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Building a Home Theater PC – Part 1

Written on Feb 11, 2010 by Jesse Raab and filed under News

Editor’s Note: This multi-part series chronicles Jesse Raab’s decision making process and build of his custom home theater PC. As there are more and more people building their own HTPCs, we greatly appreciate Jesse taking the time to write this for the site and hope his hard work benefits a lot of people. Part 2 Part 3

Digital Media and the Home Theater

Digital content is coming into the living room from many directions. Large digital media libraries mixing sources from Internet streaming to movies and music stored locally are becoming the norm for many people. I resisted this trend longer than most I assume, despite my interest in all things gadgety. About a year ago I began my transition to the digital age in earnest.

I started by building a media server that I’ve been primarily using for storage. That project was borne from my desire to have a solid backup for my various computers and my interest in centralizing my DVD and CD collections. Over the past year this machine has been rock solid. I added a TV Tuner card allowing me to run a mythTV server and record OTA HDTV. Budget restricted me from immediately moving to the second phase of that project, a home theater PC (HTPC) that would serve as a separate frontend to control my media library.

While planning out this build I wrote down a lot of notes about what I wanted to accomplish and the what components I’d need to accomplish my version of the HTPC. There has been some interest in our forums over the last few months about HTPCs and ways to get digital media to your home theater and we decided an article detailing the process I went through would be of interest to some people. I will detail the goals I had for this box, and what the hardware and software I’m using to get the performance I wanted. We may also take an in depth look at some of the HTPC software out there in a later article.

What should my HTPC do?

I chose to split my HTPC into a frontend (for connecting to the TV and providing the user interface) and a backend (for housing storage and a TV card). This allowed me to put the larger and noisier storage portion my system in a closet away from my theater and place a smaller system that just plays the media and has very little storage in my theater. Upgrading the individual capacities of these devices becomes a little simpler as well. If I need more storage, I can just buy hard drives and add them to my big storage system which has plenty of room.

I want my HTPC to function like any other entertainment appliance. You should be able to turn it on, and be presented with a menu to play your media, and it should be easily navigated from your couch with your remote. This machine will be the gateway to all my digital media. I store a lot of media on my small home server. I have media in a variety of formats stored on my server. Music in flac, dvds in video_ts and iso files, and even a few bluray titles ripped to mkv containers. I need to be able to easily play all of these sources at a bare minimum.

I’d also like to have access to a variety of Internet video sources. Ideally I’ll be able to pull in feeds from Hulu and Netflix and directly from various networks. I’d also like to pull in various other internet media sources. Places like revision3 television, movie trailers, and the TED series of lectures offer video rss feeds that I’d like to access on my big screen. I wanted to have this machine be relatively small, and fit in on my entertainment rack with my other components so I am going to need a case that looks like it belongs with the other entertainment gear as well.

The ability to get some of these requirements will depend on the software solution I choose to use for this PC, although my list of demands narrow down what hardware choices I can make a bit. I plan on using Linux on this PC and therefore to get reliable hardware acceleration for HD video I will be using an Nvidia graphics solution. I want to be safe with how much CPU power I need so I want at least a dual core Intel Atom chip to be able to safely play non-accelerated Flash HD sources such as Hulu.

There are many plug and play options from manufacturers that can do a lot of what I want. A DVR from your cable or satellite provider will allow you to easily record programming, and some are even going to whole home DVR solutions.. Or your living room might contain one of the streaming devices we’ve recently reviewed, such as the Roku HD or Netgear EVA2000 so that you can play internet streams easily. Other set top devices are designed specifically for playing back media you already have recorded, such as the Asus Oplay. This doesn’t even begin to touch on all the interesting products announced at CES this year that will be released in the coming year.

With so many options currently available or soon to be available that can stream media from your own collections as well as from the Internet why would I want to build such a device? Flexibility. None of the options out there do exactly what I want. Many get close, but none are perfect, and nothing I can do will allow me to make them perfect. A home built solution with some flexible media center should allow me achieve all of my goals.

Part 2 will discuss the components I selected, the components that narrowly missed the cut and the build process.

Part 2 – Selecting and Installing the Components

One Response to “Building a Home Theater PC – Part 1”

  1. Thanks for doing this! I look forward to reading part 3.

    By hoddys on Mar 8, 2010 | Reply

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