded to install my GPU – only problem was that the HDD was in the way of where the PCI-Express power connector should be. So it was time to take everything apart again, move the HDD to the slot above the DVD-ROM.
Our Finest Hour
Although putting the X11 together required more time than any system build I can recall – it started off with re-soldering surface mount capacitor and required more repositioning and taking apart than any other case I’ve worked with. Yet by the time I was done, the effort was worth it. I had an HTPC that really looked like a piece of equipment that deserved to be on my rack – and it was a computer I could turn on and off with an IR remote.
A comment about PCAlchemy.com
We discovered PCAlchemy.com as they were the only US distributor of the X11 and X15 case besides VoodooPC. They’re a company based out of California that’s focused on the HTPC market alone. Besides carrying the Uneed cases, including the X15e, they have the full line-up from Ahanix and Silverstone, and in the case of Silverstone their prices are as much as 15% cheaper than even Newegg.com! They even have several slot-loading slim optical drives that I didn’t readily find elsewhere.
As a home theater buff, I had the rest of my equipment handy. I already had my Marantz RC5000 (a first-generation Pronto) remote, which meant that I didn’t need to worry about getting a MCE2005 compatible remote. If you I did not have this though, I would need to allocate about $40.
Over the week, we’ve given you a lot of specific recommendations but if you’re just looking for a “Dang-certified” PC, you can just ask your favorite retailer for the Dang PC, or Dang Workstation, or the Dang Theater. J Actually, here are the minimum components we would recommend:
Dang PC 1.0
Dang Workstation 1.0
Dang Theater 1.0
Every component used in the last 5 days reflects the “best in its class” products, but there were a few products that went above and beyond the rest:
FiringSquad’s Editor’s Choice awards
PC Power & Cooling Turbo Cool 510-SLI PSU
Hitachi T7K250 250 GB SATA-II HDD
Zalman CNPS7000B-AlCu cooler
Arctic Silver 5
Bull’s Eye Awards
Pioneer DVR-109 burner
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005
Silverstone Zeus ST65F PSU
OCZ PowerStream 520 PSU
Lian Li PC-V1200 chassis
Athlon64 X2 4200+
Ok, the real closing statement
This has been our most ambitious project to date. In the past, we’d only offer one system building article at a time, and this year we raised the bar. Using our silly gimmick of adapting a video game cliché, we hopefully were able to keep your interest over 5 days of articles, totaling over 32,000 words. I admit, the gimmick was silly, but every article needs a gimmick.
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