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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Build your own Home Theater PC (HTPC) ... for under $600!

By Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

Adrian also runs a popular blog under the name The PC Doctor, where he covers a range of computer-related topics -- from security to repairing and upgrading.

Over the past few weeks I’ve had dozens of requests from readers wanting me to put together a parts list for a kick-ass, low-cost Home Theater PC (HTPC). Well, here you go!
Before I go on, first let me explain briefly what a HTPC is and how it differs from a regular PC. Basically, an HTPC (sometimes called a Media PC or Media Center) is a PC that’s specifically designed to playback music and video. Also, since it’s an entertainment system, you want to be able to control the PC remotely, and you want to keep noise down to a minimum.

What I’m going to outline here is an entry-level system that’s going to be able to handle all the basic tasks that you’d expect of an HTPC system. It’s going to be able to handle HD resolution video (1080p and 720p), cope with streaming video, upscale DVD, ad will even be good for playing games, as long as you’re not too greedy when it comes to resolution. It’s also going to have plenty of storage space so you’ve got plenty of room to store your ever-growing library of media.
OK, let’s get going!

One of the key factors to building a successful HTPC is to pick a processor that’s powerful enough to handle the demands placed on it by the tasks it has to carry out, but not so powerful that you’re having to add powerful fans to have to cool the thing off.
For this built I’ve chosen an AMD Athlon II X2 255 Socket AM3 part. This is a 3.1GHz dual-core CPU, but far more importantly than that, it has a TDP of only 65W. This means less heat is produced when it’s running, which in turn means less cooling, and it also means you can cram more components into a smaller chassis.
Price: $80

Now that we’ve chosen the CPU, it’s now time to choose a motherboard to match it. There are several consideration to take into account.
First, size. Ideally, you want your HTPC to have a smallish footprint, along the lines of a VCR, so it’s best to choose one with a micro-ATX form factor. Also, it’s a good idea for the motherboard to have an on-board graphics processor (GPU) and support for HDMI. Oh, and to match the processor, this needs to be a Socket AM3 board.
With all these requirements in mind, I’ve chosen a Gigabyte GA-MA785GMT-UD2H board. Highlights of this board include:
  • AMD 785G chipset
  • ATI Radeon HD 4200 GPU
  • HDMI
  • SATA support
Price: $90

Nothing special here, since the demands on the RAM aren’t that great. We need DDR3 for the motherboard, and a pair of 1GB sticks are ample for an HTPC.
Shop around for a good deal.
Price: around $40

Hard drive
What you want here is a drive that offers ample storage (take what you think you’ll need and double it!), is quiet and energy-efficient.
The drive I’m going to go for is a Western Digital GreenPower drive, because there are energy-efficient, quiet, designed for streaming audio and video, and are able too cope with being shut away in a small hot metal box with other components. I’m pushing the boat out here and going for a 1.5TB drive (AV-GP WD15EVDS). If you want to spend more, go for the 2TB drive, if you want to spend less, go with a smaller capacity … dial it in to suit your needs.
Price: $120

Optical drive
Lots of choices here, but the main question is whether you want a DVD drive or one that can play Blu-ray discs too. DVD drives start at around $20, while Blu-ray drives start at $100, so I’m going to opt for an entry-level Blu-ray drive - the LG black 8X BD-ROM 16X DVD-ROM 40X CD-ROM SATA internal combo that’ll handle pretty much any disc you throw at it.
Price: $100

Chassis/Power Supply Unit
OK, you’re building an HTPC here, not a desktop system, so you don’t really want it to look like a desktop PC. You need a chassis that’s designed specifically for HTPC. Fortunately, there are loads to choose from. The downside is that prices vary wildly.
Oh, you also need a Power Supply Unit (PSU) for the HTPC …
I’m going to make life easier for you here by picking a decent chassis that comes complete with a PSU … the Antec Black M FusionRemote 350 Micro ATX. Not only is this a good chassis, and comes with a nice PSU, it also comes with an IR receiver and remote control so you can operate your HTPC from your couch!
Price: $90

You will want a wireless keyboard and mouse combo to control your HTPC. I’d go with something cheap from the Logitech range unless you want a specific feature/
Price: $50

Price (without Operating System): $590

OK, what about the Operating System?
Yes, your HTPC will need an operating system. You have choices available to you (for example, if you’re comfortable with Linux, you can take that route), but most people are likely to want Windows 7 on their HTPCs, and you can pick up an OEM copy of Windows 7 Home Premium for around $105.
Price (with Operating System): $695!!!