Beginner's Guide to Building a Home Theater PC
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
| nMEDIAPC Black HTPC 1080P Micro ATX Media Center / HTPC Case|