It used to be an expensive and time-consuming task to custom-build a dedicated home theater PC (HTPC). Here’s how to build a tiny dedicated HTPC with Blu-Ray drive, 2 GB RAM, 128 GB hard drive and heatsink for less than the price of most off-the-shelf Blu-Ray players.
A few years ago, I built an enormous home theater PC that cost about $1200. Because it’s on most of the time, it runs too hot, and the fans trying to cool it down are loud, which makes the whole thing sound like a jet engine. My new HTPC, built around Nvidia ION graphics, is outperforming my old PC and has been shrunk down to the size of a cigar box. With some new features such as an internal Blu-ray player and a noiseless heatsink (instead of a loud fan) to absorb and dissipate heat, it streams HD multimedia without flickering or stuttering and it cost less than $500 dollars (and could cost as little as $300).
If you don’t want to build your own computer, start with either a bare-bones (preassembled) PC like the ASRock ION 330. The computer is missing a Blu-ray drive, but comes with 320 GB HD and 2 GB of memory all wrapped up in a small, glossy black case.
But if you’re a real DIYer, start with separate components, tailoring the PC however you want. The entire building process took me less than 30 minutes.
Heres a shopping list: case, motherboard, RAM, wireless remote, Windows OS and a hard drive. NVIDIA’s new ION graphics processor is powerful for integrated graphics. Think of it as a supercharger for the PC’s visual performance. It excels at handling full 1080p video with 7.1 surround sound and transcodes video up to 10 times faster than an Atom CPU alone. ION can even handle a few games without choking.
The process begins with the motherboard and case. Start with an ION motherboard like the Zotac ION-ITX and a case like the Travla C287 Mini-ITX Case. The essentials, such as a mini-PCIe Wi-Fi card, an HDMI out and a dual-core Intel Atom 330 processor, are already onboard in the motherboard. The only thing left to do is add RAM and turn it on.
Place the Zotac motherboard into the case using the four supplied screws.
Snap in some RAM. I used 2 gigs of Corsair xms2.
I added a Kingston 128 GB SSD hard drive for speed. And an HTPC wouldn’t be complete without a Blu-Ray drive. I screwed an internal laptop Blu-ray drive from Panasonic into the case’s supplied tray.
Connect the wires (all three!) and close the case. Attach it to a TV with an HDMI cable and power up.
The rest of the time is spent installing Windows 7 and configuring some applications.
I’ve kept it very light on software. Kaspersky is my favorite virus-protection software; I install this in every PC I build. Pidgin is my choice for IM client; Libre Office for a free alternative to the extremely expensive Microsoft Office. I wanted to make sure ION could handles some games. I installed Spore (perfectly playable), Call of Duty 4 (I changed most of the settings), and Left4Dead (set everything on low) and it works. TMPGEnc 4.0 Xpress (with Nvidia’s CUDA) is fast and straightforward. Now the best software recipe for playing Multimedia is a combination of Windows Media Center, Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 9 and Media Player Classic Home Cinema. Windows Media Center does 95 percent of the work playing movies and music files, while Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 9 handles the decoding of Blu-ray discs. And as for streaming 1080p MKV files, I rely on Media Player Classic Home Cinema. From music to movies, surfing the web to streaming Netflix, everything is working perfectly. No hiccups, stuttering, loss of audio or overheating. This is the easiest home theater PC you’ll ever put together … until the next breakthrough product comes along!