After years of suffering with Time-Warner Cable’s craptacular American Scientific DVR and near-monthly service fee hikes, I decided (perhaps foolishly) to try and build myself a home theater PC (HTPC). The goal was to construct a single box I could use to play BluRay movies, stream content from YouTube and Hulu, as well as record live cable or over-the-air digital TV transmissions.
Reasons to Build an HTPC
There are numerous benefits of an HTPC over the usual assortment of individual PVR and DVD devices including:
- The ability to consume all media from a single box, including:
- Cable and OTA digital TV,
- Streaming internet content such as Hulu, YouTube, and Netflix,
- DVDs and Bluray discs,
- High definition 720p and 1080p digital content.
- The ability to access music, photos, and home movies from my TV,
- A better DVR experience than that available from the cable companies (including the ability to remove commercials from recorded content),
- The ability to access the internet from my TV.
Reasons NOT to Build an HTPC
In the interest of disclosure, you should know there are just as many reasons not to build one.
- Complex hardware requirements. Do you need a quad core CPU, or will a dual work? Does one need dual tuners? What’s a tuner?
- More complex software configuration. Windows Media Center or MythTV can be confusing to set up even for experienced computer users; navigating the rocky shoals of codec configuration can be even more frustrating.
- Setting up all software so that the whole thing is easy to use for the non-computer geeks in the household (i.e. programming the damned remote).
The whole process requires a significant amount of technical skill. A quicker way for a less nerdy folks to get a lot of what an HTPC will do is buying an Apple TV. Setup and operation is easy, but as with many of the delights of Apple’s walled garden, you may find yourself limited when you want to replace your DVR or view file formats such as MKV.
After a bit of research reading recent blogs, reviews and forum discussions on HTPC hardware, here’s what I settled on for my box. Note that these specs are probably a bit out-dated by the time you read this. I ran into a strange issue with WordPress and too many images in unordered lists that had me down a bit of a rabbit hole for a bit.
No dorky mid-towers for this HTPC. I wanted something that looked like a piece of stereo equipment. The Fusion has bumpers for isolating hard drive noise, a couple of quiet 120 mm fans, and an isolated power supply chamber to keep power heat from the components. I’ll be ditching the unremarkable remote for something sweeter.
The Maximus III GENE features a built-in SupremeFX X-Fi sound chip, so I don’t need a sound card. It comes with 9 USB ports, an eSATA port, Firewire (1394), & 7 SATA ports.
Dual-core fast, while clocking in at a lean(ish) 73W, the i5-670 should handle most HTPC tasks without breaking a sweat.
4Gb of fast DDR3 memory should be plenty for recording and playback.
Fast and affordable, the HD103SJ is also very quiet, so it won’t distract use from what we’re watching.
I’ll need a drive that plays and burns both BluRay and DVD disk, and the Pioneer can spit out BluRay disks at 12x.
Perhaps a bit underpowered for the latest PC games, this card does support accelerated video trans-coding and HDMI, and the whole thing including fan fits on one slot, which really helps on the cramped Micro ATX motherboard and case I’ll be using.
This card sports dual digital TV receivers for ATSC or clear QAM so I can watch and record two ATSC or clear QAM digital TV programs at the same time. It records all ATSC and QAM formats, including the high definition 1080i format. It has dual built-in hardware MPEG-2 encoders for recording analog cable TV, so I can watch and record two cable TV programs at the same time. Finally, the built-in antenna splitter allows me to make one connection to either cable TV or an ATSC antenna, and watch and record up to 2 channels.
This power supply has plenty of capacity for my HTPC, and its modular, so I can remove any cables I don’t need. This helps with airflow and cooling. It’s pretty quiet; the fan only spins when the unit starts to get warm. It’s 90% energy efficient, earning it an 80 PLUS Gold certification.
I’m too lazy to wire the house, but I also didn’t want to mess with WIFI issues on my TV. I hadn’t used power line networking before, and this seemed a suitable compromise between short and long term laziness.
After all, this is a PC. I don’t want to waste time trying to enter text with a remote when Shelly and I have to pause Aristocats so we can find out who did the voices for the hound dogs on IMDB. The GKM561R is basic, functional, and relatively inexpensive.
One remote to rule them all, one remote to find them, one remote to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. Full color touch screen, one-touch activity controls, ergonomic, programmable with an constantly expanding library of supported devices, and a rechargeable base. Also, it looks like a phaser – pew, pew.
I use Linux for work and on my unRAID file server, but I’m just not down for the level of console kung foolery required to get everything I want in an HTPC working under it. Also, there are other interested parties waiting on the system who don’t know their way around Linux.
Some Assembly Required
Building a system is always a bit of a pain in the ass, especially if you have big troll hands like mine. This job was particularly annoying. HTPC cases are smaller than the roomy towers I’m used to building systems with, and getting things situated took some time. Soon, I ran into my first unforeseen problem.
As you can see, the nice little array of SATA connectors on the side of the Maximus III Gene end up almost flush with the Fusion’s drive separation wall. In order to get the SATA cables connected, I had to cut a new opening in with my Dremel.
Once that was done, I had a bit more pulling and prodding to get all the cables connected. Were I to do it again, I’d avoid this particular case/motherboard combination.
Now that the box is put together and running, I’ll be spending my time installing software and learning the ins and outs of configuring all the different pieces required to make this new machine a true home theater PC. I’ll share what I’ve learned in subsequent posts, so stay tuned.