How To Build and Equip Your Home Theater PC

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How To Build and Equip Your Home Theater PC


How_To_HTPC.jpgIs it fair to say that audio/video source components have changed radically over the past few years? As technology continues its persistent march forward into the future, it's often our source components that are the first to be put out to pasture. I've been involved in the hobby of audiophilia and home theater for over fifteen years, during which time I've owned countless source components such as turntables and cassette, CD, mini-disc (remember those?), SACD, VHS, D-VHS, laserdisc, DVD, HD DVD and now Blu-ray players. It wouldn't be as bad had I not owned multiples of each, for all too often, even within the scope of a single format, changes would force me to purchase all-new players - or they just outright broke (ahem, first-generation Blu-ray). With source components on their way out, along with physical media, it may seem odd that I'm suggesting that you build a source component in the form of an HTPC, but that's precisely what I'm about to do. Not because I feel you need another source component, but because I believe the HTPC is THE LAST source component worth your investment, for when physical media goes the way of the dinosaur, you'll still have the need for an HTPC.

Additional Resources
• Read more original material like this in our Feature News Stories section.
• See more media server news from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Explore reviews in our Media Server Review section.
• Join the discussion about Andrew's process on the Home Theater Equipment thread.

HTPCs are nothing new. In fact, they've been with us for some time and have developed a sort of cultish following among specialty forums and such throughout the Internet. There have been a few companies over the years that have attempted to take the HTPC mainstream, but most have largely failed. Others gave them new names, such as Sooloos and Kaleidescape, and found ways of charging a king's ransom for what many knew to be possible for a few hundred dollars. For me, I became interested in HTPCs following a few discussions over on our forum, HomeTheaterEquipment.com, regarding how to rip and store media of different types in order to get off the format rollercoaster. While I wasn't able to contribute to the conversation in any meaningful way at the time - I was a Mac guy and had no Earthly idea how to build a PC, much less a purpose-built home theater one - I was intrigued, so much so that I sought out what I thought was going to be a solid compromise between my Mac self and the HTPC group in the form of the Dune HD Max player. The Dune HD Max player opened my eyes to a whole new world and got me thinking, "What would it really take to build a future-proof platform from which I could enjoy virtually every piece of content I had in my possession?"

As I would come to find out - it's not that hard.

I began my HTPC build by making a list of all the content I wanted to be able to play back, as well as a set of features and/or methods I wanted to employ in order to enjoy said content. It wasn't a big list, but I urge anyone considering a build such as mine to make one, for it's always easier to add and subtract on paper than it is in the physical realm. For me, my HTPC would have to do the following: play back CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays in their full native formats and be able to be upgraded to 4K or be 4K-ready out of the gate, as well as be easy and intuitive to use. That last criteria would be judged not by me but by my wife, who admittedly says a prayer every time she goes online, for technology "scares" her. Since I've been a Mac enthusiast for nearly as long as I've been into home theater, I thought I'd start there. However, it didn't take long before I realized Apple wasn't the place to turn to for true full-resolution playback of anything, even if they scored high marks for ease of use. Knowing nothing of PCs and their respective components, I hunkered down for some long nights of reading and doing research.

What I discovered was, just as with home theater, many of the specialty PC publications tended to focus on the latest and greatest the industry had to offer. Not that doing so is an altogether bad thing, but as great as an Intel i7 Ivy Bridge (or even Sandy Bridge) processor is, it's overkill for what is required to play back HD and even 4K content. I got a glimpse of the battle between AMD and Intel, much like the arguments between audiophiles and home theater enthusiasts, with both sides exuding levels of passionate discourse that rival anything I've seen or read as it pertains to vinyl vs. digital downloads. I'll spare you the details, in hopes that this article will get you on the right path quicker and with fewer headaches than what I endured.

Read about the parts and the build of this HTPC on Page 2.


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After two months of reading, researching and speaking with manufacturers and designers, I decided how to go about assembling my first-ever HTPC. Should this experiment have failed, I didn't want to be saddled with a really expensive boat anchor, so I kept myself to a strict budget of under $500. I arrived at a budget of $500 because a) some of our forum members said it couldn't be done and b) it was roughly the cost of an entry-level Oppo universal player, which my HTPC had to outperform if I was ever going to convince others to make the leap from traditional disc spinners to building their own HTPCs.

The Parts
I started with the case, which ended up eating up a good portion of my budget, not because there aren't affordable cases out there, but because I wanted to make sure I got a case that would allow for virtually unlimited expansion down the road. I found such a case in the form of SilverStone Technology's LC20 HTPC case. The LC20 retails for $124.99 and is available online through retailers such as Tiger Direct and Newegg. It's a beautifully constructed case inside and out, and is capable of playing host to a barrage of internal components, ranging from full-sized motherboards to GPUs, as well as being able to house multiple hard drives. You can read about the LC20 in detail in its own review on HomeTheaterReview.com. The other nice thing about the LC20 is that it looks at home in a home theater system, which was also important to me, since I knew the final product was going to be rack-mounted with the rest of my equipment and on display for all to see.

With $375 remaining, it was time to pick a CPU. A seasoned veteran would know that you could easily get away with a CPU that is a few generations old from either AMD or Intel and save even more money, but I wanted to keep the items as current as possible to make it easy on other newbies like myself. I ultimately chose AMD's new FX-4100, which I was able to purchase, on sale, from Tiger Direct for $89. In retrospect, I could've easily gone with a lesser A6 chip from AMD and saved even more, but a four-core 3.60GHz CPU for less than $100 was too good to pass up. Since I opted to go with AMD, choosing a compatible motherboard was a bit more straightforward, as I had to get one that was compatible with my AMD CPU, which narrowed the list down considerably. I ultimately settled on the Asus M5A88-V for $129.99. I would later discover that I should've gotten the same board minus the onboard video for around $99.99, since I ultimately ended up buying a separate graphics card - more on that later.

With the CPU and motherboard out of the way, it was time to pick out the supporting cast, starting with memory. I went with 8GB of Kingston DDR3-1333 memory for $56. Next, I chose a power supply in the form of a Coolmax VL-600B, which churns out an impressive 600 watts of power for $34.99. Then I picked out a Lite-On Blu-ray reader/burner for $79.99, followed by the last component, a 1.5TB hard drive from Seagate for $109.99.

I ended up going over budget by $14.96, which isn't bad, considering I knew I went a little overboard on my choice of case, CPU, memory and hard drive. You could easily build an HTPC that would more than do the trick for less than $500. In fact, I've since learned that some of our forum members are attempting builds for around $300! One of the items I didn't factor in was software, mostly because I knew I would be experimenting a lot with various offerings and also because I already owned or had access to the OS, which in this case would be Windows 7.

The Build

How_To_HTPC_01-RAW_PARTS.jpgI enlisted the help of my friend and fellow HomeTheaterEquipment.com forum member Ray Coronado (aka RayJr on HomeTheaterEquipment.com) to help me with the build, since he'd done this sort of project before. The first thing you want to do is make sure you have a clean and clear workspace, one capable of letting you spread out a bit, for you're going to want to keep things organized and grouped by order of installation, starting with the case.

How_To_HTPC_02-EMPTY_CASE.jpgPrepping the case was easy. A Phillips-head screwdriver was all it took to remove the cover and support braces. With the case's innards exposed, it was time to "dry fit" the motherboard. Not all motherboards mount the same, so you're going to want to take care in matching it up with the mounting points inside your chosen case. It's an easy process, but one you'll want to do before committing any screws to their pre-drilled holes. With the motherboard mounted, it was time to mount the power supply. There's only one place for any power supply to go in any particular, case so it's pretty cut and dried. With the power supply mounted, we followed the motherboard instructions on where each connector and power lead was meant to go.

How_To_HTPC_03-MOTHERBOARD_INSTALLED.jpgHow_To_HTPC_04-POWERSUPPLY_INSTALLED.jpgNext up, we removed the hard drive and optical disc cages. A couple of screws was all it took and, in no time, both the Lite-On Blu-ray drive and Seagate hard drive were mounted. We simply placed the cages back in their original position, connected the power supply to the respective leads and moved on.

How_To_HTPC_05-BLURAY_INSTALLED.jpgInstalling the CPU was pretty straightforward; in fact, my nerves had blown the process out of proportion, for it was really not that special. The CPU fan was a bit more difficult, because the instructions weren't one hundred percent clear, but it was still doable. With the CPU and cooler installed, the last piece was the memory. Following a quick look at the motherboard's instruction manual, this told me which of the four memory slots my 4GB memory modules were to be utilized.

How_To_HTPC_06-MEMORY_CPU_INSTALLED.jpgOnce the memory was installed, it was time to button everything up and begin with software installation.

Operating System and Software Installation
I'm not going to lie: installing any operating system, whether it be Windows or Apple OS, isn't fun. In reality, it is mind-numbing and takes the shady side of forever. It was at this point that Ray and I let the machine do its thing and we went to lunch. Two hours later, it was done and we were ready to do a few software updates before moving into the final software installation.

I'll come clean and tell you that I didn't actually arrive at my final software choices the day we built the HTPC. It actually took me a while and a lot of trial and error. I will say this: out of the box, Windows 7 does offer Microsoft Media Center, as well as Media Player, both of which are truly all that is required to enjoy all your favorite music and movies, once you've gotten them onto your hard drive. However, I was looking for something a little slicker, so I didn't just stop at stock.

First, I had to deal with the task of ingesting content. For music CDs, this isn't a difficult task and Windows Media Player is more than capable of handling it without a lot of fuss. If you have a large iTunes library, you either make the decision to load iTunes onto your PC (if you haven't already) and keep things simple, or you can convert them to a DRM-free format, either by using the tried and true method of writing them to a CD and then re-ripping them, or using a program by the name of TuneClone, which tricks your computer into thinking it's ripping a CD. TuneClone achieves this sleight of hand by creating a virtual optical drive, but instead of writing your music files to a CD, it writes them to a folder in your hard drive. The problem with this or even the CD method is that you also lose a lot of your metadata in the process. Don't despair, though, because a program I'll discuss later will fix all that. Newer iTunes music isn't as restrictive as older iTunes tracks, but neither are ideal, which is why I chose to re-encode them in a more universal format. For the low-res tracks, this meant unrestricted MP3s. One of the other reasons I decided to go the HTPC route was to divorce myself from Apple and iTunes, which have simply become too restrictive for my needs. If you don't download music from iTunes, then chances are you can go ahead and skip the previous steps, for music purchased from Amazon or any other online downloadable music store tends not to come with as much BS attached - at least in my experience. Like I said, dealing with music, whether encoding or playback, is pretty straightforward and not at all taxing on your system. Standard CDs via the HTPC described above using Media Player are ripped in roughly a minute to a minute-and-a-half and pulling metadata from the Net is equally fast.

Ripping SD and HD content is a bit more involved, but not impossible. Obviously, it's illegal to rip or make copies of copyrighted material, even if you own the disc, so don't do it. That said, there's no law against talking about products and/or software that can rip SD and HD content and, since I happen to possess a lot of such content in non-copyrighted form, I can tell you how it is done. I use a program called MakeMKV. A lot of people like ISO-based rips and I can tell you from personal experience they're basically the same, for each is nothing more than a container for whatever media you're encoding within. The reason I went with MKV was because there is currently a movement underway against ISO, and a lot of players that used to support it no longer do so. MKV, for whatever reason, has slipped below the radar for now. At least in my home, it is far more compatible with more products. MakeMKV is largely a free program (it requires a re-install every 30-days or so) and gives you the ability to encode only the content you want bit-for-bit, which means bye-bye trailers and silly menus and hello movie. MakeMKV works for both HD and SD content, provided your optical drive will support both, which ours does. Two hours of SD content is ripped in around 12 minutes; HD content takes a little longer, coming in at around 20 minutes. In case you're wondering, that's fast. If you want to see a step-by-step tutorial on how to use MakeMKV, please visit our forum. One thing you'll want to take special note of when using MakeMKV, or any ripping software, for that matter, is to be sure to rip whatever content to its own folder, labeled with the appropriate name. For example, if you're ripping Space Sloth From Mars (not a real movie, as far as I know) from a Blu-ray disc using MakeMKV, you'll want to be sure that the MKV file is saved to a folder named Space Sloth From Mars.

With my content now dealt with and resting peacefully on various network-attached drives, it was time to consolidate and put a nice shiny wrapper on my entire library. To accomplish this task, I turned to the media-serving software J River. J River is a $50 program that is nearly infinitely customizable, yet has a user interface not unlike iTunes -only it's taken to 11. Simply telling J River where your media is stored will begin a process that, depending on the size of your library, may take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours as it catalogues, tags and pulls down artwork and metadata for everything - provided you named your folders properly. Once J River has found all of your media, you can go through and make changes to the artwork or metadata if need be or get on with simply enjoying your newfound disc-less entertainment freedom. There's a lot more to J River and I plan on doing a full review of the program soon, but for now, let me just say it's amazing and worth every penny. Furthermore, its playback performance on everything from Blu-rays to music CDs is every bit on par with my reference source component - Cambridge Audio's Azur 751BD Universal Player. Well, the Cambridge can't store movies the way my HTPC can, nor does it have as slick an interface as the one J River provides. J River, from an end user standpoint, is as refined and nearly as visually impressive as Sooloos and/or K-Scape.

Conclusion
I'm more than pleased with the results I've gotten from my first-ever HTPC build. I know I may be late to the party, but hopefully this article spawns a little resurgence in the mighty purpose-built PC world. You never know. Since the initial build, I've added more hard drives, bringing the internal storage count to three terabytes (I believe), with plenty of room for more.

I've also added a dedicated video card in the form of NVIDIA's GeForce GT520, which stabilized the entire system's playback and allowed me to run up to three monitors simultaneously, all at 1080p resolution. The card is also HDMI 1.4a-compatible, meaning it'll do 3D as well as 4K - when and if 4K becomes available. I would've tested the card's 4K capabilities with Sony's new VPL-VW1000ES 4K projector, but Sony pulled it from my hands before I had a chance to put it through its paces. The card itself was a big improvement over the motherboard's built-in graphics, not so much in image quality but in system stability, and it only cost me $49, so it was well worth it.

If the concept of a do it yourself purpose-built PC is still a little daunting, may I recommend an affordable alternative in the form of an all-in-one PC. These sleek, often touch-screen, PCs are very affordable and have more than enough computing power to serve as the head of your personal media empire. Plus, if you get one with a touch-screen, your experience when surfing through your music won't be too unlike that of Sooloos owners.

At the end of the day, my HTPC, loaded up with MakeMKV and J River and a few other odds and ends, is every bit as good as anything K-Scape has produced and even rivals Sooloos in many respects, yet cost me around $600 all-in and is easy to upgrade in the future. Is it the best source I've ever had? I think it is and I'm not alone, for my wife loves it. Remember, she was always going to be the final judge.

Additional Resources
• Read more original material like this in our Feature News Stories section.
• See more media server news from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Explore reviews in our Media Server Review section.
• Join the discussion about Andrew's process on the Home Theater Equipment thread.

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