Summary: Brandon writes up an exhaustive, part-by-part guide to building your own HTPC. Read on, media Macduff!
Slowly but surely though, that mindset started to change.
After the TV tuner card, arguably the first technology that played a significant role in the HTPC’s development was DVD. Thanks to DVD, computer users could watch high resolution full-length DVD movies on their PC for the first time. Newer, more powerful system chipsets also played an important role in the HTPC’s development that’s often forgotten. Core logic manufacturers such as Intel, VIA, SiS, and NVIDIA integrated new features that had never been found on the chipset before such as audio and networking. Traditionally these duties had been provided by separate external devices. These manufacturers also enriched their chipsets with lots of connectivity options, such as USB and FireWire. With the chipset’s added complexity, manufacturers were able to more easily produce fully-fledged PCs that took up smaller amounts of space. This finally culminated into Shuttle’s XPC lineup, which also played a significant role in the HTPC’s development.
Shuttle’s XPC demonstrated to the world that a PC a little larger than a shoebox could perform on par with a full-sized desktop system. Starting especially with their second generation chassis’s Shuttle also demonstrated that their XPCs could be stylish, sitting right alongside the receiver, DVD player, and other components inside a home theater system with no problem aesthetically. The days of the boring old beige box were finally over.
The one key downside to Shuttle’s XPC however was its high cost. Prices on XPCs typically started around $300 and quickly went up from there. While $300+ may not sound like much to some, for most that’s a lot to pay for what is essentially just a case and motherboard. And it’s a case and motherboard with limited expansion options at that. Meanwhile, system cases that rivaled the XPC in looks were few and far between, sometimes coming from obscure manufacturers and always selling for a premium.
Fortunately nowadays things have changed. Not only can you find a wide range of HTPC chassis to choose from on store shelves, they come from known names in the case business like Antec, CoolerMaster, Lian Li, Thermaltake, and many others. In addition, prices on HTPC chassis sell for the same price, if not lower than many full-size desktop cases. When you combine this with the fact that chipsets have more features integrated into them than ever before, you can build yourself a pretty powerful HTPC for the same price, if not less than a typical gaming rig.
That’s what we set out to do in today’s article, and with the help of Newegg that’s exactly what we’ve accomplished. Let’s go over the parts we’re using for this build…
With this in mind we were left to debate between AMD or Intel. As you probably know by now, AMD’s processors are better overall performers than Intel’s right now, but Intel’s dual-core processors are priced extremely competitively. According to Price Watch, prices on Pentium D CPUs start right around $150, whereas the cheapest Athlon 64 X2 processors start at just under $300. You can nearly buy two Pentium D 820s for the price of one Athlon 64 X2 3800!
Besides performance, one additional area that the Athlon 64 X2 line has over Pentium D however is thermals. AMD’s CPUs simply generate less heat than the equivalent processor from Intel. This is especially important in an HTPC, as the CPU will often have to sit in a smaller case, with less room available for high-end CPU coolers, not to mention less than ideal airflow. With the processor generating more heat, you run the risk of the CPU cooler generating more noise, which is something you don’t want in an HTPC when you’re trying to watch a movie, particularly if it’s a drama with lots of dialogue (where the scenes are quieter) and light on action.
Because of this, we elected to go with AMD’s Athlon 64 X2 line of processors. Excess noise is something we just didn’t want to run the risk of compromising on, plus the X2’s a little faster than Pentium D anyway. In particular we chose the Athlon 64 X2 4200+. The 4200+ ships with 512K of L2 cache per core just like the X2 3800+, but runs a little faster at 2.2GHz versus the 3800’s 2.0GHz. While we didn’t overclock the processor, in terms of overclocking potential, it’s not uncommon for the 4200+ to hit speeds as high as 2.7GHz on air, while the 3800+ has been known to go as high as 2.5GHz with conventional cooling.
Alternatives: Besides the Athlon 64 X2 4200+, another solid alternative would be the aforementioned 3800+. The 3800+ runs a little slower, but sells for about $60 less than the 4200+. We figured the extra clock speed was worth the extra $60, but if you’ve got to stick to a budget, that $60 saved could definitely come in handy. Another excellent alternative to either X2 processor would be the AMD Opteron 165. The Opteron 165 ships with 1MB of L2 cache per core, rather than the 512KB found on the lower end X2 CPUs we mentioned, only it ships at 1.8GHz. However, this chip can easily be overclocked to 2.3GHz or greater on air.
The Opteron 165 isn’t quite the steal it once was however, a few months ago the chip was priced below the price of the X2 3800+ with most online retailers selling it for $300 or less, but in more recent months AMD has slowly raised the price of the CPU. Now it sells right in between the price of the X2 3800+ and the X2 4200+ at most retailers. Therefore, the X2 3800+ is the economical choice, with the Opteron 165 and X2 4200+ the choice if you can afford to splurge a little.
With this in mind NVIDIA’s GeForce 6150 chipset was the most obvious choice. The 6150 chipset supports all of the key storage and connectivity features found in NVIDIA’s higher-end chipsets, such as Gigabit Ethernet networking and support for 3Gb/sec Serial ATA with native command queuing (NCQ). Up to four SATA drives are supported natively by the chipset. The GeForce 6150’s integrated GPU also boasts support for NVIDIA’s PureVideo technology, offering some H.264 decode acceleration functionality as well as MPEG-2 and WMV hardware acceleration. The GPU also supports upscaling, allowing you to upscale your DVDs to HD resolutions, and spatial temporal de-interlacing of standard definition content, all while also supporting NVIDIA’s nView dual-display technology.
Another very important aspect of the GeForce 6150 chipset is that it does all this without generating a lot of heat. As a result, motherboard manufacturers are able to cool the North Bridge and South Bridge of the chipset with passive cooling, no exotic heatsink/fan units are needed nor are heatpipes. This is particularly important in an HTPC, where low noise isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.
Based on this, we chose MSI’s K8NGM2-FID (MS-7207) GeForce 6150 motherboard. The K8NGM2-FID comes the closest to exposing the full potential of NVIDIA’s GeForce 6150 chipset. Not only does the motherboard provide both VGA and DVI outputs on the backplate of the motherboard, it’s also got lots of connectivity options as well, supporting up to four USB ports out of the box (unfortunately MSI doesn’t ship the board with a USB bracket), four Serial ATA drives, IEEE-1394 Firewire, and interestingly enough, both component video out and SPDIF cables.
By including both component video and DVI connectivity options, MSI’s K8NGM2-FID offers end users a couple of different ways to hook up the HTPC to their HDTV, and with the VGA output, you can still drive a separate display with minimal hassle. On the back of the component video header you’ll also find an S-Video output, allowing those of you with standard definition TVs with another way to hook your TV up to your HTPC.
In addition to providing a wide range of connectivity options, MSI’s K8NGM2-FID is also extremely stable and delivers good overall performance. Keep in mind that it’s a micro-ATX motherboard, so your expansion options are limited to just two PCI slots and one PCI Express slot (in addition to the x16 PCI Express graphics slot) but with 7.1 audio, networking, and storage duties already integrated onboard, there isn’t much need for anything else, while the micro-ATX form factor ensures that the K8NGM2-FID is compatible with a wide range of HTPC cases.
It’s because of all this that the K8NGM2-FID has proven to be extremely popular among the HTPC crowd. On Newegg 100 out of 111 user reviews are positive, with only five votes for average, four for poor, and two for very poor, making it one of the highest rated GeForce 6150 boards on Newegg.
Alternatives: With the debut of AMD’s new AM2 socket last week, a Socket AM2 motherboard would be the obvious alternative to the K8NGM2-FID. However keep in mind that most of the early AM2 motherboards on the market right now are based on NVIDIA’s nForce5 series chipsets, which include the 550, 570, and 590 SLI. None of these chipsets have the integrated capabilities of NVIDIA’s GeForce 6150 chipset and most of them are full-sized ATX cases. Therefore, the ideal AM2 HTPC motherboard doesn’t quite exist yet.
What makes the decision tough for HTPC users however is the lack of support for HDCP in today’s latest graphics cards. As Alan mentioned in his HDCP fiasco article, while today’s GPUs support HDCP, the graphics card manufacturers haven’t implemented it on most of their boards, there are only a handful of graphics cards on the market with HDCP support, and with the exception of ATI’s FireGL V7350, none of them have hit the retail market yet.
Because the market is in such a flux right now, it may not be best for HTPC users to break the bank and spend $300 or more on a graphics card. Besides, the faster graphics cards tend to generate more heat and thus require noisier coolers. The X1900 XT/XTX in particular has developed a reputation for being a noisy graphics card.
Therefore we’re sticking with graphics cards in the sub-$200 price range for this HTPC build. Today’s $200 cards are more powerful than ever, delivering performance roughly on par with the high-end $400 cards of a few years ago like the GeForce 6800 GT.
The fastest of these $200 cards right now is NVIDIA’s GeForce 7600 GT. The GeForce 7600 GT is largely based on NVIDIA’s G71 GPU, in fact we dubbed it half a GeForce 7900 in our 7600 GT Performance Preview article, as the 7600 GT has half the number of pixel shaders as the GeForce 7900 GT and half the ROPs. Its memory interface is also 128-bit, half the width of the 7900’s 256-bit memory interface. It does however have five vertex shading units, which is just three less than the GeForce 7900 GT, and runs at high clock speeds of 560MHz core/700MHz memory (1.4GHz effective), making it considerably faster than its intended competitor, the Radeon X1600 XT.
In more recent weeks however ATI has countered the GeForce 7600 GT with the Radeon X1800 GTO. Initially the Radeon X1800 GTO sold for $50 or more than the GeForce 7600 GT, but board prices on X1800 GTO cards are quickly falling and now retailers like Newegg are beginning to carry the card for under $200. Considering that these boards are based on the exact same R520 GPU found in the rest of ATI’s X1800 family, boasting a 256-bit memory interface only with 12 pixel shaders instead of 16, the X1800 GTO is quite the deal. In addition, ATI’s Radeon X1800 GTO offers full support for ATI’s Avivo video enhancement features, without any fees. For all these reasons, we’re going to go with the X1800 GTO for our HTPC build.
Alternatives: If the Radeon X1800 GTO is a little too pricey, the aforementioned GeForce 7600 GT would be an excellent alternative. The 7600 GT and Radeon X1800 GTO perform fairly closely to one another, with each card winning its fair share of benchmarks, although the Radeon X1800 GTO is a little faster overall. The GeForce 7600 GT also supports NVIDIA’s PureVideo technology, fits in a single-slot package, and doesn’t generate much heat, making it ideal for use in an HTPC. Prices on GeForce 7600 GT cards start at about $160 and go up from there, making it a little cheaper than the Radeon X1800 GTO as well.
2GB Rosewill DDR400 SDRAM – Pricing N/A ~$160: Normally when it comes to memory we stick with the premium brands like OCZ and Corsair, but for this HTPC build we decided to save a little money and go with Rosewill’s DDR400 memory modules. Rosewill is Newegg’s house brand, so you know it’s going to be backed up with solid support, and they make pretty good memory for the dollar. Their modules aren’t necessarily the fastest on the block – they aren’t designed to be – but they are reliable and get the job done.
N/A: Budget $50 for a good upgrade: When it comes to optical storage, we don’t have any particular preference, you can find lots of solid DVD burners for under $50, so that’s what we’ve budgeted for this component.
ATI HDTV Wonder - $108.99 Newegg: For TV playback, we chose ATI’s venerable HDTV Wonder PCI HDTV tuner card. The HDTV Wonder is one of the older HDTV tuner cards on the market (first launched by ATI in 2003) so it may not have all the bells and whistles of some of the newer HDTV tuner cards out there, but it’s still one of the more versatile HDTV tuner cards on the market. The card supports both high definition and standard definition TV tuning and playback, utilizing a Philips TV tuner for these duties. Image quality is quite good with the HDTV Wonder, particularly when watching high definition content, although when it comes to standard definition it’s a little easier to see that the Theater 200 chip that the HDTV Wonder relies on is a little dated, even ATI’s own Theater 550 Pro ASIC provides better quality overall, although as we noted in our roundup of Theater 550 cards, the difference isn’t quite as dramatic as you’d think. Theater 550 sports a 3D comb filter, for handling scenes with little movement, such as slow moving video, or static items in a scene. The 3D comb filter is then backed up by a 5-line 2D comb filter and is used for fast motion video. In comparison the Theater 200 chip used by the HDTV Wonder only has a 3-line comb filter, and no 3D comb filter.
Creative Labs Sound Blaster X-Fi Xtreme Music - $111.99 Newegg: For audio duties we’re going with Creative’s Sound Blaster X-Fi Xtreme Music. The Xtreme Music has much of the audio capabilities that X-Fi cards have become known for, without the pricey extras such as Creative’s untested X-RAM and the external module found on Creative’s high-end Elite audio cards. You can find the Sound Blaster X-Fi Extreme Music cards selling for $112 on Newegg right now in comparison to the X-Fi Elite which goes for over $380.
While AMD’s stock heatsink/fan unit that they ship with their retail processors nowadays is quite robust, sporting heatpipes and a copper base, it still isn’t what we’d classify as a powerful cooling solution. It gets the job done all right, but at times it has to crank up the fan’s RPMs in order to keep the processor adequately cooled. This is okay if noise isn’t an issue to you, but in an HTPC, most users are going to want their system to run as quietly as possible at all times, even under load when the processor is being pushed its hardest.
In order to accomplish this with a fairly speedy processor you’re going to need an aftermarket cooler, the stock AMD heatsink/fan unit doesn’t quite cut it (although again, it is a nice improvement over the stock heatsink/fan units AMD used in the early Athlon days).
This is where Zalman’s CNPS7700-CU comes in. The cooler is quite powerful, available in both all-copper and copper/aluminum combos if you want to save a little money. The key is that it does all this while running quietly. Zalman includes their FanMate fan controller with the cooler, allowing you to manually adjust the fan’s RPMs based on your preferences. You can mount the FanMate controller to the outside of your case for easy access.
Alternatives: There are lots of good alternatives to Zalman’s . For starters there’s the aluminum/copper combo cooler that Zalman manufactures, the CNPS7700-AlCu. Thermaltake, Silverstone, and many others also make good CPU coolers. We’re a little partial to Zalman though since we’ve had so much success with their products in the past. In fact, NVIDIA enlisted the help of Zalman for their reference cooling for the nForce 590 SLI kits. To help combat noise even further, it may not be a bad idea to pair your Zalman or other brand CPU cooler with a good aftermarket VGA cooler.
Power supply unit
OCZ ModStream 550W - $79.99 Newegg: When working in a smaller environment like the confines of an HTPC case, it’s important that airflow remains as unobstructed as possible. This ensures that the system’s components are adequately cooled. This is why you’ll want a modular power supply like OCZ’s ModStream line. With the ModStream, you can pick and choose which power cables you want running inside your system, plugging in the cables you need today, and saving the others for powering devices you may install in the future. This keeps the amount of excess cables running inside your system down to a minimum. OCZ includes the following cables with the ModStream:
Each of these power cables features copper-shielded power leads which are also specially sheathed, this delivers cleaner power. OCZ then adds clear plastic tubing on top of this. For added flair, the cables glow in a light shade of blue when used with UV lighting.
The ModStream features very solid construction, and is decked out with a mirror finish and blue LEDs. For cooling, OCZ uses one 120mm fan which acts as an intake fan, sucking up the hot air within your case and expels it out the back of the PSU, which consists of one large grille. The fan runs quietly as well. Finally, as an added touch, the PSU also ships with extra zip ties and Velcro strips for bundling everything together. While the ModStream doesn’t feature adjustable rails like OCZ’s PowerStream line of PSUs, OCZ provides plenty of power on each rail for all of the latest high-end hardware. We’ve had no problems running a pair GeForce cards in SLI or ATI’s latest X1900 XTX CrossFire setups on our ModStream power supplies.
So there you have it, our take on some of the best components out there for an HTPC build. While they got off to a slow start, home theater PCs are quickly becoming all the rage among PC enthusiasts. Both AMD and Intel have noticed this, offering their Viiv and Live initiatives to cater to this burgeoning market.
Once an enterprising motherboard manufacturer develops an AM2 motherboard with HTPC applications in mind, we definitely wouldn’t hesitate to move over to one of AMD’s energy efficient Athlon 64 processors for upcoming HTPC builds. They sell for a slight premium over more conventional AMD processors, but the lower power they generate is probably well worth it. Intel really won’t have an effective alternative to this until Conroe debuts in a little over a month.
On the graphics side, the biggest disappointment is probably the continuing lack of support for HDCP among most graphics cards. With HD-DVD and Blu-Ray really set to take off over the course of this year, it’s important that the PC graphics industry catches up to the home theater market and starts rolling HDCP protection into their devices as soon as possible, even if the movie industry doesn’t require it for full resolution playback until later this decade (this is a proposal that’s been floating out there to ease the transition into these new formats).
Once the industry works through these growing pains, the media center PC will be really poised to take off, particularly once Windows Vista ships next year. Microsoft’s media center plans for Windows Vista are pretty ambitious, not only will the new OS include Cablecard support for digital cable users, Microsoft has also signed on with digital satellite provider DirecTV. Once these features are rolled into Vista, life should be much easier for prospective digital cable and satellite HTPC users who would like to integrate their media center PCs into their existing home theater system. Right now getting Windows Media Center to work for these users is a clunky process that really can be a frustrating experience. In a matter of months, the hassle of getting your HTPC to control your cable box and thus record your favorite television programs automatically will be seamless.
With the imminent release of Vista and HD-DVD and Blu-Ray drives for PCs, the home theater PC is on the brink for a huge up tick in sales. The HTPC we’ve presented for you today should be more than capable of handling these technologies and performing with aplomb. Now if ATI and NVIDIA can just get the whole HDCP fiasco sorted out…
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