Wednesday, November 4

Building an HTPC: A Second Go

It was last May when a friend and I first tried our hand at building an HTPC. And it wasn't that bad of a project: for £225 we built a pretty solid machine on which to watch stuff as well as manage media and the like. However over a year of use a fair few issues have arisen, both early on and more recently. These include:

  • The Antec NSK2480 case being WAY too big, especially for an MATX motherboard.
  • As something which is really a desktop, the whole build sucks up a lot of power.
  • The 250GB HD quite unsurprisingly not being nowhere near enough space in practice.
  • A change in the codec BBC use for their HD broadcasts resulting in the ATI chipset of the 780G crapping out - I had added a digital satellite card since the original build in order to watch HD satellite. Generally ATI seems a bit flaky when it comes to video decoding.
But to be honest none of these really warranted any fix other than buying a new HD and maybe a cheap Nvidia video card. However when a friend (yes, the same one as last time) pointed me to a new Nvidia ION-based ITX motherboard I must admit that I raised an eyebrow. However since at that point any new build would have to be funded by the reselling of the existing HTPC or its bits (it was too new to merely write off) it wasn't going to happen. The real deciding factor was my dad requiring a new desktop PC - a worthy use for the current components.

Standalone solutions seem to have progressed since last year - the WDTV springs to mind as a decent no-hassle media player. However I've since become used to the flexibility a Windows based HTPC affords me - time-stretching, episode and film management and watching and recording HD digital satellite

So I bought the following bits for the new build:
  • £103.24 for an ASUS AT3N7A-I NVIDIA ION with Intel Atom N330 Dual Core Processor HDMI Mini ITX Motherboard
  • £71.89 for a Samsung EcoGreen F2 1.5TB Hard Drive SATAII 32MB Cache
While I currently have on order:
  • £34.98 for a Piano Black Mini ITX Cube Case - With 300W PSU
  • £3.09 for a Xilence Red Wing 80mm Quiet Fan
The RAM I'm recycling from the old build, but 2x1GB of the cheap stuff can be had for around 25 quid (indeed that's what I bought for my dad's new build). The motherboard is now the most expensive part, but since it includes the Atom processor I wasn't too bothered. I also decided to go for a cheap-o case this time since the Antec from last time was seen to be a big (both literally and metaphorically) mistake. The cube case is bigger than it has to be - I needed something which would accommodate my digital satellite card, but without this requirement other options were available, including slimline cases and external (and hence silent) power supplies.

All the above were bought from eBuyer with the total (including RAM) coming up to a princely £237.20, although this includes a specification changing 1.5TB HD. Replacing this with the cheapest 250GB HD from eBuyer (£30) brings the total down to just under £200, so we've actually made a saving on last time.

Building was once again straightforward; even more so since the CPU was already mounted on the motherboard. The Atom itself is a step backward from the "real, grown-up" Athlon processor - it's clocked lower and is generally touted as a lightweight by design. The Nvidia ION is what makes this board ideal for HTPC usage, although this does mean that any playback software would HAVE to use assisted video card decoding (the Athlon alone was able to handle 1080p).

In practice this wasn't much of a problem. Almost every player has solutions for assisted decoding, especially since Windows 7 now comes with a codec to do this out of the box. Mediaportal and Windows 7 Media Centre (including BBC HD) each performed wonderfully with not much CPU load. Even the picture looked better putting the ATI based set up to shame.

There are still some issues though. The poor little Atom processor does show it's lack of oomph as certain points - mainly with UI usage so it's not that much of a big deal. The Asus board is pretty loud too; this despite reviews saying it would ship with a quieter fan. I suspect this is fixable with an aftermarket solution so we'll see what happens. On the whole I think I've profited from the build.

Overall I'm quite impressed by my second build. In a stroke I've managed to solve all the issues I had with my last build and at a cheaper cost (like for like). And as a bonus my dad gets a new PC... But that's probably not relevant to most of you reading.


  1. Are you saying you built a computer?

  2. Anonymous15:03


  3. Anonymous21:45

    ur a funny dude shak. you think all this techno geeky nerdy babble is gona help u pull??

  4. Interesting. Are you squeezing discrete HD audio out of the HDMI or getting DD or DTS from the coax or optical?

  5. The Big O,

    No amp, so just regular demuxed stereo via HDMI for now.

  6. Interesting... So I'd been thinking about building an HTPC... but didn't want an ugly beast sitting in my living room... so had been looking for something a little more slick and elegant. Have been casting my eye over the Dell Zino HD, which seems to fit the bill, apart from not coming with a TV Tuner. They'll be introducing an integrated TV tuner at some point, but am tempted to just get a USB tuner, and mounting that inside the tv stand instead of having it sticking out of the back of the machine.

    Well anyway, not being up on requirements for Media Center myself, I was wondering if you have any thought on the specs of the Zino HD? What do you reckon would be the absolute minimum to play/record/time-shift 1080p video?

  7. IIRC The Zino HD isn't an atom based computer so you'll be missing out on the power savings (if you're bothered). Apart from that it's pretty fully featured and can do all your 1080p stuff, apart from the TV tuner. As an aside I'm not sure you can get a USB satellite HD gizmo, but I could be wrong. Nevertheless I prefer the neatness/robustness of the PCI solution myself.

    The Zino is pretty pricey though, around 3x what it would cost to do it the way we did it, and to be honest I'm not sure why you would go the Dell way unless you weren't confident enough to build your own. Aesthetically speaking you can get some neat mini ITX cases - a friend of mine got this one: That said, my cube doesn't look that bad (but then I'm less of a tart when it comes to these things).