With the birth of our new baby and a move from Vancouver BC, to Calgary, Alberta has shown me that my current home entertainment setup is entirely too unwieldly and begging for something terrible from the little munchkin. Half a dozen various game consoles, set top boxes, media players, all strung together with too-long cables twisting into a labyrinthine tangle Cthulhu would be intimidated by. Furthermore, as we've long given up cable in preference of streaming services such as Netflix and locally stored movies and TV shows, this also necessitates having my desktop connected to the TV as well - yet another long cable, calling out to the adventurous anklebiter.
The stack of devices also leads to a tremendous overall power usage, noise, and brightly glowing lights - primarily because I never remember to turn everything off.
I set out searching for a solution to this problem, a means to simplify the mess. However, as has often been my experience with such things, each manufacturer makes a device very good at a couple things but terrible at everything else and, of course, locked down so I can't easily add or change functionality. Game consoles come the closest, but they still lack functionality and customizability I want.
So, my solution: I'm building an Home Theater PC, or HTPC.
- Play DVD's
- Play music and video from my local media library, but not require my desktop to be running at all times.
- Stream music and video from any online source (Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, YouTube, etc, etc)
- Have a fully functional web browser
- Play games, from older emulated consoles to modern games
- Be silent, or at least very quiet
- Be economical - cheap to build, and consume as little power as possible
- Present an easy to use, TV friendly interface. No standard desktop under normal use.
What to get?
I wanted to run Linux on this - it's free! - but I'm trapped by Netflix, which won't stream 1080p without Silverlight (windows only). So, as always, Windows it is for simplicity. The upside to this decision is that the (currently free) Windows 8 Consumer Preview sports the Metro start menu, which (desktop PC issues aside) is actually a very ideal launcher interface for an HTPC.
To keep the size and power consumption down, it'll have to be a mini-ITX sized motherboard and have good enough integrated graphics to not require a discrete video card. This puts us firmly in AMD's new "APU" camp - low power processors with surprisingly powerful graphics built right into the CPU. Its a tough choice as to which to pick, weighing cost, performance and power consumption. The Llano APU's come in 65w dual and triple core versions, and 100w quad core versions. While the quad cores are obviously more powerful, a dual-core processor is really perfectly adequate for HTPC use. That said, I do want to be able to do at least light gaming on this, so I think the oddball processor, the triple-core A6-3500, is going to be the way to go: The fastest of the 65w chips, and it sports an improved Radeon 6530 GPU, a substantial improvement over the dualcore's 6410 for a mere $10 premium.
Toss in 4GB of RAM (Perfectly adequate for an HTPC, and only $20!), a 2TB hard drive (to go along with the 1.5TB drive I already have), and a standard DVD burner and we're good to go.
So, my HTPC build will involve these bitties:
Everything from Newegg because they are awesome, and purchasing from a single supplier saves on shipping costs. Nobody else had everything I needed.
Apex MI-008 Case - As small as I could find, but still offering sufficient room for a couple TB of storage space for my local media library. Otherwise, fairly plain and simple.
ASRock A75M-ITX Motherboard - Options are limited for Mini-ITX motherboards supporting FM1 processors
AMD A6-3500 APU - 65 watts, triple core, 2.1ghz. The most performance I could get out of a 65w processor - important, as the 100w quad-cores would likely generate too much heat.
Pareema 2x2GB DDR3 RAM, a total of 3.5TB of hard drive space, and a random DVD burner.
The computer itself - motherboard, case, ram, DVD drive and APU - come out comfortably under $300 - squarely in the price range of a game console, and with more power.
Next up: Unboxing and assembly!