Blu-Ray HTPC Build No.1

I have tinkered with HTPCs in the past, using old PCs and misc software but never a dedicated machine from the ground up. The new HD formats and x264 encoding really prompted me to get on with it because for the first time my older CPUs were just not up to the task, it was time to start looking at spending some money.

Use

The HTPC will be used for several purposes:

1. HD-DVD & Blu-ray HDD playback.
2. DVD & Movie files (.ts etc.)
3. Photo Library / Home Movies
4. Music server
5. Work/Office Backup storage

Design Factors

Listed below in order of priority.

1. Performance / PQ / SQ
2. Aesthetics
3. Very Quiet
4. Cool running
5. Price

It took a fair bit of research and special thanks go to ProjectHTPC for all their assistance.

Hardware/Software Specs:

– OrigenAE H6 HTPC Case
– Abit Fatal1ty F-I90HD ATI Micro ATX
– Tagan TG430-U15 430W ATX2.01 Easycon PSU
– Intel Core 2 DUO E4400
– GeIL 2GB PC6400C4 800MHz DDR2 Memory
– 2 x Samsung SpinPoint T HD501LJ 500GB SATA-II
– Pioneer DVR-111K DVD

– Creative X-FI Extreme Sound Card
– Vista Home Premium Edition – 64Bit Edition

GPU

Playback of HD material and especially x264 is very processor intensive and bairly utilises the GPU, so it was a quick decision for me to go for onboard graphics. This not only saves a few pennies but uses less space in the case, improves airflow and most importantly reduces heat and noise.

CPU

I have always been an Intel boy, mostly by habit but I didn’t see the point in straying from them now, especially as the Core2Duos seem so good and relatively cheap. In the past I always opted for the best performance I could get (within reason) and spend hundreds on CPUs. With the HTPC I was determined to keep the budget as low as possible and get only what I needed to perform the tasks at hand.
I was going for an E6320 or higher but noticed an article on the less popular E4400. It was cheaper with better performance and as with all C2D chipos, is an excellent overclocker. I somewhat nervously took the plunge.

Motherboard

My previous choices led me very quickly to the Abit F-190HD, which has the fastest ATI onboard GPU and is mATX format for compatibility with most HTPC cases. It also includes HDMI connectivity which will apeal to some, although personally I prefer the solid fit of a DVI connector.

This MB has a great BIOS with idiot-proof overclocking controls. I must just point out I have never overlocked before this PC and was very nervous about it. It was so easy to OC from 2Ghz to 3Ghz with this CPU/MB and it seems very stable and of course much faster than stock.

RAM

I tried to get away with 1gb of ram and although OK in XP it was terrible in Vista so 2GB of Geil DDR2 6400 is in there now. My only complaint is that the Heatspreaders clash with the MB

Case

This was probably the hardest decision for me and I was very close to going for the Antec Fusion as it looks good and has excellent cooling. I have the P180 tower so I know it is going to be well organised.

I am afraid the tart in me had to have the Origen AE H6, a great looking case, perfect for my AV Rack and really high build quality.

On the downside it is not laid out all that well but I suspect any case with a central DVD/VFD will have the same problems. One advantage of the all Aluminium chassis is that is aids cooling disspiating the heat very well.

It comes with fans but in all honesty you can keep them, I am fussy about noise so no stock fan would ever keep me happy. The main gripe is that the larger 80mm fan has a molex connector with no step-down resistor you can add. So unless you happen to have one lying around it runs at full tilt and is noisier than the MB controlled 40mm fans.

It also takes a Full ATX PSU which is great, I have learnt the hard way that Tagan PSUs are ideal for HTPC use as they are well shielded and include a heavy duty earch cable. Noisy PSU buzz coming through your speakers is not something I want to repeat.

After much fiddling and some minor customising with fans and cables I have to say I am extremely happy with this case. Yes it did cost more and is fiddly to install some components but this is all far outweighed by the gorgeous looks IMO.

Sound

A very important factor for me was to take advantage of the new lossless HD sound formats so a good quality sound card with analogue connections was a priority. I stole the Creative X-FI Extreme from my desktop for this and it works a treat. LPCM 7.1 sounds amazing!

Storage
I started off with 2 x Samsung Spinpoint 500GB drives but ended up moving over my existing HD library form my Desktop PC. So in total there is 2TB over 4HDD in the case. This is better for me so I don’t need to have more than one PC turned on to acess all the media.

OS & Software

I decided to get Vista Premium x64 as it is the future and I need to get used to it. I thought that MCE would make life easier witha one-stop integrated solution… yeah right!

IMO for music you can’t beat iTunes, for HD video you only really have PowerDVD 7.3, MCE doesn’t play any of my .ts files, I don’t have any tuner cards so it looks like MCE will be relegated to viewing DVDs, home movies and pictures… however I suspect there is probably something else that is better than that.

MediaPortal is a better option but still a little flawed in Music/Video management I feel and I haven’t tested it in Vista x64 yet.

I just wanted to add that I haven’t had any problems finding x64 drivers for anything yet except FFDshow but I know it is out there somewhere

The HTPC is setup to dual boot Vista x64 and XP. I have added all the software in XP but not tested anything yet. I am determined to get everything working right in one OS.

Photos:

Here she is; I decided on the brushed Aluminium finish in the end. I figured if i am buying an all Aluminium case then why have one painted black? Besides I knew I would scratch it at some point.

Look how much room there is in here, this will be a cinch!

I never used an mATX MB before, it sure is dinky.

Wow, I finished how easy was that?

Maybe I will change some fans over, what harm can that do right? Also how about improve the airflow with this 9db fan in the bottom of the case. I must be a pro now, customising the fan install.

Here is the Zalman CPU fan, big beasty and I had to take the MB out to fit it. Worth it though wasn’t it?

Mope, even with the fan controlled she thrummed like a Ho, I finally cured that by placing a step down resistor inline with the fan speed controller, however now it probably runs too slow. If you touch the dial at all the fan stops and the PC shuts down… eeek!

Also the new Coolink fans need to use molex connectors with a step down resistor and then a sensor wire to the MB fan sockets. A bit of a ‘wire intensive’ setup but I don’t care anymore. They are silent which is good.

Here she is in the rack, looks pretty good if I do say so myself 🙂

Remote / VFD

I haven’t really looked at this yet but do intend to at some point. TBH it looks fiddly and I don’t have the time, however after installing the driver it now displays the Date and Time which is better than the standard ‘OrigenAE HTPC’ message. In the short term I will add some basic commands to switch on/off from my programable remote. one thing to note for tree huggers is that the VFD stays on unless you power down from the PSU. I like to turn everything off at night so it is a minor consideration for some people.

Cooling / Noise

I am still waiting for a replacement CPU fan and some other quiet case fans so I will report back on this in more detail in the future. For now I would say that the stock CPU fan is very noisy IMO and not suitable for an HTPC. The other fans that come with the case are quieter but not for someone as anal about it as me.

Update:

1. All fans running 100%, CPU idle – Core temps ~20 degrees C

2. All fans running ‘silent mode’, CPU idle – Core temps ~35 degrees C

3. All fans running in ‘silent mode’ Orthos ‘blend’ CPU & Ram stress test (20mins) CPU 100% – Core temps ~ 65 degrees C

4. All fans running in ‘silent mode’ Blu-Ray HDD playback of ‘The Prestige’ Mpeg4 x264 & LPCM 7.1 – Core temps ~45-50 degrees C

In all the above tests the HDD temps were all ~30 except for the top mounted (no fan) HDD which runs at 40 degrees C. The ‘System’ temp which I am asuming is the Northbridge runs at 40 degrees C which is significantly cooler with the Zalman Flower fan than the stock cpu cooler.

Performance

For now I would say that the HTPC is completely fit for purpose. There isn’t anything I can throw at it that it won’t playback.

Mpeg2 and VCI HD-DVDs and Blu-Ray utilise around 50-60% CPU power during playback and even Mpeg4 x264 and LPCM audio only pushes things to 75%.

Total Budget ~ £700
I initially hoped to borrow more hardware from my existing PCs and only spend £400 for the case MB and CPU but I ended up having to buy every component new. I could have saved money here and there and did where I could but in the end I wanted it just right.

Initial Conclusions

I have thoroughly enjoyed this PC build, more than any other. There were more challenges but that what makes it fun and I feel I have done a good job although cable tidying still needs some work

I started off wanting a ‘cheap as possible’ HTPC and ended up with a ‘Dream HTPC’ and I am really happy with the results.

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