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

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The Hardware - Part 3

DVD Drive – ASUS SDRW-08D2S-U USB External CD/DVD (Optional)

 

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DVD and/or Blu-Ray drives are optional components of your media center build that will depend on your own use case.  While I had a DVD drive in my previous Windows 7 HTPC, I can count the amount of times we used it in the last year on one hand.  Almost all the content we’ve been watching has either been TV recorded over the air or streaming video.  For our occasional use, I was originally planning to put an old LG internal DVD drive into the new HTPC, but it wouldn’t fit into the Silverstone case when a full size ATX power supply was installed.  I decided that just having an external DVD drive on hand for the occasional need to watch DVD’s should cover our needs.  One thing to keep in mind is if you plan to install a Blu-Ray drive, Windows 7 Media Center does not come with built in Blu-Ray support and you will need to get a 3rd party application for Blu-Ray play back.  Look for an application like Arcsoft’s TotalMedia Theatre 5 (at $99) that will easily integrate Blu-Ray playback right into the Windows Media Center UI.

 Memory – 8 GB (2 x 4 GB) G.Skill Ripjaw 1333 DDR3 RAM

 

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The G.Skill RAM is another one of those components that I happened to have lying around after recently having upgraded my main gaming machine and had this RAM left over.  You can certainly get away with as little as 4 GB of RAM for a Media Center PC since most of the tasks will not be memory intensive.  While 4 GB would be fine, I generally think you can never have too much RAM, and throwing the 8 GB of RAM at the box should meet the HTPC’s needs for a good long time.  At $37 for two 4 GB sticks, you can’t go wrong with the Ripjaw’s.

 TV Tuner Card – AVerMedia AVerTVHD Duet A188

 

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Vultured from my old HTPC and still working fine, I didn’t see any reason to pick up new TV Tuner cards.  Sadly no longer available, these AVerMedia tuner cards have worked like a champ.  PCI-Express x1 cards that are able to record and/or watch 2 streams simultaneously I’ll be putting two of these to my Media Center to give us the capability to record and/or watch 4 shows at once.  Previously I had individual HTPC’s set up in different rooms, each with their own tuner card, but I’m moving to combine all my recording and tuners into a single box which I will then be able to stream the recordings and broadcasts to the other TV’s using ‘Windows Media Center Extenders’ (more on those in the next article).  Since you can no longer get your hands on these cards, I’ve listed a few other options below, including the AVerMedia ‘MTVHDDUET’ card that superseded my cards.

 OS – Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 64 Bit Version

 

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I truly wish I could recommend going with the Media Center version available with Windows 8, but I can’t.  Windows 7 Home Premium makes a solid and stable platform to build a great Home Theater PC with.  There are certainly other options out there for set top boxes, but in my opinion, Windows 7 Media Center is the one to beat.  Since Microsoft is really pushing Windows 8, there’s a good chance you may be able to get a copy of Windows 7 even cheaper.  Windows Media Center is available in most versions of Windows 7 including Home Premium, Professional, Ultimate and Enterprise.

My Experience: In case anyone is interested in what I’m upgrading from, here’s the specs of my old HTPC that’s being put out to pasture.  Of course, I won’t be tossing the machine, I’m sure I’ll find way to repurpose it.

 Other Components

There are a few additional components outside of the HTPC itself you may need to pick up as well.  The two key ones are an antenna and a remote.

HD Digital Antenna

If you are planning on building a HTPC and using a tuner card with cable television or don’t care about broadcast television, you can skip this part.  On the other hand if you are hoping become a ‘Cord Cutter’ but still want access to the major networks, you’ll need some sort of digital high definition antenna.  Your antenna needs will vary greatly depending on your location and what is being broadcast near you. 

 

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If you live in the middle of a large city you may very well be able to get away with a simple and small indoor antenna.  On the other end of the spectrum, if you live out in the sticks and many miles from your nearest broadcast stations, you may need a hefty antenna that can pull signals from up to 70 miles away mounted in your attic or on your roof.  Before you run out and grab the biggest antenna you can find, spend a few minutes on both TV Fool and the Antennaweb sites.  In addition to showing you all the specifics about the stations you should be able to pick up, they can give you information on what type of antenna you should pick up and where it should be located to get the best reception.

My Experience: Whatever antenna you go with, keep all the original packaging/box and receipt.  You may find that the antenna doesn’t work well for you and you’ll want to return it and get a different one.

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In our case, there’s two batches of broadcast towers for local stations we want to pick up, one batch at 20 miles and another just under 40 miles from us.  At that range I needed something that with a little bit of oomph and I went with the Clearstream 4 HDTV Antenna from Antennas Direct for around $90.  With their 30 Inch Universal J-Mount (STM-715) I was able to mount the whole thing in a dormer in our attic without having to worry about dealing with a roof mount.  From there, the antenna easily picks up all the local major networks including ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, The CW, PBS as well as a handful of others.  I run a co-ax from the antenna through an inline amplifier down through my garage and outside to the old cable distribution splitter on the side of the house.  From there, the antenna signal feeds all the coax lines going to all the old cable jacks in the house, and as simple as that, I have access to an antenna signal in any room with a jack.  While this works great for us, you may not be able to do this if you live in an apartment or somewhere that you don’t actually own the cable box on the side of your home.

 

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A final comment regarding antennas, if you do go with a directional antenna, be sure to actually point it in the right direction!  They aren’t kidding when they say ‘directional’.  If Antennaweb or TVFool tells you a station is broadcasting at 310 degrees from your house, get a compass (or use Google Earth) and figure out what direction you need to face the antenna so it’s pointing at 310 degrees.  Pointing it 20 or 30 degrees off can have an impact on the quality of the signal you get.  Depending on the location of broadcast towers for the signals you want to pick up, you may need to ‘split the difference’ between broadcast towers.  If there’s a station you want to pick up at 90 degrees, and another at 120, then the best bet is to point your antenna at 105 degrees.  If the 90 degree station is further away than the 120 station, you might need to angle it a bit more in their direction.  With a bit of experimentation you can determine what the best direction to face your antenna to pick up the best signal for all the stations you want.

With the right antenna and proper setup/orientation, you’ll be able to enjoy the free digital HD signals from your local broadcasters that are better quality than even the cable and satellite providers offer.

Remote Controls

 

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Something that many people overlook is the importance of a good remote control.  Your entire experience with your Media Center PC revolves around how well you can control the Media Center UI with your remote from half way across the room.  There are tons of different “Media Center” compatible remotes available,  ranging from cheap $15-$20 dollar models all the way up to $300 'Cadillac' remotes.  Regardless of what you decide to try, there are a few key things to keep in mind.

First, your Media Center can’t magically recognize the IR or Wireless signal from your remote control and you will need some sort of USB based IR/Wireless receiver.  Luckily they come bundled with many media center remotes, but just make sure they do come with one or you’ll need to purchase one separately.   Second, there are a few key features that I’ve found very useful for a media center remote that you may want to look for.  If you plan on using your remote in a darkened room, having backlit buttons or keypads is extremely handy.   Additionally, the capability of a remote to ‘learn’ some button presses from other remotes so you can control the Power and Volume of your TV or Receiver with your Media Center remote will make it so you don’t have to juggle three different remotes.  Finally, if you do plan to have multiple Media Centers or Extenders, try to get the same remote control for all of them if at all possible.  Trying to remember where volume, channel or even the media center specific buttons on remotes with different layouts can get annoying really fast.

 

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My Experience: We went through three different remotes before we finally settled on one we liked.  Unfortunately the one we liked is probably the hardest to find, but if you can find it, we’ve been very happy with the Microsoft Model 1039 Remote.  The remote itself is backlit and comes with a USB based IR Receiver for the Media Center PC.  The remote is also a ‘Learning’ remote and you can program the second power button, the volume and the channel buttons to control other devices like your TV and receiver.  Our remote actually controls our TV (Power), the Media Center (Everything) and the Receiver (Volume) so we don’t have to juggle multiple remotes, but can control 3 devices with a single remote.

 

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While our favorite, the 1039 is difficult to find, I’m sure there are new remotes out there that work just as well.  Be prepared to experiment a bit with different remotes and once again, do not throw out the packaging or receipt for any remote until you are sure you are comfortable with it.  As one final tip, when you do finally settle on the remote that you really like, pick up one or two ‘spares’ (assuming they aren’t $300 each) just in case they decide to stop making them.

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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