Building an HTPC Part 1: A DVD/Media Server System

By Mike on 11:00 am

Filed Under: ,

In the old days, each home entertainment device you had was separate, leaving a huge mess of shelves, ugly units, and cable spaghetti clogging up your living room. Now that's changed. Using low to mid end computer components, you can easily combine your TV tuner, DVR, and Blu-ray/DVD player, CD player, and media server into one unit that can also surf the web and stream Internet videos. These are known as Home-Theater PCs. HTPCs first hit the market about 10 years ago and were vary expensive. Today, you can build your HTPC system with off the shelf components. There are a lot of options available. We'll look at three systems. A high end Blu-Ray Capable System, a mid range Blu-ray system, and a low profile DVD/Media Server system.

Low Profile DVD/DVR System
When building a low profile system, you'll want to look for mini-ITX motherboards. These are boards that measure 6.7'' x 6.7'' maximum. The idea behind this build is to make a small, energy efficient system that functions as both a DVD player and media server. So lets get to assembling a system for under $500.

Motherboard: JetWay JNC91-330-LF Atom 330 Dual Core ($149.99)
CPU: Intel Atom 330 1.6ghz (Included with motherboard)
Memory: Kingston 2gb DDR2-533mhz RAM ($25.49)
Graphics: Sparkle Geforce 8400GS 256mb PCI($61.99)
Hard Drive: Seagate Barracuda 500gb ST3500418AS, 7200rpm, 3.5'' SATAII ($79.99)
Disc Drive: LiteOn 22x DVD+/-RW, 5.25'' IDE. ($25.99)
Case: Apex MI-008 Black with 250w PSU ($61.61)
Keyboard: Logitech Wireless RF EX100 with Mouse ($30.99)
OS: Mythbuntu 32-bit

Total: $437.05

Intel's Atom processor was originally intended for the netbook market. However, it's rapidly finding it's way into livings room through nettops and HTPCs. The processor offers a small profile and uses a minimal amount of power, allowing it to run cool and quite. Unfortunately, it's not quite powerful enough for HD media. This is where the Atom 330 comes in. It had dual 1.6ghz cores allowing it to take advantage of multithreaded applications and multitasking. Even still, it needs a little more beef for handling HD content. The JetWay motherboard is still pretty basic. It only has one expansion slot, the older PCI. This means we have to use a PCI graphics card like the Sparkle 8400GS. This card is not suitable for gaming but includes NVIDIA's PureVideo HD acceleration to assist in playing back your high definiton media. Intel's integrated GMA 950 used with this motherboard is far too weak for this purpose so a discrete GPU is necessary. THe Sparkle 8400GS is passively cooled allowing your system to run near silently.

I decided to go with Mythbuntu instead of Vista to cut costs. It's basically a media centre version of the popular Ubuntu Linux operating system. It is available free of charge like all versions of Ubuntu. It is also the reason why I went with NVIDIA for the graphics card since they have better Linux drivers than ATI does. If Linux isn't your thing, you can still use Windows. I recommend Windows XP MCE 2005 for Atom based systems since it requires less computing power than Vista does. Using XP MCE will cost an additional $160 on top of the hardware. Windows Vista Home Premium can also be used with this system. It has built in media centre applications and is slightly cheaper at $145. Buy OEM copies instead of the retail boxed versions as you can save a significant amount of money that way. Since the Atom lacks 64-bit support, make sure you are buying a 32-bit operating system for it.

The case by Apex is low profile and should fit in nicely in a compact home entertainment centre. Unfortunately, proper HTPC cases that support mini-ITX are hard to find. The whole footprint of the case is slightly larger than a piece of letter sized paper. The 250w power supply is more than enough for this system since the Atom uses so little power. The 500gb hard drive offers plenty of storage for your media but you can upgrade it easily to 1tb for about $40 more if you're storing a lot of HD content. You could also upgrade your system to a Blu-ray ROM drive, which go for around $150. I recommend the Lite-On iHES206-08. The Geforce 8400GS is HDCP compatible, allowing it to play 1080p content over DVI. It has no HDMI port but DVI-to-HDMI adapter cables are available. The system has four USB 2.0 ports so you can further customize the system with full surround sound capability, TV tuners to make it a DVR, Wifi, and Bluetooth. I didn't include a monitor with the system since I'm assuming it will be paired with an existing HDTV.

All prices are from with the exception of the operating systems, which are from NCIX. All prices are in Canadian funds.

0 comments for this post