Lessons Learned from Building HTPCs

Strictly speaking this should probably be ‘ňúlessons learned from building and running HTPCs.’ My media centre has been the hub of home entertainment for the last 12 months, so I thought it was probably time to do a rundown of the things I learned along the way.

  1. Silence is Golden
    Making a PC totally silent is hard and can be expensive, but well worth it. My top tips are to pick a good case and case fans, don’t scrimp on these. Another rule of thumb is that if it’s got a fan it’ll never be silent (CPU coolers and PSUs) no matter what they say. Fan controllers are a great way to help reduce noise to a minimum though.
  2. It’s All About the Case
    Definitely don’t scrimp on your case, but research it well first, my Silverstone LC17 wasn’t cheap and is nice (if big), but I built an HTPC for my brother using an Antec NSK 2480, which is their budget HTPC case and it was infinitely easier to build, had nice separation of PSU and main compartment (to keep heat down) and vibration dampening mounts for the HDDs as standard (not quite as quiet as mine, but it didn’t take a fanless CPU fan, fanless PSU and some fan controllers to get it that way).There’s also a massive range of sizes and styles out there, so take a look around. Silverstone, Antec, Thermaltake and Lian Li are a few quality makers but are by no means a complete list.
  3. Trade Horsepower for Less Power
    HTPCs need very little processing power, playing back even HD video is not CPU intensive, just make sure you have reasonable graphics, onboard generally suffices depending on the type. Recording TV likewise takes very little power. Where you’ll need it is transcoding (changing the format of recorded material) or ripping DVDs. An Atom processor on the ION platform works perfectly well to deliver content, so it doesn’t need to be a beast.Review your CPU choice to see if there are lower-power options available, some of the new processors require 95+w to run, mine works fine and only draws 45w, the Atoms only draw 10w. That means less heat is being generated so you need less cooling, which means the computer can run quieter (and you can have a smaller case).

    If you plan on doing any transcoding (and some of the add-ons to strip adverts do this too) bear that in mind when picking your CPU, you can get around this by scheduling the work to be done overnight to minimise impact too.

  4. Regular Servicing
    HTPCs are not for the faint-hearted, this isn’t a ‘set it and forget it’ piece of kit, it’ll need you to keep it running (installing updates, rebooting, finding drivers, etc) and it will freeze and crash occasionally, it’s not as slick as a bought solution. The pay-off is you can do a lot more with it and the options are endless, plus you can upgrade at will, rather than being locked to the hardware.I’m not sure I’d recommend one to someone who isn’t prepared for that and knows what to do when you find it non-responsive after a Windows Update or it blue screens midway through playing back a movie (i.e. the relatives, you’ll be doing endless support).