Over the past decade computers have slowly but surely crept their way into the living rooms of more than just uber geeks. I’ve wanted to build a dedicated HTPC for ages but I’ve never felt the timing was quite right, until now. Full HD TV’s are dirt cheap, the computer hardware required to run and store 1080p is cheaper and more readily available than ever. Recent graphic cards that have HDMI output supporting 7.1 surround sound means that you can easily assemble an HTPC with a single cable connecting to the TV. Hard drives cheap and big enough to support even the most ambitious media collections. My childhood dream of having access to a massive media archive at my fingertips is almost a reality; no more having to search for that elusive DVD missing from it’s cover to watch something
Building your own HTPC is not that different from putting together a regular computer, but there are some things you should keep in mind.
- Aesthetics; the computer case will be a part of your living room so you want it to look pretty and blend in. Luckily there are now a ton of different dedicated HTPC computer cases available both for full ATX and micro ATX motherboards.
- Ability to playback HD content; make sure your hardware is able to cope with playing what you want especially if you’re planning on watching a lot of 1080p.
- Noise level; computers can be noisy, fans, powersupply and harddrives all add to the noise output. Make sure you get low noise or silent components if you can. Sound proofing in the case would also help.
- Connectivity to the TV; make sure your motherboard or graphic card has HDMI support ideally with integrated 7.1 sound if you want a single cable solution.
- Remote control and/or wireless keyboard; the options for remotes and wireless keyboard are huge, it depends highly on your budget and needs. Look for a keyboard with Bluetooth support and ensure that the remote is compatible with your operating system.
- Media Centre software; to manage and playback your media. Windows Media Centre works…sort of. If you want something better and cooler though you should look at XBMC instead. The really cool thing is that it’s completely free.
Aesthetics: Making sure your HTPC looks cool
The first thing you’ll want to do when starting to plan your HTPC is to choose a suitable HTPC computer case. The last thing you want in your living room is a big ugly computer case that won’t fit into the TV unit. Apart from defining the overall looks of your HTPC the choice of case also directly impacts the type of motherboard you can fit and the number of drives you can add so it’s worth having a bit of a ponder about what to get.
For my own HTPC I have certain requirements that narrows down my options for cases.
- It needs to look cool! This is of course a given for most of us but looks are also a subjective thing and not everybody likes the same thing.
- It needs to support multiple drive bays be able to gradually expand with more hard drives for extra storage without having resort to using a NAS any time soon
- It needs to support a full ATX motherboard
- It can’t be too big and should fit comfotably into the TV unit
At the top of my list at the moment is the Silverstone LC16 Black ATX HTPC case. It’s not the slickest looking case out there, but it’s still pretty cool and the main selling point for me was the internal layout and six 3.5″ drive bays. It also has a built in 52-in-1 card reader, IR receiver and comes with a remote control. It’s quite readily available at a lot of online retailers which is more than I can say for some of the other cases I considered. There might be other cases coming out soon to surpass this but for now it’s my pick of the litter. If you don’t like black then don’t worry, it comes in silver as well.
Noise level: sound proofing your HTPC
The main sources of noise from a computer are typically from fans and hard drives. When it comes to hard drives you have mainly two options adding sound dampening around the drives and/or inside the case as well as adding drive rail dampeners. Adding padding around the drives will result in the drives running hotter though so personally I’d go for the drive rail dampeners instead. These are basically washers or wool felt depener cushions that fit pretty much all standard screw sizes. The good thing, it costs virtually nothing. A pack of 16 will set you back less than $10.
Fans are the biggest contributing factor to noise in your case. Typically you’re looking at fan noise from:
- Power supply fans: Make sure you buy a silent PSU, it may cost a bit extra but it’ll be worth it.
- CPU fan(s): Get rid of your stock cooler and get a silent CPU cooler with a better heatsink. If you’ve got cash to splash then consider a water cooling system if you can fit it in your HTPC case.
- I need something suitable for the Intel Core i5 (Socket 1156) so I’ll probably go for something like the “Zalman CNPS8700 NT CPU Cooler, Pure Copper Base, 2-Ball Bearing, Multi Socket, Ultra Quiet 110mm”
- Graphics card fans: Look for cards with silent cooling, they won’t be completely silent but much quieter than the stock and even better try to get a card using a completely fanless cooling solution.
- Additional case fans: If possible limit these to the bare minimum and get higher quality fans that produce less noise and less vibration.
On the inside an HTPC is not that different from a regular PC. On the outside the case makes all the difference but when it comes to looks and overall aesthetics for cases that is a very subjective matter best left up to the individual. When buying an HTPC case consider what your requirements are with regards to size, storage capacity and looks. You’ll want something that will fit into the TV unit or wherever you have plans for putting it. Something that matches the other media components and TV and doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb would also be preferable to most people. Be very aware of potential noise factors when choosing components and aim to keep everything as silent as possible. You don’t want to be constantly listening to a faint, or not so faint, humming sound in your living room.