Building an HTPC. Part 1: Why you shouldn’t build one at all.
I’m currently building a Home Theater PC, that is a PC to use as a multimedia system for watching TV, video and playing music. This has been quite some effort, and to be quite honest, my recommendation if you want to do this is to buy a finished one, unless you have unlimited amounts of time at your disposal. Yes, they cost a lot. Fujitsu Siemens Scaleo EV looks awesome, but it costs 1200 euros, although that includes things I don’t have any use for, like two TV cards so you can watch one channel and record another one, and SCART contacts to connect a VHS and satellite decoder. And it has a Intel Core 2 dual core processor, which is complete overkill when all you are going to do is watch DVDs and play music. However, building systems that are NOT overkill turns out to be hard today, and coming under 600 euros is probably going to be impossible, if you want an enclose that looks good. So although my total cost is going to be somewhere around 600-700 euros, I will, when this is finished, have spent a completely stupid amount of time putting it all together. So the question is if the save 500 euros really are worth it. If you don’t have anything better to do than waste maybe a week of your life, well, go ahead and build a system. Otherwise, buy something finished.
The trouble with building
The biggest time waster is to figure out what goes with what. Last time I build a computer in 2002, this was a no-brainer. You needed the right size motherboard for the chassi, the right processor for the socket, the right cooler for the processor and the right memory for the motherboard. Done!
Today, you need to not only have the right socket, you need the right chipset. Not all chipsets for a socket will work with all processors that fit in the socket. Also, you now not only have PCI, but you have low-profile PCI and PCIe, or PCI Express. PCIe, despite it’s name, has nothing to do with PCI, except that it’s both slots for expansion cards. Most importantly, PCIe is not a bus in a normal sense. The communication between a PCIe card and the motherboard is always point to point. This has an important effect: Right angle riser cards used to fit full size PCI slots into low-profile chassis can only support one PCIe slot. Also, fans are bigger now, and I need to make sure the fan fits in the computer, and on the motherboard. This means that the process of selecting a enclosure no longer just means you have to get the right size motherboard. An enclosure with riser cards can support one or zero PCIe slots. And if it supports one PCIe slot, it may support up to two PCI slots as well, but in that case you need a motherboard that has a PCI slot in the correct place (more on this later). And the choice of motherboard is no longer just affecting your choice between AMD and Intel, but because they have different chipsets, it limits your processor choices. This all makes for a complicated formula, where a cheap box and a cheap motherboard means you end up being forced to buy an expensive processor making it more expensive than what a choice of a slightly more expensive box or an expensive motherboard would have done. The decision tree quickly becomes amazingly complex, where you spend hours looking for which motherboard that fit in the enclosure and which processors that fit in that motherboard and what combinations of all this you have, and how much the total cost will be.
When I started out, I wanted to make an HTPC that looked like a home stereo, and used mobile on desktop technology to become real quiet. And I don’t mean that “whisper quiet” of todays bullshit hype, that usually sounds more like a hairdryer than a whisper, I mean something that has the typical volume of a notebook. It turns out the cheapest way to do that is to buy a notebook and use it with it’s screen folded down. And that’s too expensive, and it’s not going to look anything like a stereo, and there is no space for my tuner card. My efforts of using mobile on desktop ended up with a system that would have cost at least 900 euros. So I switched tracks and tried to just put together the cheapest system I could, and then see if I could nudge it closer to the quiet stereo-like system I wanted with small budget increases. It turns out that I couldn’t. And the reason is twofold. Firstly a pretty enclosure costs an arm and a leg. Almost a third of my budget ended up just making the system looking like a beutiful stereo instead of an ugly computer. Secondly, most of those low-power silent options I wanted either don’t exist, or are ridicously expensive.
So, instead of a beatiful, silent, low-power slow computer, I ended up with a beatiful, not-very-silent, medium power dual core 64-bit megamachine.