Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Announcing: My First Self-made HTPC (Home Theater PC)

Dear readers,

until now, I found attempts to use PC platforms in the living room as the media central rather futile. I often found the hardware too loud, too slow, too expensive, and compared to dedicated CD/DVD/BD devices, they used too much power. They'd need to boot up which takes considerably more time than just powering up the DVD player. Additionally, controlling a PC remotely with a rather atypical IR control instead of keyboard and mouse usually ended up with most of the remote control buttons not working or not doing what I expect them to do, plus only little room for customiziation to bring the experience a little closer to what I anticipated.
My first "HTPC" was an ASUS Digimatrix barebone, rich of features but very very poor in terms of performance and thermal management. I've given it up because the hardware could never host more than Windows XP, and even that was unbearably slow, and the Linux-based media center apps were rather poor these days, too.
I've also been trying a Fantec streaming device so I can watch recorded TV shows from the NAS over WLAN. Nice but incomplete. Most buttons on the IR control don't do anything, the menus are slow and most of the functions offered don't make sense to me, and of course there is no way to play any kind of disc with the device, nor is there a browser. Even if there were, it would surely not meet the features of modern browsers such as IE8 or Firefox 3.5. So that is not flexible enough for my taste, too.

Well, it still seems to be an exclusive hobby, but at least nowadays the industry has moved a little more in the right direction to make such a system generally possible with not too many compromises.
You might wonder why I didn't consider AppleTV or similar devices. Well, maybe because it is no PC, or because the extensibility of such systems is rather bad. What I want is a system that is able to grow over time, not one that I need to replace every year. A classic PC still seems to be the best platform for this.

I want to achieve the following:

  • the system should look decent and its design should match the other Hi-Fi equipment (I prefer black when I have the choice)
  • it should wake up to a usable state rapidly (I plan to try Windows 7 standby and hibernation and will take some power consumption measurements. Waking up from standby will be faster of course, but if standby consumption is > 2W, I'll prefer hibernation)
  • as said, it should have a minimal standby power consumption
  • it should be able to record TV shows directly based on a timer, waking up from standby at the right time and going to sleep again once the show is complete, recording either to the built-in HDD or to the NAS
  • it should be able to play CD, DVD, Blu-Ray and all kinds of FLASH media (CF, SD etc.)
  • it should be internet-connected over 802.11n WLAN (I'll use an old WLAN USB adapter featuring 802.11g and see how it works) to make web radio, Youtube, and general browsing possible with all the comfort
  • it should be accessible via Bluetooth for remote keyboard/mouse operation and file transfer from/to mobile phones and similar devices
  • it should feature HDMI for a good full-HD experience
  • it should offer high quality TV reception - preferably DVB
  • it should be usable even when the TV is not on (so it needs its own display)
  • the power consumption should be as low as possible when the system is fully powered up so it can be used overnight for downloading video recordings from onlinetvrecorder.com

I'm not determined yet about the software I'll use. Windows 7 x64 is the platform for sure, and I'll give Windows Media Center a try first. MediaPortal, an open-source solution, will also get a chance.

Hardware bought so far:

  • Housing: Zalman HD160XT-Plus HTPC enclosure in black
    I couldn't resist this beautiful HTPC case from the first moment I saw it. Even if it is very costly (~500 EUR), I think I would regret buying anything else in the long run. The housing is completely made of aluminum, pretty heavy, and it has a 7-inch LCD touchscreen that makes it operable without the TV, and Zalman provides some software to use the internal LCD for status information when watching movies and stuff, which brings the device closer to the usual stand-alone home theater components.
    Even though Zalman has discontinued the HD160XT series of enclosures, there is no more beautiful HTPC housing in my opinion.

  • Power Supply: BeQuiet! BQT E8-450W
    BeQuiet is my favourite manufacturer as they make high-class, silent, and efficient PSUs at a very good pricing. I wanted an efficiency of 80+, and even though the PSU has a fan, it runs on very low speed and still keeps the unit calm at all times. No cable management unfortunately, but has everything else I can think of.

  • Mainboard: Gigabyte P55A-UD3
    A socket-1156 board with lots of SATA connectors, SATA 600, USB 3.0, on-board Gigabit LAN, four PCI-e connectors and three PCI sockets. Should be much more than is needed for the HTPC but why take less when the price is reasonable?

  • CPU: Intel Core i5-650 Dual-Core with 3.2 GHz and 4MB Cache
    A compromise between raw computing power and trying to keep the power consumption low. Even though the TDP (73W!) suggests that a potent cooling solution is preferable, my test bench attempts with the system show that the temperature and resulting fan RPM stay astoundingly low even after hours. No part of the mainboard becomes noticeably hot either. Seems a good choice :)

  • CPU Cooler: Noctua NH-U9B SE2 with two fans
    Solid, large, heavy, flexible - and hopefully not too big for the housing! The cooler can be equipped with up to two fans (both part of the package), alternatively it can cool the CPU with no fans of its own, using the airstream from the power supply. Noctua ships two voltage adapters per fan so the RPM can be influenced widely. I decided to use both fans with 7V resistants, ending up with a system that is virtually noiseless.

  • RAM: 4GB OCZ DDR3 DIMMs (OCZ3G1333LV4GK)
    Windows is still demanding - didn't want to save money in the wrong place, so two 2GB DIMMs will provide enough room for anything I plan to do.

  • VGA: Gigabyte Radeon HD 5450 PCI-e Video Adapter with 1GB GDDR5
    This is a graphics adapter with rather good performance and no need of active cooling. As long as there is any air movement around, the adapter won't get too hot in normal operation. Plus, it's pretty cheap for what is offered.

  • HDD: OCZ Agility 2 SSD with 60GB
    The first PC system that runs with no mechanical HDD right from the start. Unfortunately, Windows Vista and later versions tend to clog the HDD with their WinSXS and Installer cache folders so I thought a smaller HDD would not be such a good idea. As I'm not planning to install too much software, 60GB should be enough for normal operation.

  • Optical Drive: Samsung SH-B083 Blu-Ray reader / DVD writer
    BD combo drives are still astoundingly expensive nowadays so I bought this one as a used item from eBay. Works nicely. I hope it is not too loud in operation.

  • HID: Logitech DiNovo Edge Bluetooth Keyboard with touch panel
    A nice-looking Bluetooth keyboard that features a touchpad for mouse operations, plus lots of multimedia keys, nice LED effects and a good battery lifetime. The battery is built in, and recharged when the keyboard is in the docking station. Even though I want to try using the Zalman remote controller that comes with the HD160XT Plus enclosure, the keyboard is very convenient when it comes to using a browser.

  • WLAN: Fritz!USB Stick 1.1
    I found this WLAN adapter in the basement recently, and will see how it performs. Probably 54 MBits (in my experience that makes no more than 8 MBits continuous net transfer rate) won't suffice for streaming videos. Well, let's see about that later. At least the PC will be part of the home network from the first minute.

  • TV: Technisat Digital CableStar HD2 for DVB-C
    Until now I'm using DVB-T but the quality and stability of the signal are not too impressive. I hope to achieve better results using the DVB cable variant. Unfortunately first attempts are not too promising either. The signal is rather weak, maybe the terminals in the appartment need an upgrade, or I'll have to use high-end antenna cables. Another great issue is that Windows Media Center has no support for DVB-C but only for DVB-T. There is a gateway software though to resolve this.
    Next problem will be that the LTE mobile communications standard at 800 MHz is established even tough it is now clear that it interferes with a lot of hardware that existed with no issue for a long time now. One of the victims is aerial analog broadcast TV, and DVB-T as well as DVB-C are said to be influenced pretty bad by LTE. Even cable-based TV which conventionally uses a shielded coaxial cable?! Wow... A lot of wireless microphones (such as they use for live performances) will become useless, too. Damn it! They will push this new standard at any cost as it seems. Probably DVB-S (Satellite-based) will be the only norm that will last for high quality TV, but that will require a dish that I cannot install here due to hirer restrictions. What a mess...
I'm still waiting for the Zalman enclosure. Probably it wasn't sold too often due to the price, and the sales agent where I bought it is still waiting for the delivery. Everything else is ready to go.
Will keep you informed of any progress here.

So long,

Joe

------------------------

Update 2011/05/04

Welcome back, yes! This post is still alive!
The enclosure could not be delivered eventually, so I had to look for an alternative. As LCD touch panel and black aluminum case were requirements I didn't want to let go, I chose the OrigenAE S16T case which appears to be equal in quality yet even more costly. Plus it doesn't feature any buttons beside a "Power" and a "Display on/off" button on its front, so everything needs to be done on the LCD touch screen or via remote control.
First I put the pieces together without the case to test that everything is working. The Noctua CPU fan is amazingly silent since I decided to use the 7V resistors that came with the package for both fans. Still, even after hours of uptime, there is not a single component that is heating up noticeably. So far I'm very pleased with all of it.
When the OrigenAE enclosure finally came, it was a quick deal to put the mainboard and all the components in. The BD-ROM drive was a little tricky to install though as it has some more focus on exterior design (glare/mirror surface, larger tray etc.) thus the eject button is not in the same place it usually is. Well, that was a minor challenge.
OrigenAE did a great job with all the extra hardware that belongs to the case. It's all USB and one VGA cable, nothing else. The only thing that didn't become quite clear from the manual was how they expected the "Power" button to be installed. There is at least one wire well-hidden beneath the drive cage, and if you miss it, it will break nothing but the power behaviour might be a little unexpected.
I finally figured that out and now it's up to the next step: choosing and configuring the media center software. I already found out that Windows 7 Media Center won't cover what I want to do because it cannot control DVB-C devices. There is no patch or fix from Microsoft yet that would enable it whereas DVB-T and DVB-S supposedly work.
The IMedian software that came with the OrigenAE case is not quite what I want and appears too restricteed to me, e.g. I haven't found any way to include my NAS device in the media library. A recommended candidate for the choice of software is MediaPortal which is free and open source, and must have tons of options. Might take a real lot of time to get to terms with it, but as far as I have heard, there is no more powerful solution.
So far, it now boots up Windows 7 with a logon screen, so prior to watching a movie from a network stream, A DVD, or a Blu-Ray, or doing anything else requires to enter the password and working just like on a desktop PC. A little uneasy but least restricted, too.

I'll come back with my MediaPortal experience.

So long!
Greets
Joe

1 comment:

  1. Hey there! Thank you for sharing your thoughts about home theater in your area. I am glad to stop by your site and know more about home theater. Keep it up! This is a good read. I will be looking forward to visit your page again and for your other posts as well.
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