Home Theatre PC Build Guide

Nick Holland

Thinking of buying an ASUS AT3IONT-I Deluxe? Well that gets you most of the way to a home theatre PC, but where do you go from there? The problem is that the rules of PC building are different: you should aim for low power and low noise, and that is not the normal metric, so here’s our guide .

Motherboard: ASUS AT3IONT-I Deluxe.

Here is the core of your build. The ASUS AT3IONT-I Deluxe has an Intel Atom CPU, Nvidia graphics for video acceleration, a power supply all built in and remote control for you. It takes away most of the build stress because you know it’s all been designed to work together. The small size of mini-ITX and low profile make finding a neat and beautiful case easier too. Speaking of which..

Case: Something elegant, so try something Silverstone or Lian Li.

The HTPC case is an entirely subjective area considering your personal tastes and budget. Silverstone make very beautiful aluminum chassis, but unfortunately they can cost an arm and a leg as well. The Lian Li PC-C37B is larger than the recommended Silverstone, if you need the extra height for PCI cards, but both are the traditional desktop/HTPC format of sitting on its side. The Lian Li Q07 is smaller and tower shaped in comparison, with elegantly rounded edges and space for a full-size optical drive (which are cheaper), and because you won’t need the space for a power supply, it is better equipped for ventilating the large, passive heatsink on the motherboard.

Sound: Asus Xonar series (PCI-Express)

If you are serious about your HTPC, you should be serious about your sound. While the AT3IONT-I Deluxe does offer sound quality and outputs over and above other motherboards, an ASUS Xonar DX, or better yet, D2X or Essence sound cards add a level of completeness for your Hi-Fi equipment. If you own an expensive 5.1 or 7.1 High-Definition surround sound amp, you owe it to yourself and the movie watching experience to upgrade to a Xonar.

Boot Drive: An SSD is a must.

Try the A-DATA 500 Series, Kingston SSDNow V Series or if you’re more serious, something along the lines of an OCZ Vertex 2.

Solid state drives are the perfect combination of being lightening fast to minimize boot times, super low power and small at just 2.5 inches in size. With an OS and a few core programs installed, a 30-32GB value SSD can be had for a bargain. Remember fast write speeds are less of an necessity, as the boot drive should see no heavy loading. If you want to record your TV or store your movies and photos in your HTPC though, you’ll need some other mass storage, as the price per Gigabyte is the only thing not in an SSDs favor.

Storage Drive: Something Green

A 2TB Western Digital Green drive is ideal for storing all that TV you’ll otherwise miss. The Green drives are very cost effective and also offer the lowest noise available, but check that the small case firstly supports 3.5 inch disks before you buy, and if it does, then ideally it should have some sort of vibration reduction as well.

If your heart is set on a case too small to accommodate a 3.5 inch drive though, then think about investing in a NAS (network attached storage) box. A two drive option fitted in RAID 1 connected over a Gigabit network will be fast and offer some additional data security as both drives will have the data mirrored, so if one fails you don’t lose all your stuff. Consider Netgear ReadyNAS, Buffalo, Seagate, Western Digital and QNAP  for starters, but there are many quality brands to choose from. How much you should spend depends not just on your budget, but how much you value your data: ask yourself “Can I live with losing it?”

Watching TV? You’ll need a tuner too.

Picking the right TV tuner is a tough game – so watch out that you pick the right TV standard is applicable to where you live. Also, you’ll likely be limited to free-to-air channels rather than premium sports and movies as well.

Dual-tuner cards allow you to record and watch different channels at the same time, and for those who still get an analogue signal Hybrid cards can offer both digital and analogue options too. Remember if you are using the ASUS AT3IONT-I Deluxe single PCI-Express slot for the Xonar soundcard you’ll need to buy a USB version instead.

Hauppauge or AVERMedia have a long history of making TV cards so these are brands to aim for.

Optical Drive: Blu is the only way to go.

Blu-ray drives for HD movies are coming down in price all the time. An ASUS BR-04B2T Blu-ray Drive is just $60 from Newegg for example, and the SATA interface means a thinner, neater cable to route inside a small case too. Remember Blu-ray drives also play DVDs so consider one an investment in the future and an excuse to start shopping for Blu-ray movies instead of just DVDs, if you don’t already.

If your case requires a slim-line drive the cost is likely to be higher, so keep that in mind when you’re spec’ing out a build.

OS: Windows 7 Home Premium with Media Center, or Ubuntu Linux with Boxee?

This is a difficult one. Windows 7 Home Premium with Windows Media Center is the easiest to use and setup: there are many drivers for it and it’s a common interface for most people. Obviously it’s also an additional cost, unlike Ubuntu Linux which is free.

Ubuntu is getting more and more user friendly – it’s easy to install and use, but getting those drivers working and understanding all the slightly different terminology if you’re used to a Microsoft OS, is still difficult and frustrating.

If you do feel confident enough (or at least have a friend to help) to install Ubuntu then you’ll also need a “front end” program for your media consumption. That’s where Boxee comes in. If you’re into your TV, Boxee is far better than Windows Media Center because it has all the internet TV streams already piped in directly! The downside is that Blu-ray’s sometimes aren’t quite as happy under Linux because of the extra content encryption required by the standard, and you can install Boxee for Windows anyway, so why not have the best of both worlds?

For Blu-ray playback you’ll need software like Cyberlink PowerDVD or Arcsoft TotalTheatre. Again, that’s an additional cost too unfortunately.

If you’ve built a small and quiet home theatre recently, let us know how you did it!

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  • Cozmo

    I have Ubuntu and I have Win7 machines. In my living room, under my TV I use Window7 because Netflix doesn’t do Ubuntu. That was the number one reason for not using Ubuntu in the living room. Hear me Netflix?

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