Building a cheap Home theater PC?

When you are using your PC as something to watch video clips or play video games on you have to wonder if there is more that you can do with it. Can you replace your DVD player? Replace your cable or satellite box going to your computer? Why not send everything from your computer over to you HDTV?

The catch is that off-the-shelf HTPCs either are high-end and costly, or they’re ugly, glorified PCs that look distinctly out of place in a living room. To get a streamlined, home-theater-friendly, best-bang-for-the-buck HTPC, it’s DIY time. The assembly takes only an afternoon. The time-consuming part is researching and selecting the components. To that end, read on. If you’re new to building PCs, do yourself a huge favor and buy or borrow a copy of the latest edition of “Upgrading and Repairing PCs” by Scott Mueller. The material is dry, but it will save you money, tears and time.

The Home theater PC case
Starting on the outside, the case is a critical factor in our project. A Home Theater PC must fit comfortably, nestled in your home theater alongside the A/V receiver, the DVD player and their playmates. Since PCs need to be cooled internally, noise can be an annoyance. The last thing you want to hear during a movie are case fans kicking in like leaf blowers.

Antec, purveyors of fine computer enclosures, offers the Fusion HTPC case in silver or black ($179, It features a thick aluminum faceplate, a volume knob, information display and a 430W, low-noise power supply. In other words, it looks just like a piece of A/V gear. Best of all, I could hardly hear any noise, even with both cooling fans running at high speed.

The Home theater PC motherboard
Since our Fusion case takes a small-size, MicroATX standard motherboard — home for the CPU, RAM, video card, etc. — instead of the common ATX form, choices are limited. I stick with brands that have performed well in the past and the Asus M2NPV-VM ($100, fit the bill nicely: four USB 2.0 ports, support for up to 8 GB DDR2 RAM, and enough PCI and PCIe slots for our graphics, sound, TV tuner and WiFi network cards.

The Home theater PC processor
CPUs are a Coke-or-Pepsi kind of thing. I always use AMD CPUs while others swear by Intel. Your choice. Just get a newish dual-core CPU running at around 2 GHz or more. The AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+ ($125, is cheap and speedy.

The Home theater PC Ram
Two GB of Crucial DDR2 RAM (about $75, will do the trick. When it came to hard-drive storage, I went hog wild. With a one-hour HD program translating to a 5- or 6-GB video file, even a roomy 500-GB hard drive can fill up in a hurry. So, why not super-size things with not one, but two 750-GB Seagate Barracuda drives (about $239 each, Now our mega-HTPC can archive about 250 hours of HD goodness.

The Home theater PC software
While there are third-party software packages such as Sage and Beyond TV available to run the scheduling and recording of TV, I enjoy using Windows Media Center. Microsoft kick-started the HTPC movement with the release of Windows XP, Media Center Edition, and with Vista the software has become downright seamless, even elegant.

Media Center is rolled into both Vista Home Premium and Ultimate ($111.99 and $189.99, respectively, OEM versions are cheap). Setup breezes by with Media Center automatically detecting your cable and antenna connections. A customizable program guide is regularly updated via the Internet. It’s as simple as TiVo’s interface and there’s no subscription fee.

The Home theater PC videocard
The video card is next up. It’s more Coke and Pepsi between ATI and NVIDIA; the good news is that all this heated competition means great technology at falling prices. ATI’s new mid-range Radeon HD 2600 XT card ($199, has future-proof gaming and video processing features, stunning video performance and a great price (it also fits in our low-profile case!).

The Home theater PC soundcard
With the supplied adapter, the 2600 XT will output digital six-channel surround sound and up to 1080p HD video through a single HDMI connection, vastly simplifying setup. If you have an A/V receiver with HDMI connections you’re all set. I don’t (it’s still on my wish list) so I ended up with an HDMI connection between the PC and HDTV for watching recorded TV.

For music and surround sound, I installed the Creative X-Fi XtremeMusic PCI sound card ($115, which connects with any A/V receiver’s digital audio input. If all you’ll be doing is using the TV’s speakers you can skip the sound card — the motherboard’s audio is more than sufficient.

The Home theater PC extras
Two must-haves for any PC are a WiFi network card (if you have a wireless network, that is) and a DVD burner. You’ll need the DVD drive to install any software. Both items can be had for about $30 each at online retailers.

When I planned this HTPC I ran into a problem: All the PCI and PCIe slots were going to be occupied. All except for the oft-unused mini-PCIe X1, that is. Since I don’t usually put anything in there, I was thrilled to find a new model of ATI’s excellent TV Wonder 650 HDTV tuner card ($125, for just that slot.

The HDTV tuner is where you plug in cable, satellite or a UHF/VHF antenna (if you want over-the-air standard and HD programming). If you’re fortunate, a regular indoor antenna will pull in pristine (and free!) HD signals.

How you want to watch and record TV will determine what TV tuner cards you need. If you ever watch one show while recording another or record two different programs at the same time, you’ll need two TV tuner cards. Make sure you have enough available expansion slots.

One added bonus is a Bluetooth wireless keyboard. The Microsoft Wireless Entertainment 7000 for $130 may sound like a steep investment for a keyboard, but the thing is a marvel of engineering. It’s thin and the keys feel just right. Along with a Media Center launch button, the left and right mouse buttons and track pad make orchestrating your entertainment on the big screen (sans mouse) possible from the La-Z-Boy.

* Shop around online. Prices, especially for CPUs, RAM and hard drives, change daily.

* You can reduce the price of your system by about $350 by getting less hard drive space (say, one 750-GB drive) and ditching the sound card.

Antec Fusion PC case:$179, Asus M2NPV-VM motherboard:$100, AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+ CPU: $125, Crucial 2 GB kit DDR2 RAM: $75, 2 Seagate Barracuda 750 GB hard drives: ($239.00 each) $478, Windows Vista Home Premium: $112, ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT video card:$149, ATI TV Wonder 650 HDTV tuner PCIe card:$125, Creative X-Fi XtremeMusic sound card: $115, DVD drive:$30, WiFi network adapter:$30, Microsoft Wireless Entertainment Desktop (keyboard): $130, TOTAL:$1,648

So there you have it for less than $1700 you can have a great home theater PC that will do everything that you need and connect to your stereo.

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