HTPC Advice Wanted

I want to build my own Home Theater PC (HTPC) but I have a number of decisions to make that I hope readers can advise me on.  I want to build a low-cost HTPC that also uses as little energy as possible, especially since I will need to leave the machine on 24×7.  The demands of a HTPC can be high, so I’m worried that a green low-powered chip might compromise the project.  I’ve read reviews of a Polywell Mini-ITX HTPC with a  N330 Atom dual processor combined with an NVIDIA ION chipset, using just 23-30w of electricity, but is it powerful enough to do the job?  And is onboard graphics good enough, or will I need a discrete graphics card?  Finally, I’d like my custom HTPC to replace several machines connected to my 52” Samsung DLP HDTV:

  • LG Blu-ray player
  • Pioneer CD/SACD player
  • Toshiba DVD recorder
  • Yamaha 5.1 receiver/amp
  • Roku SoundBridge M1001 media extender

I doubt I can find an internal Blu-Ray optical drive for my HTPC that can replace my SACD player, so it might be time to give up on that technology. I never bought more than a dozen SACDs anyway, but I will miss them.

I want my HTPC to do:

  • Record over-the-air HD broadcasts
  • Offer an elegant program guide to work with the DVR
  • Burn DVDs from shows recorded with DVR
  • Play Blu-Ray and DVD movies
  • Stream video from Netflix and Amazon
  • Stream video from Youtube, Hulu, Boxee, etc.
  • Stream music from Rhapsody, Lala, Pandora, etc.
  • Play music CDs
  • Use the Internet in my den while sitting in my La-Z-Boy
  • Store 200 GB of digital media
  • Be my digital photo librarian and slide projector
  • Be my home file and backup server
  • Run everything from one remote

Question 1:  Can a sound card replace an standalone receiver?

Is it even possible for a HTPC to replace my Yamaha receiver?  My current system has Infinity main and center speakers, and Bose for the rear channels.  I never bought a subwoofer.  I’m wondering if I could replace my receiver and speakers with some decent PC speakers or an amplified sound bar?  I’m not a audiophile by any measure, but I like good sound.

Question 2:  What benefits will I get from a more expensive chip?

I’m happy now Windows Media Center is working on my AMD 64 X2 4200+ chip, but would things be much better with a higher powered chip?  For $50-75 I could get a very nice AMD chip.  For $100 I can get a low end Intel Core 2 Duo, or even a AMD X4 chip.  For more than double that I could get a high performance, low watt Intel mobile processor or i5.  What HTPC features benefit from a more expensive chip?

Question 3:  Will onboard graphics be good enough or will I need a good graphics card?

In terms of power consumption and cost, it would be great to live with the graphics built into the motherboard.  I want to watch Internet TV, so how much does the graphics card affect the quality of Hulu and other streaming video sites?  I’m not a big video game fan, but if I could play games hooked up to my big TV that might be fun.  What’s a good green graphics card?

Question 4:  Would I be better off buying or building?

Are there any good HTPC makers that sell systems within the price range of building my own?  It’s a shame Dell can’t sell a Zino with a Blu-Ray player, 1GB drive and dual tuner TV card for $499.  I wouldn’t mind buying a HTPC if it was priced well and came with a warranty, but I’m figuring to get the features I want, at the price I’m willing to pay, will require building it myself.

Question 5:  Is there any reason not to base my system on Windows Media Center?

I’ve been happy with Windows Media Center in Windows 7 for TV recording, so is there any reason to consider another media center application?  I was disappointed that Windows Media Center needed hours to burn a DVD of a 1 hour TV show it had recorded.  Can other media center apps do it much faster?  I’m not sure that Windows Media Center handles large listings of recorded TV shows or MP3 albums very well.  What’s the best program for handling large libraries of media?

Question 6:  How does Hulu and other TV streaming sites look on a large HDTV screen?

I’m worrying about buying a decent video card to stream Hulu TV, but will that investment pay off?  Does TV streamed through Hulu look good on a big TV screen?  I’ll be very disappointed if I buy a video card and Hulu isn’t worth watching.

JWH – 12/28/9

5 thoughts on “HTPC Advice Wanted”

  1. Question 6: I watch Hulu on a 52″ Samsung with their “High Quality” (480p) setting enabled. Average seating distance is around 10 feet. Hulu is actually better than I expected, certainly much better than sources like digital cable with all the distracting compression-induced artifacts.

    BTW, I watch most of this with Hulu Desktop, not in a browser.

    My computer is a older Intel Mac mini with plenty of RAM and a Core 2 Duo, but a fairly lousy (Intel GMA 950?) integrated video card. I have no issues with playing sources like DVDs, video podcasts in iTunes, Hulu, and Netflix streaming. Things are mostly good with the occasional hiccup for most high bitrate H.264 encoded videos or HD quality streaming video from sites like I have a PS3 for Blu-ray.

    I imagine anything you’d build or buy today will have more oomph than this little guy.

  2. Soundcard / Receiver:
    Yes, a good sound card and speakers can replace your receiver and stand-alone speakers. I have Logitech Z-5500 5.1 system which performs wonderfully with an on-board creative X-Fi. I prefer this setup to other audiophile speakers I own (Paradigm, NHT, and PSB).

    More expensive chipset:
    It all depends upon how you will be using your HTPC and how responsive is acceptable to you. Obviously the more the memory and the better the CPU, the better your system will perform. For example if you are recording multiple shows at a time or using your HTPC for other purposes as well then you will need more power. I use a quad core with 6gb RAM but I also double my HTPC as a virtual server. If you are only going to use it as HTPC then you do not need that much power.

    Buy vs. Build:
    I am very happy with the system I have now, but it’s a full tower that sits next to my entertainment center which makes my wife not exactly happy with this setup. If I were to make that decision today I would probably go for Acer Aspire Revo, a tiny machine that’s built to be an HTPC and can easily sit behind your TV making it invisible.

    Windows 7 Media Center:
    That’s what I use as well and am happy with it. I also run Boxee from within Media Center to watch Hulu, YouTube, etc. and while the integration is not perfect, it works well. As for large libraries, my music library is about 5,000 songs and Media Center handles it very well. As for slow burning speed, I am sure it’s your DVD burner or the blank media. I used to have this problem until I bought a Samsung DVD burner from NewEgg and now it burns DVD’s at much better speed. There are quite a few free media center apps out there. If you are not happy with WMC for one reason or another, you can always try out others for free!

    Internet TV:
    Looks really good, no complains.

    1. Yeah, I’ve been keeping my eye on the Aspire Revo. I wished it had a built-in Blu-ray. A new Eee PC nettop that’s been shown on Engadget does have a Blu-ray player built-in, so I’m going to wait.

      I’ve decided that a nettop with a Blu-ray player and a built-in dual TV tuner card would be about perfect.

      The trouble is existing dual tuner cards want to use two antennas, or so it seems. I want one antenna going in and a passthrough out to my HDTV antenna in. My DVD recorder has this, and so did my Comcast DVR.

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