Choosing the right hardware for your needs. When choosing the components for your HTPC you should first consider what you will be using your HTPC for.
- Do you plan to play full HD 1080p content?
- Do you plan to play games?
- Do you plan to record TV programmes?
You don’t need the hardware of a revved up gaming computer just to watch HD content but if you plan on playing some newer games then you’ll probably want to invest a bit more in components. For slower systens there is now an ideal (and cheap) hardware solution to provide smoother 1080p playback even on slower machines, it’s called Broadcom Crystal HD. Check out the Broadcom website for more details.
HTPC Processor / CPU
The type of processor you choose will dictate what type of motherboard you’ll need to get so decide on a CPU first. If you plan on doing a lot of encoding or transcoding then you’ll probably want a decent CPU. If you’re planning on playing some games then you should also go for something slightly more powerful. I’ve narrowed my options down to the Intel Core i5 CPUs which offer the benefits of the Nehalem architecture and offer very good value for performance. More specifically the Intel Core i5 750, 2.66GHz, Quad Core, Socket LGA1156.
The Intel Core i5 750 is overkill for just a standard HTPC, however since I want to be able to play some games as well as do some encoding to get the rest of my DVD collection to disk it should suit my purposes well.
As mentioned above your options for motherboards will be dependent on your choice of processor and what socket that CPU uses. Since I’ve opted for the Intel Core i5 750 I’ll have to go for a Socket LGA1156 motherboard and the options are plenty. For my purposes I want to be able to expand to eventually use all six drive bays so I want to make sure the motherboard has 6 SATA connections for the hard drives and ideally an extra one for the optical drive so at least 7 in total. Other than that my only requirement is at least one PCIe x16 slot and 2 extra PCIe slots and a good number of USB ports which pretty much every motherboard comes with anyway.
If you’re on a bit of a budget you can consider a motherboard with build in graphics and HDMI + sound output, like the Gigabyte GA-H55M-UD2H. The motherboard will be a bit more expensive but you’ll save by not having to buy a graphics card. Most likely I’ll settle on something like the Gigabyte GA-P55-UD3, LGA1156, Dual DDR3-2200, Intel P55, 8x SATA or similar.
HTPC Memory / RAM
When it comes to memory 4GB should be enough, it comes as standard with most machines these days and costs next to nothing. Don’t get the cheapest RAM available though but don’t get the most expensive either. Somewhere in the middle price wise is usually a good buy and you really can’t go wrong these days as most memory come matched pairs. Just make sure you get RAM that fits your motherboard. For the Intel P55 chipset motherboards (Socket LGA1156) it will be DD3 RAM.
HTPC Graphics Card
You may not neccessarily need a graphics card for your HTPC, and even if you do you may opt to get a very cheap card purely for the HDMI output.
The key things you should consider when buying a graphics card for your HTPC are:
- It should have HDMI output with integrated sound
- It should be as silent as possible, ideally look for a card with a fanless cooling solution
- If it supports any hardware decoding improve playback and off-load the CPU that’s great (look for MPEG-2, MP4 and H.264 decoding is ideal)
- If it supports any kind of hardware encoding to provide real-time encoding or transcoding of mediia that’s even better
I’m considering either the ATI Radeon HD 5750 or HD 5770, which are overkill for a regular HTPC but since I want to play games either of these cards will keep me more than happy. The Radeon HD 5750 is also available in a fanless version from both PowerColor (PowerColor SCS3 HD5750) and Club 3D (Club 3D HD5750 Noiseless Edition). A cheaper alternative is the ATI Radeon HD 4300 series, these still support HDMI out and as with the HD 5750 includes the ATI Avivo HD Video and Display Platform and 2nd generation Unified Video Decoder (UVD 2). This not only improves video playback in terms of quality but it also enables hardware decode acceleration of H.264, VC-1 and MPEG-2 which will off-load CPU usage.
HTPC Storage / Hard Drives
Lots of storage is arguably the most important part of any HTPC system if you’re planning on having easy access to your media collection from disk or if you want ot record a significant amount of TV shows. These days hard drives come in Terabytes and are very affordable. At the time of writing the 1TB and 1.5TB drives are probably the best value for money but 2TB drives will soon come down in price as well.
I’m aiming for two 1.5TB Western Digital Caviar Green SATA2 drives to start off with. Once they run full I’ll probably add on an extra two drives and by that stage the 2TB drives may have come down in price. For extra piece of mind you can always buy 4 drives and set them up in a RAID configuration for some added security but you’ll be using up your drive bays and limiting the total storage you’ll fit in your case. But I guess it’s a small price to pay to keep your data safe if a drive dies
HTPC Network / Wireless
Pretty much every motherboard these days comes with at least one ethernet port so if you’ve got your router close to your HTPC then I’d suggest connecting it with a network cable to the router and use the router’s wirelss network if it supports it. If not then you might want to get yourself a wireless adapter for your HTPC, a USB dongle will do just fine. Get at least an 802.11n speed dongle if you plan on copying large files or streaming media across the network. If you don’t already have one you’ll also need a wireless router to connect to other computers on your network and if you want to connect your HTPC to the Internet (why wouldn’t you).
HTPC TV tuner card
If you want to be able to use your HTPC as a PVR and record TV shows from the TV then you’ll need to get yourself a TV tuner card. Look for a card with some or all of the following features.
- Dual digital tuners (and dual analog if you need it).
- Dual digital tuners allows for recording while watching another show
- Support for H.264 and/or MPEG-2/4 hardware encoder
- This will give you the ability HD TV programs in HDD in AVCHD format in realtime
- Read the technical specifications carefully though, some manufacturers advertise realtime hardware encoding but only at very low resolutions
Choose your components based on your budget and their intended purpose. Unless you’ve got an unlimited budget stick to components that are able to do the job well for the foreseeable future and if possible avoid the very latest and greatest as it’s most likely overkill and you will pay a high premium for them. Also keep in mind that faster components will often draw more power, generate more heat and more importantly generate more noise which is not what you want in your lounge room.
Don’t buy the cheapest of the cheap either, make sure the components you buy are up to the task you need them to perform. The cool thing about building your own HTPC is that you get to pick and choose which components you want and you won’t have to buy any hardware that you won’t need.