Earlier this month we talked about repurposing your existing hardware as an HTPC—but what if you don’t have parts to spare? Don’t sweat it: you can always build a small, low powered system to do the job yourself.
There are a bunch of pre-built solutions from the likes of Google, Boxee, and Apple just to name a few—and they do cost less. So, with all the pre-built systems out there, why would you want to build your own HTPC? Simple: flexibility. The Boxee Box can be extended through a huge plugin library, but aside from local storage, there isn’t a whole lot of external hardware that can be added. The AppleTV is pretty much stuck in its limited world—it can’t handle anything that iTunes doesn’t play, which excludes a lot of potential content.
An HTPC is an open system in which you are free to make changes as desired. Don’t like the interface? Find a new one. Run out of room? Add more storage. Want DVD or Blu-ray playback? Add the hardware. Want to play games on it? Stick a controller in it, install Steam, and go. An HTPC can handle any type of media available. You just need the software to do it.
An HTPC is more expensive to build than any of the pre-built boxes are individually, but to get all the capability you’d need to spend a fair bit of money. For example, to get full media flexibility plus Blu-ray, a Boxee Box plus Blu-ray player would run about $279.99, but you’re left with two separate interfaces, two remotes, two inputs on your TV or receiver, and no control over interfaces. This can be consolidated down to a single device with a tailored look very easily. The initial cost of an HTPC is higher, but the flexibility and possibilities for upgrades make a strong case for the increased price.
Last but not least, building your own HTPC is fun. It’s a project you can look at on your shelf and take pride in knowing that you built it yourself, and it represents the cutting edge of HTPC hardware.
Selecting parts for an HTPC
The low end:
- CPU/Motherboard/VGA: Foxconn AHD1S-K E-350 $84.99
- RAM: G.SKILL 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3-1333 $24.99
- Case/PSU: Thermaltake Element Q (includes 200W PSU) $64.99
- Storage: Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $199.99
- Optical: Samsung Blu-ray drive $64.99
- Total build cost: $439.95 (approximately $460 with shipping)
This build is a great low-cost system for watching high definition video. The E350 APU is able to handle Blu-ray and other 1080P video. This setup is similar to my own system (storage is the only exception), and it has served its purpose very well. The Thermaltake Element Q is a great little mini-ITX case that comes with a 200W power supply—more than enough power for an E-350 system.
Disclaimer: Unfortunately, hard drives are stupidly expensive right now due to a parts shortage, and there doesn’t appear to be any relief in the immediate future. From the time that this article was drafted to the time it was published, hard drive prices went up $60. They are expected to stabilize around March of 2012.
The Samsung Blu-ray drive comes with playback software. If you’ve chosen Windows 7 as your operating system, the built-in Media Center will play Blu-ray discs once the appropriate codecs are installed.
The high end:
- CPU/VGA: AMD A8-3850 $139.99
- Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-A75M-UD2H $94.99
- RAM: G.SKILL Ripjaws X 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600 $48.99
- Case: Thermaltake Armor A30 $119.99
- PSU: OCZ ModXStream Pro 600W $74.99
- SSD (OS Drive): OCZ Vertex 3 60GB $124.99
- HD (Data): Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $199.99
- Optical: Samsung Blu-ray drive $64.99
- Total build cost: $868.92 (approximately $875 with shipping)
This build represents the highest-end hardware I’d recommend for a system that will only be a video playback device—and even then, this is overkill, as the A8-3850 can handle moderate gaming on its own, and paired with an inexpensive GPU such as the Radeon HD 6670 becomes a good mid-range 3D gaming station, further extending the usefulness of the system. Thanks to extra expansion slots, TV tuners also become a possibility.
The Armor A30 case is expensive, but it brings much more room for storage. Four 3.5″ hard drives can be easily installed, plus an additional two 2.5″ drives – in theory a current maximum of 14TB of storage (4x 3TB 3.5″, 2x 1TB 2.5″). That’s plenty of storage for most HTPCs.
The Vertex 3 SSD leads to much better boot times, program load times, and overall system responsiveness. The OS and your interface of choice should fit well in the 60GB space.
Operating system decisions usually come down to two choices: Windows 7 and Linux. Your media requirements will dictate which of the two is appropriate. If you want Blu-ray playback or support for a CableCard tuner, you’ll need to stick with Windows 7 (Home Premium adds $99.99 to the build cost). Just about any other media type will work under both Windows and Linux—DVD, files, OTA TV, and ClearQAM cable signals can all be handled by either OS.
Media center software depends largely on your operating system of choice. XBMC and Boxee are two of the most popular choices, both of which are available on a wide range of operating systems, but neither can currently handle Blu-ray or TV tuners. They can handle just about anything else though. Windows Media Center will play anything with the correct codecs installed, Blu-ray playback capability can be added by installing PowerDVD (which comes with many BD drives), and natively supports just about any TV tuner you can find.
Perhaps one of the biggest advantages to the HTPC over a pre-built box is future media support. If a new media type becomes wildly popular—whether physical media, file type, or web service—it’s very simple to add compatibility to an HTPC. Usually a simple software install is all that’s required for new media. If the new media requires a physical device such as a new optical drive, a single component is easy to replace.
The same can’t be said for most pre-built gadgets. With few exceptions, any new media support requires a complete replacement (how’s that VCR treating you?)—this goes for both physical media and file types. The Boxee Box is one such exception—its open source software and plugin system have set a standard for other manufacturers to follow. But then again, it did start (and continues) its life as HTPC software.
Wrapping it up
The important thing, of course, is to determine what your current needs and desires are for your home theater experience. Once you have those two things nailed down, build within that budget and enjoy your HTPC experience!