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HTPC Build - Looking for Case, MB, CPU & Tuner Reccommendations

Last response: in Systems
November 21, 2008 3:09:08 PM

Hello all,
I'm looking to build a HTPC that I can also use for web surfing and casual gaming. I've done quite a bit of research, but I'm having trouble with too much choice in some instances, and too much confusion about what will work together in others. So I thought I'd throw a request out here for some help.

The PC will be hooked up to a new television I plan on buying soon, almost certainly a 32" LCD. I'll likely be running Windows Vista Home Premium, either with the built in media center, or Boxee as my software. I want to watch and record over-the-air television and internet TV, like Hulu and Netflix Watch-it-now. I'll also probably rip some DVD's and want to watch them as well.

I play casual games, by that I mean Civ4. I also pick up older games just for fun and play them on lowest settings. I use a dvd player (for my Netflix DVD's), so this computer won't be needing to play Blue-ray, and its unlikely I'll ever need it to.

In terms of tv, I don't have cable or satellite, probably never will. I'll be sticking to the free tv, so I assume that means the digital channels that come free, and I'll be buying a digital tv antenna. I do, however, want to be able to record two channels at once, or watch one and record one. Pausing live tv would be nice if I can get it. I'm guessing I don't need to be able to record analog signals since they'll stop in Feb 2009, which is about the time I'll probably have this box finished.

I don't mind spending some money, but I'm really ok with average stuff. I don't need amazing picture or game quality, but I do absolutely hate stuttering. I'd like to keep the box quiet, but I'm no sound freak.

Things I've decided on:

Video Card: Radeon HD 4550 512MB
I like this card. Its passively cooled, and it appears to be a good fit for an HTPC. I think it'll play movies stored on my hard drive and Civ4 rather well, but correct me if I'm wrong. I think its a regular size card, and even though they make low profile cards, I think I'm going to stick with the passively cooled one.

HDD: I'll be buying something on sale for around $100, I don't really care, but if anyone has a recommendation on something quiet or low power, feel free to say so.

RAM: again, not really a concern, since this isn't a super-duper rig. I'll probably buy 2 or 4 GB of whatever goes in my motherboard.

Things I need help with:

Tv Tuner: I need a dual tuner, or two separate cards. But if its a dual tuner, it needs to have two over-the-air tuners inside, which I'm finding not every dual-tuner card does. I really will only watch free broadcast tv. There's a lot of tuner info out there, but the problem I've run into is that all the reviews I find are from 2005 or 2006! Does anyone review these things anymore?

CPU: the numbers just dazzle me. I can't keep track of whats good and whats bad when they have so many damn parts numbers. I'm looking for something cool and low power consumption (to keep the box relatively quiet), yet will still run Vista pretty snappily and won't hold me back on my casual games. I'd like a recommendation for something with a lot of bang for the buck, sub $200, but if theres a great cheap alternative I'll take it too :) 

Case and motherboard: Here's stuff where I've tried to research my brains out and coming up confused. Too many choices, and its completely unclear if everything will work with everything else. So I'll list my requirements, and see what people say.

I like some of the HTPC cases that look good in the living room, but I don't mind a small tower. I don't need too much expandability, but it does need to fit the Radeon HD 4550 video card inside (which is PCI 2.0 I believe). I'd like space for at least one hard drive, but two would be nice. I also need space for one dual tuner, or two tv tuners, and whatever kind of slots they use. If I can fit everything inside a living room-styled HTPC case I'm happy, but if my Radeon won't fit inside the case, then please don't recommend it. Other than that, unless I'm missing something, that's about all I think I need.

I need a motherboard that will have the slots I need. Obviously, I'll be using discreet graphics, so no need for onboard graphics. But I know there are small motherboards for HTPC cases, and then large ones for towers. I can't tell whether small motherboards will fit with my Radeon video card inside a small case. How do you tell? Frustrating to say the least. I'm guessing the PSU will come with the case. I'd prefer a quieter one.

Thanks for everyone who reads this and can help out. I'm sure a lot of people are looking for 2008 HTPC build info they can use.
November 21, 2008 6:37:34 PM

Do you have a total budget for this project?

Sounds like you would be happy with the Hauppauge HVR-2250 TV tuner. It has one antenna input, but that one input can tune two digital or two analog stations at the same time (but it can't tune one analog and one digital simultaneously). That way you only need the one card.

Good choice on the video card, I might have to get one of those...

The CPU does not have to be very powerful for media playback. If you plan to encode video you may need more horsepower. Any low power CPU should do. For AMD, look at the 5050e, 4850e, etc... and for Intel look at E5200, E7300, etc.

For the case, I strongly recommend getting a true HTPC style case and furthermore try to find one that has a built in IR receiver and possibly an included remote.

For PSU, go modular. Look at either the Enermax Liberties, Seasonic M12's, or Corsair HX's... all are quiet and good quality.

For the motherboard, you'll have to decide if you want AMD or Intel first and then revisit this one.

You might as well go for a blu-ray drive at this time since you can rent BD from Netflix now unless your monitors are not HDCP compliant. You can get a BD reader for about $100, or you can get the very popular LG blu-ray, lightscribe, DVD writer for $140.
November 21, 2008 7:20:03 PM

Thanks rwpritchett

I like that TV Tuner. Here are the specs and reviews for other people interested in this.

Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-2250 Dual TV Tuner $112.99 on NewEgg
Review from PC Mag Hauppauge Homepage w/specs

So that gets the Tuner out of the way.

My budget is around $600 give or take. I'll probably end up spending more. It sounds like cases are more expensive than I though, so I might splurge on one of them, but so far I think my idea is well within my budget. So far my video card is $57.99 and my Tuner is $112.99, adding up to about $229.

I'll be skipping the Blu-ray. I've been watching crappy analog tv for ages now and I'm perfectly fine with the way regular DVD looks. Plus it saves me about $100, so I can put that towards a nicer case.

I'll look into those chips and find some reviews. Thanks
Related resources
November 21, 2008 9:32:25 PM

I think I'll go with the E7300. Its a little more expensive, but it seems to have good reviews for its power vs. price.

Intel Core 2 Duo E7300 Wolfdale 2.66GHz 3MB L2 Cache LGA 775 Dual-Core Processor $120.00

So now we get to motherboards. Which seem very intertwined with cases for an HTPC, because some small HTPC cases require a smaller motherboard.

What are the disadvantages of a smaller motherboard? Is it just lack of expansion slots, or is there more? Any small case would still need to fit a full size video card, so I can't go too small.
November 21, 2008 9:56:48 PM

I should note the processor got great reviews on Newegg for its performance/price and excellent word on how cool it ran. The only regular con I saw was that apparently the heat sink was very, very hard to install. I hopefully can get around this ok.
November 21, 2008 10:07:45 PM

Intel heatsinks are harder to install than AMD. Stupid springloaded pushpins that sometimes pop back out.

For the motherboard, do you need optical out for sound or were you planning to use the HDMI audio on the video card?

Maybe you should forego the video card for now and get one of the new GeForce 9300 boards for Intel with onboard video?

Your $600 budget is disappearing quick. An AMD build would probably be cheaper, though not as powerful as Intel. Do you need to budget for the operating system? That will eat up another $100.

HDD another $60-100
DVD another $25-30
RAM another $40-50
Case $???
Power supply $???
Wireless keyboard $??
November 21, 2008 11:41:55 PM

The video card is very inexpensive. I'd rather wait on some other components than skip it. I believe I'll be using the HDMI sound on the video card. I won't have speakers, just the ones on the TV.

I agree the budget is disappearing quick. My strategy is to skimp on the parts that are easily upgradeable and easily changed and quickly dropping in price.

So its likely I'll go with a small hard drive and somewhat inexpensive RAM. I'll also be putting a very cheap optical drive in there. (I haven't felt the need to write a DVD yet and probably won't in the future). And I have a keyboard and mouse I'll be using until I decide to go wireless. Yeah, it'll be a little awkward, but I'm ok with it.

The case I think I'll plan to splurge on a little. The motherboard, I'm just not sure about. Do I need an expensive one? I'm not sure what the differences are between and expensive and cheap one.

I need: One that fits my E7300. Must have the correct amount of slots for the card's I've chosen and two hard drives. I know i need a PCIe 2.0 forthe video and a PCIe 1.x for the Tuner. I probably need a few USB ports, and one firewire would be nice, but not required. Am I missing anything?
November 22, 2008 9:21:06 PM

Update 2: I've decided against an HTPC case. I couldn't find any in my price range that had great reviews. They all gave something up in exchange for the small form factor or design. A lot of reviews noted cables didn't reach, video cards didn't fit, bays were blocked, etc. Since my set-up isn't exactly fancy to begin with, I decided I really have no problem with a tower sitting around. So...

Case: Antec Sonata III 500 Black w/ 500W PSU. $129.99 w/shipping.

That basically leaves me to decide on a motherboard. I like the P45 because it has the PCI 2.0 slot for my videocard. Range between $75 - $150. Any suggestions?