Mini Home Theater PC

In order to fill my need to endlessly tinker and upgrade my HTPC, I decided to build a new system using one of Intel’s Haswell CPUs. These are not only faster and more power efficient than past models, they also feature much improved graphics capability. I also decided to switch to external hard drive storage since USB 3.0 is not only well supported in Linux, it also performs nearly as well as internal hard drives. This allows me to more easily swap or add drives while keeping the size and noise of the HTPC to a minimum.

Parts List

The key to this build is the effectiveness of the USB 3.0 external hard drives. By moving to external storage I can use a much smaller case with an external power supply, all of which reduces the cooling requirements and consequently the noise of the PC. The only internal drive is the SSD which generates no noise and little heat. The only sound from this configuration comes from the CPU cooler which is somewhat oversized for the 35W CPU and therefore never runs at a high speed. The result is a versatile, snappy, power efficient, and very quiet HTPC.

Software

For this build I decided to go with Linux Mint as I have grown progressively tired with Ubuntu‘s UI tinkering. Otherwise my software choices are similar to past builds.

Network Sharing

For network sharing I use the Samba utility (repository package:  system-config-samba) which makes it easy to setup and manage shares with other computers on my network.

Backup

For backups I use the Scheduled Tasks utility (repository package:  gnome-schedule). With this I run various RSYNC scripts every night which synchronize my local hard drives with my FreeNAS server.

I am currently using a backup tool called Back In Time in place of my RSYNC scripts. I like it a lot and it provides significantly more functionality than a simple backup sync.  Back In Time creates snapshot style backups which allow for recovery of deleted files from past backups. It also has a lot of configuration options regarding how often backups occur, the exclusion of certain files, and the removal of old deleted files to save space.

Media Playback

  • VLC – media player
  • XBMC – media player and streamer (using plug-ins)
  • PLEX – media transcoder (works great through its Roku channel)

Bittorrent

  • Deluge – my favorite torrent client

Performance

Here’s an informal comparison between this build (bold) and my old HTPC (in parenthesis):

  • Time to import 227MB, 128kbps MP3 into Audacity – 0:53 (2:16)
  • Time to re-compress 227MB, 128kbps MP3 at 64kbps with Audacity – 6:40 (10:08)

While this is a sizable improvement these numbers don’t show how much snappier the system is in general, especially when multitasking.

Power Usage

While I anticipated a significant power consumption drop due to the lack of a video card, I was pleasantly surprised at how much of a drop I actually measured.

  • Old HTPC – 43W
  • Current Configuration (including external hard drives) – 30W

That’s quite a significant drop. From past experience I believe the video card used about 10W of power, therefore the Haswell CPU uses 3W less power on average than the Sandybridge model I was using previously.

Noise

This was another area of significant improvement. The combination of reducing the number of fans from 4 to 1 and swapping the stock cooler for a more efficient one results in this build being nearly silent.

HTPC – Case & SSD Upgrade

My home theater setup has changed somewhat over the last year since I moved into my house and my HTPC tower ended up being tucked away in the corner of my dining room. Needless to say this was not an ideal location. I decided to look for a more traditional HTPC case that would allow it to fit on my TV stand with the rest of my gear. I also wanted to take this opportunity to swap out the boot drive for an SSD.

New Parts

I hadn’t planned on getting a new power supply or CPU cooler, however, after reassembling my HTPC with my Antec Earthwatts 380 power supply and a stock Intel CPU cooler the system was just too loud, not to mention all of the excess cables. The new modular power supply is not only quieter, it allows for a much cleaner installation with no unnecessary cables. I like this Arctic CPU cooler a lot, it installs with a combination of push-pin clips and screws that doesn’t require you to take the motherboard out to install. It was a tight fit though, due to the close proximity of the RAM slots on my motherboad.

This Silverstone case is not only a great value, it is surprisingly versatile. It supports several different hardware configurations both with and without an optical drive. I chose not to reinstall the DVD burner from my previous build because it has seen little use of late and eliminating it frees up enough space for both 3.5 inch hard drives to use the included silicone mounts which greatly reduce hard drive noise. If I absolutely need an optical drive in the future I have an external USB model that I can plug in on those occasions.

The only other modifications I had to make to my existing hardware were due to the slim profile of the case. I made a new bracket for my coaxial SPDIF connection and switched to the low profile bracket that came with my video card.

SSD Setup

Using an SSD with Ubuntu has been one of the most dramatic performance improvements that I have had with an SSD. The system now boots in about 10 seconds once it clears the BIOS, a huge improvement.

While current Linux kernels support the Trim function for SSDs, it is not enabled by default in Ubuntu. I found these posts very helpful in setting up my SSD.

Power Usage

With the replacement of my boot drive with an SSD and the elimination of the optical drive, I expected the power usage of my HTPC to go down a few watts but I was pleasantly surprised by the end result.

  • Previous Configuration – 53W
  • Current Configuration – 43W

Not bad for a hard drive swap.

Noise & Heat

My previous build helped keep the noise down by using silicone hard drive mounts, large slow moving fans, and fanless CPU & GPU coolers. This new design uses a much quieter power supply (the 120mm fan is a big improvement over the old 80mm), similar hard drive mounts (with one less drive), a nearly silent CPU cooler (the fan barely has to run due to the 35 Watt CPU), and two 80mm Antec Tricool Fans set to very low speeds. This new arrangement is significantly quieter than my old one. A good thing since it is now closer to my seating position. You can only notice the slight fan noise when the room is very quiet.

In addition to keeping the noise down, this build also keeps the component temperatures under control. The CPU temperature doesn’t fluctuate nearly as much as it did with the stock cooler, generally staying around 40 degrees C, and the hard drives don’t go much over 30 degrees C despite the tight space.

HTPC – CPU, Motherboard & RAM Upgrades

With the new Sandybridge series of CPUs Intel has introduced some 35W parts in its Core i3 line. When I saw how inexpensive these parts were I decided to upgrade my HTPC with the following:

The motherboard I found is a perfect drop-in upgrade for my old unit since it has all the SATA ports I require as well as onboard SPDIF headers.

Performance 

Here’s an informal comparison between this build (bold) and the previous one (in parenthesis):

  • Time to import 227MB, 128kbps MP3 into Audacity – 2:16 (3:54)
  • Time to re-compress 227MB, 128kbps MP3 at 64kbps with Audacity – 10:08 (18:09)
  • FLAC to MP3 music track compression time – 0:07 (0:13)

For these compression specific tasks the new build is almost twice as fast as my old system, not a bad improvement at all.

Power Usage

The reason to go through with this upgrade was not only to get better performance, but also keep my power usage as low as possible since this machine is on 24/7.

  • Original Build – 44W
  • Original + Video Card – 54W
  • New Build – 53W

While not as much of a decrease as I had hoped, it is still a move in the right direction and the system is substantially more powerful than it used to be.

Home Theater PC / Media Server Software

The software setup for my new HTPC started with a clean install of Ubuntu 9.10. This went without a hitch and it was time to install the various software packages that I use to get my system in working order.

Network Sharing

  • Samba (located in the System -> Administration menu after installation)

In the Ubuntu repository this is called the system-config-samba package. This is a great GUI tool for setting up shares on a Windows network and allows me to view all the content on my HTPC on my Windows machines. Just input your Workgroup, what you want to share and who is allowed to view it. This tool makes this process much easier than editing configuration files. One thing that confused me at first was setting up user access; make sure to include the computer name of the user in the “Windows Username” field. For example “joe” didn’t work, but “DESKTOP\joe” did.

Backup

  • Scheduled Tasks (located in the System Tools menu after installation)

Called gnome-schedule in the repository this utility allows me to run a backup script at a particular time. This is basically a GUI frontend for CRON and therefore much easier for a Linux novice like myself. I run a RSYNC script every night at 2AM which synchronizes the hard drive containing my media archive with another hard drive. I have found this a better backup solution than having a RAID array because it doesn’t rely on any controller hardware or software. If one of the drives fails I can just replace it and copy the files to the new one. If I want to put the hard drives in another machine I can just take them out and plug them in, no other configuration is necessary. I realize there are drawbacks to this system, but I prefer something that I understand and know how to fix as opposed to other solutions that I have tried that have failed and cannot be fixed (ie. the Drobo).

Media Playback

  • VLC – media player
  • Miro – RSS media aggregator/player
  • Boxee – media center based on XBMC with great web integration

This is the standard media grabbing and playback package I have been using for a while now. I use VLC whenever I’m in keyboard and mouse mode to play video and audio files. Miro isn’t perfect, but it’s better than any other media aggregator I have tried. Boxee is fantastic for local playback as well as web content and it can be controlled via remote control. In the past Boxee was somewhat finicky when it came to your audio and video settings, but I have found the new Beta version to be much more stable.

Bittorrent

  • Deluge – my favorite torrent client, has the right balance of features and simplicity

Remote Control

  • LIRC – configured this for my Windows Media Center remote and it integrated perfectly with XBMC & Boxee

Accessories

  • GNOME Do – an awesome tool much like Quicksilver on the Mac, only for the GNOME desktop
  • pyRenamer – a fantastic, simple tool for renaming lots of files quickly

This setup served me well on my Studio Hybrid HTPC and is performing equally well on my new machine. I frequently try different software packages, but these core programs are always present on my home theater box.

Home Theater PC / Media Server Hardware

My first HTPC consisted of some leftover parts I had laying around integrated into a Shuttle XPC barebones system. My replacement for that system was a Dell Studio Hybrid which performed well, was relatively quiet, and used little electricity. The main limitation for both of these machines were their reliance on external hard drives for storage expansion. I wanted to build something with more storage and upgrade flexibility.

The following were my goals for my HTPC/media server build:

  • Storage Expandability – plenty of internal 3.5″ slots so I can reuse my current content storage drives and add more as needed in the future
  • Adequate Onboard Video – although not as powerful as nVidia’s or ATI’s products, Intel’s integrated graphics are fine for home theater use when paired with a decent CPU, they also use less power, and their Linux compatibility is generally better
  • Low Power – this system will be on 24 hours a day so it needs to be as efficient as possible
  • Quiet – this will sit next to my TV so it has to be as quiet as possible

Parts

The Antec Mini P180 has 5 internal hard drive bays, plenty of ventilation (120mm & 200mm fans) and sound reducing panels. While this case is much larger than either of my previous HTPCs, I was more than willing to sacrifice space for a better all-around system. The Intel BOXDB43LD motherboard has decent onboard graphics (an upgrade over the Studio Hybrid’s X3100), plenty of SATA ports for storage expansion and a decent assortment of AV ports. The Celeron E3300 processor fits my requirements for a processor that is cheap, powerful enough, and uses relatively little electricity. In order to make this build as quiet as possible I decided to use a fanless CPU heatsink. This is possible because the thermal dissipation required by the Celeron E3300 (65W) is low, the heatsink I chose is fairly large, and it should get plenty of airflow from the two case fans even when they are run at their lowest setting. 

Assembly

The build for this machine was fairly straightforward. The case has enough room to creatively route cables behind the motherboard to minimize air blockage. I mounted the DVD burner on the bottom because the top slot’s depth is limited by the huge 200mm top fan. I also rotated the CPU’s heatsink from its normal orientation to take advantage of the top fan’s airflow.

In order to take advantage of the SPDIF connection on the motherboard I built myself a coaxial SPDIF bracket using an old PCI bracket, a female RCA jack, some single conductor shielded cable, and a 3 pin female header. All you have to do is wire the center of the RCA jack to the pin of the header that connects to the signal pin on the motherboard using the center conductor of the cable. Then connect the cable’s shield to the outside of the RCA jack and the ground pin of the motherboard header.

Input Devices

I have used this control setup for a while now and it works very well for me:

  • Logitech K400 Wireless Keyboard & Touchpad – I have used a lot of different combinations of mice and keyboards with my home theater setup and this one is the best. It takes up less space, has great range, and features a solid keyboard with a very responsive touchpad.
  • Logitech Harmony 610 Remote (set to emulate a Windows Media Center remote) – This isn’t the most advanced Harmony remote, but it also isn’t ridiculously expensive

Performance

Superficially this machine performs about the same as the Studio Hybrid. I noticed slightly less CPU utilization when playing videos. This could be attributed to the improved graphics processor, although the X4500 does not support CPU offloading of video decoding for any format other than MPEG2.

Here’s a performance comparison between this build (bold) and my Studio Hybrid (in parenthesis):

  • Boot Time – 0:55 (1:00)
  • CD Rip to FLAC time – 2:16 (3:41)
  • FLAC to MP3 Compression time – 1:16 (1:31)

Based on this info it seems that the Celeron E3300 is somewhat more powerful than the Core 2 Duo T5800 in the Studio Hybrid. Some of the performance difference can be attributed to the slower hard drive in the Studio Hybrid and the CD ripping performance was definitely affected by the much faster DVD drive in the new HTPC. However, the MP3 compression test relies heavily on CPU performance alone and shows that the Celeron E3300 is a solid performer.

Power Usage

  • Idle – 42W
  • Play 720p Video – 51W
  • Play 1080p Video – 55W
  • FLAC to MP3 Compression – 64W
  • Average over a week – 44.2W

Previously I determined that my Studio Hybrid used an average of 27W over the course of a week. This is 39% less than the 44.2W average used by my new HTPC, however, it doesn’t take into account the two external hard drives I had attached to the Studio Hybrid that are now mounted internally. When you add in the 5W used by each of the two hard drives, it results in only a 16.3% power savings by the Studio Hybrid over my new HTPC. That’s pretty good considering this new system is faster and uses desktop instead of laptop components.

Noise & Heat

I am very happy that all of my attempts to keep this machine as quiet as possible were very successful. In terms of absolute volume its probably about the same as the Studio Hybrid, however, the fans on this system are much lower pitched and therefore blend into the background noise of the room a lot more. Another advantage is that when under heavy load the fans don’t spin up & generate more noise like they did on the Studio Hybrid. The default cooling is more than enough for the low level of heat generated by this system. The CPU stays around 38C and the hard drives stay under 30C at all times.

Update – GPU Upgrade (April 2011)

I recently decided to upgrade the video capability of my Home Theater PCby installing an Asus EN210 video card which uses the nVidia GeForce 210 GPU. This is a great low power (it uses about 5W at idle) card that is especially ideal for home theater applications since it is fanless and consequently silent.

While this new video card hasn’t made a night and day change in video quality, it has smoothed out some of the rough edges presented by the onboard Intel graphics. Most notably I can now use the VDPAU option in Boxee, which utilizes the GPU to decode h.264 and MPEG2 video resulting in a lower CPU load as well as reduced power consumption (up to 10W) when playing video. I can also now use the deinterlacing option, which would previously push the CPU too hard and make videos lag. Flash video also seems to play more smoothly than before, although I am unsure if the version of Flash for Linux supports GPU offloading as it does on Windows.

As a bonus, for some reason Audacity is now much smoother than it used to be when scrubbing through an audio file.