Cutting the Cord Part 2: Building your HTPC - The Hardware
The Hardware - Part 3
DVD Drive – ASUS SDRW-08D2S-U USB External CD/DVD (Optional)
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
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
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.
- AVerMedia AVerTVHD Duet (A188) MTVHDDUET - $79.99
- Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 1850 - $94.99
- Ceton InfiniTV 4 Quad Tuner (Works with Cable Cards) - $199.99
OS – Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 64 Bit Version
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.
- Case: heC Black SECC 7K09 Micro ATX Case with 270 Watt FLEX Power Supply
- Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-MA785GMT-UD2H
- CPU: AMD Athlon II X2 245 Regor
- Memory: 4 GB (4 x 1 GB) Crucial DDR3 1066
- Hard Drive: Samsung Spinpoint F3 1 TB, 7200 RPM Drive
- Video Card: Sapphire Radeon HD5450
- Capture Card: AverMedia AverTVHD Duet (A188)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.