With a new year comes new projects (and after Christmas specials)! I apologize for the pause in updates. We took a short, unexpected vacation to get all prepared for 2010. Hopefully everyone had a safe and wonderful holiday and took time to be with family and friends. Well, now we are settled back in and excited to get things rolling again!
During our vacation, I decided to change a few things around here for the site. Most of the changes are behind-the-scenes changes, but I hope they will help to make things better for everyone. One of the notable changes is the addition of a contact page. If you go to the “Contact Us” page in the sidebar, you will be able to contact me directly with any questions, comments, or general feedback you may have. I am always happy to hear from you all!
As the title suggests, this new year brings about a number of new projects. To start the year off right, I’ll be working on a new HTPC build which I will detail below. This will be all new hardware to expand my home theater setup. My current setup is rather lacking as you will notice on the Projects page. I currently stream all my media across the network to my HDTV via my Playstation 3. You all know how limiting that can be, but it has served its purpose well so far. Additionally, the audio side of things is rather non-existent as it is all handled by the built-in speakers of the TV. How lame is that, right!? Well, I will also be beefing the audio side up with the addition of a new A/V Receiver.
Home Theater PC Build
Let’s get into some of the gritty details now! No home theater is right without a home theater PC (HTPC) to drive it all properly. Late last year and early this year has brought about a lot of new exciting technologies that are geared toward improving the media center arena. Some of the more notable releases being Intel’s new Core ix series of processors with an integrated HD GPU and HD audio support, ATI’s new Radeon HD 5xxx series GPU’s with full support for bitstreaming HD audio codecs and video over the same HDMI output, Nvidia’s release of VDPAU technology for hardware accelerated codec support, and the expansion of Western Digital’s Green Power hard drives with larger cache sizes. With so many advancements, home theater enthusiasts are left with a large number of choices to bring them closer to that perfect HTPC setup.
I have been researching a lot of these new technologies and their corresponding hardware trying to piece together that perfect HTPC build. My goal is to expand my home theater with a decent HTPC while keeping costs as low as possible (around the $500-$600 range). As of right now, I think I have made it pretty close. Here are the pieces I’ve come up with so far:
The Core i3 includes Intel’s “Integrated HD GPU” which opens a lot of interesting doors for home theater enthusiasts. Up until now, consumers had to make a trade-off with their choice of graphics processor. An Nvidia solution would get you the awesome (and open source) VDPAU technology which provides hardware accelerated decoding of typically CPU-intensive video codecs such as H.264 or VC-1. The use of VDPAU offloads this to the GPU and really speeds things up for a nice smooth video viewing experience. However, audiophiles were left using either optical outputs or going with something like the Auzentech solutions to mux the audio and video streams to a single HDMI output. ATI addressed this with their Radeon HD 5xxx series cards which offer full bitstreaming support for HD audio codecs out the same HDMI connection as the video with the integrated HDMI connection. Unfortunately, ATI couldn’t accept the idea of using an Nvidia technology despite it being open source and freely licensable. Instead, they have come up with the Unified Video Decoder (UVD) to hardware acceleration of H.264 and VC-1 codecs. This is however, only available within Windows. So those hoping for a cheap Linux-based HTPC are stuck waiting for them to get their X-video Bitstreaming Acceleration (XvBA) technology working properly. Intel’s integrated HD gpu provides the hardware acceleration of H.264 and VC-1 codecs AND full bitstreaming support for HD audio codecs such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA. I am still waiting to hear back from Intel regarding Linux support these exciting new capabilities and will be sure to update you all as soon as I do.
Motherboard: Intel BOXDH55TC MicroATX – $99
To complement the above Core i3 processor, the Intel BOXDH55TC sports the new H55 chipset and fully supports their new integrate HD GPU features such as the hardware accelerated video decoding and HD audio bitstreaming. It also has a single PCIe 2.0 x16 slot for possibly upgrading to a HD 5xxx series or other discreet GPU in the future. This may come in handy once ATI releases a card with full support of XvBA for the perfect Linux HTPC. Being a MicroATX board, it should also fit nicely into most HTPC cases on the market today.
This is just a standard 4GB kit of DDR3. Since the Intel board (and most H55/H57 boards I found) only supports dual channel memory instead of triple channel, a simple 4GB should hold its weight rather well. This will be a dedicated HTPC machine reserved for media playback only and no gaming. So it won’t need an abundant amount of memory to perform its relegated tasks well.
In my home theater setup, I have a front-end that pulls, or streams, media from a dedicated media server (the one detailed on the Projects page) across the network and displays to an HDTV. Currently my PS3 is serving as the front-end and it will be replaced by this HTPC build. Given this sort of setup and the fact I won’t be recording any cable or OTA broadcasts, there is not much of a need for a large amount of local disk space. In fact I would have gone with a smaller drive, but this is the smallest size WD makes in the green power series with a 32MB cache. I would have gone with the enticing 64MB cache 640GB drive, but settled for the 500GB 32MB cache for cost reasons. This HTPC will be a dual boot configuration with both Linux and Windows 7 running XBMC.
The case is the area I seem to be having the most trouble with. So far, I think I will be settling on the Antec NSK2480 for its feature:price ratio. As a bonus, it includes a nice 80 PLUS Certified EarthWatts 380 Watt ATX12V v2.2 power supply with Active PFC. This removes the need and additional cost of a separate PSU. Given the fact that I won’t need to power a massive PCIe graphics card and will be using the Core i3 with its MASSIVE 73w power draw, I think the included 380w PSU should hold over rather well. If anyone thinks otherwise, please speak up in the comments below! So far, this seems to be one of the best HTPC cases that I could find in this price range. Most of the similar priced ones are either lower quality or with less features. On the other hand, most of the similar featured or more revered HTPC cases are easily twice the price. Do any of you have experience with this case and have any feedback on it? If not, which HTPC did you go with and how do you like it? I am not hard set on this case just yet and am still very open to suggestions so please leave your suggestions below.
This HTPC build comes to about $502, so it nicely meets the allotted budget mentioned above. Obviously there are still a few things missing such as a good remote and so forth. I have left those out of the pricing as they are more of additional nice-to-haves than actually required pieces for a functional home theater PC. The fact that I haven’t settled on a remote just yet also plays in there as well. At the moment, I am leaning heavily toward one of the Logitech Harmony offerings. I haven’t decided just which one yet, though. I would like to hear the communities suggestions on their favorite HTPC remotes and how they have interfaced them with their HTPC.
As I mentioned, my home theater lacks a proper audio configuration and I have made it my new year’s resolution to remedy this. Now, like most people, I don’t have money to just throw around and am, therefore, working with a budget here. After comparing a number of different products, their offered specs, and their prices, I have decided on the Onkyo TX-SR607.
The TX-SR607 offers:
- 6 HDMI Inputs / 1 HDMI Output
- DD Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD MA Decoding
- 7.2 Channels with 90w per channel
- Audyssey Dynamic EQ/Volume
- Dolby PLIIz
- 192k/24 bit DACs
- 1080i Upscaling
- Powered 2nd Zone
The only thing left is to find some nice speakers, even if just a 5.1 setup, for this bad boy to push. With the receiver coming in at around $400, I’ve only got about $1-200 to work with on speakers. Admittedly this is not my strong point, so I am looking for your input on a speaker set. What have you all seen work well in a 5.1 setup and go for a nice budgeted price?
Well, it’s good to be back and this year brings a whole new batch of home theater projects and related releases. I want to hear from you on what types of projects you are all working on or planning out for the new year. What types of upgrades or new builds do you have in the works? I look forward to all of your feedback and hope you have a great 2010!