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.

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