The web is rich with streaming video, and there’s no reason you should limit yourself to enjoying it all on smaller screens. Here’s how to roll your own home theatre PC and consolidate your media centre components to one small, sleek box.
If you’re thinking about cutting the cable and ditching your pay TV or satellite provider in exchange for streaming video services, video podcasts and your own video collection, you’ll probably need a way to get all of that video from the web to your HDTV with as little fuss as possible.
Sure, you can always pick up a set-top streamer like an Apple TV or a Boxee Box, or even use your Xbox 360 as a Media Extender, but when you go that route, you give up one important feature: control. That’s fine if one of those devices (and its pre-packaged software) has all of the features you want and need in a streamer, but if you’re looking for more flexibility in your set-top box, it might be worthwhile to roll your own. That way you can install any set-top software you like, and if something else catches your eye, you can switch to that just as easily.
Ed. note: Keep in mind that, depending on your needs, you can turn a low-powered nettop (a nettop is sort of like a netbook but without a monitor) into a killer XBMC media center or a powerful Boxee machine for around the $US200 mark. Even the Apple TV 2 can now run XBMC (although the current build still has a few hiccups here and there). If you don’t enjoy building PCs, you don’t want to integrate Blu-ray or DVD playback, or you want to save money, you may prefer one of those routes. But if you want total control — over your hardware and what it runs — building yourself is a great option.
Choose the Right Parts
The world of computer components moves entirely too quickly for you to get fixated on a specific processor or processor model, or even on a specific case. Take our list of parts and components with the appropriate grain of salt, and don’t hesitate to sub out components you don’t like with ones that you prefer. When you’re ready to build your own budget streaming PC, there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind when you start researching components. Photo from Wikipedia.
Barebones Kits: If you’ve never built a computer before, or you’re interested in saving a little more money at the expense of choosing some of your components yourself, a “Barebones Kit”, or a combination case, motherboard and processor, may be perfect for you. Many kits are already designed with size and form-factor in mind, and feature small cases with Mini-ATX or ITX sized motherboards pre-installed. Many barebones kits of this size are already aimed at people interested in building their own set-top box and feature integrated graphics with HDMI outputs for your HDTV.
The trade-off with buying a barebones kit is that you often sacrifice features on the motherboard and in the type of processor pre-installed in order to get the form factor you’re looking for. You may get a case that fits perfectly in your entertainment centre, but has a really slow processor installed, or integrated graphics that just aren’t powerful enough to pump out your Blu-ray discs in full 1080p without compression artefacts all over the screen. If most of the video you watch streams from the web, that’s not a big issue, but if you want a streamer that you can also drop a Blu-Ray into and watch in all its high-def glory, you may want to pick your own components.
Many of us just can’t get away with putting a full-size tower next to the TV in the living room: it looks out of place and doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the gear in our entertainment centre. Thankfully, there are plenty of cases designed to slide right in next to your DVD player or receiver and blend in without screaming “Hey, I’m a computer.” For example, the SilverStone Black Micro-ATX Case rests horizontally, and looks like it should live in your entertainment centre. If you’re looking for a case with more front-side controls, the Antec Fusion Remote is a Micro-ATX case with a volume knob on the front and an LCD panel on the front of the chassis. These are just a few examples, but you’ll want to look around and make sure you find one that suits you before you pick it up. For our streaming PC, we’ll go with the SilverStone above: it comes highly recommended, and only costs $US99.99.
If you want your media streamer to be silent, make sure you choose a model with lots of airflow and quiet fans. If the case description doesn’t specify quiet fans, you might want to replace the fans with quiet ones designed for HTPCs. They may cost a little more money, but if you want the quietest possible streaming PC, it may be worth it. Head over to Silent PC Review for suggestions on components that will make sure the fans and components in your media streamer don’t distract from the video you’re watching.
One thing to remember: when you choose a case, make sure you pick a motherboard that will fit! There’s nothing worse than buying a full-sized ATX motherboard and finding out your case only supports smaller micro-ATX boards, or that your processor’s heat-sink is too tall to close the case over it!
The Video: If your video sources are primarily online or streaming from another computer, you don’t need to worry about getting into the debate over TV tuner cards. What you do have to worry about however is making sure you pick either a motherboard with integrated graphics that can connect to your HDTV, or buying a video card that can push HD video to your television without degrading it. The first thing you’ll want is a card with an HDMI output on the back (assuming your TV has HDMI – if it doesn’t, look for a connector that matches your TV, like component video) but your research shouldn’t end there. Because we like control, we won’t trust our motherboard to handle HD video, and we’ll buy a graphics card that can do it for us.
The world of video cards moves ridiculously quickly, and this season’s best buy will be next season’s outdated trash. Before buying, make sure to check sites like Anandtech and Tom’s Hardware to see some of their video card suggestions for home theatre PCs and media streamers before making your purchase.
We’ll pick up the AMD Radeon 5450 for our media streamer, which has HDMI, DVI, and VGA outputs, comes highly recommended by Anandtech, and will only set us back $US39.99. If you prefer Nvidia graphics and can’t bring yourself to buy an AMD card, try the GeForce 210, which is the same price, same form-factor, and gets the job done just as well.
The other components in your system will vary widely based on what’s available and affordable. This is where things get messy: you can easily find yourself caught up in debates over Intel processors versus AMD ones, Western Digital hard drives versus Seagate ones, and so on. Keep an eye on builder’s guides like Ars Technica’s System Guide (refreshed regularly, so you have updated part suggestions) to help you select components like a motherboard, memory, a power supply, and so on.
Ask friends – especially if they’ve built computers – to proof your component list before you pull the trigger, and spend some time on enthusiast boards and in comment threads to see what components fans are discussing. Also, before you buy, check the customer reviews for the components you’re interested in. Take complaints with a grain of salt, but look for common issues, experiences with warranty replacements and customer service, and general opinion to see if you’re buying a lemon.
For our box, our core components will be:
ASUS P7H55-M Micro ATX Motherboard – $US99.99 Intel Core i3 3.06GHz Processor – $US119.99 4GB of G.SKILL DDR3 RAM – $US39.99 Rosewill 350W Power Supply – $US29.99 Western Digital 320GB 7200RPM Hard Drive – $US49.99 Total so far: 339.95
The most expensive component here was our processor, which – admittedly – isn’t Intel’s shiny new Sandy Bridge chipset, but it is a tried and tested dual-core processor that can handle HD video. The motherboard has HDMI on-board, so you could save the money we spent on the video card by using the on-board HDMI output, but if you get a dedicated video card that processor won’t have to fight to pump out HD video and run the rest of the system at the same time.
We also skimped a little on the hard drive because we envisioned this box as a media streamer, not a server: 320GB is a pretty good amount of space, but you’re not keeping your video library there. Ideally you’ll connect this box to your TV and stream from another system elsewhere on your home network, or an attached hard drive. We also left off a an optical drive from the parts list, but we were careful to choose a case that could accommodate one if you want it: this LITE-ON Blu-Ray drive will add $US49.99 to the total, but it’s an option if you want the ability to stream video from the web and watch your own Blu-Ray movies. (That bumps our price to $US389.94.)
When you have all of your components and you’re ready to assemble, take a look at our First Timer’s Guide to Building a Computer from Scratch to help you get started, and avoid some common PC builder’s pitfalls. It can help, even if you’re anything but a first-timer.
We’re making a couple of assumptions here: first, that you have a keyboard and mouse that you’re comfortable using already, and you already have a receiver or sound system that you’ll connect this up to. All told, when combined with the cost of the video card above and the case itself, our media streamer will cost you $US479.93 before shipping.
You’ve probably noticed there’s no software in our list: no licence for Windows, or conversation over which set-top software you should use. If you have a few more bucks and are comfortable going over $US500, you can pick up an OEM licence for Windows 7 Home Premium for $US99.99, or you could install Ubuntu or your favourite flavour of Linux for free. If you do go for Windows, you get the benefit of Windows Media Centre. Popular set-top suites like XBMC and Boxee are free and support Windows, Linux and Mac OS X (though we’re not building a Hackintosh here), so you can save some money by dropping Linux on your media streamer and then loading one of those apps on top of it. Photo via Flickr.
The real beauty of rolling your own set-top streamer is that if you run into a streaming video service that, for example, doesn’t play well with Boxee, you can always minimise Boxee and bring up a standard web browser and watch your video that way. You also have the option of pulling out the video card and popping in a TV tuner if you want to make your media streamer a full HTPC complete with video recording capabilities.
Ultimately, the $US500 or so you’ll spend on our media streamer here is much more than you’ll spend on a Boxee Box or an Apple TV, there’s no getting around that. If you’re on a tight budget and don’t care about the flexibility that building your own box gives you, pick one of those boxes up, they work well and get the job done. What the extra cash does buy you however is added horsepower and all the control you could possibly want over your home entertainment experience.