DesktopReview HTPC Guide – Part III

by Reads (12,128)

(for part I of our series, click here; for part II, click here)

Introduction

In Part I, I discussed the reasons for assembling a home theater PC (HTPC). Then, in Part II, we got into the nitty-gritty and started looking at what parts would be best for building an HTPC. The breakdown there, repeated concisely here, was:

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

If you haven’t gone back and read that part fully, I encourage you to do so as the individual sections offer important and useful information beyond these basics. You wouldn’t buy something just because the salesman tells you it’s awesome, so it’s prudent to understand why I’ve suggested these parts for you.

In this section I’m going to cover the rest of the parts: the case or enclosure you’ll want to use to put it all together, the optional upgrades you can add to your build, and the loose ends.

Moving on!

Case
I used: Antec NSK1380 w/ 350W power supply
Recommendation: The same

This is a tentative recommendation, and you should feel free to find a case that suits you better. In retrospect I might’ve chosen the Antec Minuet like I’d wanted to begin with, but this is a decent case. The thing is, it comes with a slot cooler – a fan that fits into an expansion slot – and you MUST use it. It’s not an option, the case just doesn’t have the airflow to operate without it.

The main thing you want to look for is a case that comes with a power supply and isn’t too cheap. If the wattage is unrealistically high (generally 450W or higher) while the price is low, it’s too good to be true. A cheap PSU (power supply unit) could at best fail prematurely, or at worst outright damage your hardware.

You’re also going to want a case that’s silent. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to hear my HTPC hum while I’m watching a movie. It’s this reason coupled with the aforementioned PSU that makes me lean towards Antec for my case purchases: Antec tends to engineer their cases for silent running, and their power supplies are typically pretty reliable.  Of course, Antec’s stuff doesn’t come that cheap. If you’re willing to flirt with something a bit lower on the food chain, just remember that any fan 80mm or smaller can be pretty loud, so that’s a gamble.

Another consideration is the use of “low profile” or “slim” cases. These cases support only half height expansion cards, which can seriously limit your options for expanding/upgrading your HTPC. It’s for this reason that I went with my Antec NSK1380, which supports full height expansion cards and doesn’t have to worry about clearance. You should also keep in mind that you can go for a full-sized tower instead of a smaller case if you like; it really just depends on your aesthetic sensibility.

My impressions of the Antec NSK1380: I’ve been using this model for a few different builds for family and friends, and generally I’ve been pleased with it. Its main problem is that it just doesn’t dissipate heat well, but if you use the included slot cooler you can save yourself a lot of grief. It’s a bit cramped but any of these small cases will be, and at least it’s easy to pop open and service.

Video Card (optional)

I used: Sapphire ATI Radeon HD 3650 512MB GDDR3
Recommendation: Almost any PCI Express card from ATI’s Radeon HD line

ATI’s Radeon HD lineup has one feature across the board that NVIDIA’s cards severely lack: built-in audio over HDMI. Each one, from the lowly HD 2400 Pro to the top shelf HD 4870 X2, has an audio processor tacked on, and delightfully, this cost is not passed on to you. In fact, cards based on ATI hardware are often cheaper than their NVIDIA counterparts for nearly equivalent performance. All of these cards come with a special adapter that turns a DVI port on the back of the card into an HDMI port.

That said, there are caveats. Anything from ATI’s high end should probably be avoided for this build. That means anything from the HD 2900, 3800, and 4800 lines. These cards will generate too much heat, draw too much power, and may even have clearance issues due to their cooling apparatus. I tried installing an HD 3850 into my own HTPC and found that in addition to the odd custom cooler it shipped with keeping me from closing up the case completely, it also nearly barbequed the insides of my HTPC. Sure, the power consumption was handled fine, but there were too many other problems.

You’ll want to look for a card that’s either PCI Express x16 1.0 or 2.0 compatible. PCI and AGP cards won’t be of any use to you. Technically you could use a PCI card, but these go for a premium over PCI Express and actually perform worse: they exist as a legacy solution for people with older computers, and given we’re building this HTPC right now, it’s safe to say it isn’t old.

If you’re going to use your HTPC to game heavily, you may want to seek out an HD 3850 all the same, but try to get one with a dual slot cooler. However, the casual gamer may be just fine with an HD 3650 or HD 2600.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that you don’t have to buy one of these now. If you want a mild boost in gaming performance, you can also pick up one of the HD 2400 or 3400 series and – provided you bought a motherboard with the 780G chipset – it can run in tandem with the built-in Radeon HD 3200 for what ATI calls “Hybrid CrossFire.” Hybrid CrossFire basically couples the processing power of both sets of video hardware to provide greater performance than either could provide on their own. The flipside, of course, is that a single 3650 – like the one in my build – will wipe the floor with a Hybrid CrossFire setup.

The last bit is the difference between GDDR3 and DDR2. Video cards use their own memory, and GDDR3 versions are always going to be faster than their DDR2 cousins. That said, a Radeon HD 2600 with DDR2 will still be faster than a 3470 with GDDR3.

This gets into a murky “model number” area, so here’s how to read these: the first digit (x600) represents the card generation, and the second digit (2×00) specifies what market the card is meant for.  Generally, the higher the better, but an x600 will generally be faster than an x200 or x400.

Impressions of the Sapphire ATI Radeon HD 3650 GDDR3: I was surprised at how fast this card wound up being. It plays every game I throw at it at either 720p or 1080p with most settings on high. It’s also small and relatively quiet. I could recommend it easily to the casual gamer, and it’s ideal for an HTPC, offering the right balance of performance, power consumption, heat dissipation, and size for this kind of build.

Wireless Networking Adapter (optional)

I used: Netgear Wireless WG111v2 USB Adaptor
Recommendation: Avoiding the issue entirely

I hate wireless networking. This could be a crapshoot, but basically just find something at a reasonable price and pray it works most of the time. Wireless networking in my experience is the kind of thing that’s temperamental to begin with. It could work fine for weeks or even months at a time and then just randomly decide to be terrible.

Of course, since I have to actually recommend something other than giving up and hiding under a rock, I’ll tell you that the budget Airlink101 line found at Fry’s is actually great stuff and generally cheaper than the other brands, so you could go for that. Airlink101 hardware generally uses the same underlying hardware as Netgear does but without the bothersome Netgear software.

Wireless-G is fine. You could use wireless-N if you’re planning on sharing a LOT of files over the network.

Finally, I’d recommend using an internal adapter as opposed to an external one. A PCI adapter enjoys a life inside the computer – thus occupying less space – and I’ve found them to be a little more reliable.

Impressions of the WG111v2: I’m honestly just happy when it works. I’ve tried so many different wireless solutions – cards and routers alike – that I understand what a crapshoot this can really be and how random wireless hardware is. If you find something that works, use it.

Sound Cards and TV Tuners (optional)

These I can’t help you with necessarily, because I don’t use them for my build. The 780G (and the Radeon HD 3650) already feature 5.1 audio over HDMI, so I have a hard time suggesting a separate sound card. Audiophiles might do well to take a look at the ASUS Xonar DX, though, which I use in my desktop. It comes with everything you need to make it useful in a HTPC, has excellent sound quality, and the drivers are stable. The same can’t be said of Creative’s sound cards.

As for TV tuners, I’ve always liked stuff based on ATI’s TV Wonder hardware, but my understanding is that these things can be nearly as temperamental as wireless networking hardware. Some people swear by Hauppage, for example, and others just look for whatever’s cheapest. What you want to look for is something with ClearQAM support, though, since this is what we’ll be using when the digital changeover occurs in February 2009. I’d also prefer an internal PCI or PCI Express x1 card, as these tend to be a bit more responsive than their USB equivalents.

Between these two, I’d go for a TV tuner before the sound card. Once sound gets into a digital signal, dedicated sound hardware becomes much less relevant. A TV tuner straight up offers increased functionality for the HTPC and allows you to enjoy the DVR functions of Windows Media Center.

Additional Components You May Want

For a media center, I’ve found Windows Vista Home Premium 32-bit to be the operating system of choice. The Windows Media Center software is easy-to-use and the operating system has exactly the right amount of functionality. While a lot of people get down on Windows Vista, I’ve found it to have matured fairly gracefully. I think everyone was underwhelmed by the difference between it and XP – I know I was – but taken as a sort of “XP Plus” it’s not bad at all. And again, the Media Center functionality for it is phenomenal.

The reason I haven’t included this as a primary consideration in building an HTPC is because of how much the price can vary. You may have a spare license laying around – in which case it’s free – or you may be able to get it at a student price. There are also perfectly legal ways of installing an upgrade version entirely on its own. It’s all variable but chances are there’s an inexpensive way to get Windows Vista on your HTPC and I do recommend it.

Those of you who refuse to be shackled to Microsoft may be willing to play around with Linux-based alternatives, which are typically free. Ubuntu is an excellent distro of Linux that might be worth a try. A lot of people also enjoy using the free Linux software MythTV for their HTPCs. I don’t have experience with this stuff, though, so I can’t help you here. Linux is still a wilderness for casual users these days and I just don’t see that changing in the near future. If you have a friend who’s great with computers, though, they might be able to get it working. It’s an option I would be remiss to ignore, and I’m sure at least one reader will be happy to see it here.

Of course, you’ll also want a keyboard and mouse, preferably wireless. This is entirely a matter of taste that I leave up to you, but just know that most wireless keyboards and mice work over a very limited distance, so you’ll want to buy something that at least advertises exceptional range. Otherwise, you’ll be looking at a keyboard that barely works from less than a foot away from the receiver. You may want to buy this part from a store with a good return policy that you can use until you find something that works.

Finally, you may want to look into getting premium Blu-Ray/HD-DVD playback software depending on what your optical drive comes with, and this software generally runs around a hundred dollars.

Conclusion

A lot of information, right? The fun part is over, folks (at least, the fun part for me). We’ve gone shopping, picked out the parts, and thrown more money at NewEgg.

As a refresher, in this section we’ve picked out the remainder of the HTPC’s components. Outside of the case (which is essential for obvious reasons and which I personally prefer Antec for) we have the following options:

• If you decide to go with a dedicated video card for gaming, an ATI Radeon HD is the ideal choice. An HD 2600 or HD 3650 is a good balance between power consumption, heat dissipation, size, and performance.
• Wireless networking, as I’ve said so often, is a crapshoot. I like Airlink101, but you simultaneously can and can’t go wrong with other vendors. It’s Schrödinger’s Wireless.
• If you want to add a sound card, I’ve been happy with the Asus Xonar DX.
• Adding a TV tuner might be prudent, so you’ll want to find one that explicitly advertises ClearQAM capabilities. I personally prefer ATI TV Wonder tuners, but your mileage may vary.

In the next part, with our shopping out of the way, we have to get down to business: actually assembling the thing. This part will probably seem daunting, but honestly, building a computer is a pretty simple affair just as long as you don’t let your cat rub static electricity all over the components (mine likes to “help”).

Find your Phillips head screwdriver, clear off some table space, and we’ll get ready to go.


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