DesktopReview Guide to HTPCs – Part II

by Reads (3,734)

by Dustin Sklavos

Note: This is Part II of a DesktopReview ongoing series on how to build your own home theater PC from scratch.  For Part I, click here.

So, we’ve decided building an HTPC (Home Theater PC) is the right plan, but now we need to figure out what to put in it. There’s a thread that’s been going in the Notebook Review forums where one user was wondering if he should buy a PlayStation 3 or build an HTPC. Votes were pretty evenly split, but given that I’m writing this series for you today, you can probably figure out where my vote went.

It worked out pretty simply, really. One poster had a heck of a time getting his own to work months back. Another one suggested entirely the wrong components for building one. But the solution to the vast majority of the problems is a simple one: AMD’s 780G motherboard chipset. We’ll get there soon enough.

A major problem with building your own machine, other than the time and energy it takes, is that picking out components can be nightmarish. If you visit NewEgg, for example, you have to whittle down the sections just to pick out each individual component. The easiest thing to buy is the optical drive – the Blu-ray or HD-DVD/Blu-ray drive – that you want to include. But the rest of it can feel like pulling teeth.

That’s what we’re doing here, at Part II. I’ll tell you the components I chose and make some broader suggestions for ones you can choose. This is me relaying my experiences to you. I found a way that worked and hopefully that way will work for you too.

First, as a recap from Part I, we need to list the components we require to build an HTPC.

WHAT DO WE NEED, ANYHOW?

It’s pretty simple, actually. Recapping from before, we need the following:

• A dual core or better processor
• A motherboard, which includes the video hardware unless you want to buy a separate video card
• Memory (RAM)
• A hard disk
• An optical drive
• A case

And then from there, we have options for:

• A video card
• A wireless networking adaptor
• A sound card
• A TV tuner

Using this list as a baseline, let’s go through and pick out the individual components.

PROCESSOR

I used: AMD Athlon X2 4600+ (2.4 GHz dual core)
Recommendation: AMD Athlon X2, any retail kit, 65W or lower

The crux of our build is going to be the AMD platform. Simply put, Intel doesn’t really compete here. While their processors as a whole are faster, that power is largely unnecessary. Most users don’t ever need the kind of processing power computers come with these days. What we want here is balance. AMD’s processors are capable, dirt cheap, and afford us the luxury of using their integrated video hardware.

What’s key here is to get one with a TDP of 65W or lower. You’ll see a wattage listed on NewEgg’s site, and basically what this pertains to is how much power the processor consumes and, by association, how much heat it generates. We want the HTPC to run as cool as it can. Since the cases for HTPCs tend to be small, airflow becomes very tricky, so minimizing the amount of heat the processor throws off helps minimize the amount of heat that needs to be dissipated by the case itself.

As for clock speed? Don’t worry about it. As long as you get an Athlon X2 (sometimes also known as Athlon 64 X2), you’ll have enough horsepower. Video playback is going to be handled by the video hardware we use, and I’m not going to recommend anything that can’t fully accelerate high definition video.

I do not personally recommend AMD’s Phenom X3 or X4 processors for this. They aren’t worth the price premium for our intended purposes, and they generally throw off more heat than their X2 counterparts.

Now, I’m sure there will be at least one or two kittens here whining or screaming “Intel! Intel! Intel!” When I built my sister’s desktop she absolutely refused to use AMD. Rather than get into an argument with her, I threw my hands up in the air, said “fine, whatever,” and built her a substantially more expensive Intel system. I have to live with her. I don’t have to live with you guys. For this task, AMD is the more logical choice, end of discussion.

Impressions of the AMD Athlon X2 4600+: It’s not readily available anymore, having been replaced by faster counterparts at the same price point, but I’ve used this processor in a few builds and found its performance to be more than satisfactory. I’ve never felt like I haven’t had enough CPU power on my hands and the temperatures are generally reasonable.

MOTHERBOARD

I used: Sapphire PI-AM2RS780G (780G Chipset)
Recommendation: Any 780G-based MicroATX board from MSI, ASUS, or Gigabyte

I thought to suggest NVIDIA based boards as alternatives, and then I remembered that would be silly. AMD’s boards are in every way superior to their NVIDIA counterparts in this instance. They run cooler, draw less power, and perform better.

The key here is the 780G chipset. Accept no substitutes, no 780V or anything like that. The 780G chipset includes video hardware built into the motherboard that fully accelerates high definition content, drastically reducing processor load during playback and ensuring a silky smooth viewing experience. More than that, every 780G board that comes with an HDMI port supports 5.1 audio over that port. The 780G also provides respectable performance for the odd casual game or two.

MicroATX is the form factor of the motherboard we want. It basically ensures the board is small enough to fit in the cases we’ll want to use.

As for brands? I’ve found ASUS, MSI, and Gigabyte to produce reliable motherboards and have used hardware from each of them at several different points in time. You’ll see boards from other brands available as well. I’ve heard good things about Foxconn although I can’t recommend them in good faith because I haven’t used any of their products myself. The other brands are probably okay, but the one I heartily recommend avoiding is ECS. ECS has been making godawfully poor quality hardware for a long time and when Fry’s is able to sell you an ECS motherboard with a processor for just the price of the processor, that gives me the sneaking suspicion that not much has changed. So I cannot stress this enough: do not buy ECS.

Impressions of the Sapphire PI-AM2RS780G: I wouldn’t recommend this board. Its layout is awkward compared to the competition, documentation is poor, and the BIOS is in Engrish. Sure, it runs. What do you want, a medal? The only reason I bought this is because at the time of purchase, it was being sold in a combo with a discrete video card for a reasonable price, and I intended to use my HTPC for more serious gaming.

All that said, my experiences with the 780G’s graphics hardware, the Radeon HD 3200, have been very positive. Simply put, the Radeon HD 3200 is the fastest integrated graphics part on the market. It’s a beast, happily hardware decodes high definition video, and will play any PC game currently available. You may have to seriously reduce settings (in the case of Crysis, pretty much everything at minimum), but it WILL play them. I love the Radeon HD 3200 and wholeheartedly recommend the 780G chipset, but the Sapphire chipset can definitely go.

MEMORY (RAM)

I used: 2GB (2x1GB) Kingston ValueRAM DDR2-533
Recommendation: Kingston, Crucial, or Corsair DDR2 RAM

2GB of RAM seems to be the sweet spot for something like this. I’m using old RAM I had laying around, but memory is so cheap right now I’m not sure how much it matters.

You’ll see a lot of different brands available, but the reason I recommend Kingston, Crucial, and Corsair is because I’ve found them to be of excellent quality and reliability. When RAM is bad or goes bad it can produce all kinds of crazy, random errors and oftentimes can be hard to diagnose. A computer with bad RAM may behave like it’s infected with a computer virus. Even worse, some RAM which may otherwise be perfectly fine can get particularly picky depending on what motherboard it’s plugged into. When I first built my desktop PC, the OCZ RAM I used was decidedly questionable and I read widespread reports of Intel’s 965 chipset having trouble with OCZ. There’s nothing wrong with the RAM per se; it just didn’t want to party with the board.

These are problems that buying a brand like Kingston, Crucial, or my personal favorite, Corsair, can help avoid. Corsair may be the most expensive of the lot, but I’ve found it to be the most reliable. For me, peace of mind is worth the extra cash. I use 8GB of their XMS2 in my desktop.

Now, you’ll want to buy the 2GB in a matched pair of 1GB sticks. This will help the system run optimally and won’t leave any performance on the table. As far as the speed goes, don’t worry so much about that. DDR2-800 is a good speed to go for but lower is fine. Higher isn’t worth the premium.

Impressions of Kingston ValueRAM 2GB (2x1GB) DDR2-533: not a whole lot to say here. It works fine and hasn’t posed any problems. DDR2-800 would probably help the Radeon HD 3200’s performance, but I use a dedicated video card in my desktop so it’s a non-issue.

HARD DISK

I used: 160GB 5400-RPM Hitachi TravelStar
Recommendation: Seagate, Hitachi, Samsung, or Western Digital 3.5″ 7200RPM SATA hard disk

I recommend only brands here because it’s going to come down to how much space you feel like you need. Going to be recording video or storing a lot of it on the HTPC? You may want to err on the side of something like a 500GB or 640GB hard disk. Otherwise if you don’t feel like you’re going to be storing a whole lot on your HTPC, you can get away with something smaller.

If I did have to recommend one hard disk, though, I’d recommend the near-universally praised Western Digital WD6400AAKS 640GB 7200-RPM drive. I use a pair of them in my desktop. They’re fast, run cool, dead silent, offer a respectable amount of capacity, and probably best of all: they’re cheap. At the time of this article they’re $85 with free shipping at NewEgg, which is a heck of a deal for a drive that’s a big winner on all fronts.

Remember that video takes up a LOT of space, so it may not hurt to err on the side of a larger drive.

As for brands, the only ones I’d really recommend against are Maxtor and ExcelStor. These are “value” brands and may not be worth the risk. Before Maxtor was bought out by Seagate, I’d used quite a few of them and found them to be very unreliable but that may have changed. Given the value they can represent, it may be worth the gamble. I wouldn’t touch ExcelStor, though. Hard disks just aren’t supposed to be that cheap.

Impressions of 160GB 5400-RPM Hitachi TravelStar: This is actually a notebook hard disk left over from an upgrade to my laptop. The connectors are the same as its bigger cousin, though. This will probably be upgraded at some point, as the 5400 RPM is just too slow and makes the computer feel a little sluggish. Still, I paid basically nothing for this, so the fact that it works at all makes it fine by me.

OPTICAL DRIVE

I used: LG GGC-H20L DVD writer and HD-DVD/Blu-ray reader
Recommendation: The same, or just a Blu-ray reader

Realistically, this is the main reason you’re building this machine: playing back high definition content.

Blu-ray writers are still expensive, but the readers have come down a lot and can be had for fairly reasonable prices, so it’s going to come down to whether or not you want to support the dead format or not. For what it’s worth, HD-DVD offers the same quality as Blu-ray, but due to fire sale prices you can obtain HD-DVDs for the price of regular DVDs. Oftentimes, you can even get them cheaper.

I have a hard time recommending any given brand for a solo Blu-ray reader, since you really just want the thing to work. Whether or not you want DVD writing capability with it is going to be up to you, too. I haven’t found a use for it, but you may want it for backing up programs.

It’s important to note that none of these is going to produce any better video quality than any other. This may seem like a “well, duh” for some of you, but it bears mentioning: all these are doing is pulling the raw data off the disc itself; it’s the video hardware that’s producing the picture and thus it’s the video hardware that has the biggest impact on the picture quality.

Impressions of the LG GGC-H20L: It works fine. It’s had one or two hiccups, but I suspect those have more to do with the pack-in software – PowerDVD 7 – than with the drive itself. It had some trouble the first time I tried to play “TMNT,” and it had an odd hiccup in the middle of “The Shining.” Both of these were HD-DVDs. Other than that, though, it’s been fine. For what it’s worth, this drive is really only about $20 more than a basic Blu-ray drive at the time of this writing, so the potential savings since Blu-ray prices are still sky high may make it worthwhile.

CONCLUSION: PART II

As you can see, there’s a lot of little information to give you about what to buy. I’ve covered the internals of the HTPC in this section so you can get a feel for what you’ll be building and I hope I’ve made it pretty simple for you. The basic rundown is this:

• An AMD Athlon X2 processor
• A motherboard based on the 780G chipset, preferably Asus, Gigabyte, or MSI
• 2GB (2x1GB sticks) of DDR2, preferably Corsair, Crucial, or Kingston
• A hard disk from a reputable vendor
• A blu-ray or HD-DVD/blu-ray optical drive

Since we’ve run so long today already, in the next part I’ll cover the case along with some useful information on the optional purchases you can make to increase the flexibility of your new HTPC.

Stay tuned!

 

P.S. “TMNT” is awesome and I will smite anyone who disagrees.


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