So you’ve decided that you need to invest in a HTPC build. Great! You’re about to embark on an exciting journey. But how do you ensure that you are choosing the best home theater PC build for your needs and budget. We’ve put together this comprehensive guide on choosing the best HTPC build to ensure that you have the best media experience your money can buy.
What is a HTPC?
A home theater PC (HTPC) merges traditional computer functions with software (or frontend) that allows playback of your video, photo and audio content. HTPCs often enable other functions such as television recording and gaming. A HTPC frontend offers a 10-foot interface that often organises your media, adding covers, organises episodes into seasons and other features that make watching your media an absolute joy.
What should I look for when choosing the best Home Theatre PC build for me?
There are several key things you’ll need to consider:
- How you’ll use it
- Power Consumption, Cooling and Noise
- Hardware Codec Support
- Form Factor
- Operating System
- HTPC Frontend
HTPC Build Factor 1: How You’ll Use It
What you want to use your HTPC for will have a big impact on choosing the best Home Theater PC build. HTPCs can be built for a variety of purposes, from basic media playback to hardcore gaming. This greatly influences the components your HTPC build will need.
First, make a list of use cases for your HTPC build:
- What will it primarily be used for?
- What features do you need?
- What are the “nice-to-haves”?
- What could you live without?
[pullquote-right]What you want to use your HTPC for will have a big impact on choosing the Home Theater PC build[/pullquote-right]
Armed with this list, you can start comparing HTPC builds and PC hardware with your requirements. For example, if you are only watching movies, do you really need that $800 graphics card? Probably not. Spend the cash saved on other areas so you can avoid some of the other home theatre mistakes people make.
Other use cases for your HTPC build may include:
- Watching and recording television – You’ll need a TV capture card and lots of storage for your recordings
- Gaming – You need a good graphics card or strong integrated graphics (like AMD’s APUs)
- Storing media – Make sure there is plenty of hard drive space
- Acting as a media server – Focus on connectivity. Gigabit ethernet really is a must.
- Streaming – You’ll need Ethernet or a fast wireless card (Wireless N as a minimum, Wireless AC recommended)
Like I said before, work out what you need and use this to tailor your PC hardware to best match your needs.
HTPC Build Factor 2: Power Consumption, Cooling and Noise
So this is a deceptively important and all three factors are related. With a HTPC, you want it to be as quiet as possible. Nothing sucks you out of a movie faster than having a villain’s revelatory speech being drowned out by fans!
Look for the lowest power consumption in a build that meets your needs. The higher the power consumption, the more cooling you need and thus, the louder the HTPC build tends to be.
Key points to consider in your HTPC build:
- Consider components that are passively cooled – no fans means no noise.
- Invest in good quality CPU coolers and case fans if required. Stock CPU coolers can be quite noisy!
- Add rubber grommets throughout the case – this will minimize vibration noise.
- Consider SSDs if storage capacity is not of concern. They are silent and use less power.
This is one area that devices such as the Raspberry Pi dominate, as it is entirely passively cooled and has no moving parts meaning its perfectly silent.
HTPC Build Factor 3: Hardware Codec Support
So this one is a bit of a throwaway these days given how chips have evolved but is still relevant for some HTPC builds, particularly when considering some embedded systems. Hardware decoding refers to the ability to process certain video files via dedicated chips on the device rather than needing to use the CPU to handle the decoding. This offers several benefits. The first is that devices with low-end CPUs are able to play high quality video. For example, the Raspberry Pi only has a 700mhz processor but can decode 1080p H.264 video without issue. Secondly, power consumption is lower as these chips can decode video more efficiently than the CPU. With that being said, you want your HTPC build to offer hardware decoding for as many formats as possible. Main codecs to watch out for are MPEG-2, Xvid and H.264 as these are the most common video codecs out there. Pretty much every media device will handle these – although the Raspberry pi will require an MPEG-2 license to be purchased before playback is available. H.265 (HEVC), an upcoming codec offering approximately halved file sizes, is expected to become far more widespread in coming years and hardware support is starting to appear on chips. Whilst not an issue currently, it may be worthwhile considering if you want to somewhat “future proof” your build, particularly if the CPU is slow.
HTPC Build Factor 4: Connectivity
Connectivity is crucial for any modern appliance and a HTPC is no different. Any HTPC build needs an internet connection to make the most of its functionality. Front ends such as Kodi use an internet connection to download fanart, news and weather. Furthermore, any streaming, whether local or internet, will require some form of network connection.
You have two options: wired or wireless. Wired is the gold standard – This is what geeks dream of. Wired connections are super-fast and reliable. That means less time buffering and troubleshooting, and more time watching your favourite shows.
Wireless is acceptable in most standards, but you need wireless N as a minimum. Wireless AC is better if you have a comparable router and network card, offering much higher speeds. However, you may still end up with streaming issues as interference can affect wireless quality.
HTPC Build Factor 5: Form Factor
HTPC builds come in a variety of form factors, from traditional tower cases to tiny fanless boxes. To ensure you get the best HTPC build for you, you need to consider what form factor you need.
A key consideration is where is the HTPC going to be located. If you want to put it into a standard AV rack, it should match the form factor of most home theatre components. This ensures that not only will the HTPC blend in seamlessly with your other devices, but you will be able to offer it sufficient ventilation. Another thing that you need to consider is what other components you need for your HTPC build. For example, if it requires a lot of storage, a small mini-ITX case may not be able to fit enough hard drives in. However, I’d still recommend that you consider a NAS if you have multiple rooms that need to access your media.
HTPC Build Factor 6: Operating System
The operating system has a significant impact on your HTPC build, particularly in terms of applications available. Your options will change based on ether hardware you are considering. Many embedded devices such as the Raspberry pi use Linux or Android. This means dedicated home theatre distributions such as Raspbmc act as both the Operating System and media launcher. Furthermore, many dedicated media devices only run their own operating system that cannot be replaced.
For x86 HTPC builds, we recommend Windows 8.1 due to its wider compatibility with many peripheral devices, such as remotes and TV dongles. Linux is also an option, with distributions such as Linux Mint for a Windows-like experience or OpenELEC to transform your HTPC build into an appliance-style device.
HTPC Build Factor 7: HTPC Frontend
Like the Operating System, your choice of frontend will impact your media experience. While there are a number of frontends out there, we recommend XBMC/Kodi across the board due to its power, user friendliness and cross-platform nature.
That’s great, but what do you recommend?
As mentioned previously, I believe you really need to understand what you are after in a HTPC before trying to buy one.
However, for those of you who need a little assistance, check out our best Home Theatre PC builds that we have put together. Covering various budgets, each HTPC build will make a solid addition to your home theatre and allow you to have a great multimedia experience.