HTPC Hardware (Part I)

So if you’ve decided you want to build an HTPC, what exactly do you need?  Generally, an HTPC can be built for pretty cheap.  I spent probably around $850 for everything (extenders, remotes, etc), but probably only $500 for the HTPC itself.  You could go even cheaper if you wanted.  The reason it’s so cheap is that you really don’t need fancy hardware; playing full-HD video doesn’t require that much processing power.

Moving on to the hardware itself, I’m going to try and abstain from providing specific hardware recommendations because things are so often changing and I don’t feel like updating this post all the time.  Instead, I’m going to try and provide general information so you can choose on your own.  I may list a specific product here or there, but that’s just for example purposes.  If you need some help putting together a list of parts, some good resources include Assassin’s Guide (great guide for HTPC stuff in general), Lifehacker (this article specifically deals with HTPCs), and PCPartPicker (great site for seeing if your hardware is compatible/finding cheapest prices).  Other options include visiting some computer/HTPC forums, such as AVS Forum, TheGreenButton.tv, Tom’s Hardware (more of a general computer forum), and Reddit (either /r/BuildaPC or /r/HTPC).

Where can you buy computer hardware?  Some of the places I can recommend are: NewEgg, Microcenter (if you have one near you), and of course Amazon (I don’t really like TigerDirect but it’s an option).  If this is your first computer and you have no idea how to put the parts together, Lifehacker has a great write up/guide on how to build a computer.  It’s a fairly straightforward process, just take your time and if you have issues, search for an answer, consult the user manual, or ask on one of the above sites.

General Guidance

CPU (Central Processing Unit):

This is probably the most important decision to make.  The CPU is the “brains” of your computer, as it processes all the stuff you’re trying to do (running an operating system, opening programs, etc.).  Depending on what exactly you want to do with your HTPC, you can get a really powerful CPU or something much less powerful.  Here are some general thoughts.

Intel v. AMD – There are two main CPU manufacturers: Intel and AMD.  Both have their pluses and minuses.  Intel’s advantages is that Intel CPUs are regarded as faster and better able to handle complex tasks, such as gaming or video encoding.  Furthermore, Intel CPUs are generally more power efficient.  However, Intel CPUs are also by and large more expensive than AMD CPUs, and also Intel does not have as good integrated graphics compared to AMD (see below on integrated graphics).  AMD CPUs are generally cheaper, more power hungry, and less efficient, but have great integrated graphics.  Whichever one you pick you can’t really go wrong.  I personally lean towards AMD because the price is just so much better, but Intel isn’t a bad choice if you want a really nice CPU (if you plan to do gaming or processor-intensive tasks, go Intel).  Note that there are different generations of processors, all of which are given code names.  The most recent Intel chips are named “Haswell” and “Ivy Bridge.”  AMD’s most recent are “Kaveri,” “Richland,” and “Trinity.”  I recommend staying in one of those “families” as the older Intel “Sandy Bridge” and AMD “Llano” are too old at this point.

When you’re looking at CPUs, you’ll see a lot of numbers thrown around: 2.4 GHz, quad-core, 65 TDP, 3×1 MB L2 cache.  The ones you want to worry about are (in order of importance): (1) the number of cores, (2) the frequency of the chip (anywhere for 1.5 GHz to 5 GHz these days), (3) the Thermal Design Power (TDP).  The number of cores is crucial, because essentially the more cores, the faster the computer can handle tasks.  For an HTPC, you can get by with a dual core, but quad core CPUs are becoming pretty standard.  You do not need more than a quad core though.  Frequency matters as generally the higher the number, the faster the CPU.  But you won’t see a huge difference between a 2.1 GHz CPU and a 2.4 GHz chip.  Finally, TDP is important because it measures how power efficient the CPU is.  The lower the TDP, the better because less energy is required to cool the chip.  Generally, an HTPC CPU these days should be at most 65 TDP in my opinion, definitely no more than 100 TDP.

Something else to keep in mind when picking a CPU is whether you plan on transcoding.  Basically, transcoding is when you encode a file on the fly; i.e. you have a HD video that you want to play on your iPhone.  Most likely, whether due to networking restraints or limitations of the device you’re trying to watch the video on, the video won’t be able to play.  Transcoding means your HTPC will compress the video so that it can be played on different devices.  That way you have the file in one place but can play it virtually anywhere on any device.  If you plan to do this, then you need a higher quality CPU because transcoding consumes a LOT of processing power.  We’ll talk more about why you might want to transcode (and how you’d set it up).  I don’t do this, but know plenty of people who do.

I like Assassin’s general guide on CPUs.  If you plan to build a simple HTPC with limited bells/whistles, then something like an Intel Celeron/Pentium or AMD A4 is sufficient.  If you want something a little more powerful that can do 3D or light gaming, go for an Intel Core i3 or AMD A6 or A8.  If you’re transcoding or plan on gaming a lot as well, look at an Intel Core i5 or AMD A10.  I’d stay away from a Core i7 unless you have cash to burn and really want something awesome (or want to play a lot of high graphics games).  For HTPC purposes, an i7 is overkill.

Motherboard:

Now that you’ve selected your CPU, the next major hurdle is picking a motherboard.  A motherboard is the equivalent of the central nervous system in the human body.  It connects all the individual pieces together and makes them all communicate with each other.  A bad motherboard can cause all kinds of problems, so don’t skimp too much here!

The first thing to know is that your selection of a CPU will necessarily whittle down your selection in terms of motherboards.  That’s because each CPU generation (Haswell, Kaveri, Trinity, etc.) generally has a different pin configuration, or CPU socket.  Other generation CPUs may not fit in new motherboards, and vice versa.  So be very careful when selecting a motherboard that the CPU and motherboard are compatible.  Another reason I like using PCPartPicker.com is because it automatically will hide incompatible motherboards once you pick a CPU.

The next critical determination is how big a motherboard you want.  There are three sizes (from biggest to smallest): ATX, micro-ATX, and mini-ITX.  Most HTPC motherboards I find are micro-ATX as it’s the “Goldilocks” size: not too big, but has most of the connectors you’ll need.  If you want a really small HTPC, then go mini-ITX.  But know that you’ll be limited in the number of connections you can make (hard drives, graphics cards, etc.).  Mini-ITX systems also run hotter because they’re in smaller cases.  I went micro-ATX and am very happy with it.

Other things to look for is the number of SATA ports.  SATA is a connector used for things like hard drives and disc drives.  So if you want a lot of hard drives in your HTPC, you’ll need a lot of SATA ports.  6 is pretty standard these days.  If you can find one with 8, that’s awesome.  4 will do in a pinch, but I think you’ll find you need 6 at least.  You’ll also see references to SATA III or SATA 6 GB/s (they mean the same), or SATA II or SATA 3 GB/s.  This is a SATA standard, kind of like USB 2.0 and USB 3.0.  SATA III is the faster standard, capable of a theoretical transfer rate of 6 gigabytes per second (real world speeds MUCH slower).  Try to find a motherboard with SATA III, as SATA II is becoming obsolete.  You may not be able to fully utilize all of SATA III’s capabilities, but it can’t hurt to have (and basically costs the same as SATA II).

The final crucial thing is to make sure the board has an HDMI power.  HDMI if you don’t know is a standard connection for audio/visual cables.  Instead of having a cable for audio and video separately, its all in one.  It works very well and cables are pretty cheap (DO NOT BUY A CABLE THAT COSTS MORE THAN $10.  IF YOU DO YOU ARE BEING RIPPED OFF!!).  Other things you may see are the number of memory slots (2 is fine, 4 is better, but largely unneeded for an HTPC) and PCI slots (also not a concern for HTPCs, used for video cards and other things generally not found in a HTPC).  USB 3.0 is useful, but again not a must for an HTPC in my opinion.

Some brands that I trust for motherboard as: Asus, Asrock (subsidiary of Asus), Gigabyte, and Intel (though Intel is stopping production of motherboards).  MSI isn’t bad (I have no experience).

RAM (Random Access Memory):

RAM doesn’t really have an equivalent to the human body.  It’s kinda like a second brain almost, but could also be likened to your reflexes.  What RAM does is it stores information that is being used by active programs so it can be quickly accessed.  I can’t really explain it simply, sorry.  What I can tell you is that for an HTPC, you need around 4 GBs of RAM, with 8 GBs being more than sufficient/ideal, and any more than that overkill (for pure HTPC purposes, for gaming you’ll need more).  The cost difference between 4 GB and 8 GB is fairly minimal, so it’s worth it if you can afford it.  Generally having two sticks is better than just one (in case one stick dies, and also allows the computer to split the storage for quicker access).

There’s a ton of different specs when it comes to RAM.  I can’t cover it all, but the following is a helpful hierarchy of the importance of RAM specs.  Once you get past #3 you won’t notice a difference for HTPC purposes.  Compatibility is a huge problem with RAM though, so make sure that your RAM is compatible with your motherboard (another time when PCPartPicker.com comes in handy!!).

Order of importance:

1. Amount of memory
2. Number of sticks of memory
3. Placement of those sticks in the motherboard
4. The MHz of the memory
5. If XMP/AMP is enabled
6. The subtimings of the memory

I personally used G.Skill RAM in my HTPC and it works well, but Crucial, Corsair, and Kingston are well-known brands as well.

HDD (Hard Drive):

One of the greatest innovations in the last few years as been the arrival of Solid State Drives (SSD).  Unlike traditional hard drives which used large platters and a spindle to read data, SSDs use flash memory (like in iPhones and other mobile devices) as storage.  This allows for significantly faster performance as retrieving and writing data are vastly improved.  The drawback is that SSD prices are significantly hire per gigabyte compared to traditional hard drives.  A 120 GB SSD goes for around $100 (average), while a 3 terabyte  (3,000 gigabytes) traditional hard drive goes for around $100-130.  4 TB drives have started to make their way into the consumer space, but the prices are still pretty high so I’d avoid them for now.

Most people when building a HTPC these days rely on a SSD as a “boot” drive (meaning the operating system and applications are stored on the SSD) and use traditional hard drives as storage for movies, TV shows, recordings, etc.  This is exactly what I do.  I have a 120 GB SSD which boots my computer, and then a couple of large hard drives for storage.  The nice thing is that you can start with a smaller storage drive (say 1 TB) and always expand later.  But I’ve found the large drives (3 TB) offer you a better price per gigabyte, so if you can afford it, buy a big drive.  You don’t need super high speed drives (measured in RPM).  Anything below 7,200 RPMs will be fine, even 5,400 RPM is fine.

Western Digital and Seagate are the two main competitors in the traditional hard drive business.  I use Western Digital Green drives (don’t really need the Black or Blue drives, Red drives are a debatable need).  For an SSD, Samsung makes some great drives (the 840 Pro Series gets good recommendations), as does Crucial and Kingston.  My SSD is a OCZ Vertex 3, but OCZ recently went bankrupt so I wouldn’t recommend buying from them anymore.

GPU (Graphic Processing Unit):

There are two types of GPUs: integrated GPUs and discrete GPUs.  An integrated GPU is one that comes with your CPU (it’s a second chip built onto the CPU, so you can’t see it).  This offers the advantage of not having to deal with another piece of hardware and also will run much cooler than a discrete GPU.  I would highly recommend an integrated GPU for most people building a HTPC, as pretty much all of them these days can handle HTPC tasks.

There are two situations where I would recommend a discrete card.  The first is if you plan on gaming heavily and want to play high graphics games at maximum settings.  Then you’ll need something much more beefy than integraeted graphics.  The other situation is if you plan to using your HTPC as a cable box with Windows Media Center (more on this later).  I ran into something known as the 29/59 framerate bug.  Essentially, this is a problem in Windows Media Center where certain channels (sometimes it’s even just specific shows!) will flicker or stutter.  The reason is that when the frame rate changes, the software has to reset due to a bug which Microsoft refuses to fix.  The best solution is to use certain graphics cards which are known to fix the problem.  It’s kinda hit or miss, so I would recommend starting off with an integrated GPU, and if you run into the 29/59 bug and can’t stand it, then do some more research and find a solution.  It’s an annoying problem which I ran into, but thankfully can be fixed with a fairly inexpensive discrete video card.

PSU (Power Supply Unit):

The next thing you need to worry about is a power supply as obviously your computer isn’t any good without electricity!!  The two most important specs to worry about is wattage and the efficiency rating.

Wattage is the easiest to explain.  The more stuff you have in your computer, the more power you need to run it.  Therefore, the higher the wattage, the more power the PSU is capable of putting out.  For general HTPC uses, something around 400 watts is all you need.  You can calculate your own needs at several sites, such as here.

The next important spec is the efficiency rating.  PSUs are rated on how efficiently they are at delivering power.  The rating scale goes like this (from least to most efficient): 1) 80 Plus, 2) 80 Plus Bronze, 3) 80 Plus Silver, 4) 80 Plus Gold, 5) 80 Plus Platinum, 6) 80 Plus Titanium.  The more efficient the PSU, the more expensive it is, but the more you’ll save on your power bill.  You’d probably be fine with an 80 Plus or 80 Plus Bronze for an HTPC.  I would not recommend getting a PSU that is not at least 80 Plus certified.  Don’t cheap out on your PSU, as a bad PSU can destroy your computer by frying all of your components.  Its worth paying a little more for a highly regarded/efficient PSU than having to replace all of your components.

Something else some people like is modularity.  This is the ability to remove power cables that you don’t need in order to lessen the amount of clutter inside your case.  I’ve not really run into this problem, and modular PSUs are more expensive than non-modular PSUs, so you can generally get away without a modular PSU.  Another thing to check for is that the PSU will have sufficient power plugs for your components.  Every hard drive needs a plug, as do optical drives, and sometimes GPUs (if you have a discrete one).  So the more plugs, the better!

Finally, there are a TON of brands out there.  I like Corsair, Antec, and Seasonic.

Case:

The case is the thing you’ll be looking at every time you watch TV (unless you hide it away somewhere).  This is all about personal taste, so I’m not going to say too much here.  Some people go for a HTPC case that looks like something that belongs in your TV cabinet.  It looks like an A/V Receiver or old VHS player.  The drawback with these types of cases is that they’re typically small, meaning you may run into issues fitting all the components you want inside and it will be hard to work with.  The other option is a more traditional case that looks like any other computer.  The benefit is that it’s easier to work with for first time computer builders and offers the most flexibility.  The drawback is that it’s bigger than an HTPC case and may look out of place in your TV cabinet.

Another determining factor is the size of your motherboard.  If you went for a mini-ITX board, it will fit in pretty much any case, but if you get a microATX motherboard, do not get a mini-ITX case.  Other things to note are that some cases come included with fans while others do not (meaning you’ll likely need to buy one or two).

Good brands I’ve found are Antec, Corsair, Fractal Design (my favorite), and Silverstone (great for HTPC cases).

Optical drive:

If you plan to play Blurays/DVDs, you’ll need a drive obviously.  There are numerous options out there.  Just know that typically the drive will not come with software to play Blurays, meaning there’ll be another expense later.

Keyboard:

Again, many options out there.  You’ll need a keyboard to set up the HTPC, but once that’s done you may never need the keyboard again.  I personally like to keep the keyboard around in case of emergencies or to make tweaks.  Popular options include the Logitech K400, Lenovo N4902, and a few others.  I have the K400 and love it.

You also will probably want a remote, but that’s something I’ll cover next time.

Misc:

Other things you may want to consider but are totally optional are a CPU cooler or wireless (WiFi) adapter.  I’ve found the stock cooler from AMD to be more than sufficient, and you’ll find a hardwired HTPC to be more reliable than a wireless one, but I understand that some people have limitations on where they can run networking cables.

My HTPC

Here are the parts I used in my HTPC (along with the approximate prices I paid).

CPU: AMD A6-3500 2.1GHz Triple-Core Processor ($65.00)
Motherboard: ASRock A75M Micro ATX FM1 Motherboard ($99.00)
Memory: G.Skill Sniper 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 Memory ($0.00)
Storage: OCZ Vertex 3 120GB 2.5″ Solid State Disk ($113.00)
Storage: Western Digital Caviar Green 1.5TB 3.5″ 7200RPM Internal Hard Drive ($69.99)
Case: Fractal Design Core 1000 MicroATX Mini Tower Case ($45.98)
Power Supply: Corsair Builder 430W 80+ Bronze Certified ATX Power Supply ($45.99)
Optical Drive: LG UH12NS29 Blu-Ray Reader, DVD/CD Writer ($35.99)
Keyboard: Logitech K400 Wireless Slim Keyboard w/Touchpad ($29.99)
Total: $504.94 (doesn’t include cables, TV tuner, extender)

My only real regrets are that my case is a little small (only has room for 3 hard drives and an optical drive, my SSD is taped to the bottom of the case) and my CPU was 2 generations old so to upgrade I need to replace both the CPU and motherboard.  The CPU is working fine though so it’s not a major problem, and I really like the size of the case.

So that’s the HTPC hardware in a nutshell.  It’s a pretty general overview.  If I missed anything, please let me know in the comments!

Up next, I’ll talk about some of the other pieces you’ll possibly need for complete HTPC solution.

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