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Project: Building a Home Theater PC

Atom/IONThe Internet is an unlimited source of personal entertainment, and a fast growing portion of this online content includes popular television shows, radio stations, and feature films.  The personal computer (PC) is an ideal platform for accessing online multimedia as its compatibility with the wide variety of content streaming technologies and downloaded file types is unmatched by any non-PC set-top box.  Ditching a cable/satellite television subscription in favor of a PC and broadband Internet service isn't for everyone, but the potential savings for a household could add up to thousands of dollars per year.

My project to build a dedicated home theater personal computer (HTPC) has some critical prerequisites.  First, the hardware must be quiet – no loud fans or whirring drives that could distract from the viewing experience.  Second, such a device must be energy efficient – the less power consumed, the less waste heat that has to be managed and the less it will cost me over the long term.  An ideal HTPC will also be as affordable as possible, but for this project I am willing to spend a little extra to squeeze some additional efficiency out of the final build.  The footprint of the HTPC should also blend nicely into a home theater environment – no gigantic full-tower cases for this build.  Finally, I want an HTPC that provides digital output for audio and video (HDMI is a must), and it should be able to playback 1080p videos without any stuttering or dropped frames.

Build vs Buy
The quest for an energy efficient HTPC that can handle 1080p video led me to a group of products that were built around chip technology from Intel and Nvidia.  The Intel Atom processor “was designed from the ground up for low power...”, and the Nvidia ION graphics processor (and ION chipset technology) has it roots in the company's mobile designs.

My first decision: build or buy?  I enjoy building custom computers for clients so the DIY route was all but certain, however, the least expensive option would be to purchase a product like the Asus EeeBox PC EB1012 or Acer AspireRevo 3610 that are similarly configured ultra-compact Windows 7 computers running on Atom/ION hardware.  Measuring about an inch thick, neither device incorporates an optical disc drive (ODD) but both feature integrated 801.11b/g/n wireless networking, HDMI output, and flash memory card readers.

 

 

Asus EeeBox PC EB1012

 

 

Companies like Puget Systems and ASRock offer compact Atom/ION-based HTPCs that can accommodate a desktop sized (3.5-inch) hard drive and slim-style optical disc drive.  These diminutive HTPCs are based around Zotac's IONITX motherboards that measure 17cm x 17cm (Mini-ITX) and integrate the audio, video, and networking features that I wanted.


My HTPC parts list ended up containing the following:


The total for the above parts list was about $740 before taxes and shipping.  I already had a spare copy of Windows 7, so that brought the bill down to about $570.  Blu-ray and CableCARD support were my primary reasons for using Windows 7 (with its integration of Windows Media Center) - these needs aside, use of a community-developed operating system like Ubuntu (running XMBC) would have further reduced initial costs.  Another somewhat extravagant part in the above list is the LG Slim Blu-ray Drive (about $170 online) - slim DVD+/-RW drives can be had for as little as $40, or just skip the optical drive altogether depending on your needs.

In the next installment of my DIY HTPC project, I'll detail the build process and discuss some additional software options.  Stay tuned.

Reader Comments (24)

Interesting article, thanks for sharing! What do you plan on using to control the computer? Looking forward to the next article!

April 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBrent

Hi Brent,
I've been experimenting with various ways of controlling the HTPC, and I've settled on Bluetooth devices. I plan on covering control options in an upcoming article.

Take care,
Robert

April 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

Hi Robert,

I'm really interested in this project and I too can't wait to hear more, thanks for sharing.

It sounds like you plan on leaving this PC on and running all the time, is that true? and if so, do you yet know what the noise and heat issues are/will be?

Finally do you plan to buy a fan for the case or does the Winsis come pretty well set up?

Thanks!
Jeff

April 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeff

Hi Jeff,
I plan to address these questions in the upcoming build article.

Stay tuned :)

April 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

Any thoughts on future proofing for 3D? Either Blu ray or TV?

April 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAce

Would u beable to steam all your media from another pc using windows home server. Or should I stick with windows 7.

April 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTim Lynch

Robert,

Can you playback MKV files at 1080p with an Atom processor?

I too am interested in your control article, I built a similar system using a Dell Optiplex with a Core 2 Duo processor and a ATI vidcard with HDMI.

Mark

April 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMark

Looking forward to the upcoming articles. Saw the computer on HD Nation and loved it.

April 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKeith

This is great, I have been waiting for this article since you first mentioned it months ago. I just got rid of cable and currently have a very loud, underpowered mid tower(an old computer of mine) hooked up to my tv supplying me with all of my viewing needs. I hope you can help pick out new components to build a new system. My biggest problem is having to switch between hulu desktop and windows media center to get different shows. Also is there any solution for keeping track of new episodes in windows media player like hulu's subscription feature? I hope to hear about it in your upcoming posts.
Thanks,
-Tony

April 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTony

Mark: I don't see why not (given the proper driver setup for GPU acceleration). Do you have a suggestion for a 1080p MKV file that I should use as a test?

April 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

Tim: I don't see why I couldn't stream from a box running Windows Home Server (I do most of my streaming from a NAS box that I use for archiving/storage - using DLNA/UPNP/Samba). With Win7, I also have several sharing options (Play To, HomeGroup, folder sharing).

April 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

Ace: I think my main hurdle will be finding/waiting for 3D BD software (for 3D BD playback), and I plan to add a CableCARD adapter in the coming weeks (already ready to go for broadcast 3D). The only thing left to do then is to get myself a 3D TV :)

April 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

Robert, when you finally get your Ceton card, you should do a Tivo/WMC 7 comparison. I love my Tivo, but 7 is beautiful. I just want to know if it's reliable so I can sell my Tivos and completely move to 7. And with Vail, storage will be a moot point, only drive bays will matter.

April 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Robert,

I undertook this project two years ago and had great results with it. I hope yours is just as successful. My build was done before the Atom/Ion era so I used an Athlon x2 4800 and Radeon HD3300 on-board video. My tuner is an AverMedia combo, which I'm not too happy with since sometimes it fails to tune QAM channels. You have to change channels and come back again for the card to start working

Software packages I use are TotalMedia Theater for BluRay & DVD, Windows Media Center for TV (analog cable & Clear QAM), Hulu Desktop, and of course Boxee for my Rev3 shows. Audio is passed out via S/PDIF to a receiver, so no fancy sound card is needed.

I'm really looking forward to your review of the new Ceton card. CableCard functionality on a HTPC is a huge deal, and I'd really like to ditch that AverMedia card.

Oh and thanks again for those tips on the Kuro Elite!

May 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

Robert, nice build! I look forward to your future posts on your experiences with it.

Having had a few bits and pieces of a broken PC fall into my possession recently I went with a Core2Duo build in a larger microATX case and I'm loving it.

Specs include:

Core2Duo E5200 2.5Ghz, 4gb of RAM, Gigabyte GA-G41M motherboard, ATI 5450 video card, WD Green 500MB HDD, Lite-on Blu-ray player, Corsair 400w 80 cert power supply all neatly packaged in a Silverstone Grandia GD04B case.

The CPU, RAM, HDD and BR drive I had on hand so I was able to get my rig up and running for under $300 (thank goodness for Amazon's free shipping to Hawaii!).

What I'd really like to do is build something similar to your build for my dad someday soon so I'll follow your experiences with interest.

Also would like to learn more about cable cards as well and interested to know the benefits to running one in my system if I can.

May 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGerald

I actually have an Acer Revo 3610, I was going to use it has a HTPC but am actually using it as my main system as I was so impressed with the performance (I am not a gamer as you can probably tell).

Chris

May 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChris

I would love to get a shopping list for your HTPC. I want to build one.

I love HD Nation!

July 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMike

Mike: I've provided links to many of the parts that went into the HTPC - click around ;)

July 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

Still waiting (with bated breath) for the build article, any ideas when you'll be getting to it? Also, why 2.5in over 3.5in drive choice?

Great article, love the show.

July 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFrank

Rob,
Have an HP m9520f that has quad processor & Blu-ray software, upgraded to Win 7 Home Prem. I cannot play many Blu-ray titles. Tried trial versions of several Blu-ray players to no avail. Is the best bet to get a Blu-ray player or an Sony PS3?
Very Frustrated !!!

Thanks, Jeff

November 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Clark

Hey Rob!
I was thinking about building my HTPC around a Gigabyte GA-H55M-UD2H mother board. I believe this has a built-in graphics card. Would you recommend buying a graphics card separate from the motherboard and if so what kind? I'm trying to build an affordable HTPC that will not be used for gaming at all. Simply for ripping my movie collection, as well as watching movies and listening to music. Thanks! Love your work!
Take Care

Joel

December 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJoel Lopez

What mouse and keyboard are you using for this setup.
Logitech makes some great stuff.

December 25, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdaniel

o/ Rob

I'm curious on a few notes.I remember you mentioning that you used the up scaling feature of total media for DVD content and was wondering if you use any other programs e.g. ffdshow codec tweaks anything of that nature to upscale your SD content. I'm running ATI 5770 thru my Yamaha RX-V565 via hdmi to my diy 1080p LCD projector(led )any tips will be appreciated.

Thanks Nick

BTW love the show

February 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNick

This is my next project! Thanks Robert. It will have to wait awhile because I just got the Samsung U46C8000 that you and Patrick just Reviewed on HD Nation. Do you have any recomendations on the 8000's TV settings?
Thanks for all you do, it is greatly appreciatied.

February 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCurt

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