Build a Home Theater PC – Introduction

This article will discuss in detail how to build a Home Theater PC – your very own creation.

Your Home Theater PC will become the center of your home entertainment world and with that in mind you are going to need lots of storage for all of your music and video files.

You’re going to want access to this huge amount of storage to be extremely fast and responsive, especially if you are going to be using your multimedia PC for streaming video and recording TV programs etc.

Now, there are lots of large disk drives on offer on the market today, 1GB, 1.5GB and 2GB are easily available and this will be plenty large enough to store thousands of MP3 audio files and 100’s of hours of HD quality video.

If you opt to build a Home Theater PC incorporating say two or three of these drives then you could configure these in a RAID mirrored drive configuration so that in the event of a drive failure you won’t lose all of your precious data.

Personally, I like to keep a remote backup on say a NAS (Network Attached Storage) drive as this avoids the possibility of a major power supply fault for instance causing all of your data to be lost.

The other thing to consider is noise – you really want your Media Center PC to be ultra responsive yet quiet at the same time.

A good option here is to build a Home Theater PC that has both an SSD (Solid State Disk) drive and a standard mechanical hard disk drive.

The SSD has no moving mechanical parts and is therefore completely noise free!

What’s more, its extremely fast.

Use this drive for your Home Theater PC operating system and allocate the standard high capacity HDD for storing all of your video, MP3’s and photos etc.

OK, so now we need to look a little at what we are going to house our Home Theater PC in.

This PC of yours is going to be on display in your living room and as such you will want an aesthetically pleasing design but you will also want it to be compact, quiet and very efficient at cooling all of your internal components.

Your Home Theater / Media Center PC will probably be sited close to your TV and will need to be fairly unobtrusive and blend in as much as possible.

Media Center cases should come with a quiet PSU pre-installed or have provision to install a quiet PSU and may also incorporate a front panel LCD display, have front accessible USB ports and optical drives – looking pretty much like a Blu-Ray or DVD player in format.

Due to the compactness of design, half height cards may very often be required and there will generally be a lot less room than a standard PC available to you.

To keep the noise down, as well as using a quiet PSU, you will want to use slow spinning cooling fans for your case, CPU cooler and Graphics card or preferably no fans at all where possible.

When it comes to choosing a processor for your Media Center computer you will need to juggle a little here between reasonable power required to ensure smooth playback of HD video etc. and keeping the power consumption down in order to minimise the heat dissipation and hence need for potentially noisier cooling.

A dual core processor will be required as a minimum but you may want to select a lower power consumption model with a TDP (thermal design power) of around say 40W to 50W.

Your choice of graphics card will need to ensure that you have HDMI capability for your HD TV.

An HDMI input on your TV will carry both the video and audio signals but your PC HDMI output needs to have the audio signal added to the HDMI video signal.

This is done by the addition of a cable which connects the audio to your graphics card internally within your PC.

Alternatively choose an ‘all-in-one’ motherboard with integrated on-board digital audio and on-board graphics with an HDMI output.

Also, look to see if you can adjust the BIOS setting to enable processor fan control – this is essential to allow slower running of your CPU and system fans to keep the noise level to a minimum.

Next you are going to need a TV Tuner and for a compact, smart solution you will want to install an internal PCI card rather than an external type USB model which are also available.

Choose a Twin Tuner model so that you are able to watch and record at the same time and do check the size before final selection as you will may well need a half height model to fit into a compact Media Center PC case.

Check that the type of card, PCI or PCIe (PCI Express), matches the available PCI or PCIe socket on your motherboard.

i.e., how many slots are available, what type are they, and will your graphics card, if you are installing one, be taking up a PCIe slot etc.

Remember that you can also get Satellite Tuner cards if that suits your setup and these are also available with Twin Tuners and external (USB) or internal PCI or PCIe fitment.

Now, that leaves us with how to control your Media Center computer.

There are many different options open to you here with full and compact wireless keyboards and mice or Microsoft’s Media Center remote coupled with their Media Center software that comes pre packed with Windows Vista and Windows 7 Home Premium onwards.

So, what sort of kit is on offer out there today to satisfy our requirements?

Let’s take a look shall we?

First off, let’s take a look at the case as this will pretty much determine the rest of the components due to possible size constraints etc. 

Build a Home Theater PC – Case

The Antec Fusion Life Style has stylish looks, a front panel display and includes a 430W Power Supply.

There are two 120mm fans which help to keep it all cool and incorporate a three step speed controller to help minimise noise.There are options to remove one of these fans and fit a blanking plate thereby reducing the noise even further.

Hard disk drive bays incorporate rubber grommet mounting to dampen vibration and noise and a quiet 430W power supply.

The front panel LCD display finishes the case off very nicely and the included software works with Windows Media Center, Power Cinema and Winamp allowing you to view currently playing, equalizer settings, email, news etc.

Next up we should take a look at what motherboard we will be installing. 

Build a Home Theater PC – Motherboard

There are lots to choose from but our current pick of the bunch for a low power compact solution is the Zotac ION ITX-P-E Mini-ITX motherboard.

This motherboard is designed to use one of the Intel Core 2 Duo CPU range as its processor – specifically the Intel Core 2 Duo U2300 which runs at 1.2GHz.

The Zotac motherboard runs happily with DDR2 RAM but also supports DDR3 although it is known to be a little fussy with which manufacturer and type you select so check this out carefully before you purchase RAM.

As the name suggests this motherboard uses the NVidia ION chipset – note that there is also a Zotac ION ITX-F-E which uses an Intel Atom N330 processor which is not quite as powerful but the motherboard NVidia ION chipset helps enormously here to enhance graphics capability so that you can still run Windows 7 and play HD video etc.

Both board variants have PCIe 2.0 graphics slots and a Mini PCIe 802.11 b/g/n wireless card, 3 SATA connectors, 6 USB 2.0 ports and HDMI, DVI-I & VGA graphic output connectors etc.

And with typical power consumption of 45W at idle and 55W when running, all in all it’s a pretty neat solution at not a bad price if you shop around. 

Build a Home Theater PC – Memory

As already stated, only select your memory after selection of your motherboard as some manufacturer’s offerings can be quite fussy as to the type and make of memory.

For the Zotac ION ITX boards we would suggest you try Kingston Hyper X memory.

The Intel Core 2 Duo version can accommodate up to 8GB of DDR2 or DDR3 – both variants only have 2 slots.

Note that the Intel Atom version only takes up to 4GB of DDR2 memory. 

Build a Home Theater PC – Processor

For the Zotac motherboards, depending upon which variant you have selected, you will need to fit either the Intel Atom N330 1.6GHz or the Intel Core 2 Duo U2300 1.2 GHz – don’t be fooled by the processor speed, the Core 2 Duo processor based setup performs slightly faster! 

Build a Home Theater PC – Other options

The above is a suggestion for a low price compact solution but your requirements may be for increased power and capabilities and looks etc.

Another case option, again from Antec, is the Antec Black M Fusion Remote 350 Micro ATX – it comes with PSU already installed, an IR receiver and remote control.

For a more powerful processor we would suggest you look at the Intel i3 or maybe the Intel i5 CPU range.

Couple this with a Gigabyte GA-H55M-UD2H

or an ASUS P7H55-M Pro motherboard and you are good to go!

For a graphics card perhaps an ASUS Radeon EAH5670 1GB Direct X 11 capable would fit the bill.

This is a compact, cool and very quiet running graphic card suitable for a Media Center PC or a general home all rounder. 

Build a Home Theater PC – Storage

To finish off the basic build for both the Zotac based Media Center or for the suggested higher powered option we suggest a Western Digital Caviar Green 1.5 TB or 2TB hard disk drive which should have more than enough space for all of your media music files and video etc and perhaps an OCZ SSD for your Windows operating system etc.

The Western Digital drive has massive storage capacity, extremely good performance whilst running quietly and without getting overly hot.

The OCZ Agility 2 60GB SSD gives you a solid state drive for high speed noise free operation of your system files and applications with your mechanical hard drive only spinning up when accessing your media. 

Build a Home Theater PC – Wireless Control

For your wireless keyboard setup take a look at the Cideko Air Keyboard or Microsoft’s Wireless Desktop 3000. 

Build a Home Theater PC – Tuner

To top it off the Hauppauge 1213 WinTV-HVR2250 PCIe Dual TV Tuner provides a great TV Tuner Card solution.

The WinTV-HVR-2250 has twin tuners so you can watch one TV program whilst recording another or you can even record two channels at once!

Use it as a Digital Video Recorder and record analog cable TV shows onto your PC’s hard drive with its built-in high quality MPEG-2 hardware encoder.

Record HD high definition digital ATSC and clear QAM digital cable TV direct to your hard disk drive in full digital quality. Make use of WinTV-Scheduler and record all of your favorite analog and digital TV programs. You can play these recordings back to your PC screen at any time.

Or use the Microsoft Media Center scheduler to schedule your TV recordings – Media Center supports twin tuners and the Win TV-HVR-2250 is fully compatible.

We hope you have enjoyed reading our article on how to build a Home Theater PC – be sure to let us know your thoughts and suggestions and how you get on if you decide to take the plunge!