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Monday, June 1, 2009

How to Build a Hulu Desktop + Boxee PC

Build the ultimate living room PC and watch all the TV & movies the Internet has to offer from the comfort of your couch. We show you how!

Stop surfing the internet for a minute (we know, a tall order) and go get your last cable or satellite TV bill. Back? Good. Now skim to the bottom and look at the total amount of money you paid for TV last month. Do you feel like you got a reasonable amount of entertainment for that $60, $80, or even $100-plus? Are you happy about the money you spend for the privilege of watching TV? We’re not. The vast majority of TV we watch is available for free, over the air. Sure, we’ll occasionally watch an episode of Flight of the Conchords on HBO or a documentary on Discovery, but most of the TV we watch is on one of the big over-the-air networks—ABC, CBS, Fox, the CW, and NBC. So we started looking for alternatives.

It turns out that the vast majority of new TV shows are available online, either as part of an ad-driven website like Hulu or, or available for sale on iTunes or Amazon’s Unbox service. However, having a PC in the living room has traditionally sucked. After all, you don’t want to hear a big, noisy PC when you’re enjoying a movie or a TV show, and using a mouse and keyboard as the primary interface just doesn’t cut it when you’re kicking back on the couch. But times have changed. These days, it’s easy to build a PC that’s quiet enough to be virtually unheard, yet powerful enough to play all the high-definition video that’s currently available.

And making the proposition even more appealing, there are software frontends like Boxee and the new Hulu Desktop that let you harness all that hardware power in an easy-to-use, remote-friendly interface that combines the massive library of streaming video on the web with the DRM-free content you rip from discs or purchase legally on the web. We’ll introduce you to a couple of the options, then help you configure our favorite. By combining a few hundred bucks’ worth of hardware with a free software app and your broadband connection, you can reduce the money you spend on entertainment from $100 a month to $100 a year.

Picking the Perfect Parts

The ultimate living room PC is a balance between high performance and low power consumption—i.e., it must play high-definition H.264-encoded video while running whisper-quiet


At the heart of your living room PC should be a CPU that sips power, even during demanding tasks, to minimize heat, and thus fan noise. After testing several contenders, we ended up choosing a low-power Phenom X4 9350e ($185,, which draws just 65W under full load. We considered a dual-core Athlon 64 but decided we’d rather have the extra two cores for transcoding than save 20W. The CPU must be 65W or lower because of the power supply, case, and limited cooling in our system.

It crossed our minds to use an Atom or other ultra-low-power processor, but we found that the current single-core CPUs simply don’t have the muscle (or enough help from onboard graphics) to play H.264 at 1080p. We had some luck at 720p, but that’s not real high-def as far as we’re concerned. Perhaps Nvidia’s Ion chipset will give Atom a needed lift, but you currently can't build your own Ion-platform machines.


Like our CPU selection, the case must balance two conflicting forces—cooling and noise—all while fitting into a living-room-friendly formfactor. For all those reasons, we chose Silverstone’s LC19 ($200, Its svelte profile (only 68mm tall!) fits perfectly into our entertainment center along with our other components, while muffling the noise so as not to disturb us.

We also like the slightly larger, less expensive Antec Veris Remote ($160,, which isn’t as compact or sexy as the LC19, but easier to build in.


After we selected our CPU, we went shopping for a Mini-ITX Socket AM2 motherboard that featured decent integrated graphics. Since we’re not playing games, we really just wanted a GPU that would pull a little of the heavy lifting for video decodes off the CPU. The Jetway JNC62K ($140, features Nvidia’s GeForce 8200 chipset, which is more than sufficient for our needs. It offers analog VGA and DVI/ HDMI (using an adapter), it has a pair of Gigabit Ethernet ports, and its onboard audio features both analog and optical S/PDIF outputs.

Honestly, though, any Micro-ATX or smaller board that supports your CPU, includes integrated sound with an S/PDIF output, and sports integrated graphics from Nvidia or ATI will do the job.


Your entertainment PC doesn’t need a ton of storage—just a few gigs for the OS and the streaming software. (You’ll access the content you’ve ripped or purchased from your desktop PC or server over a network share.) We used a Western Digital Green terabyte drive we had in the Lab ($90,, more because of its low rpm than its capacity, which is admittedly overkill for this purpose. You could just as well drop a 2.5-inch notebook drive into this rig. We initially considered running the OS on a CompactFlash card or a USB thumb drive, but having some storage in the box is preferable—if you connect your living room rig using a slow wireless link, you can copy movies to the hard drive before playing them. It adds a few more minutes of prep, but the playback will be buttery smooth despite your hoopty network.


The Jetway motherboard we're using is an AM2 motherboard with only one DIMM slot, so any generic 2GB module will do. We went with a single 2GB stick of PNY DDR2 memory, which you can find on Newegg for $25.


For very tiny PCs, it’s a good idea to have access to short SATA cables with one right-angle connector. Since the cables have a direction, you’ll need to get the type of cable that angles down, or you’ll have to mount your hard drives upside down. You can find right-angle SATA connectors at pretty much any screwdriver shop or on Amazon, but to find cables shorter than 18 inches, we had to go to Newegg.

Missing in Action: Why No TV Tuner?

We skipped the TV tuner in our living room rig for one simple reason: We don’t need it. While it would be nice to add over-the-air capture to our rig, we’d rather let this machine fall into its sleep mode when it’s not being used, rather than running 24/7 to pull all our TV shows from the ether. Combine that with the fact that most HD tuner cards can’t pull content from your cable or satellite service, and you’d be spending money just to get the same content you can pull from Hulu.

If you insist on hooking your cable box up to your PC, the best way to get HD content into your PC is to use the FireWire interface on your cable box. This will give you high-quality HD video for the content that isn’t marked as protected by your cable provider (typically only HBO, Starz, Showtime, and other paid channels are “protected”). Unfortunately, it’s incredibly difficult to configure, and it requires special drivers and a ton of hacking. Check out for the full scoop.

Mouse and Keyboard vs Remote

There are a multitude of possible input devices you can use for your living room PC, ranging from a traditional remote control to a keyboard/mouse combo. The keyboard/mouse is the easiest to set up and lets you fully tap into the massive flexibility of the PC—after all, you can fire up a web browser or iTunes and play any content you can download using a mouse and keyboard. We’re especially fond of the DiNovo Media Keyboard from Logitech ($160, It’s a full-size board, but it has a handy touch pad in the lower right corner, which makes mousing possible.

On the other hand, a more traditional remote control can be mighty handy, especially when you’re sitting on the couch. Hulu Desktop works with any Windows Media Center remote, which means you can use a cheap one like Anyware Computer's GV-IR01WT IR remote ($30,

Boxee will work with pretty much any input device, but we tested a couple of Windows Media Center–compatible remotes and found them to work well. You can find a wide variety of Media Center–compatible remotes at Newegg and Amazon; they’re usually around $50. Alternately, the Logitech DiNovo Mini ($150, is a remote-size clamshell device that includes a mouse and keyboard in a smaller package. It’s a little spendy but worth the bucks.

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Anonymous November 21, 2009 at 1:19 PM