HTPC Basics HArdware

Jan 06 2009

Hardware

Building an HTPC is similar to building a personal computer with a few caveats. Keep in mind these are just talking points to get a beginner started in the right direction.

  1. An HTPC is typically in the living room and should be silent
  2. If you want to record TV you need a TV tuner device of some sort
  3. Required CPU speed is dependent on the functions you want to perform
  4. You can never have enough hard drive space

CPU/Video card

CPU requirements depend on a few different considerations that include what type of video card you have, if you plan on using it for an extender server and if you plan on transcoding videos on the fly for placeshifting.

If you plan on only playing back media files, any modern dual core CPU paired with a video card that decodes H.264 in hardware will work for you. For more information, see Matt's article on the basics of Video Card HD processing. Check his guide out before buying a vid card but you will find that the most recent generation of video cards fully decode most formats without using the CPU.

If your box is going to be a multi-tasking monster and perform other tasks watching media files, I would recommend a higher-end dual core CPU or faster quad CPU. The Network Topology section will describe more of what you might expect in a whole-home Media Center setup.

For what its worth, my recommendation for the sweet spot is a 4550.

TV Tuner

A good resource in what TV tuner you will need for your HTPC is this guide here . it is slightly outdated and does not inlcude Hauppauge's HD PVR. As well, read Matt's ATSC/NTSC tuner guide.

Here is a quick summary of the tuners available.

Analog TV cards - These cards are able to tune standard defintion signals such as an s-video output from a cable box or satellite box, or they can tune analog cable with the onboard tuner.

Combo tuner cards - These cards have an analog tuner and digital tuner. You are able to use each tuner independently of one another. The digital tuner is able to tune QAM and ATSC (broadcast digital TV) signals.

Hybrid tuner cards - These cards have an analog and digital tuner. However, you can only use one tuner at a time. They are typically lower in price than combo cards.

Digital tuner cards - More recently companies are releasing dual tuner cards that have two digital tuners onboard. These will work with QAM signals and ATSC (broadcast digital TV).

HD PVR -Hauppauge's HD PVR, see review here, is able to encode high definition output via component cables to H.264. This allows you to use a set top box to view high definition content from any source that has component out.

CableCard Tuners - Exclusive to OEM machines sporting Vista Media Center, CableCards tuners llow full tuning of all premium HD and SD cable content minus the two way communication for PPV.

Case/Cooling

Assuming your HTPC will be a stand-alone component, simply pick a case that looks good and is quiet. Alrighty, there is a little more than that :). Here are a few things to consider.

  • How quiet are the included fans?
  • How is the airflow? Will it be sufficient to cool two tuner cards, multiple hard drives etc?
  • Does it have enough hard drive space?
  • Does it look good?
  • Micro-atx versus full ATX

Here are a few of the well know vendors.

Memory

Memory is dirt cheap. Get as much as your OS and packetbook can afford.

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