Building an HTPC. Part 2: Enclosure and remote control.
Yes, yes, I promised blog posts about Python and Zope. That will come. But I also promised some friends to write about my HTPC experience, so I’ll do that first. In part 1 I complain a lot and tell you to buy something finished instead. I stand by that, but if you are a masochist with time on your hands, I hope that my experiences can help you overcome some of the problems a bit quicker.
Finding a nice HTPC enclosure
The main desire I had for the enclosure was that is should look like a stereo component. You can get this effect either by getting an enclosure especially made to look like a stereo, or you can buy some sort of small, squarish enclosure and put a flourescent display, VFD, in it to make it look more like a stereo. Many HTPC enclosures include built in VFDs and since the IR-reciever usually sits in the VFD they usualla also include an IR remote. The Antec Fusion is a notable exception. That’s a very weird because they use the iMON series VFD, which has a place for an IR-reciever. But that reciever is simply omitted, and instead will have to get another remote with some ugly external IR-reciever. If it hadn’t been for this rather stupid choice by Antec this is probably the enclosure I would have gotten. It looks very nice, and isn’t overly expensive. Instead, I noticed myself returning again and again to Silverstones annoyingly Firefox-unfriendly website. Not because the site sucks, but because I like the design of their enclosures. They are expensive, though.
Both me and my girlfriend approved of the design of the Lascala 11, and I made up my mind for that one. And then trouble hit me. The LC11 is a “slim” box, and uses riser cards to get three expansion slots. One for AGP and two for PCI. You can also by an extra riser card that makes it possible to have one PCIe and two PCI expansion slots, but as I mentioned in part 1, this means the motherboard must have a PCIe x 16 slot as the first slot and a PCI slot as the second slot. Most combined PCI/PCIe boards has a PCIe x 1 slot as the second slot. That won’t work with the LC11. This meant that I couldn’t use a Celeron D, as I had hoped (they are cheap, reasonably fast and doesn’t use much power), because I couldn’t find a suitable motherboard. So in fact I decided to go for a completely different enclosure. For a while there I even looked into making a system based on the very small mini-ITX form factor. But that failed because I couldn’t find a motherboard with wifi for a reasonable price. My internet connection is in another room, so I’ll need a wifi connection, and mini-ITX enclosured only have one expansion slot (or often none at all), and I’d need that for the tuner card. Mini-ITX just ended up being quite expensive, so I gave up on that path.
So after much ado about nothing, I changed my mind again, and came back to the LC11. And that’s what I ended up with. An LC11B-M300, more specifically, The B means black, and the M means it has a VDF built-in, and comes with a remote, and the 300 that is has a 300w power supply.
The front is brushed aluminium with a centerpiece of fake wood plastic. Quite nice. The shiny square on the left side is the VFD display, of the above mentioned Soundgraph iMON brand (reported to work well with Linux) and the square on the right side is the “optical drive door”. It’s a door that flips open when the DVD drive opens, so that the typically very ugly DVD drive remains hidden. This is standard design on many HTPC enclosures. Why doesn’t anybody make DVD drives with discreet brushed aluminium fronts? There would be a HUGE market out there, I promise.
A practical headphone out is on the side of the front together with a microphone in (for karaoke nights?) and a firewire port. Putting the ports on the side is a good way to keep the front clean without having to hide the ports behind a door. The standard four front USB ports are not hidden at all, but I think it works well in the design. Of course, what I would have liked even more than four USB ports would be a set of multimedia buttons, so you can actually play CDs without searching for the remote control. Some HTPC enclosures have these, and it certainly makes them look even less like PCs and more like stereos. The VFD is connected to the motherboard via USB, so if you want all four USB ports to work, you need a motherboard that has more than four internal USB ports. That’s unusual, but only having two working USB ports on the front isn’t a big problem anyway.
The LC11 is a funny design, in that you don’t actually take the top off when you work with it. You flip it over and take the bottom off. Yes, when in use, the motherboard hangs from the roof of the box! Of course, there is then a risk of scratching the box, so the Silverstone manual kindly points out that you can use the top cushion in the box to put it on, which is a nice idea. There is a general feeling when working with the LC11 that the people who design these boxes actually use them themselves, thanks to little details like this. Another one is that they kindly include a zip tie, presumably to keep cables in place when you are finished installing everything.
The LC11 has space for a DVD and a 3.5″ disk in the top right of the picture, and two 3.5 inch hard drives to the top left. There is as mentioned a built in power supply. This model has a 300W power supply, other LC11s have a 240w power supply. There are one big fan in the power supply sucking in air, and one small, blowing out. There are also two other fans blowing out air from the box, one near to the processor, and one near the front. So there is no lack of cooling. You would think that this would make the box noisy, but…you’d be right. This box has it’s fair share of little problems you have to work around, or just accept. The riser cards, all the fans, the abundance of USB ports and so on. But most of these problems can be overcome with some work, and mostly, the right motherboard. Which we will come to in part 3.