Updated July 3rd, 2015
It's been about three years since I replaced a cable television DVR (digital video recorder) that I was renting with a custom-built PC (original article archive: part one and part two). It was the introduction of multi-tuner CableCARD host adapters that made it easy to turn a Windows PC into a powerful home theater centerpiece that convinced me to craft my own super-DVR. That initial build using the unlikely union of an Intel Atom processor and Nvidia ION graphics technology resulted in excellent energy efficiency and solid 1080p video playback, but the system's ability to smoothly multitask was constantly challenged.
For version 2.0 of my home theater PC (HTPC), I vowed to maintain excellent energy efficiency while significantly improving its performance.
The complete parts list for my current HTPC build:
Case: Thermaltake Luxa2 LM100 Mini - discontinued but some refurbished units remain
CPU: Intel Core i3-2100T - an i3 is plenty powerful for HTPC duties
Mobo: Intel DH67CF Mini-ITX - this mobo had consumer IR built-in
Memory: 4GB (2x2GB)
Storage: SSD (boot) + HDD (DVR)
ODD: Slim BD/DVD/CD
I've come to appreciate the design of the Thermaltake Luxa2 LM100 Mini case - it's brushed aluminum exterior ages gracefully, masks fingerprints and dust, and provides a perfect home for a Mini-ITX mobo and related components. With the LM100 now discontinued, I'm on the hunt for a successor.
With two years of near-continuous operation to its credit, HTPC v2.0's performance gains over its predecessor are a credit to its Intel Core i3 2100T (Sandy Bridge w/35W Max TDP) processor and solid state drive (SSD) - SSDs make any computer feel twice as fast!
A hot-running tuner card prompted a case cooling upgrade: additional (2) 50x50mm fans to fill the remaining exhaust ports at the rear of the chassis (also preventing backflow). The Thermaltake LM100's air inlets are located on the bottom of the case in the motherboard mount area, and the new fan setup reduced the tuner's operating temperatures from 65-70C to a far cooler 40-45C without an obvious increase in fan noise.
Hardware and software
My tuner hardware includes the following:
All of this hardware needs good software to make it work:
Windows 7 64-bit - Windows 8 with the Media Center Pack option works too
My Movies - how I manage my movie collection
ArcSoft TotalMedia Theater - No longer updated (see note below)
Ceton Companion - my favorite smartphone remote control app
SoundGraph iMON Manager - VFD and IR remote signal management
SlySoft Virtual CloneDrive - a great virtual drive program
Add to this several terabytes of network attached storage (NAS) for my music, photos, and movies and I'm one happy (couch) camper.
Control-wise, I'm using the aforementioned Ceton Companion application as well as a Logitech Harmony 650 universal remote control. The Bluetooth adapter also allows me to easily connect a wireless keyboard when the need arises. Also, I've recently added the Logitech Harmony Smart Keyboard that provides Bluetooth and RF control options as well as an updated smartphone control app - it's proven to be a terrific HTPC control option.
Costs and options
The cost of this system at the time including software easily exceeded $1000 - not a trivial expense even if amortized over several years of use. For HTPC v3.0 (hint, hint), I'd consider reducing costs by eliminating the slim optical drive altogether as I find I seldom (never) use it. Use of NAS storage for TV recordings could eliminate an extra HDD from the system further reducing costs and space requirements. At that point, I'd consider an optimized micro-PC like the new Intel Next Unit of Computing (NUC) as it features similar computing power as my current HTPC in a package that is but a fraction of its size.
For more information about my HTPC setup, please read this follow up article exploring a brief experiment with Windows 8.