How Not to Build an HTPC

I believe there is truth in the statement that we learn
more from our mistakes than from our successes. Read on and
perhaps we can learn something from the following series of
articles.

The Den Guru site has a three-part series (note: only the
first two parts are currently available) on building a home
theater computer (HTPC).

In
the first part
, the author lists some lessons learned: the system needs to
be quiet, it must fit in with the decor of the room where it
will be used (i.e., the rad gamer case with the flaming red
paint job and bright blue neon interior lights may not fit in
next to your Louis d’Outremer chair and sofa), the hardware
needs to be compatible with your software and what you intend
to do with it, and the capacity of the hard drive also needs
to be sized to work with your intended use (i.e., recording
video requires a lot of space).


In the second part
, the author notes that you can
create an HTPC from old, spare parts laying around. But if
you want to do it right, you will have to buy carefully chosen components.

Like, for example, getting a CPU faster than the AMD 2000
that he used in part 1. Clearly, if you are planning to
record one show while viewing another, you must have a CPU
that can handle the tasks. Secondly, using a software-based
tuner/decoder will further strain the CPU. Hence, get a more
capable tuner and/or processor.

However, I wonder if his choice of new CPU and case were
the wisest choices. First, the AMD 2800+ is a step up from
the AMD 2000+ he started with. But neither, in my opinion,
are fast enough. Let me explain. Although he isn’t yet doing
any HD
viewing, I can almost guarantee he will. Or, as we may see,
he will want to but won’t be able to unless he upgrades the
CPU to handle two streams of HD content (one being displayed
while the other is being recorded). Doing just one stream of
HD is processor intensive. Adding a second stream will
probably cause a melt down of his system.

Secondly, the case that he got is much more appropriate
looking than the gamer case he first used. But this case,
which apparently includes a motherboard and proprietary power
supply, limits what he can do in the future. Why do I say
this? First, the motherboard has only two expansion slots
(one PCI
and one AGP). This should be a red flag to anyone looking for a capable
HTPC. Currently, if you want to be able to watch one video
stream while recording another, and you want to be able to do
this with both regular analog and HD content, you will need
four tuners. He is out of luck with only two expansion slots.
Perhaps, in the future, there will be tuners that will do
such with only a pair of them (or maybe even just one). But,
as far as I know, right now he has inadvertently locked
himself into upgrading to another system (which is, from what
I can guess, he will do in part III).

In addition, the proprietary, non-upgradeable power supply
(PS) for this case is rated at a measly 250 watts! Even if he
had four slots, I wonder if this PS would run out of power
with so many tuners sucking up current.

If you are planning to build your own HTPC, I would
suggest choosing a case that allows the flexibility to
install the motherboard/power supply that works best for you
rather than an all-in-one solution. Presently, I am slowly
purchasing the components for my own HTPC. I’m looking at an
AMD 3200+ or the X2 3800+ CPU. The 3200+ is substantially
cheaper (about $150 USD) than the X2 (about $300) but, of
course, the X2 can handle multiple tasks better. Whether the
3200+ is good enough is the question.

In addition, I’m looking at two cases: the

Silverstone SG01
(a case with no motherboard or power supply) and the

Aspire X-QPACK
(which includes a 420 watt ATX power supply). Neither
includes a motherboard but both accept the industry standard
micro-ATX. Hence, I can choose from a range of very good
choices. As mentioned in an earlier post, the one I bought is
the
Asus A8N-VM CSM
, which has four expansion slots (with built-in
video/audio/Ethernet).

As I guessed earlier, it seems clear to me that the
components the author chose in parts I and II of his series
are not going to do the job. With his track record of two
strikes, I hope he doesn’t miss the mark again. We’ll have to
wait for part III to find out. Stay tuned to see what new
lessons are learned.

Have a Great Weekend, Everyone –
Aloha!

Advertisements

One response to “How Not to Build an HTPC

  1. With a good graphics card, competent chipset (DMA) and drivers you don’t need top processing power. It’s better to invest in big fast disks (notice the plural).
    Most DIY HTPC builders put, in my opinion too much emphasis on a flashy small case which doesn’t fit a normal living room any better than an average desktopcase. Why not do what lots of people do/did with they old VCR, put it in a (closed) cabinet under the TV? That means you can use a normal, standard well cooled and upgradable box and leave the keyboard/mouse attached cause sure as hell you will need them occasionally for upgrades and cleanups and ctrl-alt-del 🙂 .

    Ps You might want to check the MacMini (core-duo + FrontRow software) for a good HTPC box. It’s not perfect but for non-DIY people it decent enough.