Wednesday, November 11, 2009

HTPC Hardware

Another friend recently asked me about home theater PCs (HTPC).  This is a topic I've been wanting to post about for a while, but I've avoided it because it's a lot more complicated than gaming PCs.

Therefore, I've decided to keep it simple for now.  I'm not going to talk about TV tuners, remote controls, optical disk drives, cases, or even software.  I'm just going to start with what I know best: the core hardware.

Here are some important things to know when deciding what hardware to get for your media PC:

1) Many media processes are multithreaded, CPUs with multiple cores are more valuable.
2) Video card performance doesn't affect media as much as the processor does.
3) Silent components are very important.
4) You probably want to avoid components with bright lights.
5) HTPC cases usually lie flat and look similar to DVD players.  These look less out-of-place in your home theater setup.

As you can see, the requirements for a media PC are quite different from those of gaming computers.  That's not to say you can't have both in one machine, so I will attempt to put together both a media only PC and a combination media/gaming PC.

The media only rig is designed for a small case while the media/gaming PC is designed for a large case.  For both, I will be excluding optical drives and cases.  Your case is going to be a very personal choice based on your setup at home, and the optical drive will vary based on the type of case you get and whether you want to have a Blu-Ray player or not.  An interesting point to note is that optical drives can come in both normal and slim sizes, so consider this when selecting your case.

Anyway, on to the hardware:

Media Only PC - Small Size:

Processor: AMD Athlon II X4 620 2.6GHz - $99
Motherboard: ASRock M3A785GMH/128M AM3 AMD 785G HDMI Micro ATX Motherboard - $80
RAM: G.SKILL Ripjaws Series 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3 RAM - $94
Hard Drive: Western Digital Caviar Green WD5000AADS 500GB 32MB - $55
Power Supply: Diablotek PHD Series PHD380M 380W MicroATX Power Supply - $30

Discount: $15 (CPU/RAM combo deal)
Shipping: $6
Total: $349

This particular machine features the most inexpensive quad-core processor available - the Athlon II 620.  This CPU regularly outperforms more expensive processors in multithreaded applications, so it's an awesome deal for HTPCs.

The motherboard supports HDMI.  In addition, the on-board video uses 128 MB of SidePort memory so you don't have to rely on your RAM.  This is a great feature for anyone who wants to utilize on-board graphics processors.  The motherboard's GPU should be able to easily handle the flashy desktop effects modern operating systems provide, and even play some 3D games at modest settings.

The RAM has a low cas latency, so it should be quite responsive.

Avoiding a dedicated graphics card is a great way to reduce size, heat, noise, and cost, so that's what we're doing here.  If you're not worried about playing the latest 3D games at high settings on your HTPC, a dedicated card won't provide much benefit.

The Caviar Green hard drive is known for running very cool and quiet.  The only thing more perfect for a media PC would be a solid state disk.

The power supply is small, and the reviewers also remarked about its silence.  (Always do a search in the NewEgg comments for words like "loud," "noise," "quiet," and "silent" when looking for parts that might be noisy.)  It still has enough oomph to easily handle some extra devices if you wish to add any.

Media and Gaming PC - Large Size:

Processor: Intel Core i5-750 Lynnfield 2.66GHz LGA 1156 Quad-Core Processor - $200
CPU Cooler: Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus 120mm CPU Cooler - $30
Motherboard: ASRock P55M Pro LGA 1156 Micro ATX Motherboard - $100
RAM: Patriot Viper II Sector 5 4GB (2 x 2GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM - $79 (after $15 rebate)
Video Card: HIS H487FM1GH Radeon HD 4870 1GB - $150
VGA Cooler: Arctic Cooling Accelero S1 Rev. 2 - $27
Thermal Compound: Arctic Silver 5 Thermal Compound 3.5G - $7
Hard Drive: Western Digital Caviar Green WD5000AADS 500GB 32MB - $55
Power Supply: OCZ ModXStream Pro OCZ500MXSP 500W ATX12V V2.2 - $40 (after $25 rebate)

Discount: $14 (CPU/MB and Heatsink/Paste combo deals)
Shipping: $14
Total: $688

This machine utilizes what is just about the best gaming processor available - the Core i5-750.  Coincidentally, it's also awesome for multithreaded applications.  Since I'm expecting a larger case, I've added an affordable, efficient, and quiet heat-pipe-direct-touch heatsink.  As an experiment, you might want to try detaching the fan from the heatsink and instead using it to ventilate your case.  As long as there's enough cool air in your case, the passive cooling will probably be just fine on the processor.  If you keep the connector plugged into the CPU fan spot, it should also regulate speed as a normal CPU fan would.

There's nothing too special to say about the motherboard other than the fact that it's small and supports firewire.  This RAM also has low timings for good speed.  Again, we have the Caviar Green for a hard drive.

The video card should be able to play all the latest games at great settings.  It also has a HDMI port, which is a must for a good HTPC.  Use the GPU heatsink on this card to keep things cool and quiet.  If your case has good ventilation, you might be fine with passive cooling here too.  You also get a nice combo with some Arctic Silver 5, which you can use on both the CPU and GPU.

Regarding cooling and thermal paste, I found a totally amazing article that covers the subject in crazy depth.  You can find it here:

This power supply also has great reviews regarding its silence, and it has the power and connectors to handle the hefty video card plus more.  There are alternatives with LED lights, but you probably want to avoid too many LEDs on media PCs.

That's it!  I actually did the research for these parts last week so some of the deals may have changed.  Regardless, it gives you an idea of what to look for.  I'm still learning more and more about HTPCs, so if you have any comments or suggestions please provide them.  Enjoy!

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