How To Build A Home Theatre PC
Want to build the next piece of equipment for your home theatre? We’ll show you what you need to do in our in-depth guide.
We all know the term “convergence”. The combination of multiple technologies to create one single device that incorporates functionality from many into one.
Designing your HTPCWhen you’re looking at building a Home Theatre PC, you should have an idea in mind. I mean, you’re putting this thing in your living room so you should have some idea of what you want it to look like in your home. Regular computers often take the form of a tall case standing idly by while it whirs in the background performing tasks. They’re often big and don’t exactly look good next to a statue, let alone some chairs, a sofa, or a TV. So in building an HTPC, you need something that you’re going to like. It’s not useful for you going and buying something that you find grotesque so we’ll just concentrate on what most HTPC buyers will probably look for. Since the box you’re building is designed to replace components usually used in your living room, perhaps you want something that looks as simple as they would. The idea behind most of the simple design found in things like amplifiers is that they’re supposed to blend into the environment and allow you to concentrate on the screen instead, so working with that mentality might actually help you in the end. The other thing to consider when looking at an HTPC case is what sort of motherboard it holds. While I promise not to get into the motherboard side of things for at least a few more paragraphs, I will say that it is imperative that you consider what sort of board you want when you’re looking for a case. For instance, the smaller and thinner the case, the less likely it will take a full-size motherboard. As a result, you might end up with a smaller motherboard which is fine provided you realize there’s less room for upgradability over the short term. A smaller or thinner case will likely mean microATX or Mini-ITX (motherboard formats are of course subject to change as this article ages) which will give you different types of graphics and sound controllers as well as different options for upgrading your computer.
For this project, we used a case that allowed us to install a full-size ATX motherboard into it. This meant that HTPC wasn’t all that small. As a point of comparison, the microATX cases probably measure around the same size as a small DVD player for the home unit whereas our HTPC was a little bigger than the Yamaha amplifier I have at home. While these sizes might sound like a lot, realise that the case is designed to look like it blends in with a home theatre and as a result, barely seems like a computer at all in the long run. So for our CyberShack Home Theatre PC, we went with the Thermaltake DH-102, a case that has a fairly unobtrusive black façade with controls on the front. There’s also a massive 7 inch touchscreen on ours which lets you use the HTPC to check your email, the weather, and other things when you don’t actually want to turn the TV on. The DH-102 also comes equipped with a volume control that has a nice tactile feel to it. While it comes with a remote – and it’s a decent one at that – the volume control is always useful for when you don’t have an amplifier to plug it into and you’re listening to music. Turning volume down with an actual control is one of those things that’s hard to shake from people’s minds. Well, with me anyway. There are plenty of other cases out there, from companies like Thermaltake to Antec with plenty of others; all that matters is finding one you’re comfortable with. It will be the design that you look at every time you want to watch a movie, after all. Next we’re taking a look at the power supply, and this is a part that gets largely overlooked by people building even the most basic of computers. A tip that can be applied to anyone is this: don’t be cheap.
Don’t ever be cheap. “Cheap” in a power supply will often result in things blowing up. That’s the problem with much of the gear out there on the market today. It’s often poorly made and has some no-name company behind it without any decent reviews so as with all purchases, research is required. If you have found one company that you like with a decent name, you’ll probably find a decent power supply behind. I tend to stick with names I trust when shopping for power supplies, names like Antec, Thermaltake, Silverstone, and Coolermaster. In this instance, we found it was easier to stick with Thermaltake as we were already using a great Thermaltake case. Sometimes it’s just that much easier to stick with parts from companies that you like and keep everything uniform, that way there’s less of a likelihood of anything, you know, blowing up. Our Thermaltake Tough Power had 750 watts behind it and used cable management which is an excellent feature that should become standard on power supplies. Cable management allows you to plug in cables for what you need and ignore ones for what you don’t, giving you the freedom to clean up your cables more easily and provide better airflow in your case. Basically, if the power supply doesn’t use some form of cable management or modular cable system, I wouldn’t go near it. The Tough Power 750 watt is Crossfire certified which is useful if we decided to use two ATI video cards in this system, which is certainly something we could do. But you’ll find more about that in the next section when we look at the important things that go inside.
The Important Things I should say from the get-go that everything that goes in your HTPC is important. But there are more important things to consider than just how your newly designated home theatre appliance is going to look. For instance, what will it run on? How fast will you make it? Do you want it to play games? Will you be recording a lot of TV? These are all questions you should be asking yourself right now. Seriously, stop reading this and ask yourself those questions. Come back when you’ve gone and done that because we’re going to take a look at answering them. In the current chip war, there are generally two companies competing for the best processor: AMD and Intel. I’m not going to get into a debate over which is better, sufficed to say I have been on both sides at different points in time and at the moment, I happen to believe that Intel have the edge. When you’re looking for your parts for your HTPC, head to online forums or talk to people in the know and find out what they suggest. What you’re looking for – in terms of budget, future-proofing or high performance – will more than likely determine who you go with. For our CyberShack HTPC, we went with an Intel Quad Core chip, and we did this for a few reasons. At home, I’ve currently made the jump to a Quad Core and it has made video editing, animation, sound, and gaming just that much better than what I had before. The four cores can be used in applications which of course will take advantage of it and often you find these programs are in the multimedia sector. Things like video and graphics have reason to use the extra cores so the choice of a Quad Core chip made more sense in designing this box. As a result, we’re using the brand new (when this was written) Intel Q9450 which was built on the 45 nanometre process. Now we need a motherboard to go with it. Because we elected to use a case supporting full-size motherboards, we can now pick a motherboard that supports more upgradability long term. If you go with a case supporting microATX or Mini-ITX, you’ll be limited to different chips that work with the said motherboards and what features they have. In our case, we want there to be a strong emphasis on multimedia – which means decent sound – as well as the ability to make this a gaming platform. There is an interesting niggle with this one. Over the past few years, more and more boards targeted at the “enthusiast” sector have been released. They often have massive heatsinks on them and brands like Gigabyte, Asus, and DFI all release more overclockable boards. These boards run faster, hotter, and allow you to get more performance out of them than what you might normally buy. I should say here and now that if you’re looking at an enthusiast board, make sure it’s going to place nicely with everything. You might want your HTPC to run fast, but you don’t want it to run overly hot or very loud. If it’s loud, it’ll interrupt your movie watching experience. If it’s hot, you’ll end up needing to push a lot of hot air out of your case, and if that’s being stored in a fairly enclosed environment, you might very well cause your own computer to pack up and die relatively quickly. So what we want is a board that performs well, is loaded with features, but doesn’t give us any issues.
At home, I use Gigabyte and have found that some of their designs are truly excellent as is the use of things like Japanese made parts. For our HTPC, we stuck with Gigabyte and used the X48-DQ6, a motherboard that has better components than a lot of boards (even better than my Gigabyte at home), four SATA ports, two PCI-Express slots with ATI Crossfire support, better power design, support for up to 8 gigabytes of memory (operating system dependent, of course), 2 Gigabit Ethernet ports, a decent sound chipset with support for Blu-ray and DTS, and a whole lot more. One of the features on this motherboard is actually the same reason I bought mine at home, and it might surprise you: the use of a Texas Instruments Firewire controller. The reason that something as simple as that helps make my decision stems from my experience with high-end sound cards and how some of them prefer to play with a TI chip as opposed to ones developed by other companies. So now we’ve got our motherboard and chip worked out, let’s give it something to think about. Unless you’re a hardcore elite overclocker, you don’t need to think long and hard about the memory you go with. Your choice more becomes “how much” you want rather than “what type should I get”. We went with 2 gigabytes of Kingston HyperX DDR2 running at 1066Mhz. I’d love to tell you a reason why if you went with a higher speed memory, you’d get better performance, but since it’s more the sort of thing of enthusiasts and I’ve already pointed out that that’s irrelevant for us, I think I’ll just leave it be. Ultimately, 2 gigabytes should be the minimum amount of memory that you run with, especially since we’ll be using Windows Vista in this computer. In case you’re not aware, if you go with a 32-bit operating system, you’ll only get to use 3 gigabytes. The move to a 64-bit version – and Vista does come in 64-bit – will free up the ability to let you run more RAM. We knew going in from this design that we’d probably be using a 32-bit OS so the decision to stick with 2 gigabytes was a no-brainer. For future reference and as 64-bit chips become the standard thing, a 64-bit operating system will be what you’ll use with a likely recommendation of 4 gigabytes of memory.
Finally, we’re tackling hard drives and it’s important to remember that this is what’s going to be your storage. When you asked yourself those questions earlier, did you decide if you wanted to record off of the TV? If you did, how much TV did you want to capture? These days, games are requiring a larger amount of space than they ever have previously. I saw last week that a review copy of a game sent to me required a 30 gigabyte installation. That’s just… wow. So how much space do you want? How much space do you need? In my years of experience as a tech industry whatever-I-am, I’ve tried every hard disk company I could find. I have my favourites and I decided to stick with one of my favourite brands for building our HTPC and that is Western Digital. In my personal experience, I’ve found that they’re quite stable and with newer features like GreenPower, they’re finding ways to save us money and help the environment a little. I recommend their drives to people because I’ve always had excellent experiences with Western Digital drives and it is with that reasoning that I opted for two 1 terabyte drives in our Home Theatre PC. Now when you record TV in high definition, you’re going to need all the space you can. An hour might equal a gig or more, and that means that with your operating system, applications, games, music, and anything else, you’ll be eating into your space quickly. As a result, it’s best to have more than 1 terabyte and it is for this reason that we’re not going with a RAID mirroring system in our HTPC. The cases you pick will always have room for a specific amount of hard drives and while the optical bays can usually support an extra one or two if you’re lucky, you’ll still be limited with the size & space restrictions inside the case. So two Western Digital 1 terabyte drives gives us 2 TB’s of storage, plenty for what we want. But what do we want to use this for? Games? TV? High definition movies? Well, in the next section, we’ll go over what you need to make all of that happen.
Sound, video, and everything else!Care to play a game or two? What about watching a new high definition movie? They say that Blu-ray is thing these days, so we’re going to need one of those new-fandangled Blu-ray thingamajigies. I think we can work that out. Now that we’ve gotten our Home Theatre PC’s engine out of the way, we need to provide the parts that make it do the things we like. The first area we need to start with is vital, and some people might find my technique of dealing with this area wrong since it can be done from the beginning too: the video card. The video card is more important than you realise because these days it also is needed to run high definition video. This means that if we want to watch Blu-ray movies, we’ll need a graphics adapter with support for high definition content (aside for a Blu-ray player, which we’ll get to in a moment). If we want to play games, we’ll also need some decent 3D acceleration, but much like the CPU and motherboard, we’ll need to think about the amount of heat we generate here. Graphics cards are one of the chief reasons why your computer will get warm. If you were to put a high end full size graphics card in there, not only would it be loud as hell, it would probably produce a ridiculous amount of heat. Those two reasons need to be considered when looking for a graphics card for your HTPC. I had two choices for our Home Theatre PC and in the end, we went with the one that would be easier to implement. With choices from both NVidia & ATI and each of them having their own pros and cons, I devised two ideas which I’ll mention here.
On the one hand, we could go with two Gigabyte Radeon 2600XT’s that used the SilentPipe II technology, a heatsink that covers the entire video card and turns heat and sound to a bare minimum. But the ATI Radeon 2600 chipset isn’t exactly a new chipset and its replacements – the 3600 and the 3850 – don’t have full heatsink solutions just yet. On the other hand, I could install a Gigabyte GeForce 9600GT card, a new video card that gives fairly high performance games & graphics that uses a heatsink & fan. This combination produces some heat, but its minimal at best. For our computer, we ran with the GeForce 9600GT as we’d not only get the best result with it compared to the 2600s, we’d likely use less power in running with it and I’m not sure if our case would have let us use Crossfire in the first place. That’s one of the catches about doing your research early. Because our case had a connector for the front monitor and because it couldn’t be repositioned, we were forced to use specific motherboard slots. I’m not sure if it would have been feasible to run dual video cards and still run everything else, but that’s an issue that can pop up. Now we’ve got our graphics out of the way, it’s time to focus on watching something like a Blu-ray, a DVD, or some classic ol’ TV.
With the format war over, it’s nice to know that you can concentrate on buying a Blu-ray drive for your computer. You don’t need to worry about the pesky HD DVD format. But what if you do? What if you have HD DVD? Well, have no fear because we went with the LG GGW-H20L. OK, sure it sounds like little more than a bunch of numbers and letters making up a product code, but what it actually is is something far more. We can watch Blu-ray movies, HD DVDs (because you can find some high definition movies of the now dead format at good prices), DVDs and CDs. For an added bonus, it also burns CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs giving you the nice and tidy back-up option of 25 and 50 gigabyte discs. To be honest, I liked this drive so much that during the design and creation of this HTPC, I ended up buying one for my own computer. Isn’t it nice to know that this one little drive has just killed the need for you to have a CD player, a DVD set-top box, and a Blu-ray player. Now we’re going to kill any need you have for a Personal Video Recorder by throwing in a TV capture card. In Australia, we use the DVB-T standard or Digital Video Broadcast – Terrestrial. Our Home Theatre PC will use the Compro VideoMate T750F, a capture card that enables us to watch and record from DVB-T and analog at the same time, high definition support, FM radio, and schedule recordings just like a PVR normally has. As a side note, there are many other capture cards on the market. They can come from many other companies and I know from my experience than many of these devices end up using the same chipsets so you can find yourself look at “more of the same” quite frequently. Because you can only go on what you hear, look for reviews of the products before you buy. We had good luck with the Compro devices and I own some of their gear at home, but like all good things, a little research goes go a long way. Now that’s we’ve gotten the video side of things all wrapped up and shown you just what goes into an HTPC, I feel I should make a little note about sound. I’m sure there will be many of you who will be shocked reading this that I haven’t opted to include something like a Creative X-Fi or another sound card and the basic reason for that is it comes back to the case. In choosing our Thermaltake DH-102 HTPC case, the lack of slots on the back that we could use as well as no spare bays on the front of the case meant that we had to work with specific things. Even the volume control that gives us that nice tactile feeling used on the case requires specific chipsets, in this case support for an Azalia chipset. This might seem like jargon to you, but this one specific thing can throw off your computer from working to not working at all. Had I moved to an Auzentech or a Creative sound card, I might not actually get the front of the case connected to the volume. In this instance, the motherboard’s use of high definition audio was more than enough for our Home Theatre PC. When you’re creating your HTPC, you might want to consider an external sound card for better audio or an internal one if your case doesn’t come with volume controls. And that’s more or less it.
The last thing of course is an operating system. We went with Windows Vista Ultimate and there is a good reason for this: you can say what you want about Vista (and I often do), but Microsoft did design Vista with the Media Centre in mind.Vista’s Media Centre does work well and when it’s running on an HTPC designed for performance, Windows Vista can really shine. There’s a lot of talk about Vista not being a good operating system and I certainly have my own opinions on it, but as far as a Media Centre operating system, it’s actually surprisingly good and supports quite a lot of drives & software that can be used in conjunction with it. The final parts that you might need for your own Home Theatre PC are things like monitor or TV screen, keyboard & mouse; these are all things that have way too many variables and I’d be here writing this for even longer. My suggestions for these pieces would be to stick with something like a big screen LCD, Plasma, or projector; something that gives you a nice big resolution so that everything you do looks clear when you’re sitting far back from it. Likewise with the keyboard & mouse, I’d find a wireless desktop you’re comfortable with, whether it be Microsoft, Logitech, or any other company that you find provides you with the right sort of feel & look you’re after. In the end, what you get out of your HTPC still comes down to what you put in, and what you should be putting in is research. I intended this piece to be somewhat future-proof so that while chips and models will change over time, the reasoning is still there underpinning everything. The main thing you need to remember is the same thing you should think of when building any PC: research, research, research. Do that, and you should be fine. Written by Leigh D. Starl