Building A Home Theater PC

Setting up a home theater involves choosing the features you want the most in your system, then cherry picking from a range of models and types of home theater gear to end up with something that meets all of your needs. While putting together a system in this way is a good, easy option, many enthusiasts are taking this one step further and building a single piece of equipment that does everything in one – a home theater PC. Thanks to the range of specialist HTPC cases and other parts now available, building a home theater PC can be done by anyone with a screwdriver and a few hundred dollars to spend!

When designing a home theater PC there is a few considerations different to the normal planning process for a custom PC. Noise is the first of these – the average PC makes a surprising level of background noise due to internal fans and drives. A HTPC should minimize this noise by using quiet components and fans where possible. The issue then becomes one of heat. The purpose of PC fans is to cool internal parts, and reducing the fans or the fan speed means the PC runs hotter – reducing life span. Building a HTPC is a balancing act to find parts which meet the processing needs of the system without running so hot that they need noisy fans to cool everything down.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at the parts available and then step through the process of putting it all together.

The HTPC Case

Lots of manufacturers offer HTPC cases. These are generally designed to mimic the look of any other part of your system, featuring remote controls, volume knobs, and front LCD displays. For my build I chose the Antec Fusion Remote. This is a great case, offering a design with separate internal chambers to cut down on heat and twin fan controllers meaning the fan speed can be adjusted upwards only when necessary. Another manufacturer to look out for is Lian Li, who also make good media center cases.

Motherboard and CPU

The motherboard is the backbone for any PC – all other components are attached to this. The CPU is the heart of the system and should be matched with the motherboard – look for the socket numbers for each to make sure the CPU you choose fits. Your choice of motherboard and processor will depend on your intended usage. For pure home media center type usage, an older (and cheaper) processor will more than adequately handle anything you throw at it. If you want to use your PC for gaming or other resource hungry uses then choose a more powerful processor accordingly. At time of writing, the quad core Intel Core i5 750 offers amazing bang for buck.

Remember though that more and faster components = more heat and therefore more noise. For a home theater PC on a budget I recommend the new Gigabyte GA-H55N-USB3 motherboard, for a couple of reasons.

  • First, size. This mini-ITX board measures just 170mm (under 7 inches) square and will fit into even the smallest home theater PC case.
  • Second, video capability (you know the reason we are building this thing). Not all motherboards support video output without buying a dedicated graphics card but this board, using the H55 chipset, offers full high definition DVI and HDMI output when used with most Intel Core i3 processors and onwards. The Intel Core i5-661 processor would be a great match for this board, offering a separate onboard  graphics processing unit. Using integrated video in this manner means we save money on a video card and also cut out one more hot component!
  • Third, this mobo has a bunch more technical features that will satisfy the most advanced HTPC builders, like the ability to connect up to 7 drives, and onboard RAID support. USB3 allows for fast playback if you ever store multimedia files on a USB disk or other USB device.
  • Fourth… it’s just soooo cute!

Memory

Unless you are a gamer, 2Gb of RAM will be enough for media playback use. Choose a decent brand like Kingston. You don’t need fancy coolers or heat fins for a HTPC unless you really like to show off.

Storage & drives

You will want to buy one or more Hard Disk Drives to store media files. 1 Tb HDDs will hold somewhere in the ballpark of 70+ hours of HD video. Do be aware that these large disks are great for file storage but can be noisier than a smaller drive.

An optical drive will also be needed to allow for DVD playback. A combo DVD reader-writer can be had for under $30, but if you want to play BluRay disks as well, these drives cost between $100-$200 depending on brand.

Power Supply

Power Supply Units (PSUs) plug into the mains and have a range of connector types to power all your internal devices. Some HTPC cases come with their own power supply but others don’t. Choose a PSU that meets the needs of all of your system components, remembering as always that we are looking for a balance of performance, heat and sound. This PSU calculator will help you figure out the minimum wattage required for your system. Ideally, look for a power supply with a modular cable system to save space in a small case.

Video

The recommended motherboard-CPU combo above offer all the video output you need. If you have chose an alternative board though, look for a video card with outputs that match the TV you will be using in your home theater system. The nVidia GT210 is a good choice, offering HDMI output and a useful half height panel allowing the card to fit into smaller HTPC cases.

Extras

The beauty of using a PC for home theater is you can add on any functionality you can image with USB ‘dongles’ or PCI cards. 2 of the more popular expansions for home theater use are a digital TV tuner and a wireless network card. The tuner card lets you connect an antenna to your TV and watch HDTV just like on a normal system. I chose a Leadtek DTV 2000 plus and have been pleased so far. This card comes with a suite of connecotr acbles for any input format and it’s own dedicated remote control. Leadtek offer an older model, the DTV1300 which reportedly works well too.

HTPC Operating System

Finally, the choice of operating system. Microsoft is the biggest player, offering Windows XP Media Center Edition specifically for HTPCs. A mainstream OS like Windows XP or Windows 7 is also a good way to go. The benefit of XP is that it is cheaper and might be more likely to support any third party media center software you want to run. Windows 7 has a lot of other media management features though, as well as a more streamlined user interface and better online security.

If you are on a tight budget, there are also free operating systems that cater to home theater, like Linux and Ubuntu.

In the next step we will look at the fun part – Building Your Home Theater PC

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