Lee Computer Services : freelance computer/web services

Repair News Articles from the Tech Industry

July 5, 2010

How to Build Your Own Home Theater PC

An HTPC is something I never realized I was missing until I got one. With the rise of internet video, having a computer hooked up to your television is no longer a strange gimmick. In fact there are many people who no longer subscribe to cable, and just watch all the content that is available online. With each passing day the Internet is giving cable companies a run for their money.

With an HTPC you can:

* Have immediate access to all of your movies and TV shows along with content found online such as photos, art, and IMDB information.
* See your digital photographs and home videos in ways like never before — vacation slides aren’t so boring when they’re flying around in full, vivid color, 40 inches wide and accompanied by music in surround sound.
* Play PC games from your sofa, in inches-upon-inches of HD glory.
* Watch ’net video, e.g., YouTube and Facebook video, on your television.
* Stream movies and TV shows from services like Netflix and Hulu.
* Have the Internet — news, weather, entertainment and everything else — available on your TV screen at all times.
* Miss a TV show? DVR run out of space? Watch the show on Hulu or the network’s website.
* And whatever else you can think of …

Cable providers are starting to sell set top boxes with access to e-mail, Facebook and Twitter. But why in the world would you spend money on one of these crippled boxes when you can just hook a full-fledged computer up to your TV via HDMI?

Building a Home Theater PC is just like building a regular computer. Most of the parts are pretty much the same, except with an HTPC you will want to pay particular attention to audio, video and storage space. I’ll describe each piece of the puzzle below, and include links to the specific pieces of hardware I chose for my own HTPC set-up.
Hardware for an HTPC

The motherboard connects all the different parts of your system, allowing them to operate and communicate. You must make sure that your motherboard will fit in your chosen case. Which motherboard you purchase will also determine which type of processor you will install, and which types of audio and video cards, hard drives, and memory you can use. In the simplest terms, your motherboard has to fit in your case, and all your hardware has to be compatible with your motherboard.

I bought the ASUS M3A78-EM AM2+ / AM2 ATX AMD motherboard for my HTPC. Notice that the name of this motherboard tells me which type of processor is supported (AMD AM2+ or AM2) as well as which case it will fit into (an ATX case). This particular mobo also has integrated audio and video with HDMI and optical audio outputs, meaning that I did not have to buy and install separate audio and video cards.

Choose a fast processor that is compatible with your motherboard. Often times you can buy a processor and motherboard as one package, which is what I did — my ASUS mobo was packaged with an AMD Phenom chip.
Processor Fan

Your case will probably come with its own fans, but you also need an additional fan dedicated to cooling the processor. It literally sits right on top of the processor. Choose your CPU, then pick a fan that is compatible with the model (as well as fits inside your chosen case).

RAM is where your computer keeps all the applications and data that is currently in use. When the system runs out of RAM it falls back on secondary storage which is much slower. Having a sufficient amount of RAM is therefore important for keeping your system running fast.

Check your motherboard’s specifications before choosing memory so you know exactly what type of RAM to purchase.
The Case

Instead of the traditional “CPU tower” that most people are familiar with, many HTPC owners opt for a case that looks more at-home in their home theater. Visitors might at first mistake many of these cases for DVD changers or audio receivers. You can choose a standard ATX HTPC case, or go for an ATX micro case if space is limited. I went with the black Silverstone LC17-B ATX Media Center / HTPC Case.
Power Supply

Some cases come with a power supply. If the one you choose does not, then you need to buy a power supply along with the rest of your hardware. Choose one made by a known company with enough wattage to power all your hardware. Many hardware websites have PSU calculators where you input all your hardware and get a recommended wattage. One such site is the eXtreme Power Supply Calculator. My system came out to about 350W… I bought a 500W PSU.
Audio & Video

A video card is in charge of generating and outputting your video – quite an important job in a Home Theater PC. Similarly in both purpose and importance is the audio card, which handles audio input and output. I suggest looking for a video card that can handle HD video and does HDMI output, and an audio card with an optical output that can hook up to your surround sound system.

Since my chosen motherboard has on-board audio and video, I did not need to purchase this hardware separately.

When it comes to a media center PC, more storage is better. In fact, the Silverstone case that I chose has room for six 3.5″ internal hard drives. SATA is the way to go these days. You should also make sure your motherboard has enough connections for as many hard drives as you plan on installing.

There are many brands of hard drives to choose from. I use both Seagate and Western Digital drives.

Since a Media Center PC usually resides in the living room/family room, wireless input is a smart choice. There are many media center PC keyboards that have start/stop/play/pause controls and other media-specific keys.

I went one step further and not only got something wireless, but something very small that could be easily stored alongside the rest of my remote controls — the Logitech diNovo Mini. This is a very small, hand-held bluetooth keyboard with a trackpad for your thumb. I got it work work with Linux by installing a few drivers, and it was compatible with Windows 7 right out of the box.
Optical Drive

If you plan on using physical media, you’ll need an optical drive. These are incredibly cheap. You can probably find a combination CD burner and DVD burner for $40 or less. Mine was $22. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s SATA.

Blu-ray drives are now becoming available, but are obviously much more expensive.
Operating System

Since you are building your own HTPC, you probably don’t intend on going with Mac OS X… or maybe you’re going the Hackintosh route? Who am I to assume? Anyway, I will assume your choices are between Windows and Linux.

Linux is tempting because it is free. If you are a Linux veteran than you don’t need me to help make your decision. On the other hand, if you are unfamiliar with Linux the time you spend configuring your system may cost just as much as the price tag of Windows. Honestly, I spent a lot of time configuring all my Linux video, and especially audio settings, only to have everything reset by a software update. That’s when I just went out and bought Windows.

I went with Windows 7 for my HTPC. There’s a wealth of software available for it including all my favorite DVD backup software, and HTPC-specific software such as XBMC. In general my opinion of Windows 7 is very high. All my experiences with Windows 7 have been pleasant. I ran the beta version for 8 or 9 months and then bought the full “Ultimate” version. No complaints.
What’s in my HTPC

* ASUS M3A78-EM AM2+ / AM2 ATX AMD motherboard
* AMD Phenom 9850 2.5GHz chip
* 4GB (2 x 2GB) CORSAIR XMS2 memory
* Silverstone LC-17B ATX Media Case
* APEVIA ATX-CW500WP4 500W ATX Power Supply
* 2 × 1TB Western Digital Caviar Green WD10EADS SATA hard drive
* LITE-ON Black 22X DVD burner
* Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate
* Logitech diNovo Mini

I built this system in March 2009, which means all of these parts are now outdated. You can often safe money by not buying the absolute newest parts, but I would not advise building a system identical to this one since it is now pretty old.
Put Your HTPC Together

Now that you have all the parts, it’s time to put everything together. You should read all of the manufacturer’s directions before putting anything together, because the exact process for installing different parts of the system varies between manufacturers. Since this is an HTPC-specific article and not a “how to build a computer” article, I am simply going to breeze through the general steps of putting it all together. This will give you a good idea of the general process of what’s going on, but you cannot follow only these directions because they are not specific enough. Read the full instructions from all your parts manufacturers!

1. Lay out all your parts and carefully open the packages as you need each one. Key word: carefully. Don’t drop the processor on the floor and spend 15 minutes straightening bent pins with a credit card like I did.
2. If necessary, install the power supply unit inside the case.
3. Carefully seat the processor on the motherboard, following manufacturer-specific directions for aligning the chip and securing doors/latches/covers. All these instructions will differ between Intel and AMD chips.
4. Insert the motherboard’s metal cover for the various ports in back the case.
5. Most motherboards don’t attach directly to the inside of the case. You attach pegs to the holes in the case, then seat the motherboard on the pegs. If your case doesn’t have built-in pegs, use the ones that come with your motherboard.
6. Properly align the motherboard to the pegs, with its outputs properly aligned to the back of the case. Attach screws.
7. Attach power cables from the case to the motherboard.
8. Mount the processor fan on top of the CPU and connect its power cable to the designated spot on the motherboard according to the manufacturer’s directions. Use thermal paste if recommended.
9. Following the instruction manual, attach the power, reset, hard drive light, usb, firewire, and any other cables from the case to the motherboard.
10. Mount your optical drive(s) and hard drive(s) inside the case, connecting power cables to the drives and the SATA cables to the motherboard.
11. Open the fasteners on the memory slots, align your RAM chips with the slots paying careful attention to the position of the notches (they only go in one way), seat the memory and close the fasteners.
12. If you have audio and video cards, remove a metal plate/cover from the back of the case for each one. Insert each card into its corresponding slot firmly, and attach it to the back of the case with a screw.
13. Ensure all components and wires are properly connected, close the case, boot up, install an operating system and configure your software.


more... »