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Best combo for mid-range HTPC

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February 2, 2011 4:15:20 AM

I am looking to build a mid-range HTPC under $800.

My biggest preferences in order are:

1. Snappy performance (fast boot, fast task transition, fast loading of videos/music, great multi-tasking)
2. Great audio/video quality at 1080P (ability to upconvert SD video to HD well)
3. Quiet & Cool (obvious for HTPC)
4. Built to last mATX (good case/PSU)
5. Encoding speed for transferring lots of Audio to FLAC and MP3

So, based on the above, which are the BEST components to give me what I need in the priority?

From what I gather, the fastest CPU will NOT necessarily give you the *snappy* performance, as bottle neck is hard drive, and RAM. So, I assume, a mid-range CPU (Phenom II X4 820), with at least 8 GB of RAM, and SSD is what I need to get. Am I right?

AMD looks a bit hotter operating than Intel, is it? If I get Phenom X4 820, what cooler is good? Is that the best bang for the buck CPU right now?

What about Video card? I want to go with the BEST PASSIVE Video Card I can fit into mATX case (Antec Fusion Remote) and I want good quality video/audio with ability to bit-stream.

Any other advice on brand of RAM, SSD (thinking of OCZ Vertex II), HDD (WD Black), Motherboard (AM3 or AM2+?), Fans, etc..?

Thanks guys... sorry if this is covered. I've done quite a bit of research and have the above observations, just need some confirmation what I am thinking is on the right track!

Cheers!

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February 2, 2011 11:44:10 AM

1. An SSD would help quite a bit with fast boot, though a properly setup HTPC should use S3 mode and therefore SSD "boot is moot" :lol:  I don't think you need 8GB RAM for what you want to accomplish, 4GB is plenty and you won't see a difference with the 8GB. RAM is very cheap these days, however, so feel free to stock up.

2. If you truly want full 1080p video post-processing, an HD5670 (or Nvidia equivalent?) is the minimum card to get according to Anandtech. Your case takes full size cards, correct? Since you asked, the fastest passive cards are the HD5750 for AMD, and Geforce 450 for Nvidia. I question whether or not you really need that caliber of card for an HTPC unless you are gaming. You may want to consider a quiet actively cooled video card. They are cheaper than their passive counterparts, and with a passive GPU you will probably have to increase case airflow with either more fans or running existing fans at a higher rpm... which nullifies the purpose of a passive card. Perhaps wait a bit for the mid and low end HD6xxx series cards to come out. BTW, SD content will automatically be upscaled to whatever resolution you are running at. If you are running 1920x1080, then it will be upscaled to that rez.

3. Quiet and cool go hand-in-hand. You may need to make some sacrifices. What you've described so far (quad-core Phenom II, beefy video card, etc.) will be challenging. My HTPC rule of thumb is to build the system up just enough to do exactly what you need it to do.

4. I thought your case was already selected-> Antec Fusion Remote? For a quiet PSU, look at anything made by Seasonic. That includes brands like Corsair. You'll have to research a bit to find out who-actually-makes-what PSU, but Seasonic sells PSU's under their own name.

5. For encoding, if your software uses the extra cores then by all means, go for a quad core. You probably don't need the L3 cache that comes with Phenoms though, maybe consider an Athlon X4 which will run cooler? There are low power versions that have an "e" suffix (for example, the 45W Athlon X4 610e), but you can undervolt a standard power CPU to match the low power chips so you don't have to pay extra for the low power CPU's.

Hope this helps a bit. Good luck.
February 2, 2011 3:33:48 PM

Thanks for your reply... a couple of follow-ups.

- So, the only difference between Athlon X4 and Phenom is cache? If so, in what scenarios that extra cache come into play?
- Do the low power version suffer in performance? or do they just go down in MHz when not needed?
- Any intel alternative?
- What do u mean by S3 mode? meaning to leave it on all the time? and just put it to sleep?
- Any suggestions of a *quiet* actively cooled video card? there are just WAY TOO MANY brands for AMD/Nvidia cards now, it's a nightmare to pick one

Thanks!
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February 2, 2011 4:10:11 PM

To answer your Phenom vs. Athlon question, read this article.

The "e" series chips will be clocked down to accommodate the lower voltage. They act the same as standard CPU's at idle (Cool'n'Quiet will clock down AM3 chips down to 800MHz when not loaded).

The Intel Clarkdale chips typically run cooler than AMD counterparts since they have a smaller die size. I'm sure you've heard of the Intel Sandy Bridge debacle by now. SB's run cool but now there's no available motherboards. AMD is cheaper though, and if you find you have a hot running chip or a noisy stock cooler, you could always install a quiet aftermarket heatsink to fix it.

S3 (STR, suspend-to-RAM) is a standby mode in which the PC appears to be completely off. Hard drives, case fans, CPU, everything will be powered down. When you wake from S3, it's up and running in about 2 seconds even with a platter HDD. S3 is desired especially if you want to record television programs since in this state the computer will wake itself up for the scheduled recording and then put itself back to sleep when it's done. If you have an HTPC completely shut down, it won't wake up for such events. You could leave the thing on 24/7, but that's just a waste.

You could still go for a passive card, just be aware that more case ventilation may be needed. If you do want to explore actively cooled quiet cards I suggest you consider the MSI Cyclone series for Nvidia, and the HIS IceQ series for AMD/ATI. You can research other cards by reading reviews, but the two I've linked are popular for their quiet operation due to their non-reference design coolers.
February 2, 2011 5:34:37 PM

Excellent info, thanks for all the help.

I don't plan to record programs YET. I am not sure if I can with my current cable company, their signal is enrypted, and not sure if any tuner can just open up the channels?! I'd be using it mostly for Netflix, playing youtube, storing files, music, gaming and browsing. It'd be actually my main PC, in addition to my work laptop.
a b à CPUs
February 2, 2011 5:46:16 PM

It's still better to use S3. Hit the power button.... system up and ready. It sure beats a 1 minute boot cycle, longer if you have a lot of startup items. Plus if you don't have an IR receiver directly connected to the 24-pin power, you can only power on with an IR remote (connected via USB) if you're in standby.

Maybe when you're ready for DVR functionality there will be some more CableCard tuners on the market. Right now the only one is the very expensive Ceton card.

February 2, 2011 6:58:21 PM

Thanks again.

Now, back at CPU, I ran the Toms CPU chart, and it looks like the new Phenom 840 (Propus 4C) is actually quite cool... similar to Athlon X4 630-645 (peak power between 166-170 W).



Now, which do you recommend between these?



a b à CPUs
February 2, 2011 9:31:52 PM

Very interesting!

I was not aware that AMD was making 800 series Phenoms again. According to this review, the Phenom II X4 840 is actually an Athlon II X4 650 in disguise! That would explain why it's power/temps are nearly identical to the Athlon II X4 645 (currently the fastest Athlon quad). Here is what the review had to say:

Quote:
To be clear, the Phenom-II X4-800 series isn't a new thing. Back in early 2009, AMD was releasing Phenom-II X4-800 series processors in their complete line-up of CPUs. Back then, the Phenom-II X4-800 series was built on a Deneb die (like all other Phenom-II X4 processors) and had 4MB of L3 cache, compared to the 6MB of L3 cache on the 900 series. Around the end of the summer of 2009, AMD stopped releasing the Phenom-II X4-800 series.

Fast forward to January 2011 and we see the first Phenom-II X4-800 series processor released in over a year, but with significant changes. The 800 series now looks like a Athlon-II X4-600 series with a different name. In fact, if you go by the numbers, the Phenom-II X4-840 should be named the Athlon-II X4-650. The only difference between the X4-840 and the X4-645 is the standard 100MHz clock speed bump.

Call it whatever they want, if the Phenom-II X4-840 releases at $102 as has been announced, it now becomes faster than the highest speed Athlon-II X4 processor and will sell for about $17 less (as of December 28, 2010, the Athlon-II X4-645 was selling on Newegg.com for $119). Let's see what the tests say about the Athlon-II X4-650. Whoops, I meant Phenom-II X4-840.


It looks like it's just marketing so they can sell an Athlon, but call it a Phenom on the box so people feel warm and fuzzy about having a higher end chip.
February 3, 2011 9:32:17 PM

Yup I just read that.

From all I've read I'm probably gotto be buying the best value for the buck X3/X4 for now and then wait for Bulldozer! Looks like an amazing platform for HTPC!
February 8, 2011 11:39:55 PM

How much PSU do I need? 350 or 430? I used some calculators, they gave me 329 Watts.

I was gonna go Seasonic, but at the same wattage, they're a bit more money than Antec... but supposed to be the best/quietest. I got a 250Watts in my machine for the last 5 years with no hickups!

- Athlon X4 640
- MSI 880 Mobo
- SSD + HD
- Antec Fusion Case (2 fans, LCD, VFD)
- Bluray
- Possible upgrade: Mid-range Video card (5550 or so)
!