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Buyer's Guide to Building a Home Theater PC - December 2010

A PDF version is also available for free download.

Table of Contents

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post #2 of 3 Old 06-08-2012, 06:00 AM - Thread Starter
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Introduction

Organization of the Contents

Here is a brief summary of the contents.

  • Introduction: This section includes a brief summary of HTPC systems and hardware components.
  • Peripheral Components and OS: I collected common hardware components used in each system here. OS (Windows only) is also mentioned.
  • Recommended HTPC systems: This longest part is classified into several categories as stated below for convenience.
  • DAS (Direct Attached Storage): If you need more storage space, a quick solution is here.
  • Workstation: A system for (serious) video editing tasks.
  • Server: HD video files occupy lots of storage spaces. So you may need a dedicated media storage server.

Classification of HTPC Systems

HTPC systems here are classified into several categories for convenience, according to the following three criteria.

1. Form Factor

A form factor specifies the physical dimensions of a system. Basically it is the motherboard form factor that defines the overall size of a system. There are dozens of standardized form factors. Among them we will be concerned with the following three most popular form factors.

  • Mini-ITX: 170mm x 170mm (6.7″ x 6.7″)
  • MicroATX: 244mm x 244mm (9.6″ x 9.6″)
  • ATX: 305mm x 244mm (12″ x 9.6″)

Because of the size, Mini-ITX provides the least expandability (0 or 1 expansion slot), usually 2 memory slots and CPU support is often limited by the cooling performance of a small Mini-ITX system. MicroATX supports up to 4 expansion slots, while ATX supports up to 7 expansion slots. Usually a Mini-ITX/microATX motherboard supports an integrated graphics so that you may not need a discrete graphic card. An ATX case can usually hold more storage drives than an microATX case, and a microATX case can hold more storage drives than an Mini-ITX case.

Here is a physical comparison of actual Mini-ITX motherboard/case, microATX motherboard/case and ATX motherboard/case, along with an AV receiver.

You may wonder why the width of the microATX case is almost the same as that of the ATX case. The reason is simple: the PSU is usually laid flat in a microATX case, while it is laid vertically in an ATX case. As a consequence, a microATX case is usually shorter in height than an ATX case.

2. Performance and Cost

Typical tasks done by a HTPC are

  • Playing back (or watching) media contents including:
    • Non-streamed media such as DVD movies, Blu-ray Disc movies, CDs.
    • Streamed media such as TV and radio (terrestrial, satellite, cable, Internet).
    • Media files stored locally.
  • Creating media files from various sources, non-streaming or streaming (usually called "ripping" or "recording"), and storing them for later use.
  • Editing, including re-encoding, media files.

Hardware components that are important for each task is:

  • Playing back video: This includes decoding and various post-processing (deinterlacing, rescaling etc.). GPU is the most important for this task (unless you resort to a software playback solution such as ffdshow). A couple of GPUs integrated in motherboard are good. If you want to get the best picture quality, a good mid-range discrete GPU is recommended, however. A high-end card is good for better gaming experience of course, but it rarely improves video playback performance.
  • Ripping: The speed of ripping DVD/BD discs is often limited by the reading speed of the optical disc drive used.
  • Recording: HDTV contents are already encoded in either MPEG-2 or H.264. So this is very easy for any system.
  • Editing and re-encoding video (except for simple cut and join): This is one of the most CPU-intensive tasks. A good quad-core (or more) processor is recommended. A trend is that GPU (stream processors) offloads CPU, and several video editing applications already support it (keywords: GPGPU, OpenCL, Microsoft DirectCompute, NVIDIA CUDA, AMD APP).

In general better performance means more cost.

Performance and cost is the secondary category of the list.

3. CPU-Chipset-GPU Manufacturers

CPU, chipset (in motherboard; controlling various I/O devices and connecting them to CPU/memory) and GPU are the three main hardware components of a system. Intel and AMD are the main suppliers of CPU for PC. Intel and AMD are producing chipsets for its own CPUs. Intel (integrated GPU only), AMD and NVIDIA are the top three GPU manufacturers.

CPU/chipset/GPU manufacturers is the third category of the list.

Component Selection

The components selected here are based on my hand-on experience and/or my extensive research. Here are general considerations in choosing components.

CPU

  • Below $60: Intel Celeron E3400 (dual-core) is a nice, cheap processor.
  • $60 to $150: Intel Core i3 540 (dual-core, quad-thread) is an excellent processor with integrated graphics and low power consumption. AMD Athlon II X3 (triple-core)/X4 (quad-core) is more powerful in some applications (e.g. video encoding).
  • Over $150: Intel Core i5 and i7 (Lynnfield and Bloomfield; quad-core, octo-thread in i7) are excellent general purpose processors. Phenom II X6 (hexa-core) is good for heavily threaded applications.

Chipset and Motherboard

Intel produces chipsets for its own chips and AMD for its own chips. ASUS, ASRock, GIGABYTE and MSI are the top four motherboard manufacturers and their motherboards are in general very reliable. The performance of a motherboard is mostly determined by the chipset and there is little difference between the manufacturers. So the main selection factor is the features of the motherboard, e.g. the number of PCI Express slots, USB 3.0, IEEE 1394.

Memory

DDR2 vs. DDR3

DDR3 SDRAM is the mainstream memory standard and you should choose it unless you already have DDR2 memory modules.

Capacity, frequency, timings, voltage

A pair of 2GB memory modules, 4GB in total, is standard right now. Currently both Intel and AMD desktop processors support up to DDR3-1333. Considering slight overclocking capability, DDR3-1600 is a good choice. CAS latency (CL) and timings are important for memory-intensive applications, in particular games. However these have little effect on the majority of HTPC-related tasks. So just ignore them. Even in games, memory affects the performance the least among CPU, memory and GPU. You'd better spend money on better CPU/GPU instead of spending money on expensive "performance" memory modules. The standard operating voltage of DDR3 SDRAM is 1.5V. Some memory modules require higher voltage than that for better stability. Adjust the memory voltage in BIOS according to the specifications of your memory modules.

Brand

Basically the brand does not matter in performance as the standards are established by JEDEC rigorously. It's not like Intel vs. AMD in CPU. Reliability and overclockability may vary from brand to brand, however.

Graphics and Sound Devices

With the advent of Blu-ray Disc (and HD DVD), HDMI became the standard specifications for transmitting video and audio signals from a player/PC to an AV receiver/display. Right now there are basically three HDMI solutions in PC:


  • AMD Radeon HD 5xxx graphics cards; to be replaced by HD 6xxx Series in Q3 2010 and Q1 2011.
  • Intel Core i3/i5 Clarkdale processors (that integrate GPU); to be replaced by the Sandy Bridge processors in Q1 2011.
  • NVIDIA GeForce GT 430, GTS 450, GTX 4xx, GTX 5xx.

AMD and Intel support HD video playback and HD audio bitstreaming. Clarkdale lacks proper 23.976Hz playback, however. Higher-end NVIDIA's solutions (GTX 465 and higher, GTX 570 and higher) do not support HD audio bitstreaming.

Here is a summary of audio formats supported by various PC video/audio solutions.

  • Dolby Digital and DTS bitstreams, and stereo LPCM
    • Every motherboard's onboard audio codec (via optical or coaxial S/PDIF connector)
    • Every AMD 760G/780G/785G/790GX/880G/890GX chipset motherboard (via onboard HDMI)
    • All the solutions mentioned below
  • Multichannel LPCM over HDMI
    • Every ION/GeForce 8200/8300/GeForce 9300/9400 chipset motherboard (via onboard HDMI)
    • Every GeForce 210/GT 220/GT 240/GT 430/GTS 450/GTX 4xx/GTX 5xx graphics card
    • Every Radeon HD 4xxx/5xxx/6xxx graphics card
    • Every Intel G41/G43/G45 chipset motherboard (via onboard HDMI)
    • Every Intel Core i5/i3 (Clarkdale) processor (via an H55/H57 chipset motherboard with onboard HDMI)
  • Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD High Resolution Audio/Master Audio bitstreams
    • Every Radeon HD 5xxx/6xxx graphics card
    • Every GeForce GT 430/GTX 450/GTX 460 graphics card
    • Every Intel Core i5/i3 (Clarkdale) processor (via an H55/H57 chipset motherboard with onboard HDMI)

My Pick of HTPC

In case you have no idea what to choose (and no time to dig), here are my pick. The system provides the best video/audio playback performance, as well as reasonably good performance/low power consumption in various CPU intensive tasks. If you have (or will have) a HDMI 1.4a 3D HDTV or projector and are interested in 3D videos, choose GeForce GT 430.

MicroATX Mid-Range Intel System


  • CPU: Core i3-540 3.06GHz 73W LGA1156, $114.
  • CPU Cooler: Stock cooler, $0.
  • Motherboard: GIGABYTE GA-H57M-USB3 LGA1156 Intel H57 chipset microATX, $121. If you want a PCI Express x1 slot, you can choose ASRock H55M Pro LGA1156 Intel H55 chipset microATX, $95, but this lacks USB 3.0.
  • Memory: G.SKILL F3-12800CL9D-4GBRL Ripjaws DDR3-1600 CL9 2 x 2GB Kit, $60.
  • Graphics Card (AMD): Sapphire 100287VGAL (VGA) or 100287L (DisplayPort) HD 5670 GDDR5 512MB , $80.
  • Graphics Card (NVIDIA): EVGA 01G-P3-1430-LR GeForce GT 430 DDR3 1GB low-profile, $70.
  • HDD: Samsung Spinpoint F3 HD103SJ 1TB SATA 3.0Gbps 7200 RPM, $59.
  • PSU: Seasonic S12II-430 Bronze, $60. An alternative is Corsair VX450W CMPSU-450VX 450W, $60.
  • Case: Antec Fusion Remote Black microATX, with a LCD/IR receiver/remote, $140.
  • Total Cost: $634 for AMD, $629 for NVIDIA

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