Building a Home Theater PC

Although you can purchase a pre-built home theater PC (HTPC) at retail computer stores, building your own home theater PC is the best bang for the buck.  Not only is building a home theater PC better on your wallet, it can also be a rewarding learning experience.  You will also be able to choose only the best home theater components you need.

This article assumes you have some knowledge of building computers and will not go into direct details of doing so.  I will show you what is the recommend hardware and what is required for an HTPC.  But I will not go into detail on how to connect each part which would be beyond the scope of this article.

The first piece of hardware that you will need when building a home theater PC is the computer case that will hold all the hardware.  For a home theater PC, it is recommended to use a small form factor case that has low noise from its fans.  There are several small form factor cases on the market that are completely designed for the home theater in mind. The downside from this type of case is that it is limited on the number of hardware components that can be installed.  You can also use a normal desktop case as a HTPC.  These cases will normally have more fan noise unless you go water cooled. But they do offer the most expandability.  For example if you would like to add more than one tuner card in your HTPC, you will probably require a desktop case.

Next you will need to purchase a motherboard and CPU.  Make sure when picking a motherboard, it will also fit in the case you have decided on.  Some small form factor HTPC or media center cases will require specially sized motherboards called micro ATX. If you plan to connect your new home theater PC to a wireless network, you should consider a motherboard that has a built in wireless card that is at least 802.11g.  If you will be using a wire network, just about any motherboard should be fine. Also look for a motherboard that has built in 5.1 or higher audio capabilities.  Although you can purchase an audio card sperately, I recommend purchasing a motherboard with one built in especially if you need to use a small form factor HTPC computer case.

I recommend at least a 2.4ghz dual core Intel CPU and if it will fit in your budget, a quad core processor such as the Intel Core 2 Q6850.  If you plan to do any video encoding the faster and more cores the CPU has will decrease the time it takes to encode and decode your video files.  But if you plan to only use the home theater PC to watch video and not encode video, a lower end processor should do just fine.

You will want at least 1GB of ram for your home theater PC if you are going to run Windows XP. But if you will be using VISTA, 2GB is highly recommended.  If you also plan to play games on the home theater PC, I recommend at least 2GB of DDR2 ram regardless of the operating system you choose.  More ram will also be a benefit when encoding video and audio.

The next hardware componet you will need to purchase is a video card.  Unless you also plan to build a home theater PC for gaming as well as video playback, you do not need the highest end graphics card on the market.  The only requirements is at least 128MB of onboard ram and HDTV output. I recommend a video card that has HDMI out that supports HDCP (high-bandwidth digital-content protection).  Be careful, as some video cards that have HDMI do not support HDCP.  These none HDCP card will cause problems when using Blueray DVDs. Most ATI video cards on the market today support HDCP so you may consider an ATI card.

Now you will need to add media devices to your new home theater PC.  The first device would be of course the hard drive.  I recommend a large hard drive of 512GB or more to store all you video files.  A 1TB raid array would be ideal in a home theater PC. High definition video files can be quite large at over 1.5GB or more and you will soon find yourself running out of hard drive space quite quickly if you have a small hard drive.  If you do run out of space and are using a desktop case, adding more internal hard drives later should not be a problem.  Even if you will be using a HTPC case, you can always add external hard drives such as SATA, Fireware or USB drives.

The last media device you will need is a DVD player and/or writer.  I recommend at least a dual layer DVD writer. I also recommend adding a Blueray DVD writer as well.  However a Blueray drive will be expensive. But it will allow you to play and write Blueray movies.  As noted earlier, most Blueray DVDs will require a HDCP compatible video card.

The final componet you will need to finalize a true home theater PC is a TV tuner card.  Some video cards may include built in TV tuners, but I recommed a stand alone card such as the Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-1600 MCE 1183WB that can receive HDTV signals.  If you plan to use the TV tuner card as a PVR to record shows for later viewing, you might want to consider a card that has more than one tuner so you can record more than one show at a time. The ideal HTPC would include more than one TV tuner card, each with two or more separate tuners.

Well that is it!  You now should have all the required components you need to build your home theater PC.  Welcome to the wonder world of high definition computing!


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