- Chassis: We know, we know -- there are literally hundreds of HTPC enclosure options. We're confident that oodles of them are awesome. Our goal was to find a case that was large enough to house a number of cards and internal drives, rather than a minuscule case that wasn't exactly ripe for handling upgrades down the line. nMEDIAPC, a little known company that focuses its efforts on media center PC-related gear, manufacturers a case that just so happened to fit the bill, and the HTPC 2000B also arrived with loads of front-panel inputs, an array of flash card inputs, stylish flip-down front panels and plenty of fans to keep everything cool. It's large enough to accept standard (read: not "low profile") cards, and at $99.99 or so, it's relatively affordable given the inclusions.
- Processor: Intel's 2.66GHz Core 2 Quad Q8400 CPU provided plenty of oomph required to process OTA HD feeds, Blu-ray material and all the Hulu one can stand. Again, the goal here was to strike a balance between power and price, and at $173.99, we thought this chip did just that.
- Motherboard: ASUS' P5Q PRO mainboard fit our case, supported our CPU, offered plenty of card slots and received a copious amount of praise around the web. It's also available for $81 or so if you're okay with refurbished kit; otherwise, it's widely available for $119.99. It should be noted, however, that the P5Q Pro Turbo has recently stooped to around the same price with an included rebate. Finally, this motherboard has the required BIOS to use OCUR without a hack, so getting a CableCard tuner in here should be a cinch.
- RAM: While a younger, less informed Bill Gates would probably beg to differ, you really can't have enough RAM. Particularly when recording a pair of HD shows while devouring a bag of Orville Redenbacher and catching a Blu-ray flick. Thus, we selected a 2x2GB (4GB total) kit from OCZ, the DDR2 PC2-6400 Reaper CL4 4GB Edition. RAM prices fluctuate wildly, and while these are settled at $34.99 right now, they were $26 after a mail-in rebate just a few weeks ago. Next week, we hear they'll be on sale for a buck 'o five.
- Hard drive: Here's an area where you could afford to skimp, especially if you've already got a few HDDs laying around the attic with no current home. We went with a modest $50 500GB Deskstar P7K500 (7,200RPM) in order to save a few bucks from the 1TB drive we were craving, but so long as you select a unit with a respectable spindle speed, you should be good to go.
- Optical drive: We're building an HTPC, right? Right. So a Blu-ray drive was a requirement, not an option. We settled on LG's speedy CH08LS10 BD-ROM Combo Drive, which reads Blu-ray Discs but will only burn DVDs. If you've got more than $119.99 to dedicate to an optical drive, we'd obviously recommend a Blu-ray burner, or if you're feeling really crazy, snap up one of LG's end-of-life Blu-ray / HD DVD combo drives for just a Jackson or two more.
- TV tuner: Here's another item we just couldn't skip. If you're looking to cut your pay-TV provider out of the monthly equation, a dedicated ATSC/QAM tuner is a must. ASUS' My Cinema-PHC3-100 ($79.99) comes bundled with a remote, is equipped with a hardware MPEG2 encoder and let's you watch a channel while recording another or record two shows simultaneously. It also works well with Vista Home Premium, which is always nice.
- Graphics card: Here's another area where an integrated graphics set may suffice, but with aspirations of playing back Blu-ray films and HD OTA programming, we decided to splurge a little and pop Gigabyte's comparatively affordable GV-R467ZL-1GI in one of the PCIe slots. At just $64.99 after rebate, this 1GB ATI Radeon HD 4670 provides dedicated DVI, VGA and HDCP-compatible HDMI ports, which ought to make any AV junkie smile.
- Sound card: Admittedly, the true budget HTPC would rely solely on integrated audio, but for just $56.99 after rebate, we couldn't resist ASUS' Xonar DX 7.1, which enables true multi-channel output from movies, games and recorded OTA HD programs.
- Power supply: Believe it or not, we've managed to amass quite a bit of hardware, so we made sure we had ample power for everything with OCZ Technology's ModXStream Pro OCZ600MXSP, a 600-watt PSU with plenty of connectors, quiet operation and an affordable $39.99 (after rebate) price tag.
- Keyboard / mouse: Here's another avenue for savings. If you've ever ended up with an extra keyboard and mouse (and be honest, what PC enthusiast hasn't?), your shiny new HTPC is a perfect place to put those peripherals to use. If you're starting fresh, you'll be hard pressed to find a better HTPC-centric tandem than nMEDIAPC's $59.99 HTPCKB, which is actually an all-in-one device that integrated a trackball, mouse click buttons and even a scroll wheel into a wireless keyboard. The driverless device connects to your machine via a bundled USB dongle, and while the range wasn't amazing, it's not like your couch is that far from your HDTV. In use, this thing was a total win; it was incredibly easy to use and surprisingly accurate.
- Operating system: If you're fluent in Linux, you can obviously save a bundle here. For the other 95 percent or so of us, there's Windows Vista Home Premium, the cheapest flavor of Vista (around $100 for an OEM copy for system builders) that still allows for full media center functionality. If you're up for waiting until October to build, we're sure there will be an edition of Windows 7 to suit your needs as well.
Wondering about the cost breakdown? Sure you are. Here's a quick-'n-dirty look at where you can source these very parts for under $1,000 total ($993.88
, to be precise). Disclaimer: Prices listed here are considered current at the time of posting and are obviously subject to change. Also, the "lowest price" nod only goes to e-tailers we'd be comfortable spending our own money with, though you can feel free to try out those shady bargain-bin shops if you dare. Our total rang up to $993.88 after rebates.The build process
We tried to pay close attention to the difficulty level here, and after wrapping everything up, sticking the final Band-Aid on our left thumb and calling it a done deal, we're happy to say that even someone who has never built their own machine before could handle this. The instructions provided were all sufficient enough to get things done, and while we definitely spent entirely too much time assembling our heatsink / fan, most everything else was a cinch. If you choose to replicate the machine, we'll let the paperwork included with each component do most of the guiding, but here's a brief overview of what steps we took to get everything assembled.
- Popped the chassis lid off and removed the front drive tray altogether.
- Inserted and clamped down the CPU on the motherboard, added a thin layer of thermal paste and strapped the heatsink / fan assembly on.
- Installed the GPU, sound card and TV tuner into the appropriate slots.
- Installed the two memory DIMMs into their appropriate slots.
- Placed the motherboard into the case, added risers, locked it down.
- Installed the PSU, bolted it down.
- Connected all power cables and motherboard cables according to the manuals.
- Installed the optical drive and hard drive into the removed front drive tray; placed it within the case and connected the power / SATA cables.
- Fired it up, installed Windows Vista Home Premium (took around 25 to 35 minutes total), then installed drivers from the discs that accompanied each card.
We did want to go a bit further and detail some issues (albeit minor ones) we had during the build. As we alluded to earlier, we did have to modify our chosen chassis in two ways. First off, we had to install riser bolts (that were thankfully included) in order to lift the motherboard about a cenimeter from the case's floor. The reason here was that the expansion cards wouldn't seat right otherwise. The other modification that was necessary was the removal of the fan sheild on our power supply. nMEDIAPC included a pair of pre-installed fans just above the CPU, and the fan shield on the OCZ PSU wouldn't quite clear. Not a huge deal to us; after all, your fan (and entire machine) will be powered down before you go poking and prodding in there. These mods are the reason we wouldn't wholeheartedly recommend the case we chose, but really, it's tough to find any PC builder who has constructed a new rig from the ground-up without making a single tweak.
Also, we were instructed to install the dedicated GPU in the first available PCIe slot (closest to the CPU), and we didn't bother to disobey. We also installed the RAM in the "1" slots of each bank rather than side-by-side as we're dealing with a dual-channel kit. We'd recommend seating the cards and connecting all cables to the motherboard (front panel lights, multicard reader, etc.) before slapping the heatsink and power supply in there. With every new part you install, your available room to move your digits shrinks.
Largely, we found the motherboard here to be perfectly sufficient, but there was one minor gripe. We installed a bundled expansion card that simply rests beside one's GPU and provides an extra FireWire and eSATA connector 'round back. The problem here is that the P5Q PRO only has a single FireWire connector on the motherboard, so we had to choose between linking up the front-mounted FireWire port or this new rear one. We chose the front-panel port due to the inclusion of a FireWire socket on the mobo itself (down there near the USB 2.0 sockets), and left the expansion card in as to provide an eSATA socket. Outside of that, we had plenty of power ports and motherboard connection sockets.
Once we had everything locked down, it was time for the inevitable the moment of truth. We flipped the switch on the power supply and fired the machine up for the first time. Once powered on, we popped the Vista Home Premium DVD into the optical drive, crossed our fingers and waited patiently. After a short bit, we were greeted by a screen asking us if we wanted to proceed with the installation. Naturally, we hammered the "yes" option and proceeded to watch as the system installed. We should point out that this whole process was surprisingly simple, with absolutely no hang-ups to speak of.
Once Vista was installed and usable, we proceeded to insert the driver discs that came with our GPU, sound card, TV tuner, Blu-ray drive and motherboard. We actually ran the mobo disc first as to get our Ethernet port and a few other essentials in working order, and then we proceeded to install the GPU, Blu-ray drive, sound card and TV tuner in that order. Outside of few required reboots, the hardware installation was also trouble-free. We also let Vista suck down about a gazillion megabytes worth of updates just to make sure everything was up to date, and we forced online activation as to avoid those nag screens in the future. We should mention that we broke out an old school PS/2 keyboard in order to tab and enter through the Vista installation process, but once Vista was up and running, the driverless nMEDIAPC keyboard worked like a charm. We simply plugged in the USB dongle, mashed a key and tweaked the trackball speed within Control Panel to our liking. Huzzah for easy setup!
It's also worth noting that setup needs to be completed on a VGA or DVI monitor. Initially, we had our rig connected to an LCD via DVI, and it pushed visuals through without a problem. However, when we moved this downstairs with a mind to hook things up to our HDTV via HDMI, we quickly realized that doing so wasn't quite plug-and-play. In fact, we had to hook the beast up to our set via VGA first, and then
connect the HDMI cable. Once that happened, we were able to yank the VGA cable and begin tweaking the display settings through HDMI. Nothing too troubling, but just a heads-up that you may have to tinker with inputs before your HDMI "just works." We should also point out that the ATI software easily recognized our Sony HDTV and its maximum 1,920 x 1,080 resolution; we simply selected that (once it was kosher with the HDMI connection) and jacked the fonts up a little to compensate. For those who've dealt with custom resolutions through PowerStrip while using VGA / DVI to connect an HTPC to an HDTV -- let us tell you, HDMI is the way to go.
As for further setup, we didn't have a lot left to do. Blu-ray playback software was bundled with our BD drive, and the brilliant ATI software nixed the necessity to add PowerStrip. We fired up Vista Media Center and followed the simple instructions to scan for OTA channels (after plugging an antenna into our TV tuner, obviously), and it quickly scanned and locked in 17 networks. Within ten minutes, we had our local listings downloaded (VMC makes this easy as well) and were watching a heated case on Judge Judy
. For what it's worth, ASUS also includes a TV tuner suite, and while we preferred Vista's built-in tools, we left the ASUS suite installed as a backup solution. We naturally downloaded Firefox 3.5, VLC Media Player and a few batches of spyware (just kidding), as well as the surprisingly great ZeeVee Zinc
web content portal. That was about the extent of our tinkering, and we came across no crashes or glitches whatsoever during any of these software installs.What if my budget is just $500?
We hear this a lot, actually. For some magical reason, $500 is often the maximum that folks are winning to spend on a PC that'll only be used in their den. If you're looking to shave $500 from the price of this model rig, we'd start by taking inventory of components you already own (but don't currently use). You can easily save $100 by using a hard drive and mouse / keyboard set that you already own (or snagging a few from your old college roommate in exchange for a round of Dos Equis on Saturday night), and if you're not ready to start investing in Blu-ray Discs, you can save another Benjamin or so by selecting a vanilla DVD burner as the optical drive.
Also, your thriftiness may create the perfect opportunity to school yourself in Linux and save yet another C-note. Ditching the dedicated sound card is an easy one (savings of ~$60), and you could get away with 2GB of RAM in order to save another $25 or so. Personally, we wouldn't skimp on the chassis, CPU or power supply; in order to find the other $115 or so in savings, we'd opt for a slower GPU to shave off another $40 (like Gigabyte's HDMI-equipped GV-R435OC-512I
), a lower-end CPU such as Intel's Core 2 Duo E7400
(savings of $64) or consider an AMD motherboard / CPU combo, which are generally (but not always, mind you) more budget-friendly than Intel offerings. While again, your options are pretty wide open here, we'll give you a run-down of a halfway decent, upgradable HTPC that can be had today for right around five bills.
- Silverstone LC13B-E HTPC chassis - $89.99 after rebate
- Intel Core 2 Duo E7400 processor - $119.99
- EVGA 113-YW-E115-TR motherboard - $99.99 after rebate
- Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 160GB hard drive - $39.99
- LG 22x DVD burner (GH22NP20) - $24.99
- Crucial 2GB PC2 6400 (2x1GB) kit - $20.99
- Leadtek HDTV200 H TV tuner - $39.99 after rebate
- GPU: NVIDIA's GeForce 9300 is integrated in the motherboard - $0.00
- Sound card: Rely on onboard audio - $0.00
- OCZ StealthXStream OCZ400SXS 400W power supply - $39.99 after rebate
- nMEDIAPC HTPCKB keyboard / mouse - $49.99
- OS: Ubuntu 9.04 - $0.00
Grand total? $525.91
. And just think -- you could save even more by using a hard drive or spare RAM you've surely got laying around somewhere, and you could hook up a spare mouse and keyboard if you're fine with dealing with a non-couch friendly setup. We dig this case and motherboard as it leaves you some wiggle room should you get the upgrade bug down the road and wish to install more internal HDDs, maybe a Blu-ray drive and even a dedicated GPU. We should note that you'll have to splurge an extra $99.99 for an OEM copy of Vista Home Premium if you're not kosher with learning Linux, but we'd wager that you'll feel way more proud of yourself if you use your current financial difficulties as encouragement to master a new OS.I just landed a bonus -- what are some recommended upgrades?
Obviously, you can get about as crazy as you want when it comes to HTPC building. We'll let someone else lead you to the nearest LED lighting shop (we'll take the classy approach, thanks), but here are a few recommended upgrades in various departments if you find yourself with more than $1,000 to spend.
- Silverstone Grandia GD01 chassis - $249.99
- Silverstone Grandia GD02 chassis - $369.99
- Intel 2.66GHz Core i7-920 - $279.99
- Intel 3.06GHz Core i7-950 - $569.99
RAM / Memory
- Mushkin 6GB (3x2GB) DDR3 (PC3-128000) kit - $184.99
- OCZ Platinum 6GB (3x2GB) DDR3 (PC3-12800) kit - $104.99
- Western Digital 300GB VelociRaptor WD3000HLFS (for a speedy boot drive) - $229.99
- Seagate 2TB Barracuda LP ST32000542AS (for ample storage) - $229.99
- LG GGW-H20L HD DVD / Blu-ray combo drive - $159.99 (while supplies last, anyway)
- Lite-On DH-4B1S-13-VAC Blu-ray writer - $159.99
- A second ASUS My Cinema-PHC3-100 - $79.99
- External Hauppauge HD PVR - $174.99 (doesn't support Vista Media Center, but great on other systems)
- Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-2250 Media Center Kit Dual TV Tuner - $132.99
- Gigabyte GV-R487D5-1GD (DisplayPort + HDMI) - $159.99
- MSI N260GTX (Lightning Black Edition) - $264.99
- ASUS Xonar HDAV1.3 (bitstreams Blu-ray audio) - $149.99
- ASUS Xonar HDAV1.3 Deluxe (bitstreams Blu-ray audio) - $239.99
- OCZ 700W ModXStream Pro OCZ700MXSP - $59.99
- Corsair 850W MPSU-850TX - $109.99
So, what'd we think of the system we built?
We'll confess -- we pieced this machine together carefully in order to stay below the $1,000 mark. In some cases, we didn't even know what we were really getting into. Thankfully, everything came together beautifully, and we're left with an HTPC that we're mighty proud of. Overall, we've determined that it's absolutely possible to build a living room PC that can handle OTA TV recording, Blu-ray playback, media streaming and even 3D gaming for under a grand. The build process itself was somewhat time consuming, but we figure even those who've never assembled a PC before from scratch can handle it given the copious amount of instructions.
We were thoroughly pleased with the noise level on the finished product. When placed underneath our HDTV, we could only hear a faint whisper when the audio output reached incredibly low levels, and there was really no heat problems to speak of. We were impressed with how well each component interacted with one another and with Vista; amazingly, we had no install quirks or system crashes. Everything installed perfectly the first time around, and even our channel scan within Vista Media Center went off without a hitch. Everything was markedly snappy, and all around performance was well above our expectations considering the budget.
The only real low spot was the enclosure, which required us to install small risers underneath the mainboard in order to allow enough room for our cards to fit. Nothing a small mod didn't fix, but still, an annoyance nonetheless. We will say, however, that the nMEDIAPC keyboard / trackball unit was really stellar. Build quality was solid, trackball / button placement was superb and it was actually rather enjoyable to type on. The all-in-one nature really makes it the perfect couch keyboard, and it allows you to actually use your PC to surf the web and whatnot rather than just play back media. All in all, we'd highly recommend each and every part used to build this machine, though we would suggest locating a Silverstone enclosure if you can given the odd spacing found on our demo case.
It should be noted that the Intel Q8400 retail chip arrives with a suitable heatsink and fan, but considering that we were shipped the CPU alone, we relied on a Thermaltake ISGC-400
cooler to keep things from melting. At $53.99
, we wouldn't recommend this for those on a budget, but if you feel like splurging (or opting for a cheaper standalone processor along with a third-party fan / heatsink combo), this is a real winner. We'll admit -- the installation process had us baffled for a bit, but once we figured everything out, the unit performed admirably (and quietly!). Also, we tested the machine on our HDTV via a 6-foot AUVIO HDMI cable. At $49
, we still maintain that it's grossly overpriced (those $8 cables at Monoprice.com will accomplish the same goal, we promise
), but the build quality was indeed top notch and the image / audio quality was flawless.Wrap-up
So, after all of this, what have we learned? We've learned that even the DIY newbie can construct a solid, fully-featured HTPC for less than $1,000, and if you've been considering doing just that in an effort to switch to OTA / Hulu / Netflix-only
while killing that pricey cable or satellite bill, here's a guide to get you on your way. To close, we fully understand that our model rig is just one of many (many!) build combinations, some of which may be better suited to meet your individual needs. If you've got any input on what parts you'd omit or add, feel free to drop some knowledge on the rest of us in comments below, along with where you'd go to find them. Furthermore, if you've got any tips, tricks or hints for those new to the HTPC arena, this would also be a good place to share.
Oh, and did we mention that we're giving this beast away tomorrow to one lucky reader?
Make sure you're tuned in right here at noon ET on July 22nd
in order to place your name in the hat.