Building a Windows Home Theatre PC
So, you’ve worked through your list of requirements and hopefully have a clear idea of what you want to do with a HTPC and where you’re going to position it. You’ve thought through your storage and networking needs, and have some pointers as to how much heavy lifting your HTPC is going to do. Now it’s time to consider your choice of hardware.
Your first point to consider, when it comes to HTPC hardware, is how much building you wish to do. There are many small footprint desktop PCs available on the market today that you could buy off the shelf and will do a great job for you as a HTPC. Companies such as Shuttle have specialised in small form factor (SFF) PCs for many years, and even giants like Dell have launched SFF lines in the past (notably the Zino HD, no longer available) for HTPC use. So, if you want ultimate convenience and are happy to stick with an of the shelf spec, head online or to your local big box and skip this chapter!
Alternatively, we’re looking at a self-build and again, depending on how personal you wish your configuration to be (and your sense of adventure) you could choose to source, collate and build a PC from individual components – a great project in itself.
A half-way house comes in the purchase of a “barebones” kit which provides much of the assembly completed, with a few additional components (usually RAM and storage) requiring separate purchase and installation.
If you’re looking for detailed guidance on a complete self-assembly, then we’ll cover an example project in the next chapter. However, for the purposes of this book, I’ve gone for a Barebones Kit from Intel, the NUC D54250WYK (http://www.intel.com/content/www/ us/en/nuc/overview.html) which provides a partly assembled case and motherboard, into which you install your own storage and RAM (both purchased separately).
Whether you choose an off the shelf solution, complete self-assembly or barebones kit, I’ll run through the specs of the Intel kit I selected to help you consider your own hardware selection.
Intel developed the NUC with a HTPC use case in mind, so at 4.59” x 4.41” x 1.36” (116.6mm x 112.0mm x 34.5mm) it’s deliberately small, fitting into most AV cabinets with ease. As we’ll see, that small footprint hides a PC that still packs a considerable punch without taking up acres of space.
The Intel design ships in black and silver, which isn’t my favourite (I’d prefer a fully black chassis but as this is a reference design, you can expect to see slightly different designs hit the market which maintain the small form factor but offer a variety of finishes. Both Gigabyte and Silverstone are manufacturers worth checking out for alternative designs based around the NUC concept.
Intel bases the NUC concept around the Intel NUC Board D53427RKE (http://www.intel.com/con- tent/www/us/en/motherboards/desktop-motherboards/desktop-board-d53427rke.html), a very small footprint (UCFF) 4” (101.6 mm) square motherboard which includes an integrated 4th Generation (Haswell) Intel Core i5 vPro processor.
We’ll talk about the processor shortly, but elsewhere, this powerful motherboard offers very strong capabilities for its size, including support for up to 16 GB RAM, dual display options including Mini DisplayPort 1.1a and Mini HDMI 1.4a , Intel’s own High Definition Audio with 8 channel (7.1) digital audio, Gigabit Ethernet, USB 3.0 and 2.0 ports as well as expansion options in the form of a full- sized mini PCI Express slot with mSATA support (which we’ll use for our storage connection) and a half-sized mini PCIe slot which could be used for on board Wi-Fi and Bluetooth integration.
The theme here is “small but mighty” and the D53427RKE offers many features in an incredibly small footprint. Going larger, to a Mini ITX form factor may offer more flexibility in processor and chassis choice if you have the space and wish to use standard, mechanical hard drives rather than a solid state drive.
I’ll make your choice reasonably straightforward when it comes to CPUs. You may wish to go for a budget Intel Atom or Celeron processor and if so, be prepared for your HTPC to struggle with any advanced work like transcoding (reformatting video on the fly). Alternatively, at the other end of the spectrum, an Intel Core i7 will handle any task you wish to throw at your HTPC, but comes with an overhead in terms of heat output, power consumption and of course, price!
For me, the sweet spot for HTPC processors comes with the Intel Core i3 and if you want a little extra space for growth, the dual-core Intel Core i5-4250U as shipped on our NUC barebones is a great option. That processor runs at a low clock speed of 1.3 GHz with the ability to boost up to 2.6 GHz when needed – resulting in lower power consumption overall, and a low 15W thermal footprint.
It’s a little annoying that the processor is soldered to the motherboard on the NUC, as that pretty much kills any opportunities for future processor expansion, but the 4th Generation “Haswell” processor family should offer plenty of scope for use over the next few years so is a great choice.
3rd Generation Intel “Ivy Bridge” processors may be found for cheaper online if you’re seeking to save some money but are likely to run a little hotter and consumer more power than the newer chips. But in terms of performance, they’ll still do a decent job.
If you already have hardware sitting around and are thinking of repurposing it for HTPC use, note that the new Haswell processors use a new LGA 1150 motherboard socket which is not compatible with older generations of processor (for example, Ivy Bridge and its predecessor, Sandy Bridge both of which were compatible with the LGA 1155 socket), so that may restrict your processor choice a little.
The old saying that you can never have too much RAM may not be as relevant today as it once was, especially as we’re not likely to be running hundreds of apps simultaneously, but it’s definitely worth investing in RAM to ensure your HTPC stays nimble and responsive – no matter what you’re throwing at it.
At a minimum, I’d recommend 4GB RAM today and would feel more comfortable with 8GB RAM on board. For the heck of it (and because it’s supported on the NUC) I picked up 16 GB RAM from Crucial for our HTPC project – it’s overkill for sure, but there should be no excuse for the PC to get away with running slowly.
Check your motherboard manual for RAM compatibility but you should expect small footprint PCs to use SODIMM modules – in my case, we need DDR3 10600 modules.