Low-cost HTPC builds?

By sethbest
Oct 17, 2011
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  1. I've seen a lot of hardware that mentions its specific benefits to HTPCs (Home Theater Personal Computer) has anyone put together one recently that would share their build? I've been building computers for years, but am not sure specifically whats important in an HTPC.

    I assume at least a dual core for stability, but does video playback benefit from multi-cores? Any particular chipset or processor that works best in this regard? How high a vid card do I really need just for 1080p support?

    I guess in short: wheres the sweet spot for price/performance and whats important and unnecessary in a HTPC build?
  2. LNCPapa

    LNCPapa TS Special Forces Posts: 4,202   +422

    I think this is a bit of a tricky question. A large chunk of this price is going to come from the tiny additions/comforts each individual wants from an HTPC. For basic playback of a 1080p video (not specifying formats or codecs for video or audio - or even taking the source into account) it really doesn't take too much to get smooth playback. My $99 Logitech Revue can play back 1080p content with very specific caveats.
    1. It must be on a wired connection - even with Wireless N and only about 30 feet from the AP I cannot play it back over wireless except in a very specific and non-enjoyable case.
    2. The source cannot have DTS encoded audio. If it is then I will get no sound playback at all, but for some reason I can stream it at 1080 over wireless.

    There are other small devices that can playback 1080p vids with ease and use minimal raw horsepower to do so. One I'm looking at now is this one - with an MSRP of only $99 as well.
    The thing about the two devices I've just mentioned is that you only get playback - and not from a local source. You either need to direct these devices to a network source of some sort or bring external drives to the device. Also, some people use these things to do transcoding. I do not, but I've noticed many people want this feature. Also, a few people I've seen want their HTPC to have torrenting capabilities. Again, I do not but some do.

    If you're specifically looking just to build a machine with plenty of flexibility then I'd first plot out exactly what features you need. Have a case in mind already or need one to match your current components? Does it have a PSU? Is it a standard PSU or something a bit smaller? How often will you boot/reboot this HTPC and how quickly do you want it to do so? Does that mean it needs an SSD or will a traditional 2.5 or 3.5" drive work? Do you need local storage on this HTPC and is there space in the case you've chosen? Do you need a specific OS to be running on your HTPC? Many choose a flavor of linux so they can strip it down for very quick booting and then just set it to launch straight into their media player of choice (often XBMC). What kind of audio capabilities do you need (this is where it can get a little complicated)? Will slow menus when browsing large libraries really annoy you?

    if you're looking for something quick. small, and cheap as a starting point I have been poking around with the idea of getting:

    and sticking an extra 2.5" laptop drive I have sitting around in there and slapping some distro of linux with XBMC on there. I haven't actually built the thing yet and am currently wasting a 17" MBP as my HTPC, but since I have a newer MBP I haven't been rushed to do something about it.
  3. sethbest

    sethbest TS Enthusiast Topic Starter Posts: 79

    LNC thanks for the info and suggestions. The linked motherboard and case are pretty cool, I didn't think of going down to an atom processor. I currently have 2 systems for media playback over my network to a TV, one is my old xbox original softmodded with xbox media center- I love this system, its very efficient and intuitive, but the hardware limitations mean that it can't play many high def videos. The other is a WD TV Live plus which plays almost any video without a problem, but has a very bad interface and poor subtitle support (maybe that new one you linked is better though). So I figured I would go the route of an actual PC instead of these boxes.

    Generally what I'm looking for is a stable system with versatile enough resources to handle many different files, to put xbmc on and plug a decent remote into, and can stream netflix. I play everything through my wired network (I have an old pc setup with about 3.5 TB of space for videos running xp since it seems to have the least problems with file sharing to different devices). If I can get it in a cool small case with quiet psu all the better. I just wanted to make sure I didn't aim too low with specs, or too high and waste money.

    I've been so spoiled with how well my old xbox xbmc worked that I've put off taking the jump for a long time.
    Reading reviews on the board people say it works well with linux/xbmc at 1080p, though it has some network problems. Thx for the link, might go that route.
  4. LNCPapa

    LNCPapa TS Special Forces Posts: 4,202   +422

    Oh yeah, forgot to mention that I already have all the other parts I'd need to build that system so it would only be $200 out of my pocket. Problem is if I bring another new media player into the house I think the wife will have my head. I've gotta time this just right to get away with it.
  5. sethbest

    sethbest TS Enthusiast Topic Starter Posts: 79

    Good luck with that. I don't have a single high def tv (I can't bring myself to get rid of my 38" 200 pound TV) I just am tired of having to convert every video I get down to lower resolutions.

    I won't watch anything without a media player as I don't like to watch things on a monitor, and can't be bothered to mess around with hundreds of discs, so I understand your issue.
  6. krs205

    krs205 Banned

    Cheap and dependable

    I would recommend building a HTPC with an inexpensive core 2 duo processor and 4 gb of ram. You can purchase both of these easily for under $100. Hard drive capacity is up to you, depending on your needs. I would also use Ubuntu OS. It is free and open source and is way more dependable than any windows os.
  7. LNCPapa

    LNCPapa TS Special Forces Posts: 4,202   +422

    I'd recommend something like this - - if you're going to build your own HTPC.
  8. sethbest

    sethbest TS Enthusiast Topic Starter Posts: 79

    Thx for the tips. I'm not sure if I would go one of those micro motherboards or a cheap atx. Would probably do passive cooling and maybe OS on a usb stick instead of hard drive (won't be storing large files directly on it anyways).

    I saw some linux based OS's people suggested for HTPCs but that openelec looks perfect. Don't know when I'll be getting around to this though, just bought new monitor and some neat gadgets so will probably wait a while before I feel up to spending more on a non-necessity.

    Either of you have experience with remotes? I bought a cheap usb one to use on a htpc a while back and was disappointed with it. I know xbmc supports smart phone control and some people use really expensive remotes, but I would like to find something functional, reliable and cheap, preferably that maps well to xbmc.
  9. LNCPapa

    LNCPapa TS Special Forces Posts: 4,202   +422

    Pretty much anything from the Logitech Harmony series of remotes will probably work - I even use one to control my MBP. They are programmable after all and if all you need is IR support you should be set.
  10. Darth Shiv

    Darth Shiv TS Evangelist Posts: 1,604   +370

    Not the cheapest build possible but wasn't the aim.

    Core 2 Duo E7400
    Corsair 4GB DDR3
    Gigabyte GA-EP45T-UD3R
    Auzentech X-Fi Prelude
    A few big HDDs... prefer caviar blacks or that caliber (for 24x7)
    APC BackUPS RS 650
    Radeon HD4550
    Corsair VX450W PSU
    Hauppauge HVR-2200 Tuner
    Win7 x64 (Media Center with Media Browser plugin for playback)

    Multi-core is a must. The dual core I have is a bit long in the tooth really. Would love a quad core i5 or i7. Better responsiveness of the machine that way. The dual core has no problem actually doing the processing but sometimes there is lag waiting for something to happen that my (much faster) desktop just has no problem with. Maybe it's just me :)

    Most video cards do HD acceleration nowadays so you shouldn't have a problem there on pretty much any path you take. I still prefer discrete (plenty available in low profile for low profile boards/cases). Intel integrated might work nicely nowadays but will leave that to be confirmed by someone else! Both AMD and NVIDIA work nicely.

    If you want to game on it, get a decent discrete card otherwise just get a quiet, cool one. If your vid card operates warm or you go the passive component route, you'll need a HTPC case with good airflow. Don't take that choice lightly - it's easy to read up reviews on cases and avoid the dodgy ones. Also some cases can't take large video cards and so on.

    A gyro-remote like the Gyration Air Music Remote is also an option. I like the ability to do mouse-like control from a remote. The issues with that remote I've had are that the comms can be a little flaky and one remote died on me (bought 2 - 2nd one with relos). Guess the build quality isn't quite the same as Logitech but it was programmable and had both an IR transmitter and RF transceiver so you can use it up to 10m away from your HTPC and do things like playlist management, play, skip, stop etc. That was about 2-3 years ago when I was actively using it. They might be a bit better now. When it works, definitely the most practical remote I've had by a long long way. Not sure these things are available anymore... pity!

    The old Microsoft media center keyboards were good too... lightweight and had mouse controls on them too. Might be able to find some stock out there on ebay etc. I have a Wireless Entertainment Desktop 8000 and while expensive, it's brilliant. Killed itself with the price but a rechargable keyboard with dock and backlighting.

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