HTPC Upgrade 2014

Submitted by jbreland on Wed, 09/17/2014 - 01:15

Note: I updated the post about my 2013 desktop upgrade based on some component changes and my thoughts/experiences after about year. Feel free to check it out if you're interested in such things.

I built a new Home Theater PC over the summer. I didn't get around to discussing the parts here as I usually do (though you can find the details on my hardware specs page), but I've been very happy with it so I thought I write a (relatively) quick post about it to share some details.

nMediapc HTPC 7000B ($80 - Newegg)

For me, the case is what makes the HTPC a home theater PC as opposed to just a PC that you have connected to your TV. While I've never found an HTPC case that meets 100% of my desires, I found the HTPC 7000B a while back and was quite taken with it. It's taller than I would care for and looks slightly more "PC-ish" than I would prefer, but it has a number of great features going for it:

  • The looks - while not perfect, it still looks pretty damn good sitting right under my Blu-ray drive next to the rest of my home theater system. At first glance from across the room, you really don't notice it's a PC until you start looking a little closer.
  • The depth - it's much shallower than typically PC (even HTPC) cases, so it fits in with the rest of my components much better. For example, desktops are generally in the 18-21" range, most HTPC cases I've found are 15"+, but this one is only 12.7" - for comparison, that's just about the same depth as the Oppo blu-ray player it's sitting under.
  • The height - while I listed this as a con above, it's also a plus - this case is just tall enough, and not any taller, to allow the use of a full-sized video card while not being any taller. For the short term, this is critical as I need to use my old Nvidia card in this case for component video out (more details below).
  • Built-in small window in the front of the case to add an infrared receiver so you can use a remote with this system without requiring a hardware mod or external receiver

After building it and using it for a few months, I can happily report that I'm overall very satisfied with it. It looks good, it fits everything I need, and the airflow and cooling is reasonably (though not exceptional) and quiet.

The one and only complain I have is that they placed the IR window directly in front of the optical drive support beam. I could not physically install the IR receiver because the support beam was right where the receiver needed to be. The only thing I could do to fix that was bend the support beam out of the way, but then that makes it useless for the optical drive. Fortunately, I'm not using an optical drive in this system, but I'd like the capability to add it if I need one in the future, but because of this design that's no longer possible. Still, everything else about the case is just wonderful, and since I'm not actually using the optical drive it's not really an issue, so I can give it a pass on that.

Overall, big thumbs up and highly recommend.

ASRock H87M Pro4 ($90 - Newegg)

The case requires a microATX motherboard, and after narrowing down the options I went with the ASRock board above due to price and the relatively modest selection of features I wanted for this system. Final verdict? I f*ing love it. It's stable, easy to setup UEFI-wise, boots almost as fast as it takes for my TV and receiver to fully power on, and has been very, very stable and reliable. It puts both of my recent desktop motherboards to shame, and I'm now sorry I didn't go for as ASRock for it when I had the chance.

Unfortunately, ASRock boards always seem to be available in only limited supplies for some reason, but if you see one that seems to fit your needs, grab it. I seriously can't recommend this highly enough. After the hell I've gone through with my desktop boards, working with this one has been pure, unmitigated joy.

Intel Core i5-4690s ($215 - Newegg)

I wanted a powerful but low-power/cool processor for this system, and the i5-4690S fit the bill perfectly. It's pricey, but for a fast quad-core processor w/ turbo (though unfortunately no hyperthreading) and perfectly capable embedded graphics for a HTPC running at just 65 W, it's worth it for me.

CPU Cooler
Noctua NH-U12S ($70 - Newegg)

I was so pleased with the Noctua cooler I added to my last desktop that I decided to add a similar, lower profile version to this system, and once again I'm very happy with it. It's super quiet and does a great job of cooling the CPU. Highly recommended.

I really don't have anything else to say about it, but just a word of caution - it's a tight fit in this case and with the motherboard I used. I had to play around with the orientation of the cooler quite a bit until I found a position that works, and even then the tips of the heatpipes came so close to the case fans that they would actually come in contact causing a rattle whenever someone walked across the floor and caused the case to vibrate just a bit. I ended up propping the cooler up a little bit by wedging a cable between it and one of the DIMMs, which solved the rattling problem. Just wanted to give everyone else a heads up - if you use these same components in your build, be prepared to play with it a bit to get it just right; otherwise, you may want to look for a more compact cooler.

G.Skill Ares F3-1600C9D-8GAO, 8GB DDR3-1600 ($80 - Newegg)

Not much to say here. 8 GB is more than enough for this system, the RAM itself is low-latency and low profile, and I've been happy with the brand for some time. It just works.

Power Supply
Seasonic SSR-450RM, ATX, 460W, 80 Plus Gold ($140 - Newegg)

Not much to say here, either. Like the Noctua cooler, I was very happy with the Seasonic PSU I picked up for my last desktop, so I used one here as well, and it doesn't disappoint. Recommended.

Hard Drive
Crucial M4 CT128M4SSD2, 128GB SSD (Newegg)

I picked up one of these on sale at Amazon for $80 a while back, which was a hell of a deal. It's not very big, but it's fast, I don't need much space for this system (in fact, I'm only using 6.5 GB on it, as all of my data is stored on my NAS), and, most importantly of all, I already had it and didn't need it for anything else. :-) This is a good drive, but honestly you'll want to pick up something more recently if shopping for SSDs today.

Video Card
EVGA e-GeForce 8800GTS 320MB Superclocked 320-P2-N815-AR (Newegg)

This is a ridiculously old card now, released back in 2007, but it's a critical component for my HTPC as it's the only video card I have that will support component video out, and as far as I can tell no cards on the market today support this feature. I'm still using a TV and receiver from before HDMI existed on appliances, so I absolutely need this feature right now. I'm planning on upgrading my home theater in the next year or so, at which point I'll probably switch over to using the embedded Intel HD Graphics 4600 controller with HDMI, but in the meantime this seven year old card is still kicking and still working great.

I'm using the embedded sound card (Realtek ALC892 HD Audio codec and embedded NIC (Intel i217-V on my motherboard. Both work fine for my needs, but aren't particularly noteworthy.

For input I'm using a couple of controllers. The first is an Esky Mini i8 wireless mini keyboard/touchpad. It's actually not too bad for what it is, though for anything that requires a lot of typing I'll just SSH in from may laptop.

The second is a universal remote controller using the RC6/MCE protocol with an internal USB IR receiver. This works and makes navigating XBMC convenient, but it's not without it's flaws.

For one, the design of the board is just stupid, with the receiver sticking up perpendicular to the board. This requires that the entire board be placed sticking away from the IR window, which is likely to cause problems because there usually isn't going to be that much free space behind the front panel of a case (see my case comments above for more on this). Having the IR receiver by parallel to the board would've made much more sense as I could then just mount the board flush against the front of the case.

Second, something (I don't know if it's the board, the protocol, or just the Linux driver) prevents the multiple signals from the remote from being processed properly. If I hit down twice rapidly, it'll only register one press. If I hit down, say, four times rapidly, it'll register something like six presses. If I want to press any button two or three times, I have to purposely press them slowly to get it to register. This quickly gets very irritating. I don't think this board is necessarily the cause of this, but it definitely keeps me from loving it like I thought I would.

Third, despite my best efforts, I can't get this to power on the system from an off (S0) state. I can get the Esky keyboard to do that, so the system is obviously capable of this, but the IR receiver apparently won't send the correct signal to power the computer on.

All in all I'm reasonably happy with the IR receiver for the investment I made, but I'll probably look into switching it out at some point for something that'll hopefully address some of the above issues a little better.

Closing Thoughts
On the whole, I'm very, very, very, very, very happy with my HTPC. I'm running Gentoo Linux on it and have it set to boot directly into XBMC, which I use as the main user interface. It boots fast, runs fast, operates very quietly, and looks quite good mixed in with my other home theater components. If you decide to build your own HTPC, I hope this will give you some inspiration and useful tips.

Hey, what do you know? This actually did end up (relatively) short, by my standards. :-)