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Advice requested for the general direction for my HTPC build

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March 31, 2013 1:08:50 PM

Hi all,

So far, my "home theater setup" has consisted in switching between connecting a Macbook Pro (for DVD and streaming) and a desktop computer (for Blu-ray and ripped DVDs) to my TV with an HDMI cable, but it has lots of drawbacks:

  1. No unified device to do everything
  2. I have to physically drag the computer in the living-room to play Blu-rays (that's not where it normally sits)
  3. Setup is bulky
  4. When using the desktop, it's also quite loud because of the fans



  • Here is some background:

    • I have lots (> 100) of DVDs in ripped (ISO) format, some supplemented with extra subtitles files (.sub, .srt, etc) that are not present on the ISO itself
    • I have also a few Blu-rays in that format
    • I have a file server to host these, that can sit in a separate room (connected via power line plugs for instance)
    • I have a TV that can take an HDMI input with sound (I may later upgrade to a full-blown separate sound system, but that's not part of this project)
    • I've built PCs before, but never HTPCs, so I'm not familiar with the trade-offs there



  • I don't think a standalone Blu-ray player makes sense, because:

    1. It won't handle my ISOs
    2. It won't handle the subtitles (at least, not without me burning a DVD merging the ISO and the subtitles, which is much harder and cumbersome than I want the setup to be)
    3. I want something more customizable




  • So I've decided that I should build my very first HTPC instead! But before I start shopping for components, etc, I wanted to make sure I was building the right thing, i.e. that it is neither underpowered nor overpowered. There are lots and lots of ways to go about building a HTPC, and I wanted to get some feedback on the suitable ways to go for the goals I want to achieve. I realize that I may have to forgo support for games like Stalker if I want the quiet / silent operation and the low power consumption. If that's the case, so be it - I'll move the gaming to another computer made of spare parts.

    My goals:

    • Support for Blu-ray (both physical discs and rips), DVDs (likewise), Youtube, Netflix, Amazon Video, BBC iPlayer, Lovefilm, the odd video file (mkv, avi, …)
    • Support for external subtitles files (.sub, .srt, …) for DVDs
    • Ability to view pictures, either by connecting a camera, inserting a card (SD, CF, …), or simply by going through a networked folder
    • Unified interface for as much of the media as possible (this may not be achievable for Blu-ray discs, which require a specialized player, and BBC iPlayer videos; decrypted Blu-ray rips may be in the cards though)
    • Enough firepower to play full-blown Blu-rays / 1080p HD streams from Youtube / HD streams from Netflix and Amazon
    • Receive, record, and replay Freeview TV through tuner (the HTPC can serve as a temporary storage area, but ultimately the recorded shows would end up on the fileserver)
    • Quiet, or even silent operation (so prefer low-power gear, passive cooling, and low-rpm large fans if necessary)
    • Power consumption as low as possible
    • Support for standby or wake-on-LAN desirable
    • Support for the following hardware: wireless mouse and keyboard, remote control (like Logitech Harmony)
    • Android / iPhone apps to substitute for the remote would be great
    • Audio and video through HDMI
    • Optionally: play some games (Sim City 3000, Baldur's Gate EE, Civ 5, perhaps even Stalker…)



  • My non-goals:

    • Storage (handled by separate fileserver)
    • Very demanding games




  • Here are some ideas listed in no particular order (some of them garnered from reading left and right about HTPC builds, so I'm not completely familiar with them):

    • Using a Raspberry Pi / Cubox / …
    • Doing an Atom build (or other System-on-a-chip)
    • Doing an AMD APU build (Trinity?)
    • Doing an Ivy Bridge build with integrated HD4000 graphics
    • Using a low-power PSU such as picoPsu or Nano150
    • XMBC as the front-end for my HTPC (+ PowerDVD or the like for Bluray)
    • Plex running on the fileserver, and PleXMBC plugin for the HTPC
    • mid-capacity SSD for the HTPC (100 - 200GB), no spinning hard drive



  • My understanding is that some of my goals have clear implications on the choice of components / software:

    • While I'd have loved to base my build on a Linux distribution, the support for Blu-ray discs pretty much requires that my HTPC run some version of Windows (I was thinking Windows 7). I could get around it by ripping Blu-rays separately, and play the decrypted ISO (I think VLC supports that just fine), but that doesn't allow a "pop the Blu-ray in and watch" kind of experience.
    • This de facto eliminate the Raspberry Pi, Cubox, et al (not mentioning the fact that attaching an external Blu-ray drive to them might be tricky due to power limitations)
    • I don't think Atom-based builds will be powerful enough for full-blown Blu-rays (but I may be wrong)



  • Now, I have a whole bunch of questions:

    • Do I need a powerful CPU? Is there a solid reason to go for Intel (and which series? i3? i5? i7?) or for AMD specifically?
    • Do I need a dedicated graphics card to satisfy my goals? Or would AMD's or Intel's integrated graphics be sufficient? I'd love to avoid the graphic card if I could, since graphic card = more power and more heat to dissipate. Although there are apparently some fanless half-height video cards...
    • [subquestion] What if I take out the gaming requirement?
    • Should I use a CPU with a low or very low TDP (35W / 17W respectively)?
    • [subquestion] My understanding is that the TDP tells you how much power the CPU can draw at maximum, but that it doesn't necessarily correlate with higher idle consumption or "normal operation" consumption
    • [subquestion] However, if I get a higher TDP processor, then I need a cooling system that can draw out more hear (so as to protect the CPU), a power supply that can deliver more power, etc
    • [subquestion] Can low or very-low power CPUs work with passive cooling? I'd love to avoid any fans if I can (but not by risking the integrity of the CPU)
    • Can a low-power PSU such as the picoPsu or Nano150 work for me? Intuitively, I'd want to say yes, especially if I go for a low TDP processor, and if I avoid the dedicated graphics card
    • How much space should I set aside on the HTPC for PVR recording (say, a couple hours). I'm thinking with Freeview HD, the stream is probably about 3 MBits / sec, so around 1 - 1.5 GBytes / hour. But maybe I'm underestimating?
    • What about an external eSata Bluray drive attached to a pre-assembled box such as a Zotac ZBOX?



  • Once I get that general sense of direction, I'll start exploring hardware specifics.

    Thanks!

    Best solution

    April 1, 2013 12:04:26 AM
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    1. For a balance of Blu Ray playback, light gaming and low power consumption i would say the 65W TDP A10 Trinity is a great fit?
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E168...

    2. You can go small but no so small that u don't have available PCI/PCIe slots for the tv tuner/s? Freeview is DVB-T2 (depending on where u at) so get compatible cards ^^

    3. You could either go with a Universal Remote to control your HTPC (pricier) or simply one of the many RF wireless keyboard with touchpad combos (cheaper)

    4. Sending HDMI out to the telly directly is of no use if u wish to enjoy Dolby TrueHD/DTS-HD : you'd want a HDMI AVR and a decent audio set up for this (a good low end enhances the movie expereince)

    Hope my tips were useful and cheers ^^
    April 1, 2013 5:54:48 AM

    batuchka said:
    1. For a balance of Blu Ray playback, light gaming and low power consumption i would say the 65W TDP A10 Trinity is a great fit?
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E168...

    2. You can go small but no so small that u don't have available PCI/PCIe slots for the tv tuner/s? Freeview is DVB-T2 (depending on where u at) so get compatible cards ^^

    3. You could either go with a Universal Remote to control your HTPC (pricier) or simply one of the many RF wireless keyboard with touchpad combos (cheaper)

    4. Sending HDMI out to the telly directly is of no use if u wish to enjoy Dolby TrueHD/DTS-HD : you'd want a HDMI AVR and a decent audio set up for this (a good low end enhances the movie expereince)

    Hope my tips were useful and cheers ^^


    Thanks batuchka!

    1. Yeah, I'm really hesitating between the A10-5700 and the i3 3225.

    My understanding is that the core i3 is a better CPU per se, runs cooler, and gives me a better upgrade path (to i5 / i7, although not to Haswell since it will use a different socket); its integrated graphics are more than enough for all the media playing part, but it will be limiting for the light gaming part, unless I add a discrete GPU (which may pose problems in terms of energy consumption and heat).

    On the other hand, the A10-5700 has a much improved integrated GPU that will be suitable for light gaming, mounts on a socket (FM-2) that will apparently be forward-compatible with the next generation of APUs, but draws a little more power and is not as good from a pure computational point of view as the i3.

    So my take on this is that I should go with the i3 if I want to couple it with a discrete GPU or if I want the CPU to run as cool as possible, and go with the A10 if I want the best performance out of the box. Am I correct? Will I be able to have quiet operation with the A10 in spite of the slightly higher TDP rating?

    I also wanted to consider:

    • The i5 3475S, but I can't seem to find any retailer carrying the first one (maybe they consider that when you go for an i5, you're going to go for a dedicated GPU anyway?)
    • The mobile family of i3 and i5 (Core i3 3130M, Core i5 3380M, ...), but it is way more expensive for the same performance, so I'm not convinced the low TDP justifies spending that much (I'm thinking with a TDP <= 75W, a good fan is going to be pretty quiet anyway, right?)


  • 3. Agreed here. I was thinking to try with a mini wireless keyboard coupled with an Android app first, and then move to a dedicated UR if the experience was not satisfying.

    4. I could always start by having the HDMI video + audio output sent to the TV, and later add the HDMI AVR + dedicated speakers later, right? I don't think either setup would require a change in the hardware in the HTPC?

    Cheers!
    Related resources
    April 1, 2013 7:23:16 AM

    1. Yes there is also the option of under volting that A-10 in BIOS ^^
    2. i3 + discrete is also an option but the fact of additional parts mean more noise/heat so your call
    3. I ususally pick RF over BT cos the former does not have to be within line of sight and seems to have a stonger range/ faster response time? Despite marketing i would say a range of 10 feet/ 3m is a dependable ops range ^^
    4. Yep an audio set up can be had later down the road with no impact on HTPC
    April 1, 2013 7:52:05 PM

    Thanks! Based on your comments and some more reading, I narrowed it down to the following components; however I still need some guidance there. Also, is my choice of components (and associated trade-offs) consistent with the goals I have? Are there are better parts available that I didn't consider? Am I likely to run into issues while putting everything together (case too small, PSU too weak or too big, insufficient cooling, …)?

    Note: I decided to go with the A10-5700 rather than the i3-3225 because both CPUs would fit the bill for media playback, both have approximately the same idle power consumption, but while the i3 is more powerful on the CPU side and weaker on the integrated graphics card, the A10 is more even and will translate into better gaming in its stock form. I think the i3 would have been a better choice actually if coupled with a discrete graphics card, but I'm trying to avoid that. I hope I won't regret that choice if I end up adding a discrete graphics card down the road!


    CPU: AMD A10-5700 (http://www.scan.co.uk/products/amd-a10-5700-s-fm2-virgo...): 65W TDP


    CPU Cooler: Reviews mention that the stock cooler on the AMD is quite noisy, so I thought it'd be worth replacing it…


  • Possibly even with replacement fan: Noiseblocker M12-S1 12cm S-Series NB-Multiframe Fan (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Noiseblocker-12cm-S-Series-NB-M...)


    Motherboard:



  • Memory: I'm thinking 4GB should be enough, but 8GB would give more headroom; I'm definitely going with 8GB if I'm getting a mono with only 2 RAM slots. Also, some people seem to have had issues with Gigabyte boards and memory > 1600MHz, so I'm tempted to stay with 1600MHz memory (especially since there is much less choice for DDR3 > 1600MHz). Finally, my choice of mono seems to require 1.5V memory.



  • SSD:



  • Hard drive (optional):



  • Blu-ray drive: Optional because I already have one (LITE-ON Black 12X BD-ROM 16X DVD-ROM 48X CD-ROM SATA Internal Internal 12X Blu-ray Combo Model ihes112-04 - c.f. http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E168...) that is probably sufficient. I could upgrade to a burner though, or if the one I have turns out to be too noisy for the HTPC.



  • PSU:
    I ran a computation with the hardware I had in mind, and it gave me a minimum PSU wattage of 184W, and a recommended PSU wattage of 234W; allowing headroom for a discrete graphic card such as a Radeon HD 6670 and a few extra things here and there brought the minimum / recommended to 239W / 289W. So it doesn't make much of a difference: either way, I'm out of reach of DC PSUs such as picoPSU and nano150, and any regular PSU will be more than enough to power the machine anyway.


  • I've heard good things about the Seasonic PSUs, but 1) they seem to be quite expensive, and 2) I'm concerned about proper air circulation inside the PC since the PSU would be fabless.


    Case:


  • The Streacom cases look nice, but I don't like that they need slot-loading Blu-ray drives...


    Tuner: Surprisingly, I didn't find all that much in the way of DVB-T2 tuners




  • Open questions:

    1. I'm planning to go with an SSD here, but I'm wondering if there are any gotchas related to that (wear due to the OS, …)?
    2. I'm not sure the SSD provides enough headroom for PVR - I may quickly go over if I'm not writing to the fileserver.
    3. Also, If I want to use the HTPC for the occasional ripping for instance, is it going to be problematic? I'm assuming that doing that on the SSD may be impractical (especially if it's a Bluray) because I'll need a much bigger, and therefore much more expensive, SSD. So I have two solutions:
      - A quiet local traditional hard drive (but that means more money, more noise, and more power consumption - although probably only when it's actually doing something if I'm getting a "green" drive)
      - A network folder (on a local network running somewhere between 100MBits and 1Gbps - I haven't decided if I'd go for wired gigabit ethernet, 500Mbps powerline, or 200Mbps powerline), but is that going to be snappy enough?
    4. I've also read suggestions to go for a 2"5 hard drive if I'm getting a traditional hard drive, because they tend to be quieter and consume less (at the expense of performance, which is secondary here, and price). Any thoughts?
    5. Do I need to watch out for the height of the CPU cooler and the RAM sticks given the case selection I made?



  • Thanks!
    April 1, 2013 11:08:27 PM

    1. Stock + under volted the stock cooler is fine but in the quest for ultra silent perhaps an after market cooler is a good shout ^^ Yes most HTPC/media cases impose a height limitation for CPU HSFs so take not?

    2. PVR/SSD? No way - get a traditional mechanical drive for storage and a fast SSD for boot if u feel a SSD is a must. Aso consider many peeps put there HTPCs on sleep/standby so a SSD/fast boot up may not be a must even :p 

    3. I would suggest a stable, wired network cos streaming HD movies may be erratic on a wifi one
    April 2, 2013 12:26:12 AM

    batuchka said:
    1. Stock + under volted the stock cooler is fine but in the quest for ultra silent perhaps an after market cooler is a good shout ^^ Yes most HTPC/media cases impose a height limitation for CPU HSFs so take not?

    2. PVR/SSD? No way - get a traditional mechanical drive for storage and a fast SSD for boot if u feel a SSD is a must. Aso consider many peeps put there HTPCs on sleep/standby so a SSD/fast boot up may not be a must even :p 

    3. I would suggest a stable, wired network cos streaming HD movies may be erratic on a wifi one


    2. Ah, the SSD would be a temporary location at best, the bulk of the storage would be offloaded to a separate box that contains lots of space.

    Speaking of sleep / standby, has this been an issue with IR/WR receivers for instance?

    3. Oh, most definitely. I'm looking at powerline plugs (200MBps or 500Mbps), or wired gigabit ethernet if absolutely necessary.
    April 2, 2013 2:04:00 AM

    I have an RF HTPC keyboard /w keypad and it has a USB transmitter - waking up from sleep is good to go if that helps ^^
    April 7, 2013 5:09:10 PM

    Thanks batuchka! I have some more questions that I'm going to put in another thread (round 2), and I'll close this thread in the meantime.
    April 8, 2013 6:43:58 AM

    Yep u are welcomed and happy shopping ^^
    !