Gift Guide: Build A Home Theatre PC

Know someone whose home theatre is in need of an upgrade? A custom home theatre PC is a great gift, no matter what your budget is. Here are three different builds that will fit any set of needs.

Home theatre PCs (HTPCs) can do everything from playing simple videos to streaming from the internet and playing video games. What you build will be based on what you want to do. Here, we're providing three different HTPC builds:

  1. A tiny, silent, low-powered media centre the size of a deck of cards that can play all your basic media in HD;
  2. An inexpensive computer that can play HD video;
  3. A powerful (but still small and quiet) PC that can play your saved media, play DVDs and Blu-ray discs, stream HD video from the internet, and even run retro or modern video games.

We'll also suggest as a few customisation options to help you craft the perfect machine for your recipient's needs.

We've recommended some parts here that we think will work in most cases, but if you want to make adjustments, we'll provide customisation options so you can tweak each build. Pricing is indicative, based on quotes from local suppliers via our favourite hardware shopping comparison site staticICE. Shop around for components, but keep postage in mind: buying from just one or two suppliers can work out cheaper than getting every element separately. We also haven't included displays or input peripherals in the price list.

The Tiny Raspbmc Box

The Raspberry Pi provides the perfect starting point for the smallest, cheapest media centre you can build. It uses a special build of XBMC and requires only a few parts:

Seriously. That's it. You'll need a few other things on hand like an HDMI cable to hook it up, an SD card to install the software, and a Micro USB cable to power the whole thing, but as far as the build's hardware goes, all you need is the Pi and a case. Heck, if you wanted to save a few bucks, you could even build a case yourself out of LEGO or print one out with construction paper. The world is your oyster. Check out our full XBMC Raspberry Pi guide for more details on what you'll need to do once you've got the hardware.

Note that this is the bare minimum when it comes to media centres. Don't expect fast, beautiful menus or HD video streaming from the internet. You can play your locally saved HD videos, but that's about it.

The Midrange Media Center

If you want something a bit more powerful than the Pi — which can't play MPEG-2 and whose menus are a little sluggish — you'll want to build yourself a gruntier computer. This one's capable of playing whatever media files you throw at it, and is powerful enough to give you quicker access to the beautiful menus of a program like XBMC or Plex. You'll need:

  • Case and Power Supply: Aywun MI-008 with 200W power supply ($50)
  • Motherboard: ZOTAC IONITX-S-E ($220)
  • RAM: 4GB Crucial 1066Mhz DDR3 ($25)
  • HDD: 500GB Western Digital Caviar Green ($60)
  • Operating System: XBMCbuntu, or any other Linux distribution ($0)

This build is slightly better than the Raspberry Pi build, offering some faster hardware for speedier, more graphics-intense menus as well as customisability. It still won't be able to stream media very well, but it'll play your local HD files with ease. We like XBMCbuntu as an operating system, but you could also install a regular Linux distribution and use another media centre application such as Plex.

Upgrade Options

We recommend the following upgrades for a more complete media centre experience:

  • A bigger hard drive for storing your movies: The above build will let you hold a few movies on the HTPC, and you can stream as many movies as you want from another computer or home server. But, if you want to store a larger collection of videos on the HTPC itself, we recommend upgrading to the 2TB version of that Western Digital Caviar Green ($100).
  • A DVD or Blu-ray Drive: If you want to play movies from physical discs, you'll need a DVD drive (around $25) or a Blu-Ray drive (from $50).

The Ultimate HTPC

If you want the complete media centre experience, you'll need a more powerful build. Here is our dream media centre build, which can play any video you throw at it, stream from online services, and even play your favourite video games. Here's what you'll need:

  • Case and Power Supply: Aywun MI-008 with 200W power supply ($50)
  • Motherboard: ASRock A75M-ITX ($100)
  • APU: AMD A4-3400 ($55)
  • RAM: 4GB Corsair 1333MHz DDR3> ($20)
  • HDD: 500GB Western Digital Caviar Green ($60)
  • Optical Drive: LG Blu-ray Combo ($55)
  • Operating System: Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit OEM ($95)

This beastly build will cover almost every need: you can play your local media, watch Blu-Ray discs, stream videos from services such as QuickFlix and iView, and play just about any video game you can think of on moderately good settings.

Check out our full build guide for this media center for more info on setting it all up.

Upgrade Options

We recommend the following upgrades for a more complete media centre experience:

  • A more powerful APU for even better gaming: If you want to play more modern games, you'll want a more powerful APU to get the best graphics possible. Grab the A6-3500 ($70) or A8-3870K ($115) from AMD to boost some of that graphics power.
  • A bigger hard drive for storing your movies: The above build will let you hold a few movies on the HTPC, and you can stream as many movies as you want from another computer or home server. But, if you want to store a larger collection of videos on the HTPC itself, we recommend upgrading to the 2TB version of that Western Digital Caviar Green ($100).
  • Video game controllers: If you plan on gaming, you'll want a couple of solid gamepads such as the Xbox 360 controllers ($49 each), which work fantastically with Windows.

Putting Them All Together

Once you've got all your hardware, check out our computer building guide to learn how to put it all together.

Assembling the hardware is only half the battle with a home theatre PC. You'll also need to decide what you want to use for a remote (your phone will work fine for free, but a few bucks can get you much more), so check out our HTPC remote guide for more info. And see our ultimate guides to XBMC and Plex for guidance on setting up the media centre software of your choice.


Comments

    Are we missing a CPU in the second build?

      http://www.zotacusa.com/zotac-ion-itx-s-series-ionitx-s-e.html

      it is a system on a board set up for slimline cases

    You need to update the specs on the third one. Th. FM1 cards and processors are being replaced by FM2. I had to source the Asrock card from overseas the other week. Also, the A8 65W processor is impossible to get hold of.

    Yeah that's all well and good but does anyone out there know how I can get my new Hauppauge HVR-2210 TV card to work in XBMC, cos I'm having a bugger of a time with it it. WinTV that comes with it has an absolutely useless EPG. I've tried Media Portal, Orb and a couple of others but XBMC just doesn't seem to like them.

      XBMC doesn't have native TV support. You need a plugin to MediaPortal or some other TV server application. For that reason alone I went for MediaPortal instead of XBMC for my build.
      Problem w MediaPortal is lack of DLNA media sharing. You need third party software to share over the network.

        Media portal finds my card, finds the local stations and then won't let me see them. Obviously something in the settings but I just can't seem to be able to get it to work. No doubt if I could it would work in XBMC too. There's got to be something that works out of the box for this, I can't believe it's so damned hard to get a TV card to work.

    Am I blind or do none of these have a TV tuner? I would expect an HTPC to have PVR capabilities. These are just small PCs to me.

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