Thoughts on building a high-def ready HTPC

Just kicking around some ideas for what would be an ideal next gen optical format (HD DVD and/or Blu-ray) ready HTPC. This is of course somewhat hypothetical as, alas, I don't have the hand's on knowledge… yet. This is culled from what I know from informal testing, user reports, and decoding performance benchmarks available on the web. Feel free to comment.

Full details and build notes after the "read more."

Windows XP MCE 2005 w/ Vista coupon $110
Microsoft MCE Remote kit $35
Intel BOXDG965WHMKR $120
Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 $320
Zalman CNPS 7000B-AlCu $30 + ZM-CS1 Socket 775 bracket $5
GeIL GX21GB6400DCK 1GB (2 x 512MB) $110
Leadtek WinFast PX7900GS TDH 256MB Geforce 7900GS w/HDCP $180
ATI Theater 550 Pro $70
Samsung SpinPoint T Series HD400LJ 400GB $110
Zalman HD160 $250
Corsair CMPSU-520HX $120
Cyberlink PowerDVD Ultra $100

Optional sound card:
Creative Labs Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeGamer Fatal1ty Professional Series $130

Optical drive choices:
Lite-On LH-2B1S Blu-ray burner $600
Xbox360 HD DVD drive $200
Toshiba LH-2B1S HD DVD burner $300 (projected price, due Feb)

Build Notes:

  • MCE 2005 just makes sense for an OS, it is only $110-$130 from most online vendors and has everything you need for standard def DVDs and PVR. Getting a copy that has a Vista upgrade coupon is just plain smart, Vista is where it's at, it will allow newer content and eventually better support of the next generation optical formats.
  • The motherboard chosen is Intel G965WH, you can't go wrong with Intel, and it is ViiV certified, plus it is Dolby Home Theater certified which means it supports Dolby Digital Live among other Dolby technologies. It also has 7.1 analog outputs which is key for high def audio on the PC [currently] (see more below).
  • Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 — yes this is a smidge beefy, but with H.264 encoded discs you need it. Maybe you could get away with an E6400, I wouldn't bother fudging it.
  • The GeIL RAM is an inexpensive kit of DDR2-800 that actually works at 1.8v, the Intel motherboard doesn't let you deviate from the standard voltage spec. so this is important.
  • The Leadtek seems to have good feedback about being fairly quiet, it is HDCP enabled, and is reasonably powerful all for under $200.
  • The Corsair PSU is modular and is made by Seasonic for Corsair, Corsair actually blends the best of the S12 and the M12 series into their own line.
  • Can't go wrong with the quiet of a Samsung hard drive plus the price is excellent.


Cyberlink software notes:
Right now you have to choose which version to install: the Blu-ray edition or the HD DVD edition. Cyberlink says they are working on a fix to allow users with drives from both formats to work.

High definition audio formats and the PC:
Sound from next generation high def discs isn't as easy as just connecting S/PDIF to your surround sound receiver. S/PDIF will of course send the legacy Dolby Digital or DTS required by the formats, however, S/PDIF doesn't have the bandwidth to send the uncompressed or lossessly compressed (Dolby TrueHD/DTS-HD Master Audio) audio tracks that many come with. Most top tier Blu-ray titles feature high quality 6-channel PCM while many HD DVD releases offer Dolby TrueHD lossless tracks. The only digital interface that can transport these high bitrate uncompressed streams is HDMI, however true HDMI audio on a PC isn't available yet (the HDMI video cards basically reroute S/PDIF audio, making it nothing special).

The other way to get the high quality audio tracks out of these discs is good old multi-channel analog output. So you may want to invest in a good sound card with high quality analog outputs. This is where the optional Sound Blaster X-Fi comes in, you may want to get a nice sound card with 7.1 outputs to get the full uncompressed and/or losslessly compressed sound tracks. These sound tracks have a noticeable difference over their lossy counterparts in many cases.

Wrap Up:

Expensive? Yes. However put it in the context of standalone players. You won't find both a Blu-ray player, HD DVD player, excellent upscaling DVD player, and DVR device in one. The cost of this HTPC (depending on configuration) still comes in under the MSRP of Pioneer's Blu-ray player ($1,800).

Even taking the cheapest Blu-ray player ~$800 which is a first generation Samsung player that may or may not support BR profile level 2 (BD-Live — AKA the good stuff, interactive features and network content) and cannot decode all the audio formats Cyberlink's software can. The cheapest HD DVD player is ~$500, the Toshiba HD-A2, this is the basic model and doesn't have discrete 5.1 audio output should you need it, and most of us do currently.