Building A HTPC

One thing I’ve wanted to do for decades is build my own PC.  But whenever I needed a new PC I’d price one in the Sunday ads and always discovered that a PC on sale is cheaper then building one.  For the last year I’ve been dreaming of building a home theater PC (HTPC) and I finally did.  Best Buy had a much better PC, with an Intel i3 chip with 6gb of memory for sale for $549.  So far, my home built HTPC with an AMD Athlon X2 Rigor 240 and 4gb of memory has been about $650, and that’s even using an existing TV tuner card, and I still need to buy some more stuff, like a remote and maybe better Blu-ray software.  Even the $549 price would have been a base, because I had to buy a wireless keyboard and mouse.

I based my buying decision on Guide to Building a HD HTPC March 2010 edition.

What finally pushed me over the edge was I really wanted the dang thing to look like a piece of stereo equipment and not a PC, and that meant building it myself.  Oh sure, I could have ordered a ready made HTPC, but it would have been hundreds more.  I spend a lot of time browsing NewEgg and reading the customer reviews and figured I could build a HTPC too.  So a couple weeks ago I started ordering the parts.

HTPC1

The last thing I ordered was the memory (after reading the motherboard instructions very carefully) and I got lucky with free shipping from NewEgg.  However, I wasn’t so lucky.  The memory shipped from Memphis, and I live in Memphis, so when I saw the tracking info I thought I’d get it the next day.  The following day my RAM was in Georgia.  I wonder if DHL has a hub there.  The lesson here and from Amazon is free shipping means delayed shipping, both from NewEgg and Amazon, and slow travel times.  But it all worked out.  I had a bad spell with my back and it wasn’t until yesterday that I felt like putting everything together.

A word of warning though to people who are thinking about building their own PC.  As the parts starting coming in and piling up on my table it occurred to me that if any of them were defective or incompatible I’d have a hard time knowing.  When you buy a PC it comes assembled and tested with a warranty.  When you build one, there is no warranty for the whole, and it’s very easy to damage these sensitive parts, so troubleshooting can be nasty, especially if a part is defective from the start.  This got me worried about the whole plan.

Yesterday morning, after a good night’s sleep, a shower and breakfast, I jumped into the project.  I reread the various instructions and started work.  I was very lucky, everything went smoothly.  I carefully tested where I was going to install things before I actually installed anything.  When I first tried to install the power supply none of the screw holes lined up.  Finally I turned it upside-down and they did.  Go figure.

I was afraid of two things before I started.  Installing the motherboard and installing the heat sink.  Both were a snap.  The stand-offs were already installed in the enclosure and all I had to do was line them up with the holes in the motherboard.  I got a whole bag of various screws and only the smallest fit.  None of my instructions explained which exact screws to use at any point.  I had to guess.  The heat sink had a pad of pre-installed thermal paste and it snapped right on.  That’s why I bought the retail box for the AMD chip.  I didn’t want to worry about matching a heat sink and applying thermal paste myself.

The worst trouble I had was figuring out where all the wires from the HTPC case went to the motherboard connectors, like power, reset, USB, Firewire, media card readers, etc.  The power SW and reset SW gave me the worst time because the pins had a ground pin and I didn’t know which wire was the ground.  I got on Google and found out the black or white wire was the ground.  And everything was teeny tiny and I have fat clumsy fingers.

When I finally had everything assembled and flicked on the power supply switch nothing happen. I had a sinking feeling that, oh no, I did something wrong.  But I didn’t panic.  I thought for a second and remembered there was a power button on the front of the unit and I pressed it.  All four fans started spinning, but totally quiet.  The boot up screens appeared and then the Windows install disc booted.  Damn, I was happy.

HTPC3

Here’s my messy table at that point.  I used little glass bowls to keep the screws sorted.  After Windows 7 easily installed, I threw on the PowerDVD 8 that came with the Lite-On Blu-ray player.  I was worried it wouldn’t work with Windows 7 and wouldn’t play Blu-ray discs.  It ran just fine and played a Weeds BD disc I had.  PowerDVD is now at version 10, and I thought the version 8 wouldn’t be good enough.   So far it has.

After I ran all the OS updates I moved the unit over to my TV stand.  I have an old Samsung 52” DLP HDTV.  That’s when I discovered I really needed a wireless keyboard.  I had to use the wired keyboard and mouse about 1 foot in front of my TV and it’s hard to see the 1920×1080 screen that close.  So a quick trip to Office Depot got me a cheap Logitech wireless keyboard and mouse.  It only promised 10 feet of range, but so far it’s been good enough.

I was able to sit in my chair and configure Windows Media Center, Hulu, Netflix, Lala and Boxee.  For some reason Rhapsody wouldn’t install.  I’m worried its not compatible with Windows 7 64bit version.  [It installed smoothly on my second attempt and everything is cool.]  I also configured the Home Network under Windows 7 so my Jim-TV could see my Jim-PC and access my MP3 files.

It’s weird using a mouse instead of a remote, so I need to research remotes that will work with all my programs.  Hulu and Windows Media Center have wonderful interfaces that are usable across the den.  So does Boxee, but Boxee is giving me trouble – it can’t seem to play Hulu shows.  Is there a remote that works with all of these programs and even IE 8?  I wished that Lala had a local client.  I can play Rhapsody through the web client, but I want to try the local client on the big TV.  Boxee is a wonderful concept, having one central location to play all the media types offered on the web, but it hasn’t worked out perfectly.  But that requires more testing, and it’s still in beta.

Windows Media Center reports I have room for 1086.5 hours of recorded TV shows.  I bought a 1.5TB drive.  I figure I might make my HTPC my home server too.  I need to research if Windows Home Server wouldn’t have been a better OS instead of Professional 64 bit.  I just don’t know.  I also programmed a week’s worth of TV shows from the Windows Media Center Guide.

My goal was to build a machine that replaces my Blu-Ray player, my Toshiba DVD recorder, my Pioneer CD/SACD player, and my SoundBridge M1001, and several functions I could only do from my regular PC.  Since I gave up cable TV I’ve had no problem living with just five local channels (ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS1, PBS2) but I missed my DVR and onscreen guide.  Windows Media Center gives me a DVR and guide.  What’s still missing is an easy to use remote.  I need a remote that can power up the Samsung TV and Yamaha receiver – I’ll leave the HTPC running at all times.  (Jim-TV goes into a very low powered sleep mode that it can wake from to record shows).

This brings up another issue.  When it wakes up my HTPC wants me to log in.  That means using the keyboard.  I’d like to skip the log in but is that wise when it comes to security?  I don’t’ know.  Another thing to research.  But it would be nice if I could get a remote that turned on everything and the computer would just start working.  I want to only use the keyboard if I want to use the Internet at the TV, otherwise do everything from the remote or mouse.

The mouse works fine from a chair arm or side of the couch if I’m lying down, but not everything can be controlled from a mouse pointer.  I just got a wild idea.  I wonder if I could make the TV voice activated?  Now that would be cool!

Ultimately I want to make the entire system extremely easy to use.  My wife has been very grumpy since I gave up cable and the DVR.  (She works and lives out of town and has her own cable TV – so I don’t feel guilty about depriving her.)  She hates not being able to pause the TV.  Windows Media Center now gives her that ability, but by using the wireless mouse instead of a standard remote.  That’s a weird shift. 

I have a remote that came with the Hauppauge TV turner card, and I have an older Logitech Harmony universal programmable remote.  I’m going to try to make one of those work before buying anything else.  However, that’s a lot to make work together.  Sound comes from the receiver, which has its own remote.  Windows Media Center works with WMC remotes, but I’m not sure they work with Hulu or Netflix or IE.  I can play Netflix through Windows Media Center, so that solves one issue, maybe. 

And it’s a shame that Windows Media Center doesn’t have the same ambitions at Boxee.  If Windows Media Center did everything I could have the machine auto load it and just stay in that program.  It would be wonderful if Windows Media Center made a special browser for viewing the Internet and accessing programs and files on the PC.  Seeing the Windows desktop at 1920×1080 makes everything tiny and hard to see across the room even when blown up to a 52” monitor.  I had to boost the visibility by telling Windows to magnify the desktop by 150%.  That helps, but is not perfect.  The TV screen mode for Windows Media Center, Hulu desktop and Boxee is the answer.  Their interfaces are design to be viewed from ten feet away.

There is a wealth of TV shows that weren’t available to me before that comes over the Internet.  I’m not sure I like that.  I love the simplicity of local stations, but I am enjoying Caprica.  Sometimes I think I would be happiest with only watching Netflix discs that come in the mail.  Except for news and the latest documentaries about contemporary events, I’d be perfectly OK with watching TV from Netflix discs.  For example I love the new show Parenthood.  But I hear it doesn’t have good ratings.  If they kill the show I’ll be mad.  I’m getting to the point that I rather only watch a TV series if I know the season is complete, or if its a one season wonder that was cut short but wrapped up nicely, like with Freaks and Geeks.

In other words, having a HTPC might be overkill for my simplified lifestyle.  However, I have accomplished something on my bucket list and that was fun.  I do prefer watching DVR recorded shows to watching them live.  And it’s nice to know I have a machine recording my favorite shows when I’m not home to watch them.

JWH – 4/4/10

Update 8/27/10:  Overall I’m satisfied with my project except for the Blu-ray player.  First off, it turned out to only be a BD/CD/DVD player.  I was expecting it to also be a CD/DVD burner, but it wasn’t.  So watch out.  But more importantly, the PC Blu-ray software is unusable in my opinion.  I pulled the Blu-ray player out of my system and installed a CD/DVD burner, and went back to using my LG Blu-ray player.  If Microsoft added support for Blu-ray in Windows Media Center I would try again, but playing Blu-ray discs on a PC is clunky with existing software.

I think for a HTPC to succeed it needs one media center type program that does everything.  It’s even annoying to switch between WMC, Hulu and Boxee.  I don’t want a dozen competing programs offering me television.  What’s happened is I use WMC for watching recorded over the air TV shows, and Netflix for everything else.

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