First, pick a scenario.
Even though small form factor PC cases, motherboards, and components are becoming more widely available, the selection is still more limited than it is for conventional-size cases and components. You’ll also notice that the cost of small form factor components is typically higher.
The issue of heat would then present itself as the next obstacle. Cramming cutting-edge hardware into a compact box necessitates placing heat-generating components (central processing units, graphics processing units, northbridge, etc.) closer together, increasing the importance of cooling. You could use giant fans to keep the little equipment cool, but then you’d have to deal with the noise. Though sitting next to your TV may look cute, your tiny home theater PC makes as much noise as a 747 taking off. You’ll agree with me that it defeats the purpose.
Throw away your hopes for some home theater PC; they only frustrate you. Since practicality is more important to me than aesthetics, I opted for a massive full-tower PC case that is quiet operation and attractive to the eye. I decided on the black Thermaltake Armor case. You become used to it and eventually accept it as a normal part of life in the living room. If you like, you can hide your HTPC case anywhere, even behind the couch. If your case is on display, you should pick visually pleasing parts together in terms of color.
Select a CPU as the second step.
You should only think about purchasing a processor from Intel or AMD. There are other processor manufacturers out there, but they are not widely used; thus, it will be challenging to acquire compatible parts. Regarding DIY projects, I always choose AMD CPUs because they are as powerful as Intel processors but much more affordable. Though you need a reasonably quick processor if you plan on using your media center PC in the living room to watch TV and listen to music, you don’t need to go overboard if you’re the type of person who only uses their PC for those activities. You should prioritize purchasing a high-end processor for your media center PC if you intend to utilize it for other tasks, such as gaming or video editing. The faster the processor, the more heat it will generate, and heat is the one thing we want to keep to a minimum, which is why cooling is so important. I installed an AMD Athlon XP 2400+ on my home theater PC. Even though, by today’s standards, this processor would be considered slow, it serves its purpose admirably in Windows Media Center 2005 (and Windows Vista), and it even manages to keep up with the odd games I run. Due to its obsolescence, this CPU is selling for pennies on the dollar on online marketplaces like eBay. In case I need to upgrade it in the future, if I were to create a new PC right now, I would probably go with a processor that is compatible with a socket 940 motherboard.
The third step is to select a motherboard.
The motherboard will be your primary purchase; it may not be the most costly part of the system, but picking the right one will ensure that everything else works together efficiently. You wouldn’t want to spend £200 on a processor that isn’t reaching its full potential because of a faulty £50 motherboard, would you? The type of CPU you buy will significantly impact your motherboard. Socket A motherboards are required for AMD XP 2400+ processors like mine. A socket 940 motherboard is required for most modern AMD processors, such as the AMD Sempron 3600+. Socket 775 motherboards are typically required for newer Intel processors like the Pentium D 930. Check the literature with the CPU to see which motherboard socket it is compatible with. If you don’t obtain the correct motherboard for your processor, the two won’t work together, and you’ll have wasted your money.
The next step is to shop for a motherboard now that you know which socket you need. Invest in a motherboard from a reputable chipset maker like Nvidia (nforce chipset), Intel, or VIA (the chipset of the motherboard manages the flow of information between the central processing unit (CPU), RAM, and any attached peripherals). Choose a motherboard with onboard graphics (graphics card built into the motherboard), onboard sound, and onboard LAN/wireless if you intend to use your Media Center PC primarily for viewing TV and listening to music. You could fit most necessary parts onto a single circuit board like this. Choose a motherboard without onboard graphics if you plan to play games on your Media Center PC. The graphics chipsets found on most motherboards can more than display video, but they aren’t exactly built with gaming in mind. Whether you choose onboard sound or a separate sound card, make sure it’s capable of at least 5.1 surround sound when watching DVDs; even if you only plan to use two speakers, these cards can be configured for two-speaker outputs. However, I think the onboard sound would do if you’re only interested in watching movies on your HTPC. I used an MSI K7N2 Delta-L socket A motherboard in my home theater PC. It included a network interface controller (NIC) and 5.1 surround sound, but I installed a separate sound card for reasons I will explain.
Select an HDD for the fourth step.
We expect this to be a breeze. Simply said, the bigger, the better. If you intend to record numerous shows and movies, you will need as much storage capacity as possible. However, the 10,000 rpm variants of hard drives are not recommended because they are noisier and produce more heat than is necessary. You likely won’t get much of a performance boost by utilizing this sort of hard drive in a Media Center setup. I use my Media Center PC as a file server for my other computers and laptop, so I found that a Maxtor Diamondmax 10 300GB 7200rpm IDE hard drive provided more than enough storage space for all my media. Select a hard drive that uses the same interface as your motherboard does. For example, if your motherboard supports the SATA interface, select a hard drive that likewise uses the SATA interface. Keep in mind that the SATA and IDE interfaces are incompatible with one another. Modern motherboards typically include both interfaces, so you shouldn’t have any trouble.
Given the prevalence of hard drives as a source of both noise and heat, it may be prudent to get a hard drive silencer/cooler; I’d like my HTPC to be as silent as possible, so I opted for the Scythe Quiet Drive, which serves as both an HDD silencer and an HDD cooler.
Select your RAM in Step 5.
When looking for RAM (Random Access Memory), the first thing to check is whether or not it is compatible with the motherboard you plan to use. If your motherboard’s specifications list compatibility for DDR400 memory, it will only work with Double Data Rate (DDR) memory operating at speeds up to 400MHz. A motherboard that advertises compatibility for DDR400 may also be backward-compatible with RAM in lower capacities and bus speeds; for example, a DDR400 motherboard may also be compatible with DDR333, DDR266, and DDR200 RAM modules. Remember that DDR RAM cannot be used with an SDRAM interface and vice versa. You should also check if your motherboard supports Dual Channel RAM, in which case you would place two identical RAM modules in the motherboard’s Dual Channel-enabled banks. When data is received from your processor, it is essentially divided in half and delivered to one of the RAM modules, while the other half is transferred to the other RAM module. Theoretically, the read/write performance of data traveling to and from the processor is doubled when it is split in two in an interleaving fashion. If this is the route you want to take with your home theater PC, then a Dual Channel package of RAM is what you need. Note that just because your motherboard advertises support for Dual Channel RAM doesn’t imply you’re required to utilize a Dual Channel kit; using a single module of RAM will still get the job done, albeit at a slower rate. Once you have settled on the RAM speed and type, you can focus on the quantity. My advice is to go big, but not too big. My system runs smoothly using a Corsair 1gb DDR 400 Dual Channel kit consisting of two 512mb RAM modules.
Select a DVD Drive as the sixth step.
Choose a DVD writer that supports the Dual Layer +R and -R formats if you need to back up movies or music, but otherwise, this is a straightforward process that only requires a DVD drive that can read all disc types and write to all disc formats. You have complete control over the maximum write speed, albeit you can expect to pay extra for increased speed when using optical media. Pick a color that will go with your case, though, or it will look out of place. A high-quality DVD burner compatible with all formats typically costs around $30. My last decision was to be a LiteOn DVD writer. Having used many DVD drives from this manufacturer, I can attest to their reliability and reasonable prices.
Select a video card as the seventh step.
If you’ve opted for a motherboard that includes integrated graphics, you can disregard the following instructions. I assume you also plan to use your Media Center PC for gaming, given that you opted for a dedicated graphics card. Regarding graphics cards, the sky’s the limit here, and some high-end cards can cost more than the rest of the PC put together. In my experience, graphics cards that cost approximately £120 offer excellent performance for their price point without breaking the budget. Remember that the more influential the graphics card, the hotter it gets and the more cooling it requires. It’s common knowledge that the cooling fans on graphics cards make the most annoying noise imaginable. If you have decided to purchase a dedicated graphics card, you may want to consider spending the extra money on a fanless heatsink. This is the path I’ve chosen, and I think it will serve you well in the long term. You should also consider whether or not the card’s outputs (S-Video, composite, etc.) are compatible with the inputs on your television set.
Eighth, decide on a source of energy to use.
Since power supplies have to handle so much electricity while keeping your entire system working, they typically emit a fair amount of noise. It is essential to remember that power = heat = noise due to cooling in general. A fanless power supply is the best option if money is no object; these supplies often feature massive heatsinks and employ heat pipe technology to remove excess heat. The bad news is that a decent one will set you back a pretty penny. If you want my advice, look for a silent power supply with a 120mm fan and a relatively high power rating. Remember that your power supply’s output must be more than the maximum power ratings of all the parts in your system. My previous encounters with power supply have taught me not to put too much stock in the manufacturer’s claims. If it claims to be silent and only costs ten pounds, you’ll find that it’s only silent for a minute or so before you turn it on, and then it makes as much noise as a toy hovercraft once you do. You genuinely get what you pay for if you want a power supply with almost no noise from a big fan. If you want a silent power supply, you should expect to spend between $30 and $40, or you may do what I did and build your own. I am hesitant to spend money in places where I suspect I would be overcharged. I believe that consumers are being overcharged for so-called “silent” power supplies, which are essentially simply ordinary power supplies with a little better fan (although I’m sure others will argue that other factors justify the higher price). My £15 500W Qtec’silent power supply came with a 120mm fan, but I replaced it with a Zalman Silenx Vario 120mm fan from Puresilence because I wanted a genuinely silent power supply. Twenty-five pounds and a few turns of the screwdriver yielded an extremely silent power supply.
Warning: Changing the power supply fan to one not recommended by the manufacturer is done at your own risk. It’s dangerous since it could start a fire, and it voids your guarantee. If your power supply fails, I take no responsibility for any resulting harm.
Select a Cooling Method as Step Nine.
The solution to this significant problem is to install as many case fans as feasible. The larger the fans, the slower they can rotate and still move the same amount of air, which means they will be quieter. Consider replacing the stock heatsinks on your CPU, northbridge chipset, and graphics card with fanless alternatives. My processor and Northbridge needed a fanless heatsink, and I had previously opted for a graphics card that came with one. There were several choices, but I settled on the £20 Thermaltake SilentTower from DCS Doncaster since it can function without a fan yet has room for two massive 90mm fans if I ever need them.
I purchased the Zalman ZM-NB47J Silent Motherboard Heatsink from QuietPC for £6.00 to cool my Northbridge. Naturally, suppose you’re going to use fanless heatsinks in your setup. In that case, this further emphasizes the importance of case fans, as the heat from your heatsinks will warm up all the components in your system, reducing performance or, in the worst-case scenario, causing a component to fail if there isn’t adequate heat exhaustion. The Thermaltake Armor case’s excellent airflow and two 120mm and two 90mm silent fans were significant factors in my decision to go with it. I highly recommend Pure Silence if you’re looking to purchase whisper-quiet fans. The 120mm quiet fan I purchased from their site to replace the one in my power supply is genuinely silent.
You should also invest in a fan speed controller, a small piece of hardware that can be installed in one of the 5.25″ drive bays on the front of your PC and gives you complete control over the rotational velocity of each fan, allowing you to keep your system as silent as you like while giving you the flexibility to boost cooling performance as needed.
Due to its compatibility with my case and built-in card reader, I purchased the Thermaltake Hardcano13 from DCS Doncaster for £36.75.
Select a TV tuner card as Step 10.
Many different kinds of TV tuner cards are available, so you must consider what you’ll be using your PC for before purchasing. Some cards have a single analog tuner, while others have digital HDTV capabilities, and still, others have two tuners on the same board so you can watch one channel while recording another.
After considering my options, I decided to purchase the Dvico Fusion dual HDTV DVB-T tuner from the low lounge for £114.95; this card comes with a well-built remote, performs brilliantly, and also has an AV input; for more information on this card, check out the in-depth review available at johns reviews.
Select a device to operate it in Step 11.
Once you’ve gathered all the parts, it’s time to decide on the controls, which can range from a simple TV remote to a complete media center keyboard (or both), depending on your taste and budget.
Although Microsoft makes high-quality products that are fully compatible with Windows Media Center and require little in the way of setup, many third-party products are well worth considering; I opted for the Logitech Cordless Desktop S 510 with Media Remote, which I purchased for £49.99 from the store formerly known as Dixons.
Assembly is the next step.
I could spend another month writing pages of instructions on installing every component and configuring the PC for optimal performance. Still, I think the following videos can also explain it in less time. So you’ve picked out all your parts, laid them out before you, and still haven’t a clue where to start.
The videos may be labeled as “PC Building Instructions,” but the same ideas used to assemble a Home Theater PC apply to a regular PC.