Leon's Weblog

December 5, 2010

Designing an HTPC

Filed under: Gadgets,Personal — Leon @ 6:25 pm

I was hoping that 2010 would be the year of “Internet TV.” That, with the aid of set-top boxes. consumers would be able to integrate the functionality and content of a home office into the home theater. Several vendors proposed promising products including Google TV, Apple TV, Boxee Box, and Roku that would make this paradigm shift both easy and affordable. Unfortunately, the year is almost over and the promise was not to be. The promised products were released in time for the holiday season but are all plagued with limited functionality, lack of expandability, and proprietary content. For example, while the Boxee Box is great at streaming free Internet content from sites like YouTube, it has very limited functionality for organizing your personal media library and no storage space to keep it. Another daunting problem is that TV networks and on-line content providers like Hulu have blocked the devices’ access to their sites in anticipation of forming contracts similar to those that they have with Cable Networks. Ultimately it is the consumers that loose out on these long overdue features. This is why I decided to take matters into my own hands and build a Home Theater PC (HTPC) that would overcome the problems of the products available on the market today.

Requirements
Since I was building my own PC, I did not want to limit myself to the functionality that exist in any one market product. My goal was to include the functionality of all available set-top and media streaming boxes while keeping the cost to about $1000. So think of it as a Tivo, Roku, Logitech Revue, Boxee Box, Slingbox, Blu-ray player, Cisco umi, game console, web browser etc… all in one. The functionality that I had in mind included:

  • HD Media Content: Store, play and organize local media. Stream and record on-line/cable content.
  • Connectivity: HDMI, USB3, Wi-Fi 802.11n, TV tuner, Blu-ray/DVD RW, HD camera+mic
  • Low power consumption, noise and heat output. Quick boot time.
  • Web conferencing
  • Web browsing, search, e-mail, news etc…

Why not a Mac Mini or an Ion System
The Mac Mini seems like great way to get all the required functionality in a ready built machine and it was reviewed as such in many articles. I didn’t go this route because I’m not a fan of Apple’s business practices (as a consumer… for an investor they are great). I decided that a custom built HTPC would offer more scalability options and functionality for the same price. I would also avoid having to integrate Apple’s proprietary components.

The Ion Platform is another great alternative to building your own HTPC. There are dozens of ready-made bare-bone PCs available that use this platform and are priced at under $400. What makes this an interesting alternative is that the platform provides the minimum requirements for playing HD media content while minimizing power consumption, heat and noise. Unfortunately, there are limitations to these PCs due to their lack of power. If you will ever want to watch interactive HD Flash content, play PC games, or transcode HD video on the fly this platform will lag. Furthermore, as consuming media content becomes more and more resource intensive each year, these PCs will have to be upgraded frequently. So, if you can afford it, I would go with a platform that is a bit more powerful like Intel’s H55 chipset.

Components and Design
Whenever I had built a PC in the past, I started with the processor and then picked the motherboard that will match the chipset. Then I picked memory and a case for the motherboard. The last and easiest part is disk storage and peripherals. As of a few years ago, it is no longer cost effective to build a desktop PC for yourself. However, as I found out, an HTPC is another story.

The configuration for an HTPC is a bit more complicated because there are additional considerations. I wanted the unit to be the size of my cable box and look like it belongs in a media cabinet so I started with the case first. Also, the ability to fully control a PC with a remote is not trivial to implement. The key factors for the case are temperature management, noise, and internal organization/size. Temperature is a factor of the internal design, the components you use, and cooling method (usually fans but you can use water if you don’t mind the noise). I settled for Antec’s MicroFusion Remote 350. This case is designed for an HTPC so it already comes with a very nice power supply (ideal size, efficiency, and noise level). The fans on the case, however are 80mm (because the case is low profile) and will have to run at a faster speed to cool the PC resulting in more noise. This case comes in a bigger version (2 inches higher) that uses quieter 92mm fans and makes a few other design decisions easier but this case didn’t fit in my setup.

The case supports micro-ATX motherboards (this is a standard that is a bit smaller than ATX which was been used in desktop PCs since the 1990s). The motherboard that I picked out had to use Intel’s H55 architecture, have at least 2 PCIe slots for hardware expansion, and USB3. The other required details such as HDMI output are already defined under the H55 spec. What is key here is that no additional video card or sound cards are required (at least for now unless the rig will be used for gaming) which reduces cost, noise, temperature, and power consumption. I had originally wanted to get the Asus P7H55D-M Evo but was not able to find it in stock anywhere and settled for the ASrock H55/USB3. This board has 3 PCIe slots and 1 PCI slot so I will be able to add a sound and video card if the future if the need arises.

The H55 architecture is compatible with all Intel’s Core i processors but a Clarkdale model is needed to take advantage of the motherboards on-board video. I chose the middle-of-the-road Core i5-661 model because I think it offers a good balance of performance to cost. The cheaper i3 series should work as well. I picked Corsair’s XMS3 4GB memory because it was on sale. 2GB would have been the minimum requirement but this is not a very costly component. Any DDR3 SDRAM will do. Since the case only has room for one hard drive I wanted to make the most use of it by getting a 2TB disk. However, I preferred a slower 5400 RPM drive for reduced noise and power consumption compared to the performance 7200 RPM drives. Ultimately I settled for the Western Digital 2TB Caviar Green.

The ASrock motherboard has a build in NIC port but I needed a wireless card to connecte to the router. I picked the D-Link DWA-556 Xtreme N because is the same brand as my router and should pair well together at 802.11n speed. A big consideration with all the additional cards is to ensure that they fit in the slim case and on the motherboard. The selected motherboard has 2 PCIe x1 slots which will be used for NIC and TV tuner. Luckily the wireless card happens to be low-profile (although it doesn’t explicitly say so in the description).

I wanted the TV board to be a dual tuner so I can watch one stream and record a separate one. I chose the Hauppauge HVR-2250 because it is low-profile and has some other nice bells and whistles like the ability to control the cable box using an IR transmitter (i.e. make your on DVR). It also supports capturing other video such as the output from a camcorder etc…

The Blu-ray writer is really not required but I figured it would be nice to have. I picked a middle of the road version for under $100. This is an easy component to upgrade later if needed so I didn’t stress over finding just the right one. Luckily the LG Black 10X Blu-ray Burner turned out to be a very quiet drive and came bundled with nice DVD software.

Wrapping up the components list are the wireless keyboard and webcam. The Rii Mini keyboard is a personal preference. Lenovo makes a similar one for the same price with a trackball but it doesn’t have back-lit keys (although Lenovo’s version is arguably more attractive). However, despite the keyboard, I plan to use my Logitech Harmony remote most of the time. The HD web-cam is for Skype/Google Video (which works in HD now). Part of the reason why I wanted to build the HTPC is because non of the available products support Skype. The camera on the PS3 sucks and you can only chat with other PS3 owners. Logitech’s new Google TV offering costs $450 for the camera setup and you can only talk to other users with Google TV. Cisco’s umi is great but ridiculously priced at $600+25/month for a feature now available for free. Logitech’s C910 camera is similar to the one they include with their Google TV product but is much cheaper and was actually reviewed to have better video quality.

Rii Mini Wireless NIC TV Tuner Webcam

Summary of Components

Case MicroFusion Remote 350 $130
Motherboard ASrock H55/USB3 $85
CPU Intel Core i5-661 $210
RAM Corsair XMS3 4GB $44
HDD Western Digital 2 TB Caviar Green $100
Wireless NIC D-Link DWA-556 Xtreme N $50
TV Tuner Hauppauge HVR-2250 $135
Optical Drive LG Black 10X Blu-ray Burner $80
Keyboard Rii Mini $45
Webcam Logitech HD Pro Webcam C910 $80
Total $959

I purchased most of the components through Newegg because their prices were competitive. The components were also discounted for the holidays.

Assembly
The setup took a lot longer than I planned because the case is so small. All the cables have to be routed very carefully and the components have to be installed in just the right order otherwise they wont fit. Obviously the motherboard and processor get installed first. The hard drive has to be installed next because most of the spare wires get routed and placed on top of it. Installing the hard drive required removing the LCD display from the case. Next I connected all the components of the case (fans, hdd/power lights, external HDMI and USB ports, LCD display etc…). Interestingly, the HDD LED pin was not compatible with the layout on this motherboard so I didn’t connect it (I wouldn’t have connected it anyway because I don’t like too many blinking lights on the front of the PC case). With these cables neatly organized, you can then proceed to install the RAM memory and the PCI boards. The last component in is the optical drive. I was pleasantly surprised how nicely the drive fit into the case fully covering it’s face plate. It looks like it was built in.

Update: Antec published this guide for rewiring the motherboard header connector to make the HDD LED working.


Final Thoughts
The final setup was a bit louder than I had hoped but still reasonable for watching movies. The noise is not noticeable once the HTPC was placed into the media cabinet and is comparable to that from my cable TV box or PS3. The boot-up time is also reasonable and can be significantly improved using the software bundled with the ASrock motherboard. I am also pleased that most of the common functions on the HTPC can be comfortably controlled using the Logitech Harmony remote. Ultimately, I don’t mind that this setup costs nearly 1K. It is very flexible and offers more functionality that any existing product.

So far I have covered the hardware portion of the setup. Check back next time for a review of the software configuration.

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