HTPC

HTPC Build

Choosing the Best Home Theater PC Build

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:

  1. How you’ll use it
  2. Power Consumption, Cooling and Noise
  3. Hardware Codec Support
  4. Connectivity
  5. Form Factor
  6. Operating System
  7. HTPC Frontend

HTPC Build Factor 1: How You’ll Use It

HTPC Questions

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?

What you want to use your HTPC for will have affect your Home Theater PC build

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

HTPC Computer Fan

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

Binary Code

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

HTPC Wifi

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 Build

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

Windows Logo

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

XMBC-Confluence

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.

Title Photo Credit: Simon Wüllhorst via Compfight cc/Transformed from the Original

HTPC Build

10 Signs You Need To Invest In A Home Theatre PC

Investing in a Home Theatre PC (HTPC) is always a wise choice if you are passionate about multimedia. The flexibility and capabilites of a solid HTPC, coupled with some great gadgets, are unrivalled by standalone media players. So here are are 10 signs that you need to invest in a HTPC.

1. You want to watch your multimedia on the big screen

Tired of watching Youtube on that tiny 20″ monitor? A HTPC will allow you to move away from your study and make your multimedia the focus of your living room. It’s one thing to be huddled around a desktop to watch the  latest viral video, but being able to sit on the couch with your feet up and show everyone is in a league of its own.

2. You have a lot of media

We live in a digital age and often this comes with a plethora of multimedia – video files, music, CDs, streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu, etc.
Whilst being spoilt for choice is not a bad problem to have, making sure that you can readily watch (or listen) to what you want is important for a pleasurable experience. How often have you wasted precious minutes looking for that particular video hidden away?
A HTPC allows you to consolidate all of this media into one simple interface and ensure that you watch what you want, when you want.

3. You want to combine gaming and watching movies

Most of us love gaming on consoles. However, PC gaming is becoming a more potent player in our lounge room. With support from Valve through initiatives such as Steam Big Picture and In-Home Streaming, having a HTPC means that you can readily flick between watching a movie to playing a video game almost seamlessly.

4. You want a central entertainment hub

Often when we set up out our living room, we end up with multiple devices: a Blu-ray player, CD player, maybe a streaming box. This makes everything cluttered and is a pain if you want to move from one media source to another. Getting a HTPC means that you can combine most of these devices into one box, all controlled through an attractive interface.

5. You want flexibility in your setup

Don’t need a particular feature – simply don’t add it. Want to be able to stream and record live TV to watch later, fork out for a TV capture card. A HTPC gives you the flexibility to build a device that meets the needs of you and your family, and stop you paying for unnecessary components.

6. You want something that will play everything

One of the best parts of owning a HTPC is comparability. So many standalone players (Apple TV, I’m looking at you!) support limited formats and others have strict limits on the bitrate or standard of the files that they will play back. A HTPC overcomes this by being able to offload as much to hardware decoding as possible and, where a video file cannot be decoded in hardware, can leverage the CPU to process it. So whilst your WDTV will refuse to play those new H.265 video files, a HTPC will power through them.

7. You want something you can upgrade

There’s nothing worse than when something you have bought becomes defunct or is no longer supported by the manufacturer, such as that YouTube app on your streaming box that no longer works. Furthermore, with the ever-changing world of technology, you may need to buy a whole new box to access the latest entertainment. Or you may have simply outgrown the in-built storage on your DVR and can’t bring yourself to clear off those seasons you’ve worked so hard to record. A HTPC is upgradable – so you can add whatever new features you want. Eyeing off more storage, add a new Harddrive. Drooling over high speed wireless – remove the cables and add a Wireless AC card. The power is now in your hands.

8. You want something that you can customize

Customisability is key with a HTPC, with such a diverse range of Frontends and Skins available, you can make your box look and function exactly how you want – with cover art, metadata, watched flags – The whole enchilada.

9.You want powerful controls

There are two elements to this – parental controls and remote controls. A HTPC offers much more granular control of what you allow your kids to watch and most frontends even offer user profiles, so everyone can have access to different multimedia!

Secondly, whilst we’ve already covered the best remotes for your home theatre, a HTPC gives you even more was to control your viewing experience, with Web-based and App-based controls for your desktop and mobile devices. So you can play videos, queue up your favorite tracks and even share your videos on your TV, all from your phone or tablet.

10. You want a new gadget

This one is one we’re often guilty of. You’re a gadget lover and that smartphone is just not doing it for you anymore and you want a new project. A HTPC is a great long-term project that will give you hours of joy (and most likely a couple of frustration). There is nothing more satisfying then knowing the world’s entertainment can be accessed from your couch – all because of your new toy.

So there you are – 10 signs you need to invest in a HTPC. Time to get buying!

Photo Credit: Simon Wüllhorst via Compfight cc/Transformed from the Original