TESTED Community Project: HTPC

Created by simian on March 15, 2012, 6:34 p.m.
  • Tested HTPC Mantra : Geek Awesome, Wife Friendly 

     ROUND #1 of Community Decision 
    Ok we've got enough posts and opinions that we can begin making some progress but both are mutually exclusive in hardware and platform so we might as well nail it down. 
    Options: Sleek and minimalist but capable media player or lighter gaming capable media system? 
    Followup for the former: OS? Linux or Windows 7? 
    Reasoning: If we're going with an Atom platform, it'll be video capable but not much else. However this cuts down on the cost somewhat as compared to other solutions as well as meets the 'it's quiet' desired feature. If we're going to focus on gaming then it's time to look at other hardware build outs. 
    Also in regards to S&M is it going to be Linux or Windows based? Keep in mind that we need to factor in the cost of a Windows 7 license into all of this which will eat into our budget. A Windows7 64bit OEM license is $123 CAD ($120 USD). If we're going to focus on gaming then we don't have any choice but to go with Windows7 unless you want to document Wine for the setup process and cross your fingers. 
    I think we should focus solely on Media consumption and drop gaming from conversation. This thing should be as quiet as possible, lowest power consumption and smallest form factor as possible. 

    From the discussion in the comments of last weeks Mailbag , we the community has the opportunity to influence the course of TESTED HISTORY. We have a budget of $600 USD to recommend a build out of an HTPC that, if we can all agree, will be featured on the site. 



    @simian: Figure the budget is $600 and it should do more than the Boxee box does. Doesn't need CableCARD tuners at that price, but it should be relatively competent otherwise. I'd say $600 should include some sort of wireless keyboard/remote/some controller. "

    So that means we've got some work ahead of us. It's got to be better than Boxee Box, have some form of input included in the cost and come in under budget. So let's get the ball rolling: 
    • This should be a dedicated media system. So being able handle 1080p and multi-channel audio. We don't need to break 3DMark benche records. With that in mind, Atom + ION2 ? It'll be quiet and be able to deal with 1080p.
    • Memory: 4GB
    • Harddisk: Probably this will be the biggest dollar sink but I'm of the mind that solid-state should be the disk of choice. Again we're looking for quiet and speed plus the media should be pulled over the network.  The option is that this is also the media storage system itself. SSD for the OS drive and RAID5 for the media?
    • Video + Audio : Onboard if we're going ATOM. If not then a card that is cheap, has HDMI (+Audio would be desirable) and can handle 1080p. I'd say Nvidia based but only because I've always preferred their support for Linux (more on this later).
    • Audio: See above but if a dedicated card then TOS-Link would be a must or some form of Digital Output.
    • Case: Depends on the type of system; mini-ITX if it's Atom, bigger if it's going to be media storage as well.
    • PSU: Quiet quiet quiet and cheap. Oh maybe quiet as well.
    • Other: USB-Infrared receiver to handle remote control. Keyboard+Mouse is a bit hazy for me since I've been using a Logitech NovoMini which is waaaay to much for something of this order. Also do we want to bother with a TV-Tuner? Is there really a point in this day and age?
    So this is just my brainstorming. I'll edit this list into something more cohesive when the comments start coming in. I'm not sure what the definitive of 'consensus' is in regards to the community but I'm thinking it's going to take more than just me putting together a wish list. 
    So hit NewEgg or your favourite hardware retailer and start putting making some suggestions with links. Double points to someone who has an HTPC setup that they love and doesn't mind itemizing their inventory.
  • @BaskervilleManor said:
    " @simian:   You stole my idea it seems or simply beat me to it.  I heard Will give his reply in the video and thought such a thread could be useful.   Maybe we'll get a few links and suggestions. "  
    Minds, possibly great ones, do think a like. What we really need is to get A MOD to make this thread STICKY so that it doesn't drift to the bottom, like tears in the rain. 
  • Let the research begin! *break*
  • @BaskervilleManor: Actually I think that would be a good idea. To have a DIY section on the forums  Be able to see what projects people are working.  You can make suggestions to there builds or help someone out with it.   
    I want to put together some WHS/HTPC eventually with in the next few months after passing my Net+ test.  So being able to show a possible build or get suggestions would be a good idea for a DIY section.
    Think that would be a good idea to present to the Moderators of Tested. 
  • My first hardware suggestion: 
    ZOTAC NM 10-B-E-ION Atom D510 Motherboard / CPU / VGA combo 
    • Dual Core
    • ION GPU
    • HDMI
    • Digital Audio Outs
    • 6x SATA ports plus 1 eSATA
    • 1GB LAN + 802.11n Wireless
    • PCI-E x16
    • DDR2
    This board would probably be good for a super pumped media streamer or a media server. I don't know about ZOTAC as a brand but the XBMC forums had some good things to say about it.

  • For case I like the minibox stuff
    I have one at home hey arent very expensive and use pico power supply bricks which I think would be perfect. they are insanely compact too.
  • I'll post more when I get back from class, but I've already started brainstorming on this. I will probably post up a list of actual parts from newegg when I do. The first thing I would say is that while I agree on the SSD I don't agree it should double as a media storage server, the SSD should be just large enough to get the OS running and maybe a little extra space for a working set. The media should either be streamed from the network or from connected drives, this will help drive down the price a bit and isn't a huge detriment.
  • How much storage will be done on this. Any idea what the capacity will look like?  
  • @GTFShadow: I'd say minimal but enough for OS and caching. 64GB in total should be fine though it depends on what OS is decided upon. 
    Given the budget and requirements I'd think XBMC Live (linux based) would be perfect. Possibly WHS but that eats into our budget + it's unknown which media applications can run on it... 
    I suppose it could double as an iTunes repository as well if you don't mind doing the Key hack.
  • This seems to be a good case.  Gives us the micro-ATX, mini-DTX or mini-ITX possibility and has good ratings as well. 
  • Another thing off the top my head, are multiple cores actually useful? The machine will mainly be doing video decoding and not a whole lot else, except displaying some sort of thing for you to select videos from. It might be that having multiple cores isn't super worth it. 
    Also I strongly suggest we get an NVIDIA from 8 series or higher, not because of some petty difference between ATI and NVIDIA but because they are better at decoding videos. If linux is run the machine we could take advantage of the VDPAU capabilities of the graphics card to offload decoding to the card itself (which is what boxee does). XMBC on linux has direct support for VDPAU (as well was MPlayer, but thats a little less user friendly) 
  • I'd be all for ditching a physical keyboard/mouse for something like Snatch or Air Mouse Pro. It would require a smartphone, but I'd be willing to wager that the vast majority of people interested in setting up an HTPC are carrying one anyway. Plus, it can't be any jankier than most of the input solutions coming out of the major players.
  • @LtSquigs: Possibly the multiple cores will help with scraping media and crawling shares though the RAM may have a bigger part to do with that then the processor. Depends on the regex library being used on the system. 
    @lane: True though it should be 'wife friendly' and, mine in particular, doesn't have any smart phones. I guess we'll need to look into a good, compatible universal remote to handle this thing.
  • I don't have any experience with building HTPCs, but I'd like to note that Newegg charges 8.25% tax in CA, so it's a potential factor in the budget. (Luckily, it's not the statewide tax of 9.25%) Occasionally I'll choose Amazon over Newegg to avoid the charges.
  • @simian: 
    Damn, the Wife Acceptance Factor strikes again.
    This is the reason we don't even have an HTPC in our home.
  • I have that board in my HTPC or something incredibly similar, as I'm using a Zotac MAG HD-N01 outputting to my TV at 1080p.  Mine's running Windows 7 Professional and has optional boots to XBMC or Boxee.  I'm currently thinking of seeing if I can add MythTV to the list as well.  Performance is... "acceptable" but I would recommend something with a bit more oomph.  The Atom seems to choke for a bit (roughly 10 - 15 seconds) while caching anything flash but if you're patient, once it gets going it's fine.
  • @simian: That's the other thing I was thinking, how are we going to make it better than the Boxee in terms of functionality? I don't know a whole lot about XBMC but I heard there were problems between it and Hulu when it came to scraping things.
  • I would highly recommend one of these:  WinTV-HVR-950Q hybrid TV stick. They work really well and they're incredibly small and easy to use. Since the recommended board has a few USB ports - this'll plug in nicely. Also - to help boost single strength, get the RCA - Indoor Off-Air HDTV Antenna. 10 bucks at best buy. I get all the major networks. easy breezy. great for catching live sporting events as well. 
  • @Helushune:  Interesting. Are these buffering issues with XBMC/Boxee boots or just the Windows?
    @LtSquigs: I've been focusing mainly on a generic system that any of the Tested audience could get the full use of. Hulu and such don't work for anyone but the US so I put it as a lower priority. One of the ++ of running a full OS (with the media center running over top of it) might be, if need be, you could Quit the app and load up Chrome/FF/Etc. However this threads dangerously close to being Significant Other un-friendly plus jacks up the price of the build to include a functional keyboard/mouse.
    In theory Boxee will have access to Hulu Plus at one point but I'm not sure if that's for just the Boxee Box or all variants of the application. 
    @Evelgest:  Good point. Maybe we should just pretend that Tested is in a tax haven or in Oregon where there is no sales tax.
    @TheAdmin: I'll add those to the optional section as well. Good idea.
    @lane: It's the reason why I don't have a proper desktop and a Shuttle XPS hooked up to the TV. This is me living vicariously through the community.
  • This is what I use: 
    Zotac IONITX-A-U 1.6ghz atom dual core on 441 nVidia with 9400m, 2x2GB G. Skill DDR2 800, 1TB WD Green HDD, 2TB WD Green, HDHomerun - Win 7  64bit  
    I used to control it with a logitech ps3 bluetooth keyboard (has a small trackpad), but I primarily use HippoRemote on an iDevice now.  I also use RealVNC quite often from the other room or the iPad.
    I use Windows Media Center with MediaBrowser as the frontend, Metabrowser for managing cover art, and Media Player Classic for playback (offloading to GPU/Direct sound out via. HDMI to receiver). 
    The downfall of an Ion system is live tv.  Live tv playback inside WMC is very choppy (does not offload to gpu properly).  There are some very round about hacks for this, but only in a 32-bit environment afaik.  I use an xbox 360 when I want to watch TV and use the HTPC for movies/archived show playback, as well as the tv recording/streaming.  I actually don't mind this, as it's primarily football that I'm watching/recording and it's nice to jump to a game during half time for a while.  Also ESPN3 on the XBox performs bettter.  I haven't tried NetFlix on the HTPC either, as I'm happy with the Xbox for that.  My setup allows me to record two OTA HD shows at once while playing back HD content smoothly.  If I were to build something again today I would look seriously at an i3 based system so I could have a little more oomf (hopefully smooth playback w/in WMC).  My setup also does not have  BR drive, and cannot output Dobly-TrueHD, etc (something an i3 would).  I rip BR's to h.264 matroska files with either DTS or Dolby for archived playback on the HTPC.
  • @simian: 
    It occurs on Boxee as well at least.  I haven't tried XBMC recently on it but it was doing it last time I remember.  I'll fire it up later and see if I can boil it down to the cpu or the limited amount of ram I have in the machine.
  • Once we have a community box finished - is this something Will and Norm will try to build and test? I hope they will. 
  • So it definitely needs some sort of HDMI input. 


     64GB is still pretty large for just a bare minimum install. If we're set on linux then we can really shrink down the OS install by a lot, and there doesn't need to be that much space for caching. I would say using 32GB or even a 16GB hard drive wouldn't be terrible, especially if it can save some $$.  
    Getting it to boot directly into an interface should be pretty easy, have we come to a consensus on how the interface is to be controlled? Trough the phone controller? Wireless Keyboard? Special Remote? 
    EDIT: One final thing, how far are we willing to go to customize? If needed I am willing to write any number of scripts/programs to do utility stuff if necessary.
  • The easiest way to do that then would just make a custom linux (or windows if we wan't to go with it) install, that you can just pop into a disc drive or wherever and just have it install what ya need. Since I'm not doing anything for thanksgiving, tomorrow I'll download a couple of minimal linux installs and start creating one that will boot up into Boxee/XBMC (or w/e).
  • @will said:
    "For the record, I think this machine should be very light on storage, extremely quiet, and there are mega-bonus points if it's able to play games at Xbox 360 level or higher (720p resolution, 2xAA, trilinear). I don't care about OS, but whatever you guys want on here should be able to boot straight into a 10-foot interface without requiring a keyboard and mouse connected.  "
    In this case, the Zotac MAG that I pointed out earlier as using for my HTPC is almost perfect.  It's got a 160gb hard drive, I can't hear it when it's on from my couch, and it outputs at 1080p alright besides the weird buffering issue (which might be ram related anyway).  The only thing is that the ION chokes when trying to play games.  I though it'd be awesome to play Torchlight on it on my TV but it refused to even start.
  • @LtSquigs said:

    have we come to a consensus on how the interface is to be controlled? Trough the phone controller? Wireless Keyboard? Special Remote?"

    I would hope that you would be able to use a typical remote for most tasks, one that would feel familiar to most people. Perhaps a keyboard/mouse for light gaming and text entry? 
  • If there is light gaming going on for this.  You can easily find a $20 wireless keyboard/mouse combo with no problem.  If not I can dig into the legacy stuff and search my closet for an old keyboard and mouse ball mouse.  haha
    I think the OS should be the last thing we should look into after getting the parts together for sure.  If we can afford to put a MS OS into we can or if we want to go with a linux OS as well.  This just seems like the smart idea for now to focus on OS last unless anybody else thinks differently.  
    As for a remote I think your phone would suffice as long as its a smart phone obviously.  
    with a build like this making something that is quiet I don't think would be an issue by any means.
  • @GTFShadow:  I'm of the mind that it should be remote and/or wireless keyboard+mouse. Reliance on a smart phone means you need to find something that potential works on all phones and no just the current de-facto.  
    @LtSquigs:  Yeah true enough. 32GB should be sufficient. 16GB would work but I tend to be a bit prudish when it comes to storage. If it's a linux system then you need to keep in mind the amount of space required for compiling stuff from source, including the kernel if you need to make additions not available through a package system. 
    That looks pretty cool but what fun is it to buy something pre-built? 
    I'll post an updated inventory later today with the options we're looking at plus Will's suggestions. It boils down to if we want to aim for the stars and get the bonus points for gaming, in which case the Atom + ION solution may not be viable.
  • @GTFShadow said:

    As for a remote I think your phone would suffice as long as its a smart phone obviously.    

    I think this would be a bonus, but I think the remotes/controls/keyboard/mouse should be off the shelf and easy to obtain. This should be a box  you could get without being super tech savvy... hopefully we can write very clear instructions.  Think of the person, no smart phone, who wants a complete self-contained awesome HTPC.

  • @TheAdmin said:
    Think of the person, no smart phone, who wants a complete self-contained awesome HTPC. "
    Or refer to the mantra for the project ;)