HTPC project – cinema in my living room – part 1

HTPC project – cinema in my living roomIt took me really long time to finish this project (in fact it is far from being finished) but finally, after more than half a year, it is up and running and it’s looking good! But let’s start with some basics.

HTPC, or Home Theater PC, combines functionality of a PC and media playing device. Idea is that it should be capable of playing whatever you throw at it: video, music, digital photos. “But hey, doesn’t my DVD player already do that?” you might ask. And it is here where beauty of HTPCs lies. Once built, they are incredibly easy to upgrade. It is especially important now that everything goes HD. If you can’t afford an expensive build straight away, you can start with a simple one, capable of playing SD (standard definition) contents and with time it’s really easy to upgrade to anything you might require, no matter what is might be: recording digital TV (from satellite, cable or freeview), streaming media from internet, watching Blu-Ray, backing up collection of your CDs/DVDs/Blu-Rays/HD-DVDs, reading news on the internet and many many more.

I conceived the idea to build a HTPC when I was watching one of my favourite TV series in my room (where my PC was located). It would be much nicer to see it on 32″ screen sitting on comfy sofa, rather than watch it on 19″ monitor being sat in uncomfortable chair. It took my over 6 months to actually put everything together (that’s what happens when you move every few months).

In this post I will focus mainly on the hardware side of my HTPC. Here’s a list of what’s inside my low spec machine:

Hardware

Case: Antec NSK2480

Antec NSK2480

That’s probably the most important choice. That’s the outside of your HTPC, something you will have to live with for a long time and one of the first things everyone sees entering your living room. You don’t want to save here. In my opinion Antec is one of the best choices. Their products are really good. They are both silent and energy efficient. You don’t want your HTPC to be louder than the film you are watching. After reading a review on Silent PC Review I was convinced that that Antec NSK2480 is the way to go, especially that I didn’t need the fancy additions the Antec Fusion had to offer. I am really pleased with that case. It looks nice, is really quiet and offers exactly what I need. What’s more it comes with a quiet 380W 80+ PSU. Perfect!

CPU: P4 S478 2.0 Ghz

From Ebay, got it for just for a few quid. Just enough power to run most basic functions of HTPC.

CPU cooler: Artic Cooling Super silent 4 Ultra TC S478 + Zalman Fan Mate 2

You can’t go wrong with Arctic Cooling. Another good purchase of Ebay. It was spinning a bit on a loud side so I had to add a Zalman Fan Mate 2 to slow it down a bit. It’s a perfect combo.

Mobo: Asrock P4VM890 mATX

Pretty basic MATX motherboard. Integrated sound & LAN. Nothing too fancy.

RAM: 2×512 MB Kingston

No need for more so far. More than enough for now.

GFX: Asus EAH2400Pro

This purchase wasn’t the most brilliant one. I was looking for a graphic card capable of playing HD contents and being passively cooled at the same time. Unfortunately the ATI HD2400Pro are not the best cards when it comes to playing HD (note to myself – read more before you buy !!!) and it takes plenty of configuring & looking for proper drivers to make everything work flawlessly. Personally I still haven’t managed to make it work with HD-DVDs. Good job I got it cheaply off Ebay. The ATI HD3450 is widely recommended and it will be that series that I will upgrade to eventually. As for SD, the card is absolutely fine.

HDD: 80GB Seagate

Two words: Not enough! 80GB is enough to keep your operating system on half of it and some music on another half. When it comes to backing up your video contents you need much more space. Go for 500GB straight away. It’s really cheap at the moment so you can add some more in the future, especially with prices of 1TB units going down as well.

Optical Drive: XBOX 360’s HD-DVD Drive

Another nice find (thank you HotUKDeals!). Even though this format lost the HD battle to Blu-Ray it is a nice external drive with few additional USB ports. It should give me an experience of HD at reasonable price (films starting as cheap as £5) before Blu-Ray drives reach a reasonable price level.

Remote: Microsoft Remote

That’s rather useful addition to your HTPC. It’s going to control all the functions once it is configured properly. There is a wide choice of PC remotes out there, but the Microsoft one is a good pick. It looks good, its keys are illuminated when you press them, which helps when you watch TV at night. No reasons to complain there.

Keyboard / mouse: None

At the moment my HTPC has non of these. If I need to use keyboard I would login remotely using a laptop & VNC. Not the most convenient way but I am already looking into getting an integrated model. Keysonic looks like a good choice there.

What can it do?

In short – a lot! I can watch lot of video formats, still some problems with HD contents but I’ll leave that for now, as it makes no difference whether I’m watching SD or HD using my old 21″ CRT TV. I can play music, browse digital photos, check the weather, read the news, download video contents in few different ways, watch trailers & music videos, backup DVDs and few other things. Exactly the kind of thing I was looking for.

What’s Next?

Definitely entering the HD world! I am actively scanning AVForums & HotUKDeals for a nice bargain 32″ LCD TV (open to suggestions if someone has any recommendations). As British TV is entering the HD age I am still hesitating with picking the source of TV signal (freeview HD, freesat or maybe V+). Jumping into HD will also require changing the configuration of my HTPC, P4 won’t be enough and Intel’s Duo Core will be a must. Also TV speakers wouldn’t be up to par with HD signal. Separate AV receiver & set of speakers would enhance the home theatre experience.

Part 2 is coming shortly – so stay tuned…. (more info on software part of HTPC)