About six weeks ago, I wrote about the idiosyncrasies of the technology that makes up our Home Cinema setup, and wondered whether I should take the plunge and build my own HTPC. As I like building my own PCs, I decided to go ahead and did some research about what to get. The most helpful guide to building an HTPC was an enormous thread on the Audio/Visual Science Forum, called, as you might expect: Guide to Building a HD HTPC. This guide has been put together by someone called renethx, who has evidently been engaged in a labour of love. He lists a variety of different systems, from low-end to high performance, and clearly knows his subject.
After reading through the thread (more than 13,000 posts!), I was beginning to suffer from information overload, but I also thought I was beginning to home in on what I wanted. My HTPC would be used to play Blu-Ray discs and standard DVDs. It would be connected, via a wired Ethernet network, to our Windows Home Server, which currently holds our music library and digital photos, but now could also hold the rips of our DVD and Blu-Ray collection. At this stage, I wouldn’t be using the HTPC to view/record terrestrial or satellite TV, but this might be on the cards in the future. With all that in mind, I decided to go for a mid-range system, which would have room for a modest amount of expansion. The final list of parts I settled on was:
|CPU||Intel Core i3 530 / 2.93 GHz|
|RAM||Corsair XMS3 – DDR3 – 4 GB ( 2 x 2 GB ) *see Note 1|
|CPU Cooler||Stock fan supplied with CPU|
|Drive||Western Digital Scorpio Blue WD2500BEVT 250GB|
|Keyboard||Microsoft Arc Keyboard|
|Mouse||Microsoft Arc Mouse|
|Remote Control||Hauppauge MCE Remote Control Kit|
|Blu-Ray Drive||LiteOn – Blu-Ray – BD-ROM|
|PSU||Nexus Value 430|
|Case||Silverstone Grandia GD05B|
|Software||Microsoft W7 Home Premium OEM 64bit|
The technology nerds amongst you may have noticed that there is no graphics card in the above list. That’s because I’ve chosen one of the new Intel “Clarkdale” processors, which actually has a graphics chip integrated into the CPU package itself, alongside the CPU chip. The graphics capabilities fit the requirements of an HTPC very nicely, having a hardware-accelerated decode for Blu-ray dual-stream picture-in-picture, and audio capabilities with support for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio multi-channel bitstreaming. However, see Note 2.
I chose Windows 7 as the operating system, because it comes with Windows Media Center, which I quite like as a “10-foot user interface”. I’ve tried to keep additional software to a minimum, primarily for simplicity’s sake. Reading through the HTPC forums, I see that there are a plethora of utilities and codec packages that some people install to tweak the performance of their system, but I can’t help feeling that doing so also increases the likelihood that something will break. As I remarked last time, the discussions over building an HTPC are characterised by a large number of posts on the forums that say “do this”, followed by an answering chorus of “no, don’t do that, do this…”. So it’s clear that building an HTPC is still something for enthusiasts and nerds – it hasn’t yet crossed the technology chasm to reach mainstream consumers.
So far, I’ve added just two additional pieces of software to Windows 7 (and Windows Media Center). The first is Arcsoft’s TotalMedia Theater 3 Platinum Edition. That’s because while Windows Media Center will play standard DVDs, it doesn’t handle Blu-ray discs, and so I need a third party piece of software. I went for the Arcsoft product because it integrates into Windows Media Center, unlike some other Blu-ray player software products out there.
The second add-on is the My Movies library software. While Windows Media Center has a movie library function, it only covers online media. The beauty of My Movies is that it handles both online and offline material (i.e. DVDs or Blu-ray discs). It also comes with a version for Windows Home Server, which is where some of my discs will be transferred to put them online. So I can browse our entire film library using the My Movies client within Windows Media Center, and my choice of film will be either streamed from the Windows Home Server, or I will be prompted to insert the relevant disc into the HTPC.
The parts I ordered arrived from Azerty last Thursday, so I spent a happy few hours assembling them into the HTPC. I’m pleased with the result, but there are still a few rough edges that need to be sorted out. Most of these I expect to be covered by newer releases of software.
For example, I had a weird error that occurred when I tried to play an online DVD or Blu-ray. Windows Media Center would report a Video Error of the form:
Video Error: Files needed to display video are not installed or not working correctly.
Trying to diagnose it led me to believe that it has absolutely nothing to do with the video side of things, but rather some incompatibility in the audio chain. For example, the error would go away if I turned off the navigation sounds in Windows Media Center. Even more bizarrely, I found that someone had reported that you could have navigation sounds in Windows Media Center and working online media files if you:
- Set the Windows 7 HDMI Playback device to Stereo
- Set the Speaker configuration in Windows Media Center to 5.1 channels
I tried it and it works. No idea why. It follows no rhyme or reason, given that my Audio/Visual Receiver is a Denon 3808 with a physical configuration of 7.1 channels/speakers. Just bizarre.
Another weird error is that the Denon onscreen User Interface only appears if I set the HTPC to use an RGB colourspace, rather than the xvYCC extended colourspace that I think I should be using with my HDTV… And setting the xvYCC colourspace using the Intel-provided control panel is problematic. Sometimes it sticks, and sometimes it just reverts back to the RGB setting. No idea why.
A niggle is that the HDMI handshake is relatively slow in getting everything set up between the HTPC, the Denon and the HDTV. The latter tries a couple of times in the space of about five seconds before it achieves a perfect picture. This is far, far better than the original situation with my old Panasonic DMP-BD30 player with the Denon and the HDTV – there, it could take anything up to several minutes before a stable picture was obtained. But I have seen a setup time of less than a second, and on the first try, with one of my other PCs being used as an HTPC. That was using a Sapphire ATI Radeon graphics adaptor, rather than the inbuilt graphics of the Intel i3.
On the physical side of things, one thing that concerns me slightly is the noise made by the fans in the Silverstone GD05B case. This case has three 120mm fans built in. When you add in the fact that the power supply has a fan, and there is a fan on the CPU cooler, then we have a grand total of five bloody fans whirring away and making noise. Fortunately, the power supply fan is reviewed as being one of the quietest around, and the CPU cooler fan from Intel gets good reviews as well. So the noise is primarily down to the Silverstone case fans.
Now, I noticed that the filters on these fans are attached on the exhaust side of the fan. Since the fans draw air into the case, I can’t help feeling that this will mean that the fans will be somewhat difficult to keep clean, and that dust will gather on the fans themselves. I would have thought that it would have been better to put the filters on the intake side of the fan, sandwiched between the fan and the inside face of the case. That way, dust buildup could be easily vacuumed off the filters through the outside grilles, without the need to open up the case for cleaning. I actually tried this, and put the filters sandwiched between the fans and the case.
When I did this, the perceived noise definitely seemed to be reduced, so I was pretty happy with this. However, I also sent an email to the European branch of Silverstone in Germany to ask them if this was a recommended practice. They have replied that it is not, and advised me to stick with the original configuration. However, I am less than happy with this because a) the noise is increased and b) the filters are going to be a bugger to keep clean. And with two dogs lying on their beds in the near vicinity, dust and dog hairs are going to be an issue, I feel sure… I think I will try out Nexus fan speed reducers on the case fans to see if the noise will be reduced (see Note 3). The current internal temperatures are low enough that I think that slower (and hence quieter) fans are not going to cause a problem.
So, to sum up, despite a few rough edges and niggles, overall I am well pleased with the result. There will doubtless be a bedding-down period while I tweak various things to improve satisfaction, but hopefully I will get it to the stage where I can learn to leave things well enough alone, and simply enjoy our new HTPC.
Note 1. Even though I was not overclocking the system in any way, I found that there seemed to be stability problems with this Corsair memory used in conjunction with this motherboard and CPU. The system would suddenly lose power every couple of days for no apparent reason (there would be nothing in the Windows Event logs). I eventually replaced the Corsair memory with Kingston memory (KVR1333D3N9K2/4G), and have had no problems since.
Note 2. The idea of using the Intel i3 to handle the audio and video requirements for the HTPC did not pan out as I hoped. I found a number of problems. I gave up and put in a Sapphire ATi Radeon 5670 to handle the audio and video. That has been problem free so far.
Note 3. I ended up using this Nexus fan speed reducer on one of the case fans and this one (using the 7V line) on the other two fans. That’s much better, but I think I can still get further improvement. I’ll probably try just using two case fans set at 7V, and will switch the filters to the intake side of the fans. The internal temperatures of the case seem to be low enough that using two fans should be OK.