Monday, May 5

Building an HTPC: Hardware

I've been waiting months for a cheap and flexible way to watch digital media on my telly. I've actually been quite fortunate and spoiled so far: my 2004-bought Medion PC came with a SCART socket and I've been using that since then. But in this age of high definition it doesn't quite cut the mustard - it can't really handle 1080p for one, and SCART isn't able to carry HD anyway. As well as that, I've been wanting to move away from using my main PC to watch stuff, wanting something a bit more "under-the-telly".

I had hoped on using an Xbox 360 or even PS3 to do this "for free", but since they just about managed to offer Divx and H.264 support (and even then not very well and with strings attached) my hopes for flexibility aren't high. Then there are problems with streaming and integration. The Popcorn Hour also got me a bit excited, but the lack of availability and a few other niggles didn't make it quite right either.

Because I was used to playing stuff back on a PC, the most appropriate option for me was some kind Home Theatre PC. The only trouble with that solution is cost - a few months a go an adequate system (or Mac Mini) would have cost around 400 quid, a price that was way out of my budget. I decided to stick to my PC for the time being.

So when a friend told me he could build a 1080p-capable HDMI-equipped HTPC for under £200 I became pretty excited. After spending a day researching and negotiating on the spec we both bought the following components each:

  • £49.10 for an AMD ATHLON 64 X2 4850E 2.5GHZ PIB Processor
  • £24.98 for an OCZ 2GB Kit (2x1GB) DDR2 800MHz/PC2-6400 CL 5-6-6-15 Value Series Memory
  • £54.57 for a Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-S2H 780G Socket AM2+ onboard VGA 8 channel audio mATX Motherboard
  • £35.99 for a Western Digital WD2500AAKS Caviar SE 250GB 7200RPM SATAII/300 16MB Cache - OEM
  • £59.98 for an Antec NSK2480 MATX Desktop Case Black & Silver - With 380W EarthWatts PSU
Apart from the CPU which was bought from all the components were ordered from eBuyer. At £224.62 we were slightly over budget, but we felt that the extra 25 justified a good quality case and beefed up processor.

The key component that made all this possible was the 780G based motherboard. It's not more than a month old, and provides an on-board Radeon HD3200 graphics chipset that can decode 1080p natively, and then spit it all out via an onboard HDMI connection once it has. This meant that we didn't have to spend extra on a graphics card.

The AMD 4850e is an update to the 4800+ dual core processor, the main improvement being that it runs at 45w instead for 65w. Just having also been released, it also seems to be the processor that reviewers and system builders paired with the 780G chipset - the dual cores running at 2.5GHz should be more than enough to handle any 1080p file that the on board graphics can't. It was pretty difficult finding the processor at all in the UK, so it was a bit of a result once we had.

The RAM was the cheapest 800MHz we could find, and the WD disk is the latest update on the notably quiet WD2500KS. Even though it's the most expensive component, the Antec case seems to the default picked for those building an HTPC on a budget. It's a bit on the big side, but should accommodate the components nicely. It looks good and is relatively quiet too.

Putting it all together was a relatively straightforward, plug and go affair. We mounted the CPU (its heatsink had thermal paste already applied) and RAM while the motherboard was out of the case, but lowering the whole thing into the now deceptively spacious Antec was a bit challenging. Cabling was a bit of a hassle too due to the spacious, chambered layout of the case, but all in all the whole thing took well under two hours in total to build.

But we always knew the hardware side of the project would be the easy bit. The fun/boring/challenging part (depending on your viewpoint) was to come as we figured out how to install an operating system onto the brand new drive because, as some of you may have already noticed, our HTPC came with no DVD drive.