Building your own HTPC FAQ: A basic guide from experience.

This article was originally created on April 12th, 2005.

What is an HTPC and what are the benefits?

Basically, an HTPC is little more than a computer hooked up to display on a television/projector. Because it is a computer, this gives you the versatility to do many things all from the comfort of your family room (or wherever you decide to have it).

Some of the functions include enhanced DVD playing, PVR (personal video recorder) functions, playing games, and surfing the Internet.

What are some things I should have before deciding to build an HTPC?

I would say the biggest prerequisite is that you have a large, high-definition television (or projector). This is generally considered the focal point of a home theater. Secondarily, a good sound system is always a plus, especially with surround sound. This whole setup should be placed in a reasonably large, dedicated room (like a family room). If you’re in cramped quarters with a tiny television, you might as well stick with a standard PC setup since you won't be able to fit much other than a computer monitor anyway.

Also keep in mind that having an HTPC doesn’t necessarily mean you will no longer want to have a regular PC desktop setup. Personally, I find some things feel more comfortable on one and not the other. For example, watching DVDs is definitely for HTPCs. But I prefer my desktop setup for most of the computer games I play (mainly because of the more comfortable setup with the mouse and keyboard and a seat that keeps me in good posture).

What kind of video connection is best for an HTPC?

The quality of the output you get is largely dependent on what and how the information is input to those devices. This is a big part of where an HTPC shows its muscle. Ideally, you want the video output to be DVI or HDMI (then component, followed by S-video, followed by icky composite). This is limited by your video card AND by your TV, so it is important to check the specifications to both. Note that setting up a DVI connection is usually more difficult (but more rewarding). You might want to try component or S-video first and then start playing around with DVI afterwards if you have the desire and capability.

How do I build it and what is my primary focus?

As mentioned earlier, an HTPC really isn’t all that different than a regular PC. You’ll still have your motherboard, CPU, RAM, drive(s), and so forth. The major differences will have more to do with the change in focus.

The primary goal of a typical PC enthusiast revolves mostly around horsepower – how many frames per second you can render said game or what your score is on blah blah benchmark. Not so in the realm of an HTPC. The most common tasks of an HTPC don’t require all that much horsepower (for example, playing a DVD). Instead, the most important things are quietness and aesthetics. It sounds kind of petty, but remember that this thing will be sitting in your family room and possibly be on 24/7. You don’t want something that looks ugly and sounds like someone is vacuuming all the time.

For that reason, one of the biggest decisions you will make is what kind of case you use to house your HTPC. Not only for the looks on the outside, but also consider that the power supply is often the #1 source of noise for a PC (note that many cases have power supplies sold separately). I can’t stress this enough, and this is why I went to a computer show to buy my case instead of buying online like I normally do. This allows you the opportunity to see and hear it in person (although in hindsight, the computer show was so loud, it didn't make for a very good testing grounds). One more thing – when buying a case, pay attention to what form factor it is. Most HTPC cases use “Micro ATX” which means that you won’t be able to stick a typical ATX motherboard in there. Also look out for “small form factor” (SFF) which limits the height of your components as well. Micro ATX is good for HTPCs because it helps keep things more compact - but if you're looking to throw in some parts you've scrounged off of another desktop, you may need to find one that accomodates regular ATX.

The rest of the components are pretty typical. My current HTPC uses the following, which consists mostly of parts recycled from another rig (components with an * are things I bought new):

*CASE: CoolerMaster Cavalier 2 (PS could be quieter and difficult to replace due to non-standard size, noise-dial gimmick is retarded, otherwise good case)

MOBO: Abit K8T800 (not recommended, northbridge fan notorious for going to crap, I had to RMA it once – also, this is socket 754, see next item)

CPU: Athlon 64 2800+ (runs cool and powerful, Athlons never let me down – mine is a socket 754 but if you’re looking at Athlon 64s, you’ll want to get the newer socket 939 ones because they allow dual-channel DDR along with some other improvements)

*CPU FAN: Zalman CNPS7000B (dead silent when in “low speed” mode, but be careful because it is large and may not fit in some cases – CPU fans are also one of the biggest concerns for noise)

RAM: 512MB PC2700 RAM (this was just some RAM I pulled from another machine, I would generally want PC3200 RAM so that I could have 1:1 timings with my CPU/MOBO front side bus)

*SOUNDCARD: Audigy 2 Value (I was using the onboard sound, but noticed some fuzz at high volumes, got this for another computer, but threw it in to see if it helped – fuzz is gone, so it stays)

VIDEOCARD: Radeon 9700 Pro (videocards are also one of the biggest concerns for noise – this is a great videocard that is quiet and powerful for its age – also, the newest ATI Radeon drivers have some support for HTPCs!)

HARD DRIVE: Western Digital ATA 160GB HD (another part I threw in, works great but serial ATA is usually better for an HTPC not so much for the faster speed but because the cables are so much smaller which promotes airflow and makes them easier to deal with)

OPTICAL DRIVE: Generic 16x DVD drive (make sure the CD/DVD drive you get is quiet and doesn’t rattle – this can really be annoying in an HTPC case!)

*WIRELESS NIC: Belkin 802.11G Wireless PCI Card (If at all possible, stay away from Belkin products. I got this because I wanted something right away and it was cheap – you usually get what you pay for if not less than with Belkin products)

One last thing – peripherals! You’ll definitely want some sort of wireless keyboard and mouse available, and possibly a programmable remote depending on what you use it for. Most HTPC rooms will place you more than 10 feet from the console, so most RF wireless solutions won’t work at more than 6 feet (check the packaging carefully, some do reach longer). Personally, I bought the Gyration Ultra GT Compact Wireless Suite. This was expensive (in the $100 area) but it is probably the best wireless keyboard and mouse I’ve ever used. What’s more is that the mouse can be used IN THE AIR. Seriously, you hold it like a remote control and you can move the cursor around the screen just by moving your arm/wrist. It works amazingly well; I can’t imagine HTPC life without it anymore. Out of all of the components I bought, this was the most worth it!!!

I think that’s about it. You will want a PVR card if you want to add that capability to your HTPC. I didn’t put in a floppy drive because it isn’t necessary (especially if you have a USB key to transfer data with). Keep as few things in there as possible – for one, if your PS is silent, it probably isn’t very powerful so you don’t want to load it with too many power eaters. Also, you want to try and keep the airflow within the HTPC unobstructed and minimize the number of things that produce heat.

Alright, I’ve got my HTPC together – what about software?

Of course, you will need your basic software such as an operating system. I use Windows XP Professional. There is a “Windows XP Media Center Edition” available, but I haven’t used it so I can’t comment on it. Make sure your drivers and security are updated.

From there, probably the first thing you’ll want to get is Powerstrip. It’s free software that basically gives you more control over your video output than ever thought possible. This allows you to display and tweak resolutions that are otherwise untouchable. You will probably spend quite a bit of time here getting things fine-tuned to the resolution(s) you want that look the best on your display. I, for example, find that DVDs look best for me at 720P, so I set the basic display to be 1280x720 and then modify some of the settings so that there is no overscan (overscan is when parts of the picture are off screen).

After that, if you’re looking to play DVDs (assuming you have a DVD drive), you’ll want to get a software player with all of the capabilities you want. I personally use PowerDVD because it has a wealth of features and a streamlined interface along with pretty darned good audio and video playback (this is not free though, although there is a trial).

If you’re interested in playing around with picture quality enhancements, you’ll want to get FFDShow, which is a free program that integrates with DVD playing software to add “post processing” enhancements.

If you’re going that route, you’ll probably want to get Zoom Player, which allows you to pretty much add any and all of the audio/video filters that you like and gives you the capability to tweak a multitude of settings.

I need help or have some information I’d like to share!

Contact us through email or post on the forum. There’s plenty we’d be happy to teach and plenty more that we’d be happy to learn.

I'm bored of reading, what about pictures?

Ask and you shall receive. Each comment is referring to the picture above it.

Here is a picture of the inside of our HTPC. As you can see, everything is pretty cramped and airflow can be an issue if you don't have suitable fans and cable management.

Here is what the case looks like on the outside normally. That dial on left the measures sound and moves "to the beat". It's kind of ridiculous, I would much rather have a temperature monitor. It does glow a cool blue in the dark though.

Here is what the case looks like with the front panel open, exposing the DVD drive and some ports.

Here's the HTPC set up amongst our audio system. I later put it inside the cabinet to help dampen any noise exuded from it.

Yes, that's a limited edition Roy Fokker Veritch on the left. Tina got it for me a few birthdays ago. Also, that's a Mazinger figure suction cupped to the left side of the glass.

Here's a picture of Warcraft 3 being played on our 57" Hitachi television. I'm tempted to get World of Warcraft loaded up too, but since the HTPC is hooked up over wireless, that might not be such a great idea.

Here's a picture of a DVD being played from the HTPC to the TV. It's from the anime Nausicaa, one of my favorite movies of all time.