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Cutting the Cord Part 2: Building your HTPC - The Hardware

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The Hardware - Part 1

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Windows Media Center has been around for some time, dating back to the days of Windows XP and the Windows XP Media Center Edition that was released in 2002.  Whereas the XP version of Media Center was a standalone version of the Operating System, in Vista (Home Premium and Ultimate editions) and Windows 7 (Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate editions), Media Center was bundled in with the base operating system as an application that could be added through “Add/Remove Windows Components”.  With Windows 8 Microsoft has decided to spin Media Center off and not include it with the base operating system install, but make it available as an add-on pack. 

While there are rumors as to why they did this, the most likely scenario is the fact that Media Center includes codecs and add-ons that require Microsoft to pay licensing fees for.  Why should they pay for millions of licenses for these codecs and add-ons for individuals that never even use Media Center?  This way, those that want to use Media Center can still get it, while Microsoft does not have to pay for all the extra licenses for those that don’t.

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I’ve been happily running Windows 7 Media Center for years, and even though I’d like to write a guide on how to build a Windows 8 Media Center, there’s just no reason to.  Windows 7 Media Center is superior in just about every way compared to the Windows 8 ‘upgrade’.    Even though there are pros to moving to Windows 8 like faster booting and better driver support, there are some major cons that have been reported with the new version of Media Center such as there being a limitation of 4 tuner cards and removal of the capability to boot directly into Media Center. 

Enough about software, let’s talk about Hardware.  Hardware wise, building a Home Theater PC is a completely different animal compared to building a gaming rig or distributed computing machine.  Simply put, we’re building a PC that will connect to a TV, be controlled by a remote control and pump audio and video to your home theater.  Normally important factors like cost, performance and heat, take a back seat in a HTPC, to two often ignored factors, power efficiency and noise.  Things like cost, performance and heat generally are not an issue with a HTPC because we don’t need use cutting edge components to do what we want.  We just need a solid machine that can run for long periods of time without breaking the bank in power costs.  I liken it to a game machine being a thoroughbred racehorse and a HTPC being a work horse that just does what needs to be done without a whole lot of fuss.

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Honestly, if your machine can effectively run Windows 7, it can likely handle most, if not all, Media Center tasks without much of an issue.  Minimum specifications required for Windows 7 are not insanely high, and you might very well be able to use gear you already have that is just sitting around, collecting dust.

The minimum specifications required to run Windows 7 are:

  • Processor: 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster 32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x64)
  • RAM: 1 gigabyte (GB) (32-bit) or 2 GB (64-bit)
  • Hard disk space: 16 GB (32-bit) or 20 GB (64-bit)
  • Graphics card: Microsoft DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM 1.0 driver

Of course, it never hurts to throw in hardware above and beyond the minimum specifications, but there’s no reason to think about running overclocked Extreme Edition CPU or Quad SLI/Crossfire video cards.  Your mantra should be “Decent performance for a decent price with excellent power efficiency.”   Since we are not prioritizing performance there’s a good chance we won’t run into heat issues, just be aware that you shouldn’t shove your HTPC into a media cabinet that has little or no airflow or you will cook it no matter how cool it runs.  Since the box will be running all the time, we will key in on power efficiency and noise.  Noise may or may not be an issue depending on whether it’s going to be kept in a location where the sound of whining fans will interrupt your TV viewing, or worse, your sleep.

My Experience: I highly suggest that before you cancel your cable or satellite subscription that, if at all possible, you build a ‘test HTPC’ out of components that you already have on hand for two reasons.  First, it gives you experience in how the install works and lets you get through some of the learning curve of installing and running media center before you rely on it as your primary entertainment center.  Second, take the test machine and hook it up to a TV that you use, but isn’t your primary TV (like in a bedroom) so you and everyone else can test out using Media Center in a real world way.  Worst case, you find out that you, your significant other or your kids just can’t live without your cable/satellite TV subscription and can easily swap a box or two and be back to the way things were.  I ran a test media center for a few weeks on another television we used every day before I cancelled our cable subscription.

With the components of my upgraded HTPC build I worked to follow the “Decent performance for a decent price with excellent power efficiency” mantra.  I will not be as concerned with noise in my build because the machine will be located inside a (well ventilated) media cabinet that will adequately muffle most of the noise.  Low power use will be my priority.

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In addition to the main components, I’ve shown some “Optional” parts below that you may not actually need in your own build.  I’ll discuss why I chose the optional parts in more detail later, but my HTPC build will consist of the following components:

Note: Prices are subject to change, but were accurate at the time I wrote this.

Total Cost: $576.92 or what I was paying for 3.8 Months of Cable and TiVo

Cost with Optional Components: $781.89 or what I was paying for 5.2 months of Cable and TiVo

December 5, 2012 | 02:04 PM - Posted by scajjr2

That Silverstone case is nice, I used one for the HTPC in our bedroom: Master Bedroom HTPC- Biostar TA75M/AMD A6-3500@2.1Ghz/8Gb DDR3-1600/Samsung 830 128Gb SSD/LG DVD-RW/Silverstone ML03B case/Win7 x64/Toshiba 32C120U 32" LCD TV.

Our main HTPC: Living Room HTPC- Asus F2A85-M-CSM/ AMD A10-5700@3.4Ghz/8Gb DDR3-1866/Samsung 830 64Gb SSD /Samsung EcoGreen 2Tb SATA3 HDD/LG BDRW/Allied 500W PSU/Antec Fusion Remote case/Samsung PN42C450 42" plasma TV/Pioneer VSX-821-k a\v receiver/ Windows 7 Ultimate x64

Also use a Synology DS111 with a Samsung EcoGreen 2Tb drive. So between the Main HTPC and the DS111 all of our media is available to all the devices on our home network (7 computers, 2 iPads, 4 Android phones). Using an ASUS RT-N66U router, awesome data through-put.

Sam

December 5, 2012 | 04:52 PM - Posted by Chris Barbere

What are you using for Tuner card(s) if you're using any?

December 5, 2012 | 06:21 PM - Posted by audiophile42

Glad to see the HTPC coverage (I use one for all my bluray playback using a combo of MediaBrowser and MPC-HC to bitstream hd audio, i3-2100 + 4gb ram + 64gb m4 and a 20TB unRAID server). One thing I would recommend for a remote is the Harmony One. You can customize the hell out of it, it controls everything else in your home theater, and you can pickup a USB IR receiver for around $15 on eBay. It's a little pricey, but its actually not bad for what you get, and its by far the best remote I've used in 10 years. For the occasions I need a keyboard/mouse, I use a Logitech dinovo mini, which can be found for about $50 on eBay.

December 5, 2012 | 07:23 PM - Posted by Rob Sullivan (not verified)

I've found Windows Media Center to be a wonderful DVR and a subpar everything else. I really wish I could get that level of DVR functionality with the plugin type system of say XBMC.

December 5, 2012 | 07:52 PM - Posted by JackNF (not verified)

I've got a pair of those AverMedia Duet tuner cards myself, love them but they do have a rather annoying quirk that shows up when used in certain motherboards. On Intel based builds they work perfect, but a lot of people (myself included) had issues with them in AMD systems. Basically sometimes if the system were waking up from sleep the cards might not. Avermedia never fixed whatever the problem was, opting to just pass the buck saying the chipsets on those boards weren't designed to spec properly (whereas I've never heard of any other cards of any kind having this sort of issue before on those systems). I was perfectly happy with them when I first got them because I had them in an Intel system, but when I moved them into an AMD box it certainly tried my patience. And that is why my current dedicated Media Centre recording box is basically just my old main desktop that they work perfectly in, NOT the AMD box that I either had to leave running 24/7 or else miss a lot of recordings.

Don't know if they finally fixed it with this new version of the card that you've linked to, or if the chipsets for AMD's APUs are any less problematic than their 800 and 900 series chipsets could be. Good luck.

December 5, 2012 | 10:20 PM - Posted by Chris Barbere

Interesting, I may have to experiment a bit with it, but to be honest, the plan is to never let this box go to sleep because it's going to be feeding extenders in other rooms.

December 5, 2012 | 11:46 PM - Posted by AnonymousBob (not verified)

The Silicon Dust network tuners are the way to go for OTA/Cable. Nothing like being able to watch on every single computer in your house. I used to use PCI/PCI-E cards, but why waste the space inside the computer with a very limited tuner?

December 6, 2012 | 12:04 AM - Posted by Tim Verry

As a SiliconDust HDHR3 user, I agree with this statement :). 

December 6, 2012 | 12:33 PM - Posted by zeiker

Did you look at / consider the Mede8er line at all prior to deciding upon the Silicon Dust? I'm seriously considering their HD700. The video juke boxes on these little machines are pretty slick.

December 6, 2012 | 12:09 PM - Posted by Chris Barbere

The network tuners are great, but I'm trying to get down to a single HTPC in the house and then go with Media Extenders (which I'll take more about in a later installment) for the other machines.  With my first go around we had 3 HTPC's running at once, and I'd like to get away from having all the extra PC's lying around the house, sucking up power, windows licenses and components.

That being said, I know a few people (Tim included) that love the network tuners, and it's certainly something people should consider.

December 5, 2012 | 11:42 PM - Posted by AnonymousBob (not verified)

"I still don’t understand why Microsoft hasn’t licensed or even produced their own device with their excellent Media Center UI."

Actually, Microsoft has licensed WMC to companies that sell high end custom home installations (System Integrators) for years. Try a Google search for "Media Center Integrator Alliance".

December 6, 2012 | 12:15 PM - Posted by Chris Barbere

Ah, that's great to know.  I hadn't ever heard about that.  Yet I still don't get why MS didn't license it for lower end consumer products.  I see all these little set top boxes like Roku, Boxee Box, WD TV, etc. and don't think any of their interfaces hold a candle to the WMC UI.

Boxee is actually releasing their new "Boxee TV" with an integrated tuner and tons of streaming apps for $99.  If MS could have just partnered with someone to do something similar with their Media Center UI I think they would have done very well with it.

December 17, 2012 | 04:47 PM - Posted by TheBradyReport

Chris, I bought a Boxee TV (weird obsession with streaming media players) and I can say it isn't worth $20... Horrible. I'll send you some details, but this thing is so disappointing.

I've been MIA and didn't see this until today. Great to see PCPer picking up this area. I been messing with this stuff for 10+ years now and own just about every streaming device you've never heard of... LOL.

Great case - I have the LC16M and just built a second box using the Fortress Mini. Also have a ThermalTake Lanbox that doubles as an HTPC.

Need to finish the article reading :-)

December 6, 2012 | 12:16 AM - Posted by Jingles (not verified)

Good to see some more HTPC articles. I have been writing about HTPCs on my Kulture blog ever since I built myself a new HTPC:

Case: A-Tech Fabrication 2800HP
Motherboard: Intel DH77DF H77
CPU: Intel Core i7-3770T
RAM: Corsair CML8GX3M2A1600C9 8GB Kit (2x4GB) 1600Mhz DDR3
HDD #1: Corsair Force Series GT 120GB SSD
HDD #2: Western Digital Caviar Green WD10EZRX 1TB
ODD: Sony Optiarc BC-5650H
TV Tuner: DigitalNow Quad DVB-T Receiver
Wireless NIC: Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235 Mini PCIe (6235AN-HMWWB)
PSU: 160 Watt PicoPSU

Overkill yes, but it's totally awesome. It's so silent I struggle to hear the HDD during seek even when I put my ear right next to it. The ambient noise easily drowns out any noise my HTPC makes.

December 6, 2012 | 10:13 AM - Posted by collie (not verified)

just a question, why not use a A10-5700 instead {my new budget champion} For $50 more you get about $100 more video power, a nice little boost in CPU speed all at the same wattage. Adding some light gaming potential for $50 seems like a no brainier.

December 6, 2012 | 12:05 PM - Posted by Chris Barbere

If you're looking to do some gaming on the box, I defnitely agree the A10 would have been a better choice.  For that $50 you do get a nice increase in CPU/GPU power.  But in my case, I already have a pretty hefty dedicated gaming machine, and the A6 more than covers what I need the HTPC to do.  That $50 in savings on the APU just about covers the motherboard cost, so for my build it was worth going with the A6.

December 6, 2012 | 01:16 PM - Posted by collie (not verified)

Fair enough.

December 6, 2012 | 02:18 PM - Posted by zeiker

I know i may be jumping the gun on the next article, but did you experience any issues with sound devices / drivers 'colliding' with each other (i.e., the APU HDMI sound drivers, the integrated sound drivers on the mobo, and the two Avermedia tuner card sound drivers)?

I've had issues with this in the past - especially when using Logitech PC surround speakers and an SB live discrete sound card; and an LCD and HDMI feed from a Radeon HD discrete vid card. The HDMI sound would tend to override the SoundBlaster and 5.1 speakers.

Just curious.

These days, I'm seriously considering going the Networked Media Player route vice HTPC - having a stand-alone BRDVD player alleviates one of my main needs for the HTPC.

As an aside, I echo your 'rant' about Win8 and Media Center. Kudos on the remainder of the article.

December 7, 2012 | 09:57 AM - Posted by Chris Barbere

Haven't had any sound issues as of yet, and the box has been up and running for about a week.  I'm pushing everything out through HDMI into a receiver which then passes on to the TV.

December 7, 2012 | 07:44 AM - Posted by KTL

I had built a system with the ML03B case. In choosing the power supply, Silverstone had indicated one that is less than 140-mm long would allow an optical drive to be installed, without the need in going to a microATX PSU. I had put an Antec 380W (non-modular) in there and the optical drive (BD-ROM/DVD/CD) fit without any issues with the 90-degree connectors. My question is, why did you go with the Rosewill unit?

December 7, 2012 | 10:01 AM - Posted by Chris Barbere

Which Antec unit did you go with?  I'd be interested in checking it out.  Main reason why I went with the Rosewill unit is pretty much why I pick any hardware component, it had great reviews on Newegg and Amazon and had a good price.  Also the big 140mm fan and 80 plus gold certification were perfect for an HTPC build for noise and power efficiency.

December 8, 2012 | 03:32 PM - Posted by KTL

The Antec I used was the EA-380D. I have a Corsair CMPSU-400CX that I plan to try, but it seems it's also capable of fitting in without problems.

[UPDATE]
The Corsair PSU fitted without problems either. Here are the pictures.
Antec
Corsair

December 7, 2012 | 09:09 AM - Posted by Prem0

Good to see someone writing about HTPCs.

I just recently build mine using some old parts I had around the house. The case that I used was a nMEDIAPC Black Aluminum panel & Steel HTPC 1000B Micro ATX Media Center / HTPC Case http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16811204030 this case will allow full sized PCI cards in case you want to add a true video card to your system. I used a HD7770 so that I could use the HTPC with emulators and steam to make it a true Home Entertainment System.

I also wanted to mention that if you are going to use MCE that you get the Media Browser plugin, I don't have a tuner card so this is all that I use MCE for at this time.

December 10, 2012 | 08:56 AM - Posted by john Minto (not verified)

You can simply download VLC for free which now supports Blu-ray play. I have had no issues with mine and in fact prefer it to PowerDVD I had before VLC came out with Blu-ray support.

December 10, 2012 | 12:25 PM - Posted by aparsh335i (not verified)

I think your HTPC is overpriced for what you need it to do.
I built a system last week with Foxconn barebones ($59.99 for H61 itx/htpc case/mini psu) + Sandy bridge Celeron ($34.99) + 8gb ddr3 1866 ($29.99) + old hdd's + tv tuner.
AMD A6-5400K passmark score 2141
Celeron G530 2274

Cost of CPU+case+psu+memory = around $120-130.
Your A6 build comes to over $300 for the same components.

December 10, 2012 | 01:13 PM - Posted by aparsh335i (not verified)

Another thing -
You can use a nintendo Wii controller as your remote.
http://www.houseofnintendo.com/50226711/use_the_wii_remote_to_control_yo...
You can buy a $1 bluetooth USB dongle, download bluetooth recognizing software (I think this is free in win 8). I used a toshiba one i found online for free.

March 22, 2013 | 04:47 PM - Posted by RAID5 (not verified)

Will the " DVR/Storage Drive – Western Digital AV-GP WD20EURS 2 TB Hard Drive" cope with recording 4 simultanious HD channels? Or do I need to look for a RAID solution?

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