October 12, 2009

HTPC update

Filed under: HTPC, Tech — Chris @ 7:43 pm

I’ve spent some more time on the HTPC project over the last week, taking into consideration advice I got from my last post, and looking more carefully at the cost and requirements of a DIY system.

Stephen pointed me toward the “digital media player” category, like the Apple TV or the Roku Digital Video Player. These only solve half the problem: they get digital video onto your TV, but they provide little or no storage space for your media. We are badly in need of storage space (like I said, the Mac that holds our iTunes is close to dying). The natural storage solution for a media player is network-attached storage, like the Apple Time Capsule, but then you’re probably losing money—and certainly flexibility and upgradability—compared to a more integrated approach.

Cheng-Hong suggested a (hacked?) Playstation 3, essentially as a digital media player with the added benefit of Blu-ray movies and games. The built-in storage on a Playstation is both over-priced and scant, so this suffers from the same problems as above.

Manu sent me a link to this HDMI HTPC Howto, which I will place in my reference pile alongside the Linux HTPC Howto and Engadget’s budget HTPC project. This Howto reminds me that one must be careful setting up a system with HDMI if a goal is to play Blu-ray movies: to satisfy the DRM, every link in the chain from the player to the television must be “fully protected.” It seems this can be a particular problem with audio, though I have no intention to set up 8-channel sound in our living room any time soon.

I found this wishlist blog post helpful, especially his suggestion to use a cheap, low-power, single-core processor for video processing. Looking at this (somewhat outdated) CPU benchmark, I had convinced myself the best “bang for the buck” was probably a AMD Phenom X4 quad-core CPU, which would have plenty of extra capacity to do HD transcoding if it comes to that. The trouble is that quad-core CPUs run at 95-125W, compared to as little as 45W for a single-core, and keeping things as cool as possible is essential for a nice, quiet living room PC.

This highlights a more general question. I can go “low end,” with a smaller case, a slower/cooler CPU, and less room for expansion, and just accept that if I, say, decide I really want to record HDTV off an antenna that I’ll have to reinvest in more expensive equipment; or I can spend a bit more to have some expansion capacity, and maybe buy a bit more HTPC than I really need. I haven’t decided what I’m going to do yet. I’m going to worry on it for a few weeks.

Here’s a very tentative first draft “shopping list” for a DIY HTPC. Prices given are what I see online as of the time of publishing, not including tax and shipping.

  • Motherboard: ASUS M3N78-VM Micro-ATX (includes on-board graphics, sound, and networking; does not include FireWire) Price: $75 (Note that the set “AMD Micro-ATX motherboards with on-board NVIDIA graphics AND HDMI AND FireWire” appears to be uninhabited.)
  • CPU: AMD Athlon 64 X2 5200 2.7GHz 65W Dual-Core Price: $60
  • Memory: Wintec AMPX 2GB (2 x 1GB) 240-Pin DDR2 800 SDRAM Price: $30 (I’m pretty shocked at how expensive RAM is. I expected 4GB for this price.)
  • Hard drive: Seagate Barracuda 1TB 7200rpm Price: $80 (I will probably also scavenge a two-year-old 400GB drive from the G4.)
  • Optical drive: Samsung SH-S222A DVD+RW Price: $30
  • Case: Antec Fusion (includes power supply and remote control) Price: $140 [CORRECTION: The Antec Fusion Remote does not include a power supply]
  • Keyboard: IOGEAR GKM561R Wireless Keyboard with Trackball Price: $55

These components meet all my minimum requirements at a total price of $470 (or, to put it another way, about six months of Time Warner cable). An HDTV tuner card would add $80-100. A Blu-ray player would add $30-90. A Windows license to make the Blu-ray player fully functional would add $100 (at least. There’s too many damn versions to know for sure).

(Aside: I’m a bit confused how Engadget’s 3-month-old “budget” HTPC managed to cost nearly $1000. They included 2 HDTV tuners and a Blu-ray player, a quad-core CPU, and “couldn’t resist” upgrading to non-integrated sound and video cards (couldn’t resist how, exactly?). All that, plus a Windows license, adds up to an extra $580. The only parts that seem the least bit necessary are the tuner cards and the Blu-ray player, and they contribute less than half of the cost. Seems to me they featherbedded it because $750 isn’t a good headline price point.)


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