A Super User’s Complete Guide to Building an HTPC: Planning and Purchasing

July 22, 2011 by . 6 comments

With more and more media turning digital, Home Theater PC’s (HTPC’s) are making a larger presence within the homes of PC enthusiasts. Whether your starting from scratch, or upgrading an older pc, this multi-part guide is meant to help you in building your new HTPC.

Determine What You Want:

HTPC’s can take care of ALL you media needs which can even ultimately either replace or add to your current media experiences:

  • Dvd/Blu-Ray Player
  • Central Audio Stations
    • Whether a PC, iPod, audio receiver, etc, you can replace all of these with a central HTPC (including streaming to those other devices)
  • Internet on TV devices
  • Internet Streaming Services (Pandora, Netflix, Hulu, etc,.)
  • DVR
  • Cable receivers
  • Photo Viewers/Servers

When selecting the parts, for your HTPC you need to figure out exactly which of the above devices you are looking to implement for your HTPC. For example, if you’re all about audio, then a higher end video card isn’t going to do you any good. So sit down and think about what exactly you want your HTPC to do for you.

Determine Your Budget:

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Building a HTPC can be cheap, but it can also be VERY expensive depending on what you decide to put into it. I suggest making up a budget and sticking to it. Keep in mind that these factors will go into what you select for parts of the HTPC:

  • XBMC states that:
Fast modern dual-core processor is required to decode H.264 videos in FullHD (1080p)

which means that if you are using your HTPC as a Blu-Ray or other HD video player then you need at least a dual-core processor.

  • Memory is PIVOTAL in ALL aspects of the HTPC. Whether you’re using the HTPC as a sole video, audio, photo player, it needs enough memory to be able to fully handle all of the tasks it’s given. I suggest at a minimum of 2 GB’s of ram, but found from personal experience that 4GB is a good amount to handle everything that I’ve thrown at it so far.
  • Video cards are essential for Video playback on older motherboards. My personal HTPC (a dual core AMD mobo) wasn’t able to ‘smoothly’ playback my 1080p backed up videos with the onboard video processor.

Determine Your Sources:

Old PC parts:

These are great because you don’t have to pay for them! Don’t count out all of your old computers either. Even though smooth playback of 1080p video requires a dual core processor, a P4 system can still take you a long way.

Internet Resources:

Most users already know about these sites, but I’m still posting them to give you a starting place for purchases:

  1. NewEgg
  2. TigerDirect
  3. Amazon
  4. eBay

Make the Purchase:

To build or not to build?

That’s truly your question that you need to ask yourself. Personally, I love my creations, and love building them. But if you don’t have enough time then you can cop out and purchase a pre-built system, or even one of these, a mini pc or nettop:

Zotac ZBOX HD-ID11-U Intel Atom D510 NM10 Chipset 1 x 200Pin Next-Gen NVIDIA ION GPU Mini / Booksize Barebone System

With these you can follow this guide from lifehacker on how to install XBMC live onto something like this.

Determine Your Media Interface:

There are three major HTPC software packages out there:

  1. Microsoft Media Center :
    • Media Center requires Windows to be installed for it to work, which means you need to purchase a Windows OS in order to use Media Center. Once installed though, setup is very easy, and can handle:
      • TV tuning, and DVR
      • Music Playback
      • Netflix
      • DVD/Blu-Ray playback (although blu-ray is actually ‘out sourced to PowerDVD’)
      • HD Video Playback
      • Photo streaming
    • Check this official guide for more info on Window Media Center
  2. XBMC:
    • XBMC can run on ANY OS and also includes a ‘live’ option where you can run from a CD/USB and/or installed directly onto the system (this option is a linux distro that is installed and run in the background)
    • XBMC is meant to be easy to setup, but there are some things that just aren’t as easy and need to be kept in mind when using:
      • Netflix DOES NOT WORK on linux version
      • Setup may require some complicated steps
    • However if you run into a issue with XBMC their wiki and community forums are a great help in figuring out issues.
    • XBMC’s customizability is where is really shines, in my opinion. It’s interface is way better looking that Window’s Media Center:and there are plenty of official and unofficial add-ons out there..
  3. Boxee:
    • Unfortunately I haven’t messed with Boxee that much to know about it. However it does work on all OS systems, and appears to be easy to setup. You do have to register with the boxee site in order to download, but it free otherwise.

Here are some other useful links to look at when building a new HTPC:

Filed under Featured Hardware HTPC


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  • Stphen says:

    I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned Media Portal.

  • Marco Ceppi says:

    It should be mentioned that Boxee is essentially XMBC at it’s core with a facelift and improvements by the Boxee team.

    • Hater says:

      It should be mentioned as well that the Boxee Team left all of its customers out to dry after coming out with the BoxeeTV. I loved my BoxeeBox. It died, like so many other peoples. With no help from Boxee.

  • Tukom says:

    Very thorough guide for beginners wishing to enter to the world of HTPCs! I see that you have listed out some good resources about building your own HTPC. May I suggest to add the following popular HTPC resource to the list: http://mymediaexperience.com/how-to-build-a-silent-pc-for-home-theater-in-10-easy-steps/

  • Harley says:

    Only when software decoding of a Full HD 1080p high-definition video is performed by the system CPU, a dual-core 2 GHz or better CPU is required in order to allow for perfectly smooth playback without dropping frames or giving playback a jerky appearance.

    XBMC can however offload most of the video decoding process onto GPU graphics hardware controller that supports one of the following types of hardware-accelerated video decoding: Intel’s VAAPI, Nvidia’s VDPAU, AMD’s XvBA, Microsoft’s DXVA, Apple’s VDADecoder/VideoToolBox, OpenMAX, and Broadcom Crystal HD Enhanced Media Accelerator. By taking advantage of such hardware-accelerated video decoding, XBMC can run well on most inexpensive, low-power systems which contain a modern GPU.

    So you can run XBMC on an old P4 system as long as you have a modern graphic card, like NVIDIA GeForce 8400 or newer.

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