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Building a Low-Power Home Theater PC System

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October 16, 2006 12:35:05 PM

Heat and noise are the enemies of quiet home theater enjoyment, but good component selection addresses these concerns. As we walk through our own Home Theater build we'll consider what changes might have improved the final product.
October 16, 2006 1:02:46 PM

.com.com
October 16, 2006 2:04:52 PM

where were the benchmarks????
Related resources
October 16, 2006 2:19:10 PM

For RAM, if you are trying to use integrated videos, go for the DDR2 800. The integrated graphics uses the System RAM for its memory, and thus high peformance memory like those DDR2 800 and above will ensure the integrated graphics will gain from the extra peformance from the high peformance RAM, making gaming in systems like the ASUS M2NPV-VM a little more bearable.

And trying to play those HD 1040i in this system will require the X2 processor, with the Purevideo decoder so that the CPU will not be overloaded.

I am going to build my 3rd HTPC using the same MB but using a X2 3800+ processor with DDR2 800 RAM. I am going to use a custom casing i made myself and the height of the chassis is at around 6.5cm. The choice of the heatsink used for my HTPC will be very limited, and i will try to manage the heat output like what i did in my previous HTPC: Sucking air from the heatsink and funnel it outside of the case. Ventilation holes only on the bottom of the casing to allow cool air to be drawn in to the casing, and at the top to allow hot air to escape.

Will be thinking of using this CoolerMaster Vortex Dream(ACC-U72) due to its design and its low height. I will change the fan itself to a smaller one and fan orientation such that the fan will suck air from the heatsink out. Or maybe use those 1U heatsink designed for servers. C how it goes
October 16, 2006 3:36:32 PM

Great Article!
I don't want to sound like an idiot, but my grandfather is a huge A/V aficionado, and I want to build him a HTPC for his birthday. I have built about 25 computers in my life, 1 with a completely custom built case, so I'm not new to technology... but I honestly don't really know what an HTPC is. It sounds great, something to manage an entire house worth of entertainment, but I was wondering if I could get some clarification as to the exact functionality/benefits of an HTPC compared with standard A/V equipment (ie he already owns a $6500 Harmon Kardon receiver, can a computer handle sound better?).

Why do people use them, how can they even be useful without an HDMI out, what kind of software is essential (ie to decode HD signals and manage files etc).

Thank You
Ben
October 16, 2006 3:43:13 PM

You can get HDMI out video cards... but tvs will do 1080 using the standard RGB cables. I do not believe a computers sound card will come close to matching the quality of a very nice reciever for analog signals. If you were to get a sound card with digital out, you could hook the HTPC to the reciever and get beter sound that way.
October 16, 2006 3:54:22 PM

I take the audio out from my optical on my motherboard and go straight into my receiver, sounds great. The HTPC to me is a great place to store DVDs and Music.
October 16, 2006 4:02:07 PM

My biggest complaint on HTPC's is the one spot they are still weak on: Software!
You can get the hardware to make a blig-blig setup but even Microsoft hasn’t perfected a good HTPC OS, yet.
Also, a TV Tuner card is useless if you HAVE to use a Satellite/Cable box for your channels, and unfortunately most services that provide HD channels (other then “over the air”) require you to.
October 16, 2006 4:08:29 PM

ATI's theater card I believe comes with a cable card slot, so you COULD use the HTPC for digital cable.
October 16, 2006 4:13:51 PM

Good stuff! More more more!!!! You guys have been instrumental in helping me get mine up.


My current HTPC is as all a work under progress but here it is:

AMD 3500+
Asus A8N-SLI
2 X Western Digital Raptor 78 gig drives in raid stripping
Asus GF7600 Passive cooling
2 gig Kingston Hyper X PC3200
Sound Blaster Audigy 2 Platinum (front face addition)
Windows XP 64Bit edition (waiting for Vista)
No TV card yet (already have a HD-DVR with Comcast)
Logitech Bluetooth keyboard/mouse set
Connected by cat6e gigabit
Lain Lei Alum PC case


Sony 60" XSBR TV
Onkio 7.1 channel THX system with Polk RTI Satellites
Sony digital camcorder



*** Cool stuff I have done recently

*80 gigs of MP3's that I play through ITUNES

*In the last 3 days, ripped and watched 20 of my home videos flawlessly. Each one creates a 15ish gig avi. Store them on my home NAS.

*Play World or Warcraft :) 



*** Planned changes

* Home theater case
* 2 X 500 gig drives for storage.
October 16, 2006 4:22:57 PM

You are missing a very important aspect of what makes up the perfect HTPC.
October 16, 2006 4:24:50 PM

Quote:
You are missing a very important aspect of what makes up the perfect HTPC.


Recording TV? I primarily watch HDTV now thorugh Comcast so its not really an option for me yet from what I have read.
October 16, 2006 4:29:42 PM

Quote:
ATI's theater card I believe comes with a cable card slot, so you COULD use the HTPC for digital cable.
October 16, 2006 4:32:07 PM

Quote:
ATI's theater card I believe comes with a cable card slot, so you COULD use the HTPC for digital cable.


thats interesting to hear because My TV does have a card slot and at one point I tried to get it for the TV (and was avaliable) but opted to go for the box with hd-tv recording. Im gonna check that out.
October 16, 2006 5:10:17 PM

Many motherboard these days have digital out or at least a digital out headers, so you can pipe the digital signal to a receiver.

No one seems to carry the AMD EE SFF processor though, so you can't really built one using them :p  .

Paul
October 16, 2006 5:48:04 PM

Unfortunately, many of the satellite/cable providers are going away from the card slot service due to the high bandwidth needed for HD and force you to use a set-top box. I read an article about it recently and don’t remember the exact reason for the move away from card slots but I think it had to do with the bandwidth issues (MPEG4?). The article indicated the displeasure from people with new TV’s that are slot equipped, but one cable company rep just shrugged his shoulders and said “It’s not going to change, deal with it”.

Edit: Now that I think about it, it had something to do with "On-demand Broadband" where the provider only transmits the actual channel you need rather then the whole spectrum of channels you need in analog.
You can’t do On-Demand with card-slot alone.
October 16, 2006 5:50:22 PM

Makes sence to me, Comcast didnt seem like they wanted me to have the card.
October 16, 2006 6:06:35 PM

Quote:
The article indicated the displeasure from people with new TV’s that are slot equipped, but one cable company rep just shrugged his shoulders and said “It’s not going to change, deal with it”.


This is the issue I always have with cable. In the past, they were always a monopoly in a local area and so always had bad customer service. With broadband content knocking on their door, they better wise up.

Paul
October 16, 2006 6:06:46 PM

The card comes with the HD comcast package... you pay for either. If they dont give it to you, tell them you will close your account today.
October 16, 2006 6:51:48 PM

So has AMD released a new CPU, cause the pictures of the processor they took were of an Athlon X2 3800+ :?:
October 16, 2006 7:59:12 PM

Quote:
Great Article!
I don't want to sound like an idiot, but my grandfather is a huge A/V aficionado, and I want to build him a HTPC for his birthday. I have built about 25 computers in my life, 1 with a completely custom built case, so I'm not new to technology... but I honestly don't really know what an HTPC is. It sounds great, something to manage an entire house worth of entertainment, but I was wondering if I could get some clarification as to the exact functionality/benefits of an HTPC compared with standard A/V equipment (ie he already owns a $6500 Harmon Kardon receiver, can a computer handle sound better?).

Why do people use them, how can they even be useful without an HDMI out, what kind of software is essential (ie to decode HD signals and manage files etc).

Thank You
Ben


Good questions. In my opinion, the HTPC is still a work in progress. Look at some of the builds at the bottom of this list to get an idea of what people mean by HTPC....

http://www.extremetech.com/category2/0,1695,644478,00.a...

Think about a PC w/ a big hard drive, tv tuner, and windows media edition... conected to your home theater TV and sound system.

Primarily an HTPC should play music from your hard drive or from a cd through your home stereo; Play DVDs on a large screen w/ excelent sound; play video from your hard drive w/ excelent sound; watch and record video from Cable, Satalite, or over the air (onto your hard drive); and perhaps allow gaming on your big screen.

Many people argue that their PC does a better job scaling DVDs than a DVD player, especially if you buy and install the software that allows your graphics card to accelerate the co/dec process.

Here are some issue tha I have run into while researching this tehcnology:

1) Compatibility w/ HD is questionable.
How do you connect your computer to your HD Display? If you are really talking about a Home Theater, then you are not talking about a 32" LCD display w/ a DVI connection. You are talking about a 50"-64" Plasma, DLP, or projector which probably has HDMI (not DVI) and may or may not have VGA input.

If it has VGA input, that is commonly how you connect your HTPC. This will allow you to scale up to at least 720p. This is OK for DVDs, but it's still all smoke an mirrors. You still can't get a real high def image off a DVD.

You can also go the route of connecting the "DVI out" from your video card to the "HDMI in" on your Home Theater Display. But this brings another possible incompatibility issue... HDCP... the dreaded copy protection inplemented by "the industry" to prevent copying or even multiple viewing (i.e one source, two screens) of HD content. Some HDTVs will specifically state that you CAN NOT use the DVI output from your PC (this is burried in their manuals, not splashed on the top of their advertisement, of course). If you want to go this route, you should look at the newer cards that have HDCP compliance on the DVI. It still might not work, but at least that will give you a fighting chance.

As mentioned above, HDMI video cards are begining to appear, althought I haven't seen one yet.

2) Then there are the TV tuners. There are some awesome TV tuners... well they would have been awesome if they came out three years ago. I'm talking about a card where you can screw in two coax cables and watch/recored from two simultaneous analog signals... but who uses anolog anymore?? And will these cards actually put an HD signal on your screen? This is not always clear. Here's are some examples:
http://www.anandtech.com/showdoc.aspx?i=2761&p=1
http://www.anandtech.com/multimedia/showdoc.aspx?i=2778

3) Blue-Ray vs. HD-DVD:
The jury is still out on which of these technologies is the way to go. They are both super expensive, both for the players and the movies. And they are HDCP protected, so you better tripple check that you can buy a High Deff DVD player for your HTPC and have it play on your specific setup.

4) Compressed audio:
If your music library is a bunch of MP3s you shared from Morpheus in the early part of this decade, do you really want to hear that hollow sound through your nice home audio system and your high end speakers?

The goal is to have all your media at your fingertips so you can click on your favorite TV show, a great movie, or your favorite music... and have an enjoyable expirience and high quality results.

I don't know if the technology is really there yet, at least at consumer prices. But it's close... very very close.
October 16, 2006 8:05:11 PM

Quote:
[4)" Compressed audio:
If your music library is a bunch of MP3s you shared from Morpheus in the early part of this decade, do you really want to hear that hollow sound through your nice home audio system and your high end speakers?



I dont know what receiver / soundcard your using... but my XiFi does a great job at making those tinny MP3's sound good.


And my Yamaha receiver does a MUCH better job. If I could have it my way, all music would be analog, like an old vinyl record.
October 16, 2006 8:23:17 PM

Quote:
[4)" Compressed audio:
If your music library is a bunch of MP3s you shared from Morpheus in the early part of this decade, do you really want to hear that hollow sound through your nice home audio system and your high end speakers?



I dont know what receiver / soundcard your using... but my XiFi does a great job at making those tinny MP3's sound good.


And my Yamaha receiver does a MUCH better job. If I could have it my way, all music would be analog, like an old vinyl record.

Most of my MP3's are in the 190K to 320K range ripped and they sound perfect. But then again, a "low" end system to an audio-enthusiast starts at $50000 and they claim they can tell the difference in sound.
October 16, 2006 9:30:18 PM

They cant... its been doubleblind tested soo many times. I will keep my $5000 Bang and Olufsen speakes.... Let the people with a great imagination pay 100k for a pair of speakers.
a b ) Power supply
October 16, 2006 10:43:49 PM

Quote:
Many motherboard these days have digital out or at least a digital out headers, so you can pipe the digital signal to a receiver.

No one seems to carry the AMD EE SFF processor though, so you can't really built one using them :p  .

Paul


If power consumption is your primary concern then read my posts in the following link:

http://forumz.tomshardware.com/hardware/Intel-AMD-HTPC-...
October 16, 2006 10:46:27 PM

Quote:
So has AMD released a new CPU, cause the pictures of the processor they took were of an Athlon X2 3800+ :?:


It's kind of new, it's the low-voltage version of the X2 3800+
October 16, 2006 11:44:56 PM

I don't understand why anyone would want a 'low power' HTPC... why have a computer hooked up to your T.V. so you can only watch movies & mp3's?

I designed my HTPC to do the best job of having a computer... sli, 32" display, 5.1 digital sound, tons of hard drive space, and the ability to record my T.V. shows off the dish while I'm not at home!

How great is it to be playing CSS on a 32" t.v. while watching Survivor on a secondary 21" LCD and not have to worry about your system slowing down!
October 17, 2006 12:14:23 AM

You can build your HTPC for low heat and noise and still get other features such as gaming. Particularly interesting are passively-cooled upper-midrange cards, but if you have a large enough case you can use third-party graphics coolers to keep high-end cards quiet.
October 17, 2006 2:04:55 AM

Quote:
I don't understand why anyone would want a 'low power' HTPC... why have a computer hooked up to your T.V. so you can only watch movies & mp3's?

My HTPC is exactly that, in fact I wanted it quiter so I even removed the hdd and boot GeexBox so I have access to my basement server over the lan.

Sounds like you have a sweet setup, but an independant media player appliance works great for me since I would hate to explain an RFO to my wife why she can't watch "desperate housewives" because I wanted to take my pc over to the neighbors and plug in for some lan gaming :wink:
October 17, 2006 2:15:16 AM

I have been into hifi for forty years and I can tell you that there is often little correlation between money spent and sound quality received. I have included several links, to enable anyone who cares to inform himself, about what is available and possible to include in your Home Theater.
http://www.bottlehead.com/et/adobespc/paramount/paramou...

for me it has to be single ended triode. If you had ever heard a three dimensional soundstage projected into a darkened room by vacuum tube amplification, then you would have been hooked and life as you knew it would never be the same.

You can keep your 100k and 5k speakers. I have heard them all. Some very good, but I will keep my $1400, 35 year old design, Altec Lansing Voice of the Theater speakers.
Rebuilt with updated crossovers and coils.

http://www.greatplainsaudio.com/2_way.html

Sincerely yours,
Cruz
(sincerest disciple of the real Augustus Pablo)
October 17, 2006 5:07:01 AM

At a risk of sounding off-topic, a question on the Zalman case:

The predecessor(?) case apparently had RC and VFD that only worked with MCE. If the new hardware is the same, does it really make sense to pay $300 for hardware with unknown Vista support? Also, what about the neanderthals (like yours truly) who still run 2000 Pro or maybe even a Linux variant?

P.S. I agree with Cruz on the lack of correlation between the money and the sound, though I would take a chance on upgrading my Vandersteens and baby Adcom to some nice B&Ws or old (i.e. made in UK) KEFs, powered by ARC or a Mac if I had extra $15-20K.
October 17, 2006 5:44:54 AM

The upper-range Vista installations will support MCE features, so it's highly unlikely that Zalman will ignore the transition.
October 17, 2006 6:35:39 AM

Quote:
Low power and low noise are great ideas, but my vision of the "perfect" home theater PC is a unit that combines the functionality of a TiVO/PVR, DVD/File player/recorder, and game console


Mine does all this:

Athlon 64 3700+
1GB DDR400
Asus a8ne
4x 320GB WD HD's RAID 5 via HP RocketRAID 2320
SB Live! 5.1
Pioneer DVD Burner
Silverstone 600watt ps
Silverstone LC16M
ATI theater thingy
Radeon 800XT PE
Logitech MX5000 BT Keyboard and Mouse

I never use the ati theater to record tv, I use comp out on my dvr into the radeon. Can't tune digital on my cable system since nobody has a QAM encrypted decoder yet. Works better than a tivo in my opinion, haven't used one in years though.

Use iMedian, comes with a great remote and works with everything on the system. Plays any game you want it to. Oblivion at 1024x768 maxed. Since you can run at lower res, don't have a HD LCD/Plasma yet, you don't need all the juice.
October 17, 2006 2:40:17 PM

Questions on two posts above:

Quote:
sli, 32" display...

How great is it to be playing CSS on a 32" t.v. while watching Survivor on a secondary 21" LCD"


So which 32" display do you use and at what resolution? How is the HTPC connected to the monitor(s)? (VGA, DVI, ?)

Are you planning on upgrading to Blue Ray or HD-DVD? If so, is your system ready for it?

Quote:
Can't tune digital on my cable system since nobody has a QAM encrypted decoder yet. ...

... Plays any game you want it to. Oblivion at 1024x768 maxed. Since you can run at lower res, don't have a HD LCD/Plasma yet, you don't need all the juice.

So how do you record? You need to set/program selection on the HD Cable Box, then set/program computer to record?

As for Oblivion, that resolution seems a bit sparce. Not even as high as your typical 17" LCD panel. I suppose this is the kind of compromise one must make when going w/ an HDPC ?
October 17, 2006 2:58:15 PM

The limitation on a CRT TV is usualy 800x600 and maybe 1024/768 in order to make out the detail. The limitations on a LCD @ 720i/p is only 1280x720 (for wide screen).

My TV or any 1080i supports 1920x1080, which is higher then most LCD's.
October 17, 2006 6:43:48 PM

What about HDCP playback?
October 17, 2006 6:53:49 PM

Then your are only limited to the overall rez of the Monitor / TV. The font though on 1080i would not be 8pt though lol. To make it readable, it would have to be 200. (hence my point about 800x600 reasonability).
October 17, 2006 8:21:15 PM

I just record whatever I like from the dvr if I want to save it. I could schedule it to record at the same time if the dvr allowed output to 2 sources at the same time, but it doesn't.

Like Comptia said, 1024x768 is really the max for crt tv's and a bunch of lcd/plasmas. When I get a 60" Plasma with a higher res, I'll put in my x1800xt and be set. Course by then I'll probably have an x7600xtx :) 

If I want to enjoy a game for it's graphics, I'll play it on my main system. If I just want a quick game of whatever, I'll play on the HTPC or my PS2.
October 17, 2006 9:38:26 PM

Be carefull what you say about CRT TVs: There were some wide-screen CRT's that used VGA input and supported 720p officially, though being VGA and having a relatively fine dot pitch you could probably force them higher.
October 17, 2006 9:40:39 PM

I've never seen one of those, Wega's?
October 17, 2006 10:18:19 PM

Yes Sony Wegas.


Most CRT's will support what I said, either 720 or 1080 resolution. 720i isnt very much though, 13xx by 720. This was only 1/2 my point.

If you have your computer hooked up to the TV at 1920x1080 resolution do you think you can read the text or see anything small? You cant, unless your face is squished up next to it.

Note: this is not sooo true with LCD's... As pixel density becomes greater, 1080i/p is being supported on smaller and smaller LCD's, such as 40in's (32in???). A 1080 resolution on a 24inch TV would look great..but isnt gonna happen on a CRT,... ever.
October 17, 2006 10:19:51 PM

I was looking at a Samsung model, somewhere between 37 and 41 inches, sometime between 2001 and 2003. Comparatively speaking, it was like a widescreen computer CRT with a standard definition TV tuner built in. These things went away quickly because people wanted "thin".

The problem was, they cost around half as much as a plasma screen and twice as much as a projection unit, but were as big as rear projectors and as heavy as you'd expect a big CRT to be. They fell into a niche.
October 17, 2006 10:23:45 PM

CRT's are a funny thing though, my 32" has 600 lines res so it works great for 800x600, going over that only smoothes it out a bit, it won't enhance the actual still picture quality. Unless you have one of the EDTV's like you're talking about, it won't make a difference as most tv's before that were only around 500-600 lines res.

One of these days I'll get something better, but my computers are my priority, not my tv.

1024x768 on a 32" (or my old toshiba 36" with 700 lines res) is very hard to read, but it's nice for games. I could only image what higher res' would look like on new HDTV's, even if it's sharp, it'd be too small.
October 17, 2006 10:27:52 PM

Looks AMAZING. When family is over, I have my TV displaying photo albums from pictures I take (im the resident photographer) and the quality is OUTSTANDING. I play games on it now and then, but find the seating arangement uncomfortable for FPSs. I bet the microsoft MM keyboard + build-in mouse would be great for MMORPGs......if you could read the text lol.
October 18, 2006 1:15:23 AM

I should go a bit further to say that Samsungs high-resultion wide-screen CRT's fell into a SUPERIORITY niche. They were too good for typical idiotic customers "Let's get the Plazma instead, look how THIN it is" or "Let's get the projection TV instead, look how CHEAP it is"

The drawback of size and weight? Huge payoff in image quality, especially from odd viewing angles. Being a CRT, it didn't have scaling issues either.
October 18, 2006 6:54:35 AM

My wife gave up Guild wars on the tv and went back to her pc, couldn't read a darn thing.

I've seen a 57" plasma with an xbox360 and a pc hooked up to it, that was beyond awsome. Unfortunately I can't see spending over a grand on a tv. Don't watch that much really.

I've got 15" flatpanels with crappy hidden pc's all over the house that my wife has cycling pictures she takes (she's an amature, pro wannabe) all day, keeps her "calm" :) 
October 18, 2006 2:26:03 PM

People that pay $30K plus have to defend the purchase SOME HOW :roll:
October 18, 2006 2:39:33 PM

If you make 1m a year, i dont think you do actualy. :roll:

Anyway, I myself have a great Sony CRT, but even so, unless the res was 1024 or less, It was unreadable at the proper viewing distance. Sony is still my TV brand of choice, although I was not impressed with their feature set on the new Wega LCD's.
October 18, 2006 3:12:55 PM

Quote:
I should go a bit further to say that Samsungs high-resultion wide-screen CRT's fell into a SUPERIORITY niche. They were too good for typical idiotic customers "Let's get the Plazma instead, look how THIN it is" or "Let's get the projection TV instead, look how CHEAP it is"

The drawback of size and weight? Huge payoff in image quality, especially from odd viewing angles. Being a CRT, it didn't have scaling issues either.


I own one on the Samsungs of which you speak... 30" widescreen CRT HDTV. They were only produced for a little while, I think I may have got the last one in all of Canada. Had it for about 5 months now, one of the best TVs I've ever seen. WAYYYY better than some LCD or Plasma with all their quirks. At about 1/3 the cost of a 30" HD-LCD, I have none of the viewing angle, brightness, contrast, burnt-out-pixel, geometry issues that they do.

[link]http://samsung.com/Products/TV/SlimFitHDTV/TXS3079WHXXA...[/link]

besides being over 100lbs, pretty sweet I think.
October 18, 2006 4:44:53 PM

I hope it lasts you well, I've had 3 sony TV's and they've all died in less than 2 years. Couple 17" Trinitron CRT's that have lasted around 5, but they are going slowing to the grave. My toshiba and jvc's have all lasted longer. Never been to keen on Sony quality. Even though they look great, longevity is a close second in priority for me. My 22" NEC FE1250+ has lasted almost twice as long as my Sony 21" Trinitron. And looks just as good.

Ben, about how much was that 30"? Can't find pricing anywere, it would be good to compare.
!