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Guide to Building a HD HTPC (& General-Purpose Desktop PC)


Contents

  • Preface
  • Hardware Leaderboard
Main Part
  1. Hardware Selection Guide
    1. CPU and CPU Cooler
    2. Memory
    3. Motherboard – Intel Platform
    4. Motherboard – AMD Platform
    5. Video Card
    6. HDD
    7. PSU
    8. Case
    9. Keyboard, Mouse, Remote Controller (under construction)
    10. Optical Drive (under construction)
    11. TV Tuner (under construction)
    12. Sound Card (under construction)
Appendix
  1. Intel Processors – An Overview
    1. P6 Microarchitecture
    2. Intel NetBurst Microarchitecture
    3. Intel's Mobile Microarchitecture
    4. Intel Core Microarchitecture
    5. Intel's T's or *T's
    6. Next Generation Microarchitecture 2 (NGMA2)
  2. AMD Processors – An Overview
    1. K5 Processor
    2. K6 Processor
    3. K7 Processor
    4. K8 Processor
    5. K8 Processor Ordering Part Number Description
  3. Core 2 Motherboards – A Complete List of
    • Contents
    • Conventions
    1. Overview of Recent Chipsets for the Intel Platform
    2. Intel 865 Chipset Motherboards
    3. Intel 945 Express Chipset Motherboards
    4. Intel 946 Express Chipset Motherboards
    5. Intel 975X Express Chipset Motherboards
    6. Intel 965 Express Chipset Motherboards
    7. Intel 3 Series Chipset Motherboards
    8. Intel Eaglelake Chipset Motherboards
    9. NVIDIA nForce4 for Intel Chipset Motherboards
    10. NVIDIA nForce 500 Series for Intel Chipset Motherboards
    11. NVIDIA nForce 600i Series Chipset Motherboards
    12. NVIDIA nForce 700i Series Chipset Motherboards
    13. NVIDIA GeForce 7-Series GPU/nForce 630i MCP Chipset Motherboards
    14. ATI Chipset Motherboards
    15. SiS Chipset Motherboards
    16. VIA Chipset Motherboards
    17. Mobile Intel 945 Express Chipset Motherboards
    18. Mobile Intel 965 Express Chipset Motherboards
  4. AM2 Motherboards – A Complete List of
    • Contents
    • Conventions
    1. Overview of Recent Chipsets for the AMD Platform
    2. AMD RD480 Chipset Motherboards
    3. AMD RD580 Chipset Motherboards
    4. AMD RD790 Chipset Motherboards
    5. AMD RS480 Chipset Motherboards
    6. AMD RS690 Chipset Motherboards
    7. AMD RS740 Chipset Motherboards
    8. AMD RS780 Chipset Motherboards
    9. NVIDIA nForce3 Chipset Motherboards
    10. NVIDIA nForce4 for AMD Chipset Motherboards
    11. NVIDIA nForce 500 Series for AMD Chipset Motherboards
    12. NVIDIA nForce 600a Series Chipset Motherboards
    13. NVIDIA nForce 700a Series Chipset Motherboards
    14. NVIDIA GeForce 6-Series GPU/nForce4 MCP Chipset Motherboards
    15. NVIDIA GeForce 7-Series GPU/nForce 630a MCP Chipset Motherboards
    16. SiS Chipset Motherboards
    17. ULi Chipset Motherboards
    18. VIA Chipset Motherboards
  5. Naming Rules of Motherboards
    1. ASUS
    2. DFI
    3. FOXCONN
    4. GIGABYTE
    5. Intel
    6. MSI
  6. Intel Platform Overclocking Guide
    1. Overclocking Guide
    2. Calculating Memory Frequency
    3. BSEL Mod for Core 2 Duo E4x00
    4. Calculating Power Consumption
  7. AMD Platform Overclocking Guide
    1. Overclocking Guide
    2. Calculating Memory Frequency
    3. Calculating Power Consumption
  8. NVIDIA GeForce 8600/8500 Video Card List
    1. GeForce 8600 GTS
    2. GeForce 8600 GT
    3. GeForce 8500 GT
  9. ATI Radeon HD 2600/2400 Video Card List (under construction)
  10. List of Bandwidth
    1. CPU Bus
    2. Memory
    3. Northbridge to Southbridge
    4. Peripheral Devices
    5. Storage
    6. External Devices
    7. LAN
    8. Multimedia
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post #2 of 123 Old 06-05-2007, 09:15 PM - Thread Starter
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Preface


Building a HTPC (or a PC in general) is comprised of several stages.
  1. Preliminary Stage
    1. Understand concepts and technologies of PC and HTPC
    2. Decide what functionality you want
  2. Hardware Stage
    1. Choose necessary hardware components
    2. Assemble hardware
  3. Software Stage
    1. Choose an operating system and necessary software applications
    2. Install software
    3. Configure software
It is out of question to treat all of the above aspects in this guide. I narrowed the subject to hardware-related aspects. First I will mention the hardware technology of PC and HTPC, but only briefly to the extent a general reader can benefit, and refer to other resources for details. Selecting hardware components is the main focus of this guide. Choosing right hardware components is difficult because hardware technology is evolving rapidly and even online resources tend to be obsolete quickly. So I am updating the guide periodically to make sure that you will be able to choose the latest hardware. Contrary, assembling hardware is relatively easy (easier than, say, assembling a plastic model!) and basic procedures do not change much over the time. So plenty of existing resources on this subject are useful. Therefore I will mention assembling process only briefly.

A good starting point is Hardware Leaderboard that immediately follows the preface, where I picked a core system in each of the following categories:
  • Low-end system
  • Midrange system
  • High-end system
  • MicroATX system - AMD
  • MicroATX system - Intel
  • Budget home media server
Select one of them as a basis of your system and dig in by reading other chapters.

I added several appendices. They are of referential nature (e.g. a complete motherboards list) or specialized subjects (e.g. overclocking).


Last Update: May 30, 2007
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Hardware Leaderboard


The purpose of this section is give a quick view of one of the best HTPC systems on various categories. Sound card is not included assuming you use the onboard S/PDIF. These are just core systems and you need to add a case, optical drive, keyboard/mouse, etc.

The price is the lowest one among those from reputable US resellers I could find using Google Product Search. Shipping is excluded ($0 to $10 per item).

§1. ATX System
  • Low-End System

    The following system has enough power to play back every kind of HD contents smoothly without overclocking. The processor can be overclocked very well if necessary.

    • Processor: AMD Athlon 64 X2 3600+ ADO3600DDBOX 1.9GHz Socket AM2. $69
    • Memory: Corsair Value Select PC2-5300 2GB VS2GBKIT667D2. $65
    • Motherboard: GIGABYTE GA-M61P-S3 GeForce 6100/nForce 430 ATX. $73. An alternative is GIGABYTE GA-MA69G-S3H ($87) that has an optical S/PDIF out.
    • Video Card: GIGABYTE GeForce 8500 GT GV-NX85T256H. $98
    • Hard Drive: Samsung SpinPoint P120 250GB SATA SP2504C. $63
    • Power Supply: Antec EarthWatts EA 380. $41
    • Coaxial S/PDIF Bracket. $7 (DIY; Please read the section "About S/PDIF")
    • Total Cost: $416



  • Midrange System

    The following system has enough power to play back every kind of HD contents smoothly without overclocking. Once the processor is overclocked, the system will perform at the same level as a much more expensive system and will be an all-purpose machine. The motherboard is one of the best in this class (FSB 1333MHz, SLI, 3 PCI slots, RAID, two native IDE controllers, Gb LAN, ALC888, IEEE 1394, good overclocking).

    • Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo E4300 1.8GHz Socket 775. $113
    • Memory: A-DATA Vitesta DDR2-800 2GB Kit ADQVE1A16K. $81
    • Motherboard: MSI P6N SLI-FI nForce 650i SLI. $108
    • Video Card: PNY Verto 8600 GT 256MB PCIe VCG8600GXPB. $150
    • Hard Drive: Samsung SpinPoint P120 250GB SATA SP2504C. $63
    • Power Supply: Antec NeoHE 430. $67
    • Total Cost: $582



  • High-End System

    The processor is powerful and overclocks very well. The motherboard comes with dual PCIe x16 graphics, dual Gb LAN, wireless LAN and supports DTS Connect.

    • Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 2.4GHz Socket 775. $224
    • Memory: G.SKILL DDR2-800 F2-6400PHU2-2GBHZ (1GB x 2). $115
    • Motherboard: ASUS P5B Deluxe/WiFi-AP Intel P965 Express. $193.
    • Video Card: eVGA GeForce 8600GTS Superclocked 256MB 256-P2-N765-AR. $200
    • Hard Drive: Samsung SpinPoint T166 500GB HD501LJ. $115
    • Power Supply: Corsair HX520W. $105
    • Total Cost: $952


______________
MicroATX System
¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯

I am a bit hesitant to recommend a microATX system with IGP because none of the current IGPs is powerful enough for playing back the highest-bitrate H.264 Blu-ray Disc movies even with an expensive CPU. I selected one of the best microATX motherboard with IGP in each of the AMD and Intel platforms, but combined it with a low-end processor to reduce the cost, assuming that the processor is overclocked. This is simply because
  • A low-end processor + a good discrete graphics > a high-end processor + IGP
in terms of both performance and cost, hence choosing IGP with an expensive CPU does not make sense. If you want a microATX system for perfect HD contents playback, you'd better choose a low-end processor and a cheaper microATX motherboard (for example BIOSTAR TF7025-M2 for AMD, ASUS P5L-MX for Intel) and then add a good discrete video card.
  • AMD Platform

    • Processor: AMD Athlon 64 X2 3600+ ADO3600DDBOX 1.9GHz Socket AM2. $69
    • Memory: Corsair Value Select PC2-5300 2GB VS2GBKIT667D2. $65
    • Motherboard: BIOSTAR TF7050-M2 GeForce 7050/nForce 630a microATX. $77
    • Hard Drive: Samsung SpinPoint P120 250GB SATA SP2504C. $63
    • Case & Power Supply: Antec NSK2400 (Antec SU-380 PSU included). $86
    • Total Cost: $360



  • Intel Platform

    • Processor: Intel Pentium E2160 1.8GHz Socket 775. $84
    • Memory: Corsair Value Select PC2-5300 2GB VS2GBKIT667D2. $65
    • Motherboard: abit F-I90HD Radeon Xpress 1250 microATX. $115
    • Hard Drive: Samsung SpinPoint P120 250GB SATA SP2504C. $63
    • Case & Power Supply: Antec NSK2400 (Antec SU-380 PSU included). $86
    • Total Cost: $413


________________
Home Media Server
¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯
  • Budget Home Media Server (2TB Storage Space with RAID 5)

    Intel's new southbridge ICH9R supports 6 drives in the RAID array (vs. 4 drives with ICH8R) and supports port multiplier with fifteen SATA drives per port. If you add a GeForce 8500 GT card, the system will be a perfect HD contents player.

    • Processor: Intel Pentium E2160 1.8GHz Socket 775. $84
    • Memory: Corsair Value Select PC2-5300 2GB VS2GBKIT667D2. $65
    • Motherboard: GIGABYTE GA-G33M-DS2R Intel G33 Express + ICH9R microATX. $138.
    • Hard Drive (OS): Samsung SpinPoint P120 250GB SATA SP2504C. $63
    • Hard Drive (RAID 5): Samsung SpinPoint T166 500GB HD501LJ. $115 x 5 = $575
    • Case & Power Supply: Antec NSK6500 (Antec SU-430 PSU included). $100
    • 3.5" to 5.1/4" drive bay mounting bracket for 3.5" hard drive: Addonics AAHDMK53: $6
    • Total Cost: $1031

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Hardware Selection Guide


Chapter 1. CPU and CPU Cooler


The most demanding task for a high-definition HTPC is playing (i.e. decoding) H.264 encoded movies. H.264 contents playback experience depends on:
  • CPU processing power
  • GPU assist on the decode process
  • Playback software and the video card driver
So necessary CPU processing power and hence your CPU choice heavily depend on the video card you use.
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Chapter 2. Memory


There are three major memory specifications for the desktop PC: DDR-SDRAM (JESD79, June 2000), DDR2-SDRAM (JESD79-2, 2003), DDR3-SDRAM (JESD79-3?, to be released in mid-2007). All three adopt the DDR (double date rate) technology that enables two data transfers per clock cycle. Thus the memory (bus) clock can be expressed in two units
  • MHz (mega hertz)
  • MT/s (mega transfer per second)
with the simple conversion formula: MT/s = 2 x MHz. For example, DDR2-800 is 800 MT/s in effective frequency and 400 MHz in actual frequency.

The primary difference between DDR and DDR2 is that DDR2-SDRAM runs its I/O (input/output) bus at twice the speed of the memory cells thus enabling higher peak throughputs and runs at a lower operating voltage 1.8V compared to DDR's 2.5V due to an improved manufacturing process. Further DDR3-SDRAM runs its bus at four times the memory cell clock and runs at 1.5V thus consuming lower power. For exampel, memory clock / I/O bus clock / data transfer rates is
  • DDR-400: 200 MHz / 200 MHz / 400 MTps
  • DDR2-800: 200 MHz / 400 MHz / 800 MTps
  • DDR3-1600: 200 MHz / 800 MHz / 1600 MTps
As for actual performance, there is not much clock for clock difference between DDR and DDR2, and between DDR2 and DDR3 under the currently avaiable memory controller P35. If you are interested, please read for example Anandtech and iXBT's recent articles in references.

The majority of the current desktop motherboads support only DDR2-SDRAM, so you will buy DDR2-SDRAM modules. Intel's new Bearlake chipset supports both DDR2-SDRAM and DDR3-SDRAM and a few upcoming motherboards with this chipset support DDR3-SDRAM. However DDR3-SDRAM chips are still too expensive and they won't be the mainstream standard until 2009 according to HKEPC Hardware.

When choosing DDR2-SDARM memory modules, you need to consider three factors:
  1. Speed (DDR2-553, DDR2-667 or DDR2-800)

    In Core 2 Duo systems, memory is connected to the CPU via the front side bus (and the memory bus) whose maximal theoretical bandwidth is

    1066MT/s x 64bit/8bit = 8.533GB/s.

    (Pentium 4 and Core 2's FSB is 64-bit wide.) That only equals the bandwidth of dual-channel DDR2-533 or PC2-4200:

    533MT/s x 64bit/8bit x 2 (dual channel) = 8.533GB/s.

    (DIMMs have a 64-bit data path.) Therefore there is no big performance growth if you use memory faster than DDR2-533. This is confirmed by various benchmark tests in the AnandTech and X-bit labs articles. The story for Athlon 64 systems is slightly different. Because of the superior on-processor memory controller, AM2 has a wider memory bandwidth and its performance depends more on memory speed than Core 2 Duo. But playing movies is insensitive to memory subsystem and there won't be much performance difference even if the memory speed changes.

    However if you overclock your system, then your memory will run faster as the memory frequency is proportional to FSB (in the Intel platform) and you will need faster memory modules. Please read Appendix III. Calculating Memory Frequency when Overclocking to see what memory frequency is necessary when overclocking the system. In general DDR2-800 modules are recommended for mild overclocking.

  2. Size (1GB or 2GB)

    You won't see any system performance difference between 1GB and 2GB. If budget permits, choose 2GB. Otherwise 1GB is enough. You can add another 1GB later if necessary. You should buy two sticks of 512MB modules for 1GB or two sticks of 1GB modules for 2GB to enable the dual channel mode.

  3. Compatibility with the motherboard

    You should check the hardware compatibility list of each motherboard or ask the memory manufacturer about compatibility before shopping memory modules.

There are plenty of good memory kits. I picked up only a few DDR2-800 memory kits. High-performance memory kits (targeted for overclockers) usually require higher voltage than the JEDEC specification (1.8V) and hence are compatible with a smaller number of motherboards. So I avoided this type of memory (that means there is no high-end recommendation). The source of "Compatibility" is Newegg.com customer reviews. A-DATA and G.SKILL kits are available only at Newegg.com in US.
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Chapter 3. Motherboard - Intel Platform


The best chipset for Core 2 Duo is Intel P965/G965. So my first picks are from motherboards based on them. The NVIDIA nForce 600i Series chipsets are also very nice, but its main target is enthusiast SLI gamers. If you are going to use your HTPC also as a gaming machine, that could be your choice. The position of Intel 975X is subtle. It was released seven months earlier than 965, but it is still the only "performance" chipset for Core 2 Duo (P965/G965 is a "mainstream" chipset). As a consequence motherboard manufacturers tend to add rich features to 975X motherboards, that could be a plus for some. (High-end P965 motherboards also come with lots of features, however.) Intel 945P/945G motherboards fall in the low-end sector. Performance-wise, there isn't so big difference between 945 and 965.
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Chapter 4. Motherboard - AMD Platform


There are many chipsets for the AMD platform. Among them NVIDIA nForce 570 Ultra (discrete graphics) and AMD 690G (integrated graphics), which supports HDMI/HDCP, are best suited for a HTPC. There are AMD CrossFire chipsets (480X/580X) and nForce SLI chipsets (570/590 SLI), but these are intended for gamers. Nevertheless I selected SLI/CrossFire boards instead of Ultra boards because these boards often come with better features. As for AMD chipsets, the southbridge (SB600) is still weaker than NVIDIA. Performance-wise, there is no difference between high-end boards and budget boards. High-end boards just offer better features.
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Chapter 5. Video Card


The most important criteria for choosing a video card for HTPC are:
  • Hardware assist for decoding HD contents (of all three formats MPEG-2, H.264, and VC-1)
  • HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection) support
  • Picture quality
How about HDMI? HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) is an high-definition digital audio/video interface that is replacing analog audio/video and older digital standards such as DVI and has become the de facto standard interface in the consumer electronics market. HDMI 1.0/1.1/1.2 provides 4.9 Gb/s bandwidth and the current HDMI 1.3 provides 10.2 Gb/s that has enough headroom for 1080p at 60Hz and 8 channel/24 bits/192 kHz LPCM audio (e.g. sounds decoded from the new digital audio codecs Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio) as the following simple calculation shows:
  • 1920 x 1080 pixels x 60 Hz / 0.95 (5% overhead) = 131 MHz (megapixel/s), 131 MHz x 24 bits = 3.14 Gb/s
  • 24 bits x 192 kHz x 8 channel = 36.9 Mb/s
HDMI video is compatible with the existing digital standard DVI and in fact one form can be converted to the other via a simple adapter. So there is nothing new. In contrast HDMI audio completely takes over the aged digital standard S/PDIF which supports only stereo PCM and 5.1 Dolby Digital/DTS with the maximum bandwidth around 12 Mb/s.

Unfortunately HDMI audio has not been realized yet in the PC world and we are still confined to S/PDIF. As a matter of facts, every HDMI video card simply passes S/PDIF signals from a sound card or onboard audio codec over the HDMI connector. Thus there is no real advantage of the current HDMI solution over the existing DVI + S/PDIF solution. Recent IGPs (ATI Radeon Xpress 1250 for Intel and AMD 690G) are no exception. Right now the only way to take the full-rate lossless multichannel sounds from the PC is use analog outputs.


The upcoming ATI HD 2000 series GPU has a built-in audio controller that makes it possbile to grab audio outputs directly through the PCI Express bus, but the audio quality is still at the level of S/PDIF. The following figure shows the ideal HDMI audio solution we are waiting for that transmits lossless full-bitrate multichannel PCM audio streams.


Video card recommendations from these points of view are the following.
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Chapter 6. HDD


Factors to consider when selecting a HDD, besides capacity, are performance, noise and heat dissipation, reliability and warranty period. I picked some of recent models in each drive capacity, in particular from the viewpoint of low noise and low heat dissipation. Currently a 250GB or 320GB drive is the sweet spot and good for the single drive setup (possibly with a partition for OS and the other partition for data). A 160GB drive is good for storing OS, along with separate large drives for storing data.
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Chapter 7. PSU


There are several important factors to consider when selecting a power supply unit: total power output, +12V line output (combined), quality and efficiency, quietness.

Total power output

First you should calculate the total power consumption of your system by using, for example, eXtreme PSU Calculator. A typical maximum power consumption of each component is:
  • CPU: 65W (TDP, thermal design power, of Athlon 64 X2 Brisbane core or Core 2 Duo)
  • DDR2 DIMM: 5W
  • Motherboard: 40W
  • GeForce 7600 GT: 36W (peak 3D), 23W (peak 2D), 15W (idle)
  • GeForce 8600 GTS: 47W (peak 3D), 31W (peak 2D), 21W (idle)
  • GeForce 8800 GTS 320MB: 103W (peak 3D), 69W (peak 2D), 56W (idle)
  • DVD drive: 30W
  • SATA drive: 12W
  • PCI TV tuner card: 30W (ATI Theater 550 Pro)
  • PCI TV tuner card: 44W (NVIDIA DualTV MCE)
  • PCI sound card: 10W
  • 80mm fan: 2W
For example, if the system consists of 1 x GeForce 8600 GTS card, 2 x DDR2 SDRAM, 1 x DVD drive, 2 x SATA drive, 1 x PCI TV tuner card and 2 x fan, the maximum power consumption is ~245W. This number is obtained simply by adding the maximum power rating for each components. However it is almost impossible for any application to draw, say, 80% of the maximum power from each component simultaneously. Therefore a typical power consumption of such a system when playing back movies are 100W~200W and a 430W PSU is enough if the PSU is rated honestly.

Total power output of an overclocked system

When you overclock the CPU, its power consumption is calculated by the following forumula:
  • Power Consumption = Cdynamic x V^2 x Frequency
where Cdynamic is a constant dynamic capacity that is determined by the CPU microarchitecture and depends on the number of transistors and their activity during CPU operation (source: Intel Developer Forum; cf. X-bit labs - Getting Ready to Meet Intel Core 2 Duo), V is the applied voltage, and Frequency is the operating frequency of the CPU. The factor V^2 is just Ohm's law. The factor "Frequency" is due to the so-called switching loss - the amount of heat emitted from a transistor when it goes from one state to the other (at the order of 10^(-16) joule). Each transistor in the CPU would emit 1 x 10^9 times that amount of heat per second if the CPU frequency were 1GHz and 2 x 10^9 times that amount if the CPU frequency were 2GHz. Thus the total amount of heat is proportional to the frequency.

For example, if you overclock Core 2 Duo E6600 (2.4GHz, 1.25V, 65W) to 3.2GHz with vcore 1.45V, then the power consumption is calculated as follows:

65W x (1.45/1.25)^2 x (3.2/2.4) = 117W

Quietness and efficiency

Quietness is one of the essential factors in selecting PSU for a HTPC and higher efficiency is the key to cooler, quieter PSU operation. There are many "quiet" PSU's, but only a few of them are truly quiet. In the following recommendations, I cited efficiency and noise levels measured by Silent PC Review. Please read the SPCR articles in the reference section for their meanings.
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Chapter 8. Case


There are several factors in selecting a HTPC case: form factor, ventilation, noise control, functionality and appearance. But it is not easy to recommend a HTPC case based on these criteria partly because there are not enough review articles on each case and partly because everybody has his or her own requirements of functions and appearance. So I just list several HTPC cases by well-known manufacturers for your reference. I did not include tower cases except Thermaltake Mozart TX (simply because there are too many ones), cases currently not available in US, and slim cases that do not accept standard-height PCIe/PCI cards or an ATX PSU.

Personally I would choose Origen AE X11 V2, SilverStone Lascala LC20M, Grandia GD01MX, or Crown CW01 from the midrange, and SilverStone Lascala LC17 or Lian-Li PC-C30 from the low-end sector.
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Chapter 9. Keyboard, Mouse and Remote Controller
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Chapter 12. Sound Card

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