HTPC Part 1

Aron Schatz
May 21, 2003
The Home Theater PC is a prime example of convergence. It combines many different media playing functions into one box. Check out Part 1 of my HTPC building.
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A long time has passed since I reviewed the VIA EPIA M9000 ITX motherboard. In case you need a refresher, <a href="/articles.php?id=60">check out the review</a>. It is a tiny motherboard that promises to deliver multimedia content anywhere. As we saw in the review, it does work well for its intended use. Now, armed with the EPIA, I sought after the goal of making a HTPC (Home Theater PC).

<B>What the hell is that?</B>:

You're probably asking yourself what a HTPC actually is. Here is my personal definition: A computer that will function on a TV (or other large scale type monitor) that serves all digital content. And I mean ALL of it. The HTPC should be able to play DVDs, DivX, XviD, MP3, OGG, and whatever else you need. It should also be able to browse the internet and play some games.

<B>Where do the files get stored?</B>:

In today's digital environment, most houses have a central computer that stores all the media files that the network (if there is one) can play. Using a client/server method of file storage is perfect for the HTPC, since it doesn't need an overly large hard drive. Remember, sound, size and heat are your enemies in a HTPC (in that order). Getting a connection to your network is relatively simple, either run Cat 5 all over your house, or do the wireless thing. I choose Cat 5 since we have it wired already.

If you don't already have a central place for media storage, make one. You'll thank yourself later when all the content is easily found in a single place instead of around a large network of computers.

<B>Form or Function?</B>:

Size is a problem in a HTPC. You want something small, but you also want it to work! If it is small but doesn't do what you need, what good is that? I choose function before form. Part 1 of this guide is setting up the hardware side of the HTPC and just making sure it all works and that's what we'll do.


<center>Parts 1</center>

You want the smallest possible usable motherboard. I have the M9000, but <a href="">VIA</a> has a new M10000 with a next generation CPU that is much better. I already contacted them to see if I would be able to use it in the final product. We'll see how that goes. Anyway, we have a standard 300 watt PSU (way overpowered and large, but I'm on a budget). Also in the mix is 256MB of DDR Ram. The ITX uses DDR Ram not just for the CPU, but for video and other things. You may want to consider a 512 stick for bloated OSes.

<center>Parts 2</center>

For the storage elements, a DVD drive is a must. Without it, the HTPC is pretty much stupid and useless. A 20GB hard drive was also good for it (5400 RPMs for sound and heat). Remember, you can probably go down to 6.4 GB or even less since the storage is on a fileserver.

<B>Don't forget the inputs</B>:


Now, since I'm on a budget, I wasn't about to buy any fancy remote control units for the PC. I did have an extra Logitech Wireless Elite Duo from a deal earlier in the year. A wireless keyboard and mouse are a must for the HTPC, a remote is a plus, but not needed. Most things should be automated so little input is needed (like auto playing DVDs).



You'll want to get the right software to use in the system. I'm sure Linux would be good for this kind of setup, but I opted for Win2k. As you can see, it is legal. I also used PowerDVD that I had around. Media Player and other downloadable software can handle the other media oriented tasks. In part 2, I'll give you links where you can go to find various software items for your HTPC.

<B>The Screen</B>:


Remember that the HTPC is going on a TV. This monitor is actually a LCD monitor and a TV, perfect for testing the HTPC. You'll have to load all the things up on a monitor before going to the TV, the text will be readable much easier on a monitor. Don't strain your eyes if you don't have too.
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<B>Load it up</B>:

<center>Software loading</center>

The next thing to do is to install the OS. Once that is done, make sure to get all the drives and updates. It is still a normal PC, with all the vulnerabilities. After you did all that, load the support software and test it.

<B>A box dammit</B>:

<center>Box In Box</center>

Remember, I choose function before form. I needed some POS thing to put the parts in until I find a good small case (or make one up). I found this box that I'll use and it worked well.


Once it is all connected, it was time to test the HTPC.


<center>On TV</center>

Make sure the unit is set for TV out and then plug it into a TV. See if the unit works, make sure you get all the settings for color and resolution right. I choose 720x480, it looked the best on my TV (larger one that pictured). I am using NTSC and the TV isn't new, so it isn't as good as a new TV would be with S-Video.


Pop in a DVD and make sure the playback isn't jerky. If it is, you have a problem. Try to fix it by adding more Ram or even getting a less bloaty OS. If you still have trouble, maybe your software isn't taking advantage of the hardware MPEG decoder. Once you get the DVDs working, try playing some MP3s and DivX. If those work, you are all set.

<B>What's Next?</B>:

The next step is to find a case to put everything in. The hardware aside, the case is the one of the most important aspects of the HTPC. It is taking the place of a DVD player, CD Player and other media players. It will be the center of attention and must be nice to look at and not loud!

<B>Wrap it up</B>:

Building a HTPC is pretty simple with the right components. Most of you will choose form before function, but it has to work right? Always testing the components before. Too slow might be the death of the HTPC for you. Don't skimp on the speed, get the fastest board and CPU that you can afford. Stick around for Part 2 of the guide soon. If you have any ideas for a case, or know of places that sell nice ITX cases, let me know.


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