Building A Home Theatre PC For The Complete Beginner

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In part one of our series on building your own media centre PC we’ll be dealing mostly with hardware choices because, let’s face it, it’s the first thing most people will be doing first… This series will hopefully arm you with the basic knowledge required to go out there and build your own. If you need any help you can drop us a comment here or pop over to Komplett on boards.ie

 

What is a HTPC and why should I bother?

Home Theatre PCs are becoming more and more popular as computer components and storage get cheaper, not to mention the formats available and the increasing size of LCD TVs today. If you are at all technically inclined you’ll be familiar with the increasingly common practice of using a main PC or a laptop hooked up to a TV as a kind of stand-in DVD player, or to play that video your cousin gave you whose origins you’ve not investigated too rigorously…

So, this series is a multiple part guide that should assist you in building a media PC that you can safely set aside and dedicate to storing and playing whatever media you’ve accumulated without a machine being out of commission for the duration.

We’re working under the assumption that this PC will be primarily used for home entertainment purposes and will be situated under or at least relatively close to a TV. All this means is that the hardware selected needs to add up to a system that can happily play HD content at 1080p but, for budgetary reasons, won’t really cut it as a gaming machine.

We’ll start with the processor and build up from there. Usually we’d give some spiel about AMD and Intel, but for this build we’re content to go with an Intel due to a combination of its vast selection of processors and the fact that (as a rule) Intel’s tend to run a little cooler. Cooling and silencing the HTPC is no small job, and we’ll go into that in another part of this series.

 

Processor

The majority (if not all) of Intel’s current CPUs are dual core, while the “Q” models are quad core. Quad core would be a bit of overkill for a simple HTPC so we wouldn’t advise it unless you have plans for the PC to do some video editing or other particularly heavy CPU tasks in the future. For consistency’s sake we’ll be sticking with the dual core.

We’ve opted to run our HTPC on an E7400 dual core CPU. The primary reasons for this are the spec and our general experience of it as a stable, reliable processor.

Processor

Speed

L2 Cache

FSB speed

Intel E7400

2.8 GHZ

3 MB

1066 Mhz

Its stock speed is 2.6 GHz which is more than enough for a media PC and also leaves enough headroom that we won’t expect the system to be overloaded. Coupled with 3MBs of onboard level 2 (L2) cache there’s enough speed and efficiency to this CPU that it’ll perform most HTPC tasks without breaking a sweat.

Normally when you purchase any CPU you will also receive a “stock” cooler. This is a combination of a heatsink and a fan to reduce heat build up generated by the processor itself as it works You can choose to install the supplied heatsink, or install an alternative CPU cooler/heatsink combo that will (in many cases) prove more efficient and give a little extra security for overclocking, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Now that we have our CPU picked, we will move onto the major component in any system – The motherboard (also called mainboard or “mobo” depending on how nerdy your friends are).

 

Mainboard

We’ve chosen an LGA socket 775 processor, so now we have to pick a motherboard that will take an LGA775 CPU. While this all sounds nice and complicated, it’s not as confusing a process as it used to be.

Most Intel-friendly mainstream boards will be either LGA775 or the new LGA1366 socket type. LGA1366 is the new Core i7 standard and is very new. While Core i7 is faster, it’s still very new technology and isn’t something we’d consider installing in a media PC until LGA1366 becomes the standard for Intel.

Once we know what socket type we are looking at, our next choice is chipset. We have two choices of chipset manufactures in the mainstream market:

·        Intel

·        nVidia

These easy way to read this is in simple terms of model number – the higher the model number, the better it is. For simplicity’s sake, we’ve chosen an Intel P45 chipset. If you’re interested in choosing an nVidia chipset, we’d recommend something in the 780i to 790i range.

Back to our choice, we’re running with a Gigabyte P45 mainboard. You can find the specs for it below:

Make

Gigabyte

Model

GA-EP45-DS3L

Chipset

Intel P45

Ram type

DDR2

CPU socket

LGA 775

Max Bus speed

1066MHz

 

The simple reasons for choosing this board are its build quality and the specs that it offers.

The CPU’s max bus speed is 1066 MHz and, as you may have noticed, the max bus speed of the mainboard is also 1066MHz too. As the processor and the board’s max bus speeds match, there is no form of “bottleneck” caused by the mainboard. Our mainboard is also compatible with DDR2 (DDR meaning double data rate) RAM.

By now, we have everything pretty much matched up in our system, but there is one last vital component needed in every system we’ve not got to – a nice block RAM.

 

Memory

All computers, regardless of purpose, require some form of memory so that the system can actually manage to get through tasks. You can think of RAM as a kind of short-term memory within your PC. Pretty much in the same way you would write a number down on your hand over the phone. It is a form of data that you can quickly refer back to without having to take time to remember it off by heart.

There are 3 types of memory on the market for consumers.

·        DDR

·        DDR2

·        DDR3

As you can probably guess, each one outdoes the previous type of memory. In any system you were purchasing to build today, you’d be unlikely to use DDR memory. This is primarily due to the fact that it’s generally considered outdated and is still on sale only to facilitate people looking to upgrade their old machines for the relatively brief window before they’ll be replaced.

DDR2 and DDR3 are far more common, with DDR3 becoming the future standard for motherboards especially in the core i7 range. But as our mainboard is DDR2, we’ll be looking at that specification and various types of DDR2 RAM available for our motherboard.

When purchasing memory, it’s best to find the type you need before considering how much you require and what speed you require also. In our previous mention of the bus speed of the mainboard and the CPU we mentioned that both have a max of 1066MHz. This is going to come into play when selecting our memory. Memory will always be advertised as its module bandwidth or its peak transfer capacity.

To simplify things here is a quick comparison chart of the most common DDR2 RAM on the market.

RAM

Data transfers per second

Bandwidth

PC2-3200

400

3200

PC2-5300

667

5333

PC2-6400

800

6400

PC2-8500

1066

8533

 

Bandwidth is calculated by taking transfers per second and multiplying by eight. This is because DDR2 memory modules transfer data on a bus that is 64 data bits wide, and since a byte comprises 8 bits, this equates to 8 bytes of data per transfer – hence 1066

So, combining the numbers we know as 1066 we will choose PC2-8500. There is faster PC2-9200 RAM, but our processor will limit this speed, so it’s not really worth dropping the extra cash on it.

Next we’ll be looking at how much memory we need. The more – the better, but there is one limitation.

 

32bit vs 64bit Operating Systems

In a 32bit operating system, we can only use up to a max of 3GB’s of memory, while a 64bit OS can see more beyond that. In the case of building a media PC, it’s best to install the maximum amount of memory that your OS can take and, as we’ll be running with a 32bit OS, we’ll need a max of 3GBs of memory. Most memory comes in matched kits, so we chose a kit of matched 2GB sticks from Corsair.

Since memory is cheap, there’s no real harm having the extra 1GB – just in case the OS gets a 64bit upgrade at some stage. As this kit leaves 2 free slots on the mainboard, this also allows for more memory to be added in the future, should you opt for an OS upgrade later.

Brand

Corsair

Speed

PC2-8500

Capacity

4gbs (2 sticks of matched 2GB sticks)

 

Now that we have the vital components selected it’s time to move on to easier things to choose.

Power supply

Your system is only as good and efficient as the power with which it’s supplied. We’ve chosen a modular PSU from Corsair to supply our needs and, since the whole affair is modular, we can remove cables we don’t need – keeping the inside of the case uncluttered makes it easier to keep everything cool.

As our system will not demand a lot of power from the PSU to supply its components, we decided on a 450watt PSU

You’ll find the PSU’s specifications below.

Brand

Corsair

Wattage

450

Type

Modular

Feature

120mm Fan

 

Graphics

This will always be a bit of a tricky choice; we need a graphics card with enough power for our needs, but not so much that it would be wasted. Our main objective is to have smooth 1080p High definition playback to a TV and the graphics card will do the bulk of the work in providing that.

One of the main things we looked out for was a card with HDMI and HDCP, the latter is a form of copy protection to allow you to display any copyrighted material on your display.

Our choice for this build is the nVidia 9500GT with 1GB of its own dedicated memory. This card also boasts a passive cooler, which will allow for a quieter PC. Again, we’ll go into more detail on silent hardware in another part of this series.

Storage

This is pretty simple. Most hard drives you’ll see on sale will be SATA. In all desktop installations you will choose internal 3.5” hard drives. In our install we begin with a 500GB hard drive. There is also a wealth of options to add more space as and when you need it. Naturally, if you think you’ll need it you could always start with the installation of a 1TB hard drive instead. Just keep in mind; the more space you add the more you’ll lose if the whole edifice comes tumbling down at some stage.

Connecting external hard drives is a simple option if you need additional storage in the future without cracking open the case and muddling around inside.

 

HTPC Case

This is where cosmetics and personal taste come into it. There’s plenty of choice out there for people looking for HTPC cases, however you don’t necessarily have to use a HTPC case to have a HTPC. That said, we think most will agree that it’s a fair shout nicer to have a HTPC that fits in well with your TV and doesn’t look like a conventional PC tower.

A lot of manufactures do make the cases in desktop form factor rather than a tower and either include optional remote controls, LCD displays hidden drive bays/expansion slots etc. so you won’t be stuck with something entirely unpalatable in the living room.

Our choice of HTPC case in this build was the NOX Media IMON HTPS.

The biggest reasons for this choice, over so many other cases, are that it has ample room inside for our components, looks sleek, has two drive bays for DVD/BLU-RAY drives and includes a remote control, not to mention the pretty feature of it hiding its front USB ports. Small touches like that really do add up in the long run.

 

Blu-ray/HD-DVD Drive

This was a pretty simple choice. We know that HD-DVD is a dead format compared to Blu-ray, however there are some great deals to be had on HD-DVD media across the internet… if you’re looking to pick things up on the cheap.

 We chose a Samsung Blu-ray/HD-DVD player that also doubles as a DVD burner too. It’s a very handy all-in-one player and burner that (compared to if you had to purchase the equivalent as an all in one unit like any other standard media player) would leave you with a fairly big hole in your pocket.

 

Next Up: Keeping Your HTPC Quiet

That’s all for now. In future parts we’ll be looking at keeping your HTPC as quiet as possible, installing and setting up a media-oriented OS and keeping the whole thing in line. You can subscribe to the RSS feed of this blog to be notified of the update.

Note: If you already have computer components that you would like to add to your PC, why not register for and bring them along with you to one of our Build your own PC classes and we’d be happy to show you how to do it! Visit http://www.komplettblog.ie/events/ for location and dates.

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7 Responses to “Building A Home Theatre PC For The Complete Beginner”

  1. Building A Home Theatre PC For The Complete Beginner, Part II: Cooling « Komplett Ireland Says:

    […] For The Complete Beginner, Part II: Cooling By komplettie In the second part of our series on building your own Home Theatre PC, we’ll be concentrating on the all important aspect of cooling, with a bit of a look at keeping […]

  2. Building A Home Theatre PC For The Complete Beginner, Part III: OS and HTPC Software « Komplett Ireland Says:

    […] Building A Home Theatre PC For The Complete Beginner, Part III: OS and HTPC Software By komplettie In the second part of our series on building your own HTPC, we talked in some detail about installing your components in a way that’d keep all the whole affair as quiet as possible. In this part we will look at installing your operating system to get the best out of your new setup. If you haven’t read any of this, you can find the very first part here. […]

  3. Special Offers – July 20th « Komplett Ireland Says:

    […] to deploy and entirely wireless keyboard and mouse arrangement is if you’ve followed our guide to building your own home theatre PC and now need something slick and elegant (read: without trailing cables across the living room) to […]

  4. How To: Get Your Digital Media to Your TV « Komplett Ireland Says:

    […] check out the series of articles we put together on it earlier on in the year. There’s a fairly detailed how-to for selecting hardware, physically putting the whole thing together and keeping it cool and then for getting all of the […]

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