Build your own Home Theater PC (HTPC) ... for under $600!

Build your own Home Theater PC (HTPC) ... for under $600!

Summary: Over the past few weeks I've had dozens of requests from readers wanting me to put together a parts list for a kick-ass, low-cost Home Theater PC (HTPC). Well, here you go!

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Over the past few weeks I've had dozens of requests from readers wanting me to put together a parts list for a kick-ass, low-cost Home Theater PC (HTPC). Well, here you go!

Before I go on, first let me explain briefly what a HTPC is and how it differs from a regular PC. Basically, an HTPC (sometimes called a Media PC or Media Center) is a PC that's specifically designed to playback music and video. Also, since it's an entertainment system, you want to be able to control the PC remotely, and you want to keep noise down to a minimum.

What I'm going to outline here is an entry-level system that's going to be able to handle all the basic tasks that you'd expect of an HTPC system. It's going to be able to handle HD resolution video (1080p and 720p), cope with streaming video, upscale DVD, ad will even be good for playing games, as long as you're not too greedy when it comes to resolution. It's also going to have plenty of storage space so you've got plenty of room to store your ever-growing library of media.

OK, let's get going!

Processor

One of the key factors to building a successful HTPC is to pick a processor that's powerful enough to handle the demands placed on it by the tasks it has to carry out, but not so powerful that you're having to add powerful fans to have to cool the thing off.

For this built I've chosen an AMD Athlon II X2 255 Socket AM3 part. This is a 3.1GHz dual-core CPU, but far more importantly than that, it has a TDP of only 65W. This means less heat is produced when it's running, which in turn means less cooling, and it also means you can cram more components into a smaller chassis.

Price: $80

Motherboard

Now that we've chosen the CPU, it's now time to choose a motherboard to match it. There are several consideration to take into account.

First, size. Ideally, you want your HTPC to have a smallish footprint, along the lines of a VCR, so it's best to choose one with a micro-ATX form factor. Also, it's a good idea for the motherboard to have an on-board graphics processor (GPU) and support for HDMI. Oh, and to match the processor, this needs to be a Socket AM3 board.

With all these requirements in mind, I've chosen a Gigabyte GA-MA785GMT-UD2H board. Highlights of this board include:

  • AMD 785G chipset
  • ATI Radeon HD 4200 GPU
  • HDMI
  • SATA support

Price: $90

Next -->

Memory

Nothing special here, since the demands on the RAM aren't that great. We need DDR3 for the motherboard, and a pair of 1GB sticks are ample for an HTPC.

Shop around for a good deal.

Price: around $40

Hard drive

What you want here is a drive that offers ample storage (take what you think you'll need and double it!), is quiet and energy-efficient.

The drive I'm going to go for is a Western Digital GreenPower drive, because there are energy-efficient, quiet, designed for streaming audio and video, and are able too cope with being shut away in a small hot metal box with other components. I'm pushing the boat out here and going for a 1.5TB drive (AV-GP WD15EVDS). If you want to spend more, go for the 2TB drive, if you want to spend less, go with a smaller capacity ... dial it in to suit your needs.

Price: $120

Optical drive

Lots of choices here, but the main question is whether you want a DVD drive or one that can play Blu-ray discs too. DVD drives start at around $20, while Blu-ray drives start at $100, so I'm going to opt for an entry-level Blu-ray drive - the LG black 8X BD-ROM 16X DVD-ROM 40X CD-ROM SATA internal combo that'll handle pretty much any disc you throw at it.

Price: $100

Chassis/Power Supply Unit

OK, you're building an HTPC here, not a desktop system, so you don't really want it to look like a desktop PC. You need a chassis that's designed specifically for HTPC. Fortunately, there are loads to choose from. The downside is that prices vary wildly.

Oh, you also need a Power Supply Unit (PSU) for the HTPC ...

I'm going to make life easier for you here by picking a decent chassis that comes complete with a PSU ... the Antec Black M FusionRemote 350 Micro ATX. Not only is this a good chassis, and comes with a nice PSU, it also comes with an IR receiver and remote control so you can operate your HTPC from your couch!

Price: $90

Keyboard/Mouse

You will want a wireless keyboard and mouse combo to control your HTPC. I'd go with something cheap from the Logitech range unless you want a specific feature/

Price: $50

Price (without Operating System): $590

OK, what about the Operating System?

Yes, your HTPC will need an operating system. You have choices available to you (for example, if you're comfortable with Linux, you can take that route), but most people are likely to want Windows 7 on their HTPCs, and you can pick up an OEM copy of Windows 7 Home Premium for around $105.

Price (with Operating System): $695!!!

Let me know what you think! Suggestions? Upgrades? Different configurations?

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Topics: Windows, Enterprise Software, Hardware, Legal, Microsoft, Mobility, Operating Systems, Processors, Software

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  • Dell Zino HD

    Adrian, what do you think of the Zino? I was eyeing it mostly because of it's compact size and decent reviews. Even with the upgrades it's a bit lighter on the HD and CPU, but still comes in cheaper.
    pdskep
    • Dell Zino HD

      I am building a system around the Dell Zino. I have bought the Zino and it is a great little box. Very quiet!!! I got the Windows 7 option and I loaded it with Ubuntu in a dual boot setup. I had to upgrade my stereo to handle HDMI so that should be counted in the cost. I ordered the Onkyo HT-RC160 for a cool $300. I haven't figured out the question of boxee versus xbmc.

      Re. ripping DVD's in Linux: Use Thoggen for a GUI program. It rips it into a non-propietary format (Ogg video). You can convert it to other formats but for the most part you won't need to.
      mathphud
      • RE: Build your own Home Theater PC (HTPC) ... for under $600!

        @mathphud It's been over a year since you've built your Zino HD, how do you like it so far? I'm looking at getting into the <a href="http://addto.it/Windows-7-Home-Theater-PC-(HTPC)">Windows 7 HTPC</a> scene but not sure what route I want to take. I've had a couple friends recommend Mac Mini's but I think they're a little pricey for the hardware you get and I'm not a huge fan of OS X. I think I've come down to going with a Dell Zino or some other pre-built system, but I haven't totally ruled out building my own. Adrian, if you were to build an HTPC today what hardware would you put in it? (just wondering if you would change anything since the time you have written this).
        ryanjames1996
    • RE: Build your own Home Theater PC (HTPC) ... for under $600!

      I only see one thing that you forgot to mention in this basic HTPC build. Although not a requirement, why not add the option of a QAM/ATSC tuner card in there to take advantage of the "record TV" function built into the Windows 7 home premium and above? I know I am in the middle of my little HTPC build (funny enough I used almost the exact same parts as your article before even reading it!) and one of the best add-ons I made was the TV tuner card so that I could create my own DVR system. Now I will just need to put in an extra hard drive...
      Super_Geek
      • RE: Build your own Home Theater PC (HTPC) ... for under $600!

        @nick@... I would say that Adrian's exclusion of a tuner from the overall build is both an inexcusable omission and a *serious* punt. The fact is, the *only* tuner really capable of delivering a good HTPC experience at the moment is one that supports multiple channels (watch one thing, record something else) + HDTV + cablecard. Right now, that means you'll either be trying to track down a couple now-discontinued ATI USB HDTV tuners or you'll be buying a Ceton InfiniTV 4. The InfiniTV 4 lists at $399, which knocks the current system North of $1k. A decent HTPC under $1k is a myth - It simply can't be done.
        chunkyIPA
      • I'm wondering what additional features HTPCs really have anymore?

        @nick@... I have been thinking about a HTPC for several years now, but have never been able to put together the features/functions I want. I recently upgraded my DishNetwork receiver, and got a new Vizio TV, and now I'm wondering what do I need a HTPC for, exactly. I get Netflix, Pandora, Flickr and more with the Yahoo widgets built into the TV. The Dish receiver has a built-in Slingbox and large capacity (and expandable via USB) and is a DVR.<br><br>I usually prefer to watch TV and web surf at the same time, so usually a laptop is better.<br><br>Is the point of a HTPC to do those things because other providers don't offer them, or to make do with existing components as long as possible, or to get some other functionality?

        Also, I noticed a number of Blu-ray players were building in similar functionality.
        caspianhiro
  • Problem is this unit has a ....

    ... BluRay drive and you won't be able to watch the movies in Linux.
    ShadeTree
    • Boxee.tv doesn't rely on BluRay

      But you can rip a copy of the movie from BluRay with the following linux terminal command:

      $ dd if=/dev/cdrom of=/path/to/movietitleBlueRay.iso

      That iso is playable with Mplayer or editable with tools like Handbrake.

      fyi,
      https://help.ubuntu.com/community/RestrictedFormats/BluRayAndHDDVD

      Whether it is 'legal' to do so or not is a separate question and another blog.

      It would seem to me though that 'Fair Use' should allow the purchaser of a BluRay DVD the right to rip it for their own personal use (preserving the DVD as backup).

      Do what you want with Linux! ;)
      D.T.Schmitz
      • Why go through all the trouble

        and possible illegalities of ripping Blu-Ray to DVD to use it with a Linux-based HTPC when all one has to do is install Windows 7 instead? No ripping required.
        athynz
        • I didn't recommend BluRay in the start of my thread.

          But for those who want to use BluRay with Linux, contrary to current mythology, you can.

          My recommendation was/is Ubuntu and Boxee.tv: $0.00
          No BluRay required.

          If you want to go even cheaper, take a look at <a href="http://www.dlink.com/boxeebox">D-link's Boxee router</a>.

          D.T.Schmitz
          • No but you did says Ubunto Boxee ...

            ... was equivelant to the Windows box and it is clearly not. It does not have the same capabilities
            ShadeTree
          • Where exactly do I say that? I think you are mistaken.

            nt
            D.T.Schmitz
        • Here is why

          We use the Viewsonic VMP-70 media player set top. I ripped our DVDs to hard drive for two reasons:

          Nice to have then all available without having to fumble with disks and the infuriatingly slow disk "loading" times.

          Second, losing all the stupid ads, promos and self-indulgent start-up menus so we can just watch the damn movie without pushing a bunch more buttons!

          Don't have Blu-Ray yet, all the Java possibilities scare me away as my wife can't deal with DVD menus as it is, more "options" is not helpful!

          If I could rip Blu-Ray to hard drive and just play it, then it might become viable for us. OTOH upsampled DVD leaves me questioning the need for Blu-Ray. At least until we upgrade to that 83" set my wife has her eye on.
          wkulecz
          • P.S. you can rip BluRay to your HD

            Google or read my threads.
            D.T.Schmitz
          • I have.

            I have, that is why I mentioned it. But I'd have to buy a Blu-Ray drive and disk to test things out. I'll likely wait for my Ubuntu 10.04 system upgrade (I only use LTS releases).

            With 1TB hard drives costing $70, BluRay burnable disks for data storage and backup seems a non-starter, so I've paid little attention to Blu-Ray hardware -- they wasted their small window of opportunity fighting with HDDVD disks.
            wkulecz
          • (accidental duplicate posting)

            apologies
            astro_z
          • P.P.S. you can rip BluRay to your HD, but you don't want to...

            Linux Advocate wrote:
            > Google or read my threads.

            From your cited:
            https://help.ubuntu.com/community/RestrictedFormats/BluRayAndHDDVD

            quoth: (the first two lines)
            ----------
            It's possible (although a little cumbersome) to play HD DVD and Blu-Ray films on Ubuntu.
            Audio in some films may not yet be supported.
            -----------

            Adrian's home theatre wisely included Blu-Ray since it's the current media of choice for the maximum entertainment packaging by the (hate them if you wish) movie industry.
            If you want all of the secondary featurettes in current packaging, you're forced to Blu-Ray.

            With a Windows-based system, little 6 year old Molly can pop in her brand new Disney BluRay and be watching it on her own.
            With a rip-it-file-it-and-then-view-it system, it's a much more tortuous process, so little Molly gets to wait until someone willing to thread the multi-click pathways has a half hour of free time.
            And even then it may turn into a silent movie.

            added:
            As a sort-of echo, visit:
            http://blogs.zdnet.com/Apple/?p=5928&tag=nl.e589
            astro_z
          • Read the chronology of threads; I was not recommending BluRay

            rather I was recommending Ubuntu Linux and Boxee.tv, with streaming media sources.
            D.T.Schmitz
      • The software that rips bluRay is a ....

        ... violation of the DCMA. It is definitely illegal in the U.S.
        ShadeTree
        • As I wrote...

          Whether it is 'legal' to do so or not is a separate question and another blog.

          BluRay is besides the point.

          Boxee can take input from Bittorrent, Netflix streams, Hulu streams, other streaming services, various standalone file video formats, CDs, DVDs sources.

          You can even buy a D-link Boxee router and get the price down further.
          D.T.Schmitz