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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
I've been intending to post my HTPC build history for a while now, so here it is. I'll try to keep this up to date with new developments if people are interested. Amongst all the research I did for my project, the detailed build threads from other people's projects were some of the best information I was able to find so I wanted to give back.


I also want to say thanks to the people on this forum. It was a HUGE part of my putting this system together and tweaking it to this day. There is so much good information here and very helpful people. Thanks!


Setting up HTPC is no easy feat. I'm a software developer and have been building my own computers for 15 years. I've spent on the order of hundreds of hours to experiment and learn how all these applications operate and how to make them work together. For every application I'm using I demoed others that do the same thing before arriving at my choice. Still, once you're done, the result is quite awesome.


I'm happy to answer questions about my choices, process, and setup. Feel free to post in this thread, and I'll answer here. I think there's also some unique configuration on my system that took me a while to get working which people may be interested in, such as how I present disc-based television shows.
 

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Discussion Starter · #2 ·
Background

Around early to mid 2009, I had the inclination to tinker with media streaming to my living room from my PC. At that point in time we had 2 PCs in our office area. One was a main household system that I gamed on for World of Warcraft. The other was a gaming only machine that my wife played WoW on.


I wanted to serve some DVD and Blu-ray media to our living room through those computers. I spent months experimenting with various programs and my PS3, Xbox 360, or Series 3 TiVo as the interfaces. Nothing ever quite worked how I wanted it to with the limitations of those devices.


I was then on the verge of buying a dedicated set top device, specifically the latest Popcorn Hour box at the time. I was close to pulling the trigger when I started considering just building my own HTPC. Ultimately, I opted to go that route. My goal for the HTPC was to be the end all/be all of our home entertainment experience.


My basic set of requirements for the system were:


1. Locally store media.

2. Be capable for audio, video, gaming, and other use cases.

3. Maintain pure quality of video and audio (i.e. no re-encoding and supporting bitstreaming).

4. Be unobtrusive in terms of noise and heat.

5. Include remote control capability.


The HTPC resides in our living room home theater setup and with the following equipment:


1. Samsung LN-T5781F 57 60Hz LED Local Dimming TV

2. Poineer Elite SC-27 receiver

3. B&W CDM-NT speakers with ASW-2500 subwoofer

4. APC H-15 power conditioner

5. Xbox 360/PS3/Wii

6. TiVo Series 3 HD DVR

7. Logitech Harmony 900 remote

8. StudioTech U-22T cabinet


It was early fall of 2009 when I really started bringing this whole idea together. My initial build was done by September. I've done hardware replacements and plenty of tweaking since then, which I'll mention along the way.


A big thing I hope to do with this system going forward is retire our TiVo and make the HTPC a television viewing/DVR system. I'm eagerly awaiting (as are many I expect) the Ceton cards and other new tuner technologies expected soon.
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
Component Selection

Around the time I started choosing components, we had stopped playing WoW, so I used that 2nd office computer as the basis for the HTPC.

Case

I considered choosing the HTPC case to be a big design decision for the project. It's the backbone of the entire system and affects so much. I wanted it to be the least likely to change component as well. I was thus prepared to spend higher on a quality case that met my requirements.


I did a ton of research and a lot of forum reading. I considered a wide array of cases, but I ultimately settled on the Silverstone CW02 . I thought this case brought together many features I was looking for:


- Built-in IR control with remote.

- Well regarded as running cool and quiet.

- Room for several hard drives.

- Room for a full ATX motherboard, full size video cards, PSU, etc.

- Good working room.

- High end fit and finish.


Any higher end and I would have been looking at cases with full LCD front ends. As I intended to place the case inside an enclosed cabinet with an obscured view, I had no need to pay for such features.

Motherboard

The motherboard for my HTPC came directly from the repurposed office machine. It is an Asus P5Q Pro . This motherboard was already working with other components that I was intending to repurpose and it has 8 SATA connectors available for lots of drive connectivity.

CPU

The CPU was also repurposed from the HTPC. It is an Intel Core 2 Duo 3.16GHz Wolfdale E8500 . Plenty powerful for media needs and gaming and a 65W chip.


I also brought over the Intel stock heat sink/fan. I did a lot of research on fans and noise and considered preemptively buying a tower-sized fanless heat sink, but decided to hold off. I'll go into fans and noise in more detail later.

RAM

RAM was also carried over from the office machine. It's 4GB (2 x 2GB) of G. Skill DDR2 1066 memory.

Power Supply

PSU was carry over too. It's a Silverstone ST60F 600W modular power supply. Once again I considered preemptively buying a lower power, fanless power supply, but I chose not to. I really like the modularity of this power supply and it has served me well in the office machine for some time. This did require some extra work though that I'll detail in the noise section.

Sound Card

As bitstreaming HD audio was a primary requirement for the system, I bought a Xonar HDAV Slim card as part of my initial build. About three weeks after I received it and put everything together, the ATI 5000 series cards were announced with their own bitstreaming capability.


I ended up returning the Xonar to Newegg for a refund. I despised the dual card solution with the extra cabling required and the DVI-HDMI dongle as well. I knew that a 5000 series card would be in the HTPC ASAP. I luckily returned the Xonar on the final day possible of the return policy to get my refund.
 

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
Component Selection (Continued)

Video Card

The video card from the office machine was a PowerColor ATI 4870 512MB card. It was one of the very first 4870s to hit the market. I initially carried this card into the HTPC using the DVI-HDMI dongle with the Xonar.


Once the 5870 and 5850 were announced I debated hard about ordering one. I wanted something preferable for a HTPC though (i.e. cooler and quieter). The availability shortages made the decision to wait for me as well.


Come Christmas time, the 5700s were out and I saw the PowerColor 5750 SCS3 fanless card. I bought two of these intending to run them both in the HTPC in a Crossfire setup.


Initially I did the Crossfire install and ran with that for about a month or so. At the time, I was considering moving my multiplatform gaming from the consoles to the HTPC. Ultimately though, I decided against that option. I've since pulled the 2nd 5750 out of the HTPC and put it in our remaining office computer.


Currently then, the HTPC is running a single PowerColor 5750 SCS3 fanless card. I can't recommend this card enough. It runs 100% silent, still packs gaming performance, and usually sits around 40 degrees C.

Optical Drive

In one of our office machines I already had a Blu-ray drive which was a Lite-On 4x BD-ROM . I intended to carry this drive into the HTPC; however, I hit a huge snag during installation.


The drive tray face on the Lite-On drive is extra large. It's actually the whole top half of the drive face. When putting this into the CW02, the tray face was too large to fit through the opening on the case. It would clang and retract.


I didn't care to take the tray face off, so I opted to Ebay the Lite-On and just a buy a new drive with a standard size tray face. This worked out in my favor anyway as I bought an 8x drive, specifically an LG CH08LS10 . I considered a Blu-ray burner, but I didn't have a use case for it to justify spending the extra money on it. I'm very happy with the LG. It's really quiet and the 8x speed is noticeable compared to the 4x in ripping speed.

Hard Drives

Aside from the case, here is where I spent the bulk of my money. As mentioned, one requirement for the system was to store media. I considered setting up an external file server, but the costs associated with that outweighed the benefits. Plus, I only have wireless streaming available to my living room currently, and I didn't want to trust that link. So, I chose a case that would fit a large quantity of hard drives, and I filled it up.


I opted for Seagate 1.5TB LP drives. I know Seagate gets knocked around quite a bit, but I've used their products successfully for a long time. I even have a Seagate 7200.11 1.5TB that has worked great. I chose the LPs as a good compromise of performance, noise, and heat. They run at 5,900 RPM yet they are inaudible and stay in the 25 - 30 degrees C range.


For a system drive, I initially carried over an old Maxtor 80GB drive from the office machine. This was quickly replaced with my real goal which was an SSD. I jumped on a Slickdeal for an OCZ Vertex 60GB SSD. SSDs are just incredible. I think they are easily one of the most powerful new types of hardware to come along in a while in terms of enhancing the computing experience. Windows boots in
 

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Discussion Starter · #5 ·
Fans & Cooling

A primary requirement for me was to keep the system running cool but also functionally inaudible during use. Step one to meet this goal was choosing the CW02. Step two was to pick the case fans.


After a lot of research, I opted for Gentle Typhoon fans. The CW02 allows for dual 92mm intakes and a single 120mm exhaust. I bought the following fans:


- D0925C12B1AP-12 1,700 rpm 13 dBA 92mm fan x 2 for intakes

- D1225C12B3AP-13 1,150 rpm 16 dBA 120mm fan for exhaust


GT fans come in many different speed/noise combos, but I figured these were the best ratios for my needs. I installed the fans using rubber mounts to avoid vibration noise.


For the other noisy components, to start I had stock cooling on the 4870, CPU, and PSU. The 4870 was quickly replaced with the fanless 5750 so that fan became a moot point. After putting everything together though, the noise level was not where I wanted it to be. It was too loud. The culprit was immediately identifiable as the PSU fan, so I replaced it.


I ordered another of the GT 120mm 1,150 rpm fans and did a little hack job on the PSU. I yanked the stock fan out and put the GT in there. The results were instant gratification. The system went from noisy to functionally silent.


Using the BIOS settings on the motherboard, I have the CPU fan set to Silent operation, which basically throttles it down. I have the exhaust fan running full on. I have the case intake fans also configured as Silent. They throttle around 1,100 RPM.


The case runs cool and quiet. You have to actively listen for it in a silent room. Being inside the StudioTech cabinet also helps with this I expect, although I've yet to do any real noise abatement inside the cabinet. I'm considering lining parts of the interior with foam for absorption, but I'll need to be careful about airflow.


I'm still considering ordering a fanless tower heat sink for the CPU as well, but I'm not under any rush to do so. Set to Silent the stock CPU is plenty quiet. I'm really not eager to tear the whole thing apart again so I'll put this off until next major upgrade time at the earliest.
 

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
Installation

Here are some pictures from my build out. Note that as described, some components have changed over time. So you may see components, especially from the first pictures, that are no longer present, but it still gives a general idea how everything went together.


Here's a snap of the empty CW02 ready to be a home for all the cool new stuff.



To put the intake fans on, I had to remove the hard drive cages. Here's a picture of the inside of the case after intake fan installation with the cages back in place.



Next up, I have the motherboard in along with the hard drives and the exhaust fan. The hard drive array in this picture still has the old 80GB Maxtor in it. I did two iterations of the motherboard install. This is the second one after I realized it was better to run the case wires under the motherboard. The CW02 has a lot of case connections.



Now, the PSU is installed. In this picture, I had it drawing in air from outside the case. Also, the hard drive SATA cables are connected now. The video card is also in. This is the 4870 though.



Final step was to mount the brackets on the Blu-ray drive and get that hooked up.



In this picture, I have the SSD installed and the 2TB media drive has taken the place it and the 80GB Maxtor formerly occupied in that furthest left drive bay. You can see the SSD on top of the hard drive cage. It's held in place with two Velcro strips keeping it nice and stable, but still removable. I had to mount it upside down in order for the cables to clear the metal edge of the drive cage.



Here's a picture after I was done installing the SSD, the final media HD, and the 5750s. You can see both 5750s are in the case here. I also flipped the PSU around to pull air from inside the case and exhaust it out the back.



I'll try to get some pictures up of the install build as it exists today next time I have reason to open up the case.
 

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Discussion Starter · #7 ·
Full System Setup

Next up are some pictures of my home theater setup and how the HTPC fits into it. Our setup is in our living room.


First up are a couple shots of the main system view with the front speakers, sub, TV, and StudioTech cabinet.





Surrounds are wall mounted. Here's the right surround.



And here is the left.



Next are some pictures of the StudioTech cabinet interior with the doors. First the left section which has gaming consoles and our TiVo.



The middle section has our surge/power protection, the charging base for the Harmony, and our center channel speaker. The middle door is acoustically transparent fabric.



And here's the right section which has the receiver above the HTPC.



And here's one final shot of the front array again with the doors open.
 

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Discussion Starter · #8 ·
Software

For an HTPC, the hardware is just the beginning. After putting it together, there are hours and hours and hours and hours of software tweaking to be done.


I should mention that on my system, I manage almost everything manually. I do not let programs fetch meta data on the fly. I oversee meta acquisition for every piece of media I add to my system and store it all locally. This can be more time consuming but worth it IMO, although now I have it down to a very quick process. Everything looks how I want it to look. I know everything that shows up is correct as well. I do use programs to acquire baseline meta data from online sources, but I tailor it to my liking.


I have several programs that I wrote which do processing for me. That includes things like editing XML files, resizing and processing images, creating thumbnails, and so on. Without those programs, manually maintaining my meta and support files as I do would be a time consuming nightmare of work.


First I'll give a quick rundown of the HTPC-centric applications that I regularly use on my HTPC. I'll go into more detail to follow.


- Windows 7 x64 Professional

- Windows 7 Media Center

- Windows Media Player

- Xbox Media Center

- Arcsoft Total Media Theater 3 Platinum

- Cyberlink PowerDVD 9 Ultra

- Corel WinDVD Pro 2010

- Virtual CloneDrive

- SlySoft AnyDVD HD

- ClownBD

- Media Browser

- MyMovies

- MetaBrowser

- Stark Covers

- Media Center Studio

- MediaInfo

- Haali Media Splitter

- iMon

- TiVo Desktop

- EMUCenter


I think Windows 7 should be the default choice for any HTPC. It's a great OS and runs very stable. There's a lot of discussion about choosing 32 or 64-bit, especially for HTPCs. Aside from lacking thumbnails for a few file types, I have no issues running 64-bit Windows now. Most of the stuff I use comes in 64-bit versions or else the 32-bit versions run perfectly fine.


I chose Windows 7 Media Center as my primary HTPC interface. I tried MediaPortal and others, but for me 7MC was perfect with its plethora of built-in features. I prefer to mess with as little additional software as possible and take advantage of built-in functionality as much as I can.


I use Windows Media Player to rip my music to WMA lossless. I tried FLAC, but to me, it was a hassle. You need codecs, tag programs, and more to make FLAC work and it has more trouble on 64-bit Windows. By changing to WMA lossless, I get lossless audio with native Windows. I can rip and tag my music right in WMP and everything just works. Using WMA also ensure that 7MC plays all my music correctly and displays it with accurate information.


I run Xbox Media Center (XBMC), but I use for one very specific piece of functionality. That is for browsing/reading digital comics. XBMC supports CBR/CBZ archives. 7MC does not. I have absolutely everything in XBMC disabled except for the interfaces required for CBR/CBZs. I replaced the splash screen with a black image and it launches right into the comic archive area. I launch XBMC from inside 7MC as well. It's totally seamless and it looks/feels like the comics books are an integrated part of 7MC. For more information on this, check out this discussion .


You'll notice there are 3 players in this list (TMT3, PDVD, and WinDVD). I have all 3 of them on my system. I bought TMT3 first and I believe it's the best player in the bunch. To date though, it only supports bitstreaming through the Xonar, not the ATI cards (update coming soon).


WinDVD was the first player available with ATI bitstreaming and I got it cheap for $29 through a deal posted here on AVS. I then bought PDVD when it came out with ATI bitstreaming as well. Today, I use PDVD to watch Blu-rays and TMT3 to watch DVDs. Once TMT3 supports ATI bitstreaming, I'll switch back to using it for everything and retire the other players. C'mon with that patch already Arcsoft!!!


I use AnyDVD as a playback helper and to rip my DVDs/BDs. I rip DVD to folders and BDs to ISOs currently. Virtual CloneDrive is used to mount ISO images for playback. Once TMT3 supports bitstreaming I'll go back to ripping BDs to folders as well as I'd prefer to skip the ISO mounting step. It's a superior option for more advanced setup reasons as well.


ClownBD is used when I want to throw away all the extra stuff that comes on a Blu-ray and just keep the core movie. While I keep my movies resident on the system, I don't need to keep the extras, additional audio soundtracks, and so on. ClownBD is the easiest program I've found to rip that stuff out. Note that this isn't re-encoding. I don't re-encode. It's just remuxing audio/video streams.


Media Browser is my primary 7MC interface for browsing and playing my movies and shows. After demoing a number of options, I found MB to be the best one for me in terms of features, presentation, and performance. I have spent a LOT of time getting my media presentation custom tailored in very specific ways inside of MB. I'm using the Vanilla theme currently with ImagesByName to get pictures of actors.


I use MyMovies only for the collection management portion. I have the 7MC interface of MM disabled. MM collection management is the best program I have found to catalogue my disc-based movie/show collection and I use it to generate all the base XML meta files used in Media Browser for my movies. For each movie/show, MM also has links to web information where you can download backdrops and movie posters too.


MetaBrowser makes the list for one purpose. That is generating base meta information for television shows. As good as MyMovies is for movie management, it sucks for shows. MetaBrowser fills that need.


Stark Covers allows me to put nice overlays on all the thumbnails that show up in Media Browser with easy to use scripts. I think it looks much cooler when your movie posters have little shine to them and soft, rounded edges.


Media Center Studio is how I custom tailor the options on my 7MC interface strips. It can hide all the stuff I don't care to see and also make custom launch points for applications that wouldn't otherwise be launchable from inside 7MC (such as XBMC or games). This is mandatory software for using 7MC with an HTPC.


MediaInfo is a great application for viewing information about your media files. You can see all kinds of detailed attributes about them with MediaInfo.


Even though I don't re-encode my video, I have Haali Media Splitter installed just in case I end up with an MKV file I'd like to play. I use no other codecs or codec packages outside of this one and only supporting application. I don't need them. Windows 7 combined with the various players has everything I need to run the audio and video I want to see or hear.


iMon is the application that goes with the iMon VFD that came on the CW02 case. It's the driver and interface software for controlling the HTPC with a remote. It let's me custom tailor all of my remote input to the HTPC on a per-application basis. Getting the iMon stuff working with the Harmony 900 remote in all of the various programs was challenging and took a lot of work.


The TiVo Desktop software lets me transfer shows from my TiVo to the HTPC. There's a great little application as well called TiVo File Decoder that will turn saved shows into regular MPEG files so I can easily present and play them through Media Browser.


EMUCenter is my interface for launching classic video games. 7MC can directly launch EMUCenter which gives a cover view for games just like Media Browser does for movies and shows. It's fairly old and very touchy software, but I have it working after a lot of tinkering. There are much cooler interfaces for classic games, like Hyper-Spin, but I haven't invested the time to set them up.
 

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Discussion Starter · #9 ·
System in Action

Here are some pictures of my system in action.


I’ve customized my 7MC start strips considerably. For example, I made a custom “Movies + Shows” strip where I placed the NetFlix viewer, Media Browser, and other playback programs.



I don’t use the enhanced Media Browser home screen. I just use the regular one where I have several virtual folders to access my movies and shows by type. These icons are based on Xzener’s icons , although a couple of them I custom made using his style.



I use the Vanilla theme in Media Browser and usually stick to the poster views.







I’m especially proud of how I set up the show/cartoon areas of Media Browser. I’ve found no program provides a good way to present shows stored on disc. I’m a sucker for classic action/super hero cartoons (I’m a child of the ‘80s), and have a collection of those on DVD which I have available on my HTPC. I experimented with extracting episodes, but that was a painful amount of work. I’d rather have the full discs available directly given DVDs are relatively small in size.


What I did was combine MyMovies, MetaBrowser, my own processing programs, and Media Browser to arrive the configuration I needed to present those discs how I wanted. Note also that my cartoon area is a combination of DVD/BD as well as individual episodes for some series all mixed together. The interface is media type agnostic though until you get down to launching actual shows. This structure can work for any show or series.


Starting at the top level is a poster view of all my shows using generic posters for each series. At the show level, my meta data gives details about each series as a whole from MetaBrowser.





Selecting a specific series takes you to the releases for that series. Sometimes this is seasons, but sometimes it is volumes depending on how a given series was made available. At this level I just have custom series.xml files that contain the release name and descriptions which are the text taken from MyMovies for that season or volume.





Here’s the unique part. When you drill into a season/volume of a disc-based show, you see the actual discs. I scan the discs as PNGs with transparent edges and a transparent cut-out in the middle of the disc.





Selecting a given disc, takes you to that disc’s information. I customize the descriptions to contain episode/content lists for what is on each specific disc. That’s where my processing programs come into play. They perform all the text modifications to the MyMovies generated XML files.



If it’s not a disc-based show, but one I have individual episode files for, it gives a more traditional episode selection view for that season with meta information coming from MetaBrowser.



For pictures, personal videos, and music, I use the standard 7MC interfaces. There’s not any value in showing screenshots of those I think. I do have another custom media strip from which I launch XBMC and EMUCenter. The XBMC launch icon is one I custom made.



Using XBMC, I can browse and read digital comic books. My personal processing programs generate the cover thumbnails. When I’m done, exiting XBMC puts me right back into 7MC.





EMUCenter provides the same kind of cover view interface. Launching any game runs it in the correct emulator and I use 360 pads or my arcade sticks to play. This is the area requiring the most intervention to work correctly so it’s usually necessary to have the diNovo keyboard handy when I need more input power to get a game running correctly. I try to preconfigure the emulators so it is seamless, but not every game launches that way.




 

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Discussion Starter · #10 ·
Posting a few follow up notes regarding my software configuration:


1. Arcsoft released the .170 beta patch for TMT3 which includes ATI 5000 bitstreaming. I've now retired WinDVD and PowerDVD and am using TMT3 for all my DVD and BD viewing. The beta patch is bitstreaming 100% solid for me on everything I've tried so far.


2. I've updated MediaBrowser to the latest Thunderblade release with the latest Vanilla theme. An new plugin available is available with MB now called CoverArt . It essentially replaces StarkCovers in functionality. No more need to manually run Stark. CoverArt can do almost the same thing on the fly with some easy XML configuration. I have CoverArt working to add similar overlays to my images in MB as Stark was doing. I highly recommend it.
 

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I have only scanned through your thread for the first time, but from what I have seen so far looks very impressive! I have built my own computers for several years myself (and for others) and am looking into building my own HTPC and a media server as well soon. If I have questions I will either post here or send you a PM.
 

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Sweet setup. How are you doing on the wife approval factor? How old are you kids (I'm guessing you have kids from all the cartoons) and can they operate the system? Around my place the amount of money that goes to the HT budget is directly proportional to how easy it is for the wife/kids to use the system.
 
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