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que3jxp 2006-05-11 08:23 PM

All About Building An HTPC (MoBo, CPU, Cards, Other Gear, Software)
Well, I have been dreaming of having a PC run my TV viewing for many years and for those same many years, I have been disappointed in either the costs or the lack of value in the products/software that was available.

In the last 3 years, a lot of that disappointment has been eliminated.

I am not the biggest M$ fan, but Windows is VERY "Wife Friendly", so I planned to build my setup around the latest MCE 2005 version of Windows. I have seen Myth and Sage and Beyond, but I have already built one full on HTPC for a client and it was a wonderful pleasure to use and I hadn't even had it hooked up to TV signal of any kind. The others are plenty fine and are generally just as easy to use, but that last little bit of "Wife Factor" kicks in and forces one to make sure that all of the money that is spent is "approved" after the box is set up.

A few other major issues that pushed me into the arms of MCE 2005 were:
  • Remote controls available and the quality thereof
  • Hardware compatibility

The first one is not too bad, but the nice thing with the MCE 2005 remote is that it is ALSO a 2 ended IR blaster. Always a nice bonus as it allows you to set up two STBs if you wish. Another thing that was nice was that the MCE2005 Remote reciever was also usable with the MCE 2005 keyboard that is available. I am still deciding if I need it but if I wanted one, it is an easy option for me.

The hardware compatibility issues were a little more problematic. Right out of the gate, Linux and ATI is just not a go. To add to that, the latest x1000 series ATI cards and the 5.13 and newer Catalyst drivers are the current reigning champions of video playback quality, so using Nvidia in a Linux box was a compromise that I was not willing to make. (To elaborate as to why, the original plan was to set this HTPC up in my main home theater and playback quality was an issue.)


The first and I consider the most important decision/acquisition was the case. This is where the HTPC industry is just flat out smoking crack. The average case price out there is at least $300. Now understand that I understand how ornate and well crafted some of these cases are, but there are limits to how much one can charge for how small some of these cases are. The case that I was the most interested in was the SilverrStone LC04. It is an amazingly small case that is reasonably priced ($200 at NCIX). This case will hold any size mobo and will hold one full sized ROM drive and ONE hard drive. This could be an issue for some but with 250GB drives as cheap as they are, it should not be a "real" issue.

Well, time went on and I was just still not willing to shell out for the SilverStone case. I searched for almost 2 months and finally found a case that provided me all of the following:
  • Excellent space for cooling
  • Standard shaped power supply
  • mATX compatibility
  • Up to 3 hard drives can be installed
  • Up to 4 expansion cards can be installed without the use of any riser cards
  • Depth of the case is 15" or less
  • Width of the case is 17" or less

The case in question was this one:

The case comes with a blank plate for the 3.5" floppy hole if you choose to not install anything external there. Myself, I bothered to put a black floppy in but plan on changing it to a multi-card-reader in the near future. There are front audio and USB connectors so my external reader will suffice for now.

One thing that is not shown in the pics on NCIX is that the top/side (Depending on your choice of orientation) of the case is perforated over the CPU and over the 4 expansion card area of the motherboard.

The only real problems I have are that the powersupply is not the quietest, but it is certainly not obnoxious. And the rear is cooled by 60mm fans of which it ships with one. The 60mm fan size is traditionally loud for the meager cooling that one gets. So I removed the 60mm fan for now.

I started this build based around the following hardware that I had kicking around:
  • P3 1GHz Socket 370
  • HP Vectra VL400 mATX board
  • 512MB PC133
  • Radeon 8500
  • Hitachi 80 GB drive
  • Lite-ON 16x DVD-ROM
  • Black 3.5" floppy
  • D-Link Wireless G card
  • Soundblaster Live 24 Bit
  • Microsoft MCE 2005 Remote/IR Blaster

So off we go. I assemble everything and prepare to install the O/S. Once I was ready to test, I had the following installed:
  • Microsoft Windows Media Center Edition 2005
  • AnyDVD
  • PowerDVD 6 Deuluxe
  • Nvidia PureVideo
  • DivX 6
  • XVid 1.1

The first thing I ran into was the fact that MCE "needs" a minimum of a DirectX 9 hardware compatible card. It is possible to make such a non-colpliant card to work, but it is not typically practical. (At this point in the "story", I need to remind you that this HTPC was to be set up in the HT and hooked up to a projector. It was also not supposed to to TV tuning) To rectify the problem, I bought a Sapphire Radeon X1600 Pro AGP. It worked very well and was VERY quiet.

The next issue I ran into was what caused the HTPC to move up to the bedroom. I was unable to get the component video to properly overlay on the projector. It insisted on about a 7% underscan in all directions. (In the end, I realized, after the fact, that I had forgot to install the ATI MCE tools that would have corrected the problem. Oh well.)

To elaborate on why I was so quick to just move the system upstairs, the ATI cards are very reliable for s-video output and the picture stays right in the viewing area of most, if not all, CRT TVs with s-video. With this new change, I decided that the X1600 was overkill for the system so I moved it to my gaming system and took the 9600XT out of it and put it in the HTPC. I also quickly ordered up a Hauppauge PVR 150 MCE and prepared the system for full PVR duty.

5 days later...

The TV guide setup on a MCE 2005 HTPC is quite straight forward and worked well. The very first new issue I ran into was the storage capacity. It seems that an analog feed from a STB into a Hauppauge card does not compress very well. It ammounted to 1 hour of video taking about 3.25 GB of space. So next problem, the drive is no longer truly big enough. A week later and I had a 250 GB Samsung in the box.

At this point, I could have left well enough alone but a 1 GHz box using PC133 is modest to moderately laggy on some of the commands from the remote.

So time to rip it all apart again...

I got truly lucky and found an ASUS A7N8X-VM with a XP 2000+ and stock AMD cooler at the local buy-sell-trade. I had been running 1.5 GB RAM in my gaming system so I pared out a stick of 512 PC3200 for the cause and reused the bulk of the rest of the parts. I had, at this point, decided that the noise level from the 9600XT was too much. So to combat this, I ordered an ASUS 6200 that is passively cooled.

Well, I got everything all reinstalled and switched around and the new 6200 installed and boom, more problems. The ASUS 6200 only has composite and as such, has poor TV out capabilities. The AMD stock cooler is quiet under PC use, but it is too loud for HTPC use. To combat these new problems, there are some inevitable and a not so cheap solution.

First, the noise level, as it is the easiest problem. Zalman Fanmate 2. I ordered up two for duty. One for the CPU fan and one to let me put the 60mm exhaust fan in or to populate the 80mm blowhole.

The video problem was a bit more annoying. I could put the 9600 back but the volume comes back. I could get another X1600, but that is $180 delivered. The only right fix is to ditch the 20" CRT TV and replace it with an LCD monitor or TV. This will not be happening right away due to the cost, but if one thing can be learned by my mistakes, DO NOT use a CHEAP card that has sub standard TV out.

Otherwise, I decide to run the Hitachi 80 as the boot drive and the 250 Samsung as the data, recording and pagefile drive. The performance of the Athlon XP 2000+ configuration is substantially better and the system is able to play HDTV quality clips without much trouble. Where the system now has a Nvidia card, I stuck to using only PureVideo and did not install PowerDVD at all.

So at the end of the day, I can easily make the following observations:
  • Never use a CPU slower than 1 GHz. If you can't do this, then just don't bother.
  • PC133 RAM is just not up to the task. It will do it, but not well.
  • A 2 GHz or equivalent is actually more than enough for regular single tuner duty. (Can't say for dual as I do not have another 150 around)
  • MCE uses a TON of space for recorded TV if it is recorded off of the analog s-video input.
  • Zalman Fanmate 2's are your friend :)
  • NEVER cheap out on the video card.
  • My wife loves it to death, so the WAF is very high on this setup.
  • Remember to install the ATI MCE extras or you may not be able to fine tune your display if you are using an ATI display card.
  • You don't have to blow megabucks on the case.

I am sure that there are other things that can be learned but that is the list of the big things that jump out at me.

If I were to do it all over again for another HTPC, I would definitely go with a dual core setup as it would smooth out a few things that no amount of single core speed would probably ever smooth out. OF course, spending that kind of money on the next one would be fine with me as I would integrate it with my HT setup to the point of hooking up my 6208 so that the HDTV could be recorded to the MCE box. That would also mean TONS of disk space would be necessary. Can you say Seagate 750 GB :)

asif9t9 2006-05-11 10:16 PM

Nice story. Glad to hear I'm not the only one who has to try over and over, again and again, to get things right. How much does your current HTPC setup cost? Only what's remaining in the box, and the box itself.

que3jxp 2006-05-11 11:33 PM


Originally Posted by asif9t9
How much does your current HTPC setup cost? Only what's remaining in the box, and the box itself.

  • case - $75
  • mobo + chip - $100
  • Asus 6200 AGP - $63
  • RAM - $50
  • Hitachi 80 GB - $77
  • Samsung 250 GB - $128
  • Lite-On 16x - $27
  • Hauppaugue PVR 150 MCE (whitebox non-FM) - $75
  • D-link wireless G - $55
  • MCE 2995 Remote - $40
  • BTC multimedia wireless KB/mouse - $50
  • Windows MCE 2005 OEM - $129
  • Nvidia Purevideo - $25

Total = $894 + tax. So $1028.10.

MOST of it would be reused if I wanted a faster board and chip and some of this stuff I have had for many months if not a couple years, so MY cost was a LOT less than this. My outlay was only about $575 taxes in.

The next big stage for me is to finally build a media storage server with the recently retired P3 guts. Then I will look at doing a "no-holds" system for the HT room.

MarcP 2006-05-12 08:46 AM

SageTV recently released version 5.0 of their software. I'm waiting for the current TV season to end to evaluate it, but I like what I saw so far.

One of my favorite tools on my HTPC is HIP. It's a freeware remote control manager like Girder... but free. You can make any remote control work with any piece of software on your machine. You can easily setup a harmony remote with your HTPC. I personally prefer to use PowerDVD to watch my DVDs. It support post-processing with ffdshow which makes a huge difference in quality. With HIP, I can call up, use and dismiss PowerDVD easily.

I'm currently using Beyond TV 4.2, but SnapStream has been in silence mode for the past few months about their future plans. With Meedio being bought out by Yahoo recently, some rumors about SS being snatched up soon as well are starting.

I'd use WindowsMCE 2005 if it could support 4 tuners, but it can't.

que3jxp 2006-05-12 12:42 PM


Originally Posted by MarcP
I'd use WindowsMCE 2005 if it could support 4 tuners, but it can't.

HOLY COW!!! What are you doing?!?!?!

MarcP 2006-05-12 12:56 PM


Originally Posted by que3jxp
HOLY COW!!! What are you doing?!?!?!

My wife loves many shows and many of those shows play multiple times a week and sometimes move on the schedule (i.e. American Idol). We were still getting conflict with a dual-tuner so I got another dual-tuning card (now I have two Hauppauge PVR500MCE). Why buy an extra tuner when you can get two extra tuners for a few bucks more?

Whoever has "Grey's Anatomy" to record on Sunday, well there's also a new episode on the following Monday (not the usual time slot). Thanks to all my tuners, BeyondTV will grab it without missing all the other monday night shows that my wife loves (The Apprentice, CSI: Miami, Grey's Anatomy - they all conflict with a dual-tuner). She can't watch live TV anymore. It has to be recorded and go through the commercial-removal process first.

And with some season finales going to 2 hours, there are lots of overlapping shows that will cause conflicts with just a dual-tuner PVR.

que3jxp 2006-05-12 02:14 PM

Are you using the cable tuner portion of the PVR500?

I would figure that with timeshifting and using the HtPC with a STB that two would be MORE than enough.

I have only one tuner and the STB with timeshifting and I get nearly 30 series a week recorded without a problem.

MarcP 2006-05-12 02:18 PM

I already have an SA3200 connected to one of the A/V inputs so in essence I have 5 tuners. But I got the box after getting the 4 tuners since I also wanted to get some digital channels in the mix.

Everything works wonderfully well, though.

MarcP 2006-05-12 02:27 PM

Ohh! Forgot to mention that I also have another TV served by my BTV server running BTV Link. So when you have two people watching different live TV channels, it's nice to still have 2 extra tuners available for recordings.

TedS 2006-05-12 02:52 PM

I use a dual tuner (Hauppauge PVR500MCE) in the following configuration:
(1) Direct Cable (from wall) via coax
(2) Digital cable STB via S-Video
This allows me to record and watch at the same time, including recording a movie in the premium digital channels, while I'm watching the hockey game on TSN.

In addition, I have an ATSC tuner for pulling in OTA HDTV. You need significant storage to record -- up to 20GB/hour.

If you're doing any hi-def stuff, don't scrimp on the CPU and GPU. I'm currently testing a Intel 930 Dual Core CPU -- very nice.


que3jxp 2006-05-23 03:50 PM

Well, I can say that the composite out on the ASUS 6200 AGP SUCKS!!!

I put a 9600 XT in until the CRT TV in the bedroom gets replaced. Which may not be too long with LCD prices the way they are!!!

Otherwise, I added a couple of Zalman FanMate 2's to the system to "calm down" some otherwise noisy fans.

An option that is out there for those that have a Motorola HD STB...

If the 5C is not turned on and your firewire is active, it is possible to integrate the Firewire out from the 62xx/64xx series STBs with the TV portion of MCE 2005. I have not tested it as this box is not near the HD-PVR, but it supposedly works well. I have posted about it in other threads, but decided to repost it here:

EDIT: Sorry. Wrong Link.

que3jxp 2006-08-07 07:58 PM

An update
Just thought I would post an update to my adventure...

I have now had the current build running for 3 months and it has been GREAT!!!

I did put the Asus 6200 back in as it is passively cooled and therefore dead silent. The 9600 XT was not. To deal with the picture quality issues of the composite out, I cleaned up all of the cabling in the rear of the equipment and it seemed to all but fully eliminate the issues.

Beyond that, I am now running an 80 AND a 250 GB drive in the box. The 250is a Samsung and it is extremely quiet (Personally own the newest series Hitachi and Maxtor) so if noise is an issue, the Sammy drives will fit the bill.

The other thing that I have done is curse ever using wireless as the connection method. While it will work, it is undependable and when you are looking for a device to just "work", wireless just doesn't cut it. As soon as I can get the fish tape from my father-in-law I will be pulling a new network drop up behind the TV shelf and using a Gig-E NIC.

And to readdress the WAF aspect of these systems, my wife is sanctioning me to build one for the HT downstairs. That is how much she likes the one we have so far. It will be built out of the hand-me-downs from her system as she is asking for an upgrade. It will still be reasonably fast as it is an NF2 Ultra board with an XP 3200+ and 1 GB RAM. When I have it set up, I will repost as I fully plan on setting it up to do the recording over firewire from my 6208 and I am sure there are those here that will like to hear how that goes.

I_Want_My_HDTV 2006-08-08 01:03 AM


Originally Posted by que3jxp
Well, I have been dreaming of having a PC run my TV viewing for many years and for those same many years, I have been disappointed in either the costs or the lack of value in the products/software that was available. ...

Same here. I have been through 2 cases, 2 motherboard/mouse combos, 3 audio cards, 3 video cards, 2 wireless keyboards, 2 RAID controllers, several hard drives, two DVD burners and numerous minor components to come up with a decent solution. No commercial DVD software I tried was worth paying for. I use VLC from, not because it is free but because it works better than anything else. Commercial interests have been trying to shut down the VLC project because it threatens their interests. No commercial video desktop or recording software works well. All have shortcomings to this day. I record HDTV over firewire and play it back at full resolution, something that the studios don't like and few companies support, even hardware vendors. Some of the freeware I use is several years old but commercial vendors don't seem so be able to match them, at least not for a reasonable price.

Wayne 2006-08-09 04:33 PM


Originally Posted by I_Want_My_HDTV
I record HDTV over firewire and play it back at full resolution, something that the studios don't like and few companies support, even hardware vendors.

How do you do this? Are you using one of the modded satellite boxes from 169time? You are in London so you can't have cable since Rogers doesn't have boxes with active firewire, do they?

MarcP 2006-08-11 08:57 AM


Originally Posted by pnear
FYI you can configure MCE to run more than 2 tuners, it's a bit of a hack but there are plenty of people using it with 4 tuners no problem.

Alas, the hack is not flexible enough so you can have a mix of NSTC, ATSC, digital cable box mix and have seperate EPGs for each tuner types.

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