Sunday, May 23, 2010

HTPC Build part 5 – Parts List! My $500 Windows 7 2010 HTPC

This is the fifth in a series of posts I’m writing about an HTPC (Home Theatre PC) build that I recently completed.  To see a list of all posts in this series, click here.

Having gotten over-the-air HDTV set up, successfully tested a PC TV tuner and Windows Media Center, made an attempt to recycle an old PC into an HTPC, and done some testing with a loaner HTPC, I was finally ready to finalize a list of parts, place the order, and build my own HTPC!

Here is the final parts list for my HTPC:

    Cost
(USD; shipped;
including tax)
Purchased From Purchase Date
Motherboard Gigabyte AMD GA-MA785GM-US2H $58 newegg.com May 2010
CPU AMD Phenom II X2 550 Callisto 3.1GHz $77 newegg.com May 2010
RAM Corsair 4 GB (2x 2GB) DDR2-800 (PC2 6400) TWIN2X4096-6400C5DHX $26 frys.com November 2008
Hard disk Western Digital 640 GB internal SATA $70 newegg.com February 2010
Onboard video ATI Radeon HD 4200 $0
(on motherboard)
-- --
Add-on video card (None -- yet) $0 -- --
TV tuner Hauppauge USB HVR-850 $50 amazon.com January 2010
Optical drive ASUS 24X DVD RW DRW-24B1ST SATA $27 newegg.com May 2010
Wireless LAN Monoprice USB Wireless Lan 802.11G $11 monoprice.com January 2010
PC case (Recycled 2004 desktop PC case) $0 -- 2004
Power supply unit CORSAIR CMPSU-400CX 400W $30 (after rebate) newegg.com May 2010
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit (OEM) $100 newegg.com May 2010
Remote control Lenovo Multimedia Remote with Keyboard 57Y6336 / N5901 $38 lenovo.com April 2010
HDMI cable HDMI cable, 6’, male-to-male $1 meritline.com November 2009

Total Cost: $488 (Not including a PC case)

To cut to the chase: This HTPC works great!  The hardware worked fine immediately upon being assembled; the machine works great as a DVR and meets all of my other goals as well (with the exception of being able to act as a high-end gaming PC -- more on that below); and the machine has none of the video/overscan issues with my Philips 3000-series HDTV that I had encountered with the Intel-based loaner HTPC I tested.

Read on for more detailed commentary on the specific parts that I decided on ordering, followed by my thoughts on the performance of the new HTPC over the several few weeks that I’ve had it up and running so far.

Parts

Motherboard / CPU / Onboard Video

As I mentioned in the previous post in this series, I had encountered some fairly significant video issues with overscan and flickering of thin black lines when testing with an Intel-based HTPC and its Intel GMA X4500 onboard video, which my friend Dave had been kind enough to let me borrow and test with my TV for several days.

My consequent decision to opt for an AMD/ATI-based build for this HTPC, including Radeon HD 4200 onboard video, turned out to be a good one!  Hooking the PC up to my Philips 32PFL5332D/37 HDTV via HDMI, everything just worked great “out of the box.”  There were no issues with overscan; the PC video output running at 1920x1080 was automatically sized correctly to fit the viewable area of the TV display, without me having to do anything.

Further, the overall quality of the display was much better as compared to the Intel GMA X4500 test machine.  There were none of the issues with thin black lines appearing to “flicker” that I had noticed with the Intel onboard video.  Text on the TV display is quite readable, particularly once I increased the default text size in Windows 7 to 150% (via Control Panel | Appearance and Personalization | Display).

Regarding the specific motherboard and CPU I purchased, the purchase criteria for these parts were, in roughly descending order of importance (most important criteria first):

  • Decent quality onboard video capable of HD video playback
  • Native onboard HDMI-out
  • Very positive reviews (Parts that would be likely to “just work”)
  • Reasonable price
  • Compatible with the 4 GB of DDR2-800 RAM I already owned (more on this below)

The Gigabyte AMD GA-MA785GM-US2H and AMD Phenom II X2 that I ended up deciding on fit all of these criteria nicely.  At a combined cost of $135 shipped (including a $22 “combo” promotion that newegg.com was running at the time of my purchase), I got performance that was adequate for the demands that would be placed on the HTPC at a pretty good price.

RAM

Although I included the cost of the RAM in my calculated “Total Cost” above (the $488 figure), I actually ended recycling 4 GB of Corsair-brand RAM that I had purchased for the desktop PC that I built in 2008, which is still my primary home PC.  Running the 2008 desktop PC with the 4 GB of Corsair RAM and 4 GB of Crucial-brand RAM (8 GB total), the machine would be mostly stable (and pass Windows 7’s suite of memory tests), but would bluescreen once every month or two.  I pulled the 4 GB of Crucial RAM out of the machine, but the problems continued; I replaced the Crucial RAM and pulled out the Corsair RAM, and the problems stopped.  (Note: I do realize that I shouldn’t have been running two different brands of RAM in the same PC in any event.) 

To save some money, and on the theory that there was just some kind of incompatibility between my 2008 PC’s motherboard and the Corsair RAM, I tried installing the 4 GB of Corsair RAM in the HTPC.  So far, this experiment has been a success; I’ve had no bluescreen/crashing troubles at all with the HTPC in the several weeks that it’s been running at this point.

Hard Disk

I bought the hard drive for the HTPC, a 640 GB Western Digital internal SATA drive, a couple of months earlier than most of the rest of the parts, as part of my attempt to turn my old 2004 desktop PC into an HTPC.  When that didn’t pan out, I was able to just use that same drive in the final HTPC build, as I had planned. 

The only downside to this approach turned out to be that over the last month or so, there have been a lot of good sales on hard drives; had I waited, I could probably have picked up a 1 TB drive for not much more than the $70 that I paid for the 640 GB drive back in February, which would allow me to record a lot more HD video on the HTPC.  I’m not too concerned about this, though.  640 GB still allows for a good amount of HD video recording, and in a year or two when hard drive prices have dropped even further, I can always easily add another (larger) SATA internal hard drive to the machine if I find that I want more recording capacity.

Add-on video card

As noted in the table above, I opted not to buy an add-on video card for the HTPC as part of the initial build.  Aside from not being able to act as a high-end gaming machine, the HTPC functions fine with just the onboard video.  By waiting, I’ll be able to buy a more powerful video card for my dollar later on.

PC Case

As with the RAM, I decided to save money by re-using an old part.  Using the 2004 motherboard, CPU, and RAM for the HTPC didn’t work out, but the 2004 case was still perfectly good; I took out the old motherboard, and installed the new parts in that case.  It’s a full-size desktop PC case rather than an HTPC form factor case that would fit in the entertainment center cabinet and look nice sitting next to my other devices such as the Wii; a “real” HTPC case is always something that I can “upgrade” to later.  

Remote Control

n5901The remote control I purchased, a Lenovo Multimedia Remote with Keyboard 57Y6336 (N5901), is something that I wasn’t originally planning on getting.  I had originally envisioned using a more traditional TV-like remote to control the HTPC from the couch.  However, when the N5901 went on sale on the Lenovo site for 50% off, I decided to take a chance on it – a handheld remote that could also function as a mouse and as a QWERTY keyboard seemed pretty cool. 

My experience with the N5901 has been mostly good, with a few caveats.  I’ll share my full thoughts on the device in a subsequent post in this series.

The Build

Putting together the new PC was smooth and easy – just the way I like these things to work!  All of the parts went together with no problems, and the completed PC booted up successfully the first time that I powered it on.

My new OEM copy of Windows 7 64-bit also installed smoothly and with no problems.  Windows 7 recognized all of my devices, including the HVR-850 TV tuner, the Monoprice Wireless Lan adapter, and the Lenovo Multimedia Remote with no problems, and without me having to manually install any drivers. 

Performance

I’ll go through and discuss my goals for this HTPC system one at a time, and how the system measures up against each goal.

Primary goal: Act as a DVR (record HD TV broadcasts, and playback HD video)

The primary goal for the this HTPC was to serve as my household’s primary (and only) DVR – to automatically “tape” (record) TV shows, and to play them back later on demand.

The HTPC works great in this capacity.  The Windows Media Center software works very well.  I like it even better than the Tivo that I used for a while previously, due to being able to use the mouse in the Windows Media Center interface to quickly skip directly to a particular location in a show.

The HTPC has no problem recording one show while playing back another.  In theory, I could in the future add a second TV tuner to the machine (another HVR-850 or a similar device), and be able to record two different shows simultaneously.

It’s also worth mentioning that when Windows Media Center is recording a TV show, the impact on the HTPC’s resources (processor and memory) is negligible – the machine can be recording a show while at the same time running a game or other Windows applications, with no noticeable performance impact.

Secondary goal: Act as a secondary home PC

The goal here was to be able to close or minimize Window Media Center and drop back to the Windows desktop and use the HTPC like a regular PC – to browse the web, check email, and so forth. 

The HTPC works great in this respect as well.  As mentioned above, the Radeon HD 4200 onboard video produces a great-looking signal on my Philips HDTV, with no overscan and very readable text.  Just last weekend, I used the HTPC in this capacity: I sat on the couch with my family, and used the HTPC to show on the TV screen a bunch of digital photos that my Dad had taken of the house he’s building in Florida.

Secondary goal: Play DVD movies

Since my old DVD player died, I had been keeping my Playstation 2 hooked up to the TV mostly to act as a DVD player and play the occasional movie. 

The HTPC works just fine for playing DVDs, so now I can replace the PS2 with some other device if the need arises.

Secondary goal: Play old NES / SNES / Nintendo 64 games

On occasion, I use my desktop PC to play via an emulator an old NES (Nintendo), SNES (Super Nintendeo), or Nintendo 64 cartridge that I own (and is stored away in my basement).  Playing these old games on a PC monitor while sitting in an office chair just isn’t quite the same as playing them on the TV while sitting back on the couch, though. 

I haven’t spent a lot of time using the HTPC for retro console gaming aside from the initial round of testing yet, but the HTPC does work great for this.  Even the old NES and SNES games look really nice on the HDTV.  The image is really sharp, and there’s no blurring or aliasing. 

The responsiveness of emulated games on the HTPC is also very snappy.  I was a bit concerned that there would be some small delay between doing an input on the controller and seeing the corresponding action happen in the game on the TV screen, but there has been no such delay; the games I’ve tried have responded instantly to controller input.

I’m using an XBox 360 controller (which is compatible with Windows PCs via USB) as my controller, and it works pretty well for controlling old NES games.  At some point I’m planning to pick up an SNES controller USB PC adapter and get my old SNES controllers out of storage to complete the retro gaming experience.

Secondary goal: Play new PC games / “Poor man’s XBox 360”

As with the Intel PC I tested with, I’ve tried two more “serious” modern games on the HTPC: World of Warcraft, and Batman Arkham Asylum.

As with the Intel PC, World of Warcraft runs just fine on the HTPC in full 1920x1080 resolution, although not at the maximum graphics settings.  I’m not really planning on playing much Warcraft on this HTPC, but it’s nice to know that the game runs on the machine just fine, and I now have another PC that will run WoW in a pinch.

Also as with the Intel PC, and also as expected, Batman Arkham Asylum runs, but so slowly that it isn’t really playable.  The Radeon HD 4200 onboard video isn’t up to the challenge of running a modern graphics-intensive game, even on the minimum settings.  An add-on video card will be an easy addition to the HTPC at some point in the future; I’m saving a full play-through of Batman for the time when I’ll finally be able to sit back on the couch and play through the game on the HDTV.

Secondary goal: Stream video between PCs

One thing that occurred to me that it would be nice to be able to do is to stream recorded video (TV shows) from the HTPC over to my desktop PC, for those (very unusual) occasions where Melissa and I both want to watch TV at the same time, and we don’t want to watch the same show.

The software (Windows 7 and Windows Media Center) does support this functionality – I can fire up Windows Media Center on my desktop PC and see the shows that have been recorded on the HTPC.  Unfortunately – and this is the only “unexpected” issue that I have with my setup at the moment – when I try to playback a video over the network (even a standard-def video), the playback is extremely choppy, to the point of being unwatchable.  I did run this test over both of my other test machines (the converted 2004 machine, and the Intel test machine) so the problem is apparently my network setup, not the HTPC itself. 

Both of my PCs are running USB 802.11g wireless adapters, and my router is a Belkin F5D8233-4 802.11n.  Unfortunately, my home is situated such that running a wired network isn’t really possible, so all of my machines are connected via wireless.  I suspect that streaming video (even full HD video) over a home wireless LAN should be possible, and that it’s some kind of problem with my network that’s preventing this from working for me, but I haven’t gotten this tracked down yet.  When I have an opportunity to do so, I’m going to try a different router and see if that does anything to improve the situation.

Tertiary goal: Run quietly

One final goal that I had for this HTPC is that it run quietly – I didn’t want to have to increase the volume of the TV at all just for the sake of having to compensate for a loud PC (particularly given that Melissa and I typically only ever sit down to watch TV when the kids are sleeping upstairs). 

Fortunately, this HTPC build is indeed silent when it runs.  Even with the PC on and TV turned off, when sitting back on the couch, the PC fans are not audible whatsoever.

Conclusion

This HTPC build turned out to be a lengthy project, due to the methodical approach that I took to testing purchasing and testing components prior to doing the final parts purchase and build.  It was a lot of fun to work through the process, though, and it was a very good learning experience.  Best of all, I have an end result that I’m really happy with!  My family is very happy with our new HTPC/DVR as well.  (I can hear Melissa in the other room as I write this using the HTPC to watch the recording of the finale of “Lost” that started airing earlier tonight while we were still getting the kids to bed.)

As a bonus, I didn’t spend too much money to achieve the desired result!  Although the total cost of almost $500 up front was by no means trivial, it’s nice that, going forward, I will have a $0 “DVR fee” alongside my monthly $0 TV and $0 phone expenditures.

This is the last of the primary posts in this series.  I will be writing at least one more follow-up post, though, covering my thoughts on the Lenovo Multimedia Remote with integrated trackball and keyboard that we’re using to control the HTPC from the couch.