Posts Tagged Computer

How to build a Home Theater PC

Friday, December 16th, 2011 | Permalink

Have you ever wanted to watch YouTube and Netflix on your TV, but you don’t have a internet connected TV? Or maybe you want to record live TV on your computer’s hard drive like a DVR? Or maybe you want to watch or listen to your pictures, music, and movies from laptop or desktop on your TV? The way to accomplish all of these and create the best home theater in the world is to build yourself a home theater PC (HTPC).

Before building any computer you should decide what you want the computer to be able to do. My list looks like this:

  • With a HTPC you want it to be able to output at least 1080p video via an HDMI cable.
  • Be able to take a coax cable input from your cable or satellite provider.
  • Have lots of storage space for recorded TV and digital copies of your movie library (you could alternatively have most of your storage space in a different computer or ideally on a server, but that will be discussed in other articles).
  • Be able to record multiple shows at once and be able to stream Netflix at the same time.
  • Last, but certainly not least, never hear fan noise coming from the home theater PC case.

From these needs you can interpret what the specs of the primary components of the system needs to be. From this list of vague needs we interpret that:

  • The graphics output has to be 1920×1080 resolution. If you added the want of a 3D TV then you need to find a video card with 3D capabilities.
  • To watch your cable or satellite you need a digital HD TV tuner with a CableCARD slot.
  • Storage is critical if you don’t have a home server on your network so filling the HTPC case up with 2 TB hard drives is not a bad idea, especially when you realize that a one hourTV episode in HD is almost 7 GB.
  • A home theater PC build should be expected to handle multiple tasks at once, the higher end digital TV tuners will record multiple shows at once, but you also need a mutlithreaded processor is a must for doing everything at the same time.
  • Silence is achieved by simply removing as many fans as possible or using large fans that spin slower over small fans that need to spin faster. This requires getting graphics cards that use passive cooling instead of fans. And cases that accommodate large diameter fans.

With this list of specs in mind lets dig into the buyer’s guide to building a home theater PC.

The Custom Components You Need in Building a Home Theater PC

SILVERSTONE Black Grandia Series GD06B ATX Media Center / HTPC Case

Silverstone Grandia GD06B HTPC Case

Because a HTPC is something that will be seen by everyone in your entertainmentroom you want a case that looks good and fits with the design of the room. You also want a case that has the large diameter fans and room for at least 4 hard drives if you aren’t going to be using a server to hold all your recorded TV and movies. With these requirements in mind I would choose the SILVERSTONE Black Grandia Series GD06B ATX HTPC Case. It looks good, is quiet, and has the required hard drive space.

AMD A6-3500 Tri-core APU

The next thing is to decide what processor to put in your home theater computer. Remember that we wanted it to be multithreaded to handle multiple recordings and streamings at the same time. But we also want it to be low power so it doesn’t require a huge heat sink and noisy fan to keep cool. The AMD A6-3500 triple core APU (accelerated processing unit, like a CPU but better) fits the bill quite nicely. Its three cores allows it to multitask nicely, only draws 65 watts, and can output 1080p video without the help of an additional graphics card. By using an APU and not needing an additional video card we also save on the power it takes to run one and the noise another cooling fan would cause.

ASRock MB-A75M Motherboard

Now that the case and processor are set we know that we have to find a motherboard that will fit in the Micro ATX space in the case and has an AMD APU socket. The motherboard we also want to make sure it has at least 5 SATA ports so we can attach the optical drive and the four hard drives. I like the ASRock MB-A75M Motherboardbecause it has 5 SATA II, 1 eSATA II, 2 USB 2.0, and 4 USB 3.0 ports. This will help keep this case relevant and less outdated longer. It also can output 7.1 channel HD audio for the true surround sound experience.

Ceton InfiniTV Digital CableCARD Quad-tuner

The next main component we need to decide on is the digital TV tuner card with cableCARD support. The key to this is the cableCARD support. Because satellite and cable providers now encrypt their signal you must get a cableCARD from them that decrypts the signal. Currently there are only a few digital TV tuners that meet this requirement. They are priced loosely on how many TV shows can be recorded concurrently. Right now the best card out there is the Ceton InfiniTV 4 Digital Cable Quad-tuner Card, which can record four channels at the same time with a single cableCARD. If you don’t want to spend money on the top of the line tuner you can check out this post on a run down of all available cableCARD digital TV tuners.

Hitachi Deskstar 3TB Internal Hard Drive

Western Digital Caviar Green 2 TB Internal Hard Drive

The last key part that is needed to build a home theater PC a large hard drive or multiple large hard drives. If you truly need tons and tons of space to hold your large movie library and/or plan to record and store hours and hours of TV then you should be looking at 3 TB hard drives. 3 TB drives are still new and not every system is compatible yet, so make sure your motherboard has an EFI or UEFI BIOS and your using a 64 bit version of Windows 7. If you don’t need quite as much amounts of space then a 2 TB is cheaper solution. My recommendation for a 3 TB drive is the Hitachi Deskstar 3 TB 5K3000 and the Western Digital Caviar Green 2 TB for the 2 TB drive.

To finish up the computer we still need to get some memory (at least 4 GB, but memory is so cheap now I’d suggest 8 GB), a power supply, and an optical drive. These can be chosen based on cost because they aren’t critical to the performance of the HTPC. I’ve chosen the following components for my build. A OCZ ModXStream Pro 500W power supply, G. Skill Value Series 8 GB (2 x 4 GB), and a Lite-On Internal Blu-Ray drive. The last thing you need is Windows 7 64bit, because this comes with Windows Media Center which is a very good program for recording and watching TV as well as movies.

OCZ ModXStream Pro 500W

G. Skill Value Series 8 GB

Lite-On Internal Blu-Ray

Now that we have all the pieces of the home theater pc it is time to actually put it together. The only difference in building a HTPC and a standard desktop is the case, every other component is the same. It shouldn’t be any more difficult to assemble, hard drives and optical drives are just in different places than in a normal tower. For instructions on how to put a computer together piece by piece read my post on how to build a custom desktop computer.

Home Theater PC Build

Silverstone Grandia Series GD06B Case$69.99
AMD A6-3500 APU$89.99
ASRock MB-A75M Motherboard$74.99
Ceton InfiniTV 4 Digital Cable Quad-tuner Card$269.00
Hitachi Deskstar 3 TB 5K3000$220.99
OCZ ModXStream Pro 500W$64.99
G. Skill Value Series 8 GB$34.99
Lite-On Internal Blu-Ray$59.99
Windows 7 64bit$99.99

In review, we have the components of a very good home theater computer. The total cost of this build on Newegg is about $1000, while this is not cheap, you aren’t getting a cheap TV, receiver, and/or speakers so why scrimp on the brains of the setup. Of course you can substitute pieces in or out to save money or upgrade as desired, and probably drop the price below $500 without too much effot. And don’t forget because we made sure we had a case and motherboard that could handle an optical drive and 4 additional hard drives, as well as an external drive or even multiple drives the expandable storage space is as good as unlimited.

If you have any questions or comments be sure to let me know in the comment section.