It's now been about a week since all of my HTPC parts arrived and I suppose it's time to divulge a little bit of my day-in-the-life drama of experiences. I do enjoy a bit of computer building as a hobby. Some might call me a computer geek in that I have a basement full of computers. Difference between most is that I actually "use" them on a daily basis so they actually need to work. However, just as many of you know – when you're building items from scratch – there's always gotchas along the way. I was hoping that the decision to build an HTPC rather than simply buying a PS3 would deliver a few days of fun, but a lot more days with just watching great movies and easing my media collection congestion. I think this actually worked out well and for the most part, the technology is available to get pretty good 1080p Hi-Def, Blu-ray and HD DVD out of a computer and into your living room for a reasonable amount of cash (or credit…). Include very little hassle or noise and you get to share in my experience so far…
So what exactly is in my HTPC? Here we go… (And of course, my opinions to go with each of them…)
|CPU – AMD Athlon X2 4850e 2.5GHz 2 x 512KB L2 Cache Socket AM2 45W Dual-Core Processor|
|A fairly recent CPU from AMD that has actually worked out quite well so far. Low wattage should translate into lower heat (which of course, should translate into less noise). I ran some quick and dirty CPU benchmark tests against the other computers in my arsenal and it holds its own. Basically faster on some tests and slower on others. (Hmmm… maybe I'll make another post about Pulp Free benchmarks!) However, the CPU shouldn't be doing a whole lot here for just playing back HDTV. While I put together benchmarks for my own amusement, playback of Blu-ay or HD DVD usually averaged around 20% or so. Since those are my target formats, I'm quite happy. When you toss in other formats like MKV where FFDShow is hammering the system, I did hit much higher numbers… Sometimes to the point of pretty ugly hiccups. I found a way to have it drive both cores and it became playable again… But keep in mind, I'm trying to stay somewhat mainstream here. I'll goof around with other formats once the basics are down. In this case – check. We're good to go. (And by the way, we're talking 1080p with 5.1 Dolby Digital as the format of reference.)|
|Memory – OCZ SLI-Ready Edition 2GB (2 x 1GB) 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 1066 (PC2 8500) Dual Channel Kit Desktop Memory|
|Not much to say here. They went into the system just fine and haven't had any issues. Pretty nice heat spreaders on them but I'm not over-clocking here so… One thing to notice what that they only fired up to 667 instead of 1066. However, I think that's related to my CPU clock speed more than the memory. To be fair, I picked these up without much research as they were carrying a $50 mail in rebate that made them cheaper than most of the other NewEgg memory fare. Might dig a little deeper into performance at a later time – but memory performance never seemed to be the bottleneck worth looking into so far…|
|Optical Drive – LG GGC-H20L 16X Blu-ray/HD DVD drive|
|Blu-ray and HD DVD work as advertised. Pretty quiet drive for the most part when watching movies. It's only when you fire up a data disc that it's starts really making some racket. I'd say mostly for data CDs when it's spinning up to 52x read speeds. When I played back regular DVD videos it stayed pretty relaxed (although who really watches DVDs when you have HD!) Nice to have SATA as an interface here… Just click and go.|
Notable disappointments here have been echoed everyplace else. The software (Cyberlink PowerDVD 7.3 OEM) that comes with it will play back your movies without an issue. As long as you don't mind only 2-channel audio. Blah. C'mon! And there's no way at all to "purchase" and upgrade for the 7.3 OEM version to get full digital audio. You can purchase an upgrade to version 8 but you'll lose HD DVD support. (They say you can run both at the same time… but they still overlap a bit). However, either by design or mistake – Dolby Digital 5.1 still played back for HD DVD videos. It was only Blu-ray discs that down sampled (either for AC3 or DTS audio tracks). DVDs still played back in Dolby Digital (haven't tested for DTS on DVD yet…) So there's definitely a compromise if your media collection is made up of Blu-ray.
|Hard Drive – Western Digital Caviar SE16 WD5000AAKS 500GB 7200 RPM|
|Extremely dull. C'mon – it's a hard drive! Happened to be the same model that I purchased a year ago for my 2TB media server… Just $60 cheaper! All 5 drives are now doing well. I'm able to get an average of 85 MB/second which is way more than I need for HD playback. Heck, in my system, most of the media is on the media server in the basement… The drive is mostly for the OS.|
It's also quiet enough not to notice the seeks and scans. I have the feeling that the Automatic Acoustic Management isn't enabled so there's probably room for improvement there. Even without it, it's no louder than the HD TiVo next to it… And it's never bothered me.
|HTPC Case – Antec Aluminum Veris Fusion Black 430 Micro ATX Media Center / HTPC Case with IR receiver|
|Already plenty of reviews for the Antec Fusion V2 case – from the good and the bad. I'm going on the record as saying I love this case. It's beautiful and blends in with the rest of my home theater equipment. Installation was a breeze with the motherboard, hard drive and optical drive. I'll admit I'm not a cabling freak and if you poked your head into the side of the case you'd say I was a novice… It just isn't as important to me. It works and you're not going to see it. I'm not over-clocking so heat flow isn't an issue either. I will say that the hard drive really doesn't have any air flow around it… It's segmented in it's own compartment but it has plenty of room around it (enough for a second drive).|
The only goofy part (as also mentioned by others) is the LCD display. The software that comes with it (VFD or something) works okay. You'll want to scrap it and just grab the real iMON software from Soundgraph (current version is iMON_7_20_0502). It has all of the drivers and software baked into a much larger software offering. I was really, REALLY hoping that the two XBOX360 remotes that I have (one that came with the XBOX360 and the other that came with the HD DVD drive) would work with the built-in IR sensor. Nope. No-go. Only an MCE remote works with it. I was fooled into thinking that since the XBOX 360 had settings on it to use either remote type, so would this… Nada. I made a second purchase from NewEgg for a Microsoft A9O-00007 WinXP Media Center Infrared Remote Control and it worked great (in Vista Media Center). I believe there's some options to try and get it to work with other software components than just VMC – so I'll be checking into that as I go along. I just don't want to drop in the included IR receiver to get such functionality to work…
A bit more on the LCD – some people have complained about the viewing of it – but you can dial down the contrast and it still looks great. The newer version of the software actually fixes the ability to change fonts. When you're playing back DVDs or MP3 files – the name of the media scrolls back and you really can see it from 6-8 feet away (I'm with Arial Bold right now… but will get some other cooler fonts in there to check it out). The dancing EQ works great with Vista Media Center or Winamp… I couldn't be happier with it.
There was a catch around using the IR to turn on and off the computer with the remote. Essentially there are two power switch wires to hook up from the case to the motherboard. In reality you're supposed to take on plug and insert it back into the LCD and then daisy-chain that connection to the motherboard. I'll probably work that part out in the future as I'm currently only using the plug from the front-panel switch. I'd need to disassemble the entire front plate to get to the connections. Why they made it so hard and not installed from the factory this way remains a mystery for sure.
Last part about the case is that it really is quiet. I have the two side fans on low (they have a internal fan switch for low, medium, and high) and the CPU at idle is still showing 30c & 26c for the CPU and 10c for the core. Once I get some Cacti graphs trending fan speed and temperature settings, I'll have a better idea about load conditions.
I was actually rather hesitant to spend more money on the case than the motherboard, memory & CPU – but once it's done – it's done. And you will enjoy the look and usability of this case far past the time you pay the credit card bill. Main factors in this case decision was looks number one, and silence number two. Both exceeding my expectations.
|Motherboard – GIGABYTE GA-MA78GM-S2H AM2+/AM2 AMD 780G HDMI Micro ATX AMD|
|This was my first Gigabyte motherboard and I've been pleased with it so far. Being an Asus fan with a few motherboards, I chose this one primarily for the built in HDTV/HDMI/HDCP graphics card and the AMD chipset. Both combined have kept it a cool case while still providing great 1080p HD playback and decent 3D performance. (I'm a sucker for 3D screen savers and what not… Heck, even full screen Winamp Visualizations played back without a problem…)|
I didn't have any add-in cards to install so the whole setup was relatively simple. SATA hard drive and optical drive eased those connections. CPU, cooler and memory went in fine as well.
A few points of caution (or wisdom…) Be sure to update your BIOS but remember to reset it to defaults when you're finished. I knew about the need to setup the BIOS first to use HDMI (the default is to output to DVI). Basically chicken or the egg – you need to use a DVI/VGA monitor before you can see the BIOS screens to enable HDMI. If you only have HDMI you'll never see… well – you get the idea. The problem I ran into was that I set it to HDMI, restarted, all worked well… Then updated the BIOS. HDMI still worked on reboot, but would stop working at random. Sometimes even restarting wouldn't work. Pulling and replacing the cables didn't always work either. When I did go back into the BIOS the video out was set back to DVI. Odd that it would "work" with HDMI (HDMI and DVI share the same components so you can only choose one or the other with your second display being VGA). Being frustrated and thinking my efforts for this motherboard were dashed – I set it back to HDMI and haven't had those random issues again.
Audio over HDMI also caused me a few headaches. The drivers were all installed and showing up but failed to enable. No matter what I did I couldn't choose HDMI as an audio output. I could use the RealTech optical out to my receiver but I really wanted audio over HDMI to work. My expectations were to hook up all HDMI to the TV and the use the digital out from the TV to my receiver (My several years old receiver only has two optical inputs that will accept multi-channel audio… I have 3 sources!) Come to find out that revisiting the BIOS for the HDMI/DVI issue I described earlier fixed this same issue as well. Whew! Now I can switch between optical audio and HDMI by using the Sound control panel (it would be nice to output to both… but oh well!)
That brings me to my last and somewhat painful issue. If I don't have my TV turned to the HDMI/PC input when the computer is booting… Or if I switch input selection when the computer is already turned on, I lose picture. At first I thought this was related to the screen saver putting the TV into sleep mode or some other logical explanation… But I can repeat the problem by switching to a different input as well. The only solution is to get up and pull the HDMI cable out of the back of the TV or computer and to plug it back in. Then it works… Until I switch inputs again. AGH! I know others have seen this issue so it's really the last issue I need to resolve. (Some say that the latest BIOS or video drivers fixed the issue for them… but it hasn't for me…)
All in all, for a $90 motherboard (half the cost of my previous purchase – an ASUS P5B Deluxe, it's been rock solid. For an HTPC Mini-ATX board, it just "works" (minus the HDMI blanking issues). This seems to be the first of a new line of integrated motherboards that perform very well for the lost entry cost. Who would have thought that all of these features could be had for such a low cost? Even with additional features not being used like RAID and over-clocking – I've very happy with this selection as well.
|Television Stand – Whalen Brown Cherry TV Stand|
|This is really more around preference than anything else. I've looked around over the past few years to find my "perfect" stand for televisions and audio/video equipment. An "entertainment center" for the new millennium. With have a big real-projection television for years the only options were whole wall units costing thousands of dollars. The whole effort around this updated home theater was to lighten and thin out the bulkiness of such a setup… to blend in. More in a sense of space than in a visual perspective (really – how do you "hide" such equipment if you're using it every day?).|
My first thought (and still a possibility) was to simply install the TV on the wall… The crown jewels of any flat panel install. Classy in every way… Until you think about a few things. Availability of even mounting it on the wall (plaster walls and offset studs on an outer-facing wall), cord management, and the need to still have access to your audio/video equipment. Second thought was to find a nice stand to house a receiver, HD TiVo, XBOX 360, Wii, and an HTPC (with external hard drive). Those criteria were easy enough to find… Almost any stand can do that. But add the need to have a center channel speaker to blend in to the mix and the options to start to drop out pretty quickly.
Queue the Best Buy experience (my love/hate relationship continues). Even though were purchased our TV at Best Buy, the selection of TV stands all missed the mark. Until, out of the corner of my eye, I found the Whalen Brown Cherry TV Stand. Not only did it have three-tier shelving, it included a mounting arm for flat-panels up to 60 inches (and up to 150 pounds). This soon became my reference selection to compare other stands and eventually became our choice. The solid cherry wood posts along with black glass and wooden shelves really look great with the black steel frame. Cable management is included and it's absolutely a solid piece of furniture when fully assembled. (Be sure NOT to tighten up the screws and bolts until you're almost finished!)
Even though this is an HTPC review, the whole experience lends itself to our home theater efforts. Why go through the bother of assembling all of this equipment and effort if you're just going to make it look like a college dorm room? This stand is just the chocolate fudge icing on a great home theater – tying all of the pieces together to make it an enjoyable experience.
|Blu-ray & HD DVD Playback Software – Cyberlink PowerDVD|
|As mentioned earlier, the software that came with my Blu-ray/HD DVD drive really comes crippled. Fine if you're on a laptop or desktop without surround sound, but for a HTPC Home Theater setup you're really screwing your customers – especially without an upgrade path if I want to give you some dollars. Because of my need to have both HD formats available (isn't that why I purchased the LG dual format drive in the first place?) – I took a look at Corel's WinDVD 9 Plus as a player. Its story that it still supports both Blu-ray and HD DVD was something that sealed the deal for my dollars. (PowerDVD 8 dropped support for HD DVD. I did try the HD DVD hack but it killed the player each time I put an HD DVD video in and I haven't had the chance to troubleshoot…)|
Since WinDVD 9 has a trial (but not for HD media) I handed over $80 (a discount is included if you run the trial) and proceeded to try out t he glory of both formats. To my astonishment, green pixel corruption all over the place. Checkerboard flickers frequent enough in my viewing that there was no way to ignore it. (I might be able to… if I conned myself into it – but the Mrs. would have mentioned it as "why are those green things showing up… You spent how much on this new TV and computer to have green things on the screen?")
I hunted for answers. Driver issues? I was running the latest Catalyst drives from ATI – 8.6. Then I saw this in the notes:
Setting the desktop resolution to 1600×1200 or greater may result in green pixel corruption being noticed when playing certain games. This issue maybe noticed when using a system running Windows Vista and containing an ATI Radeon HD 2600 or HD 2400 series of product. Further details can be found in topic number 737-31150
I couldn't find topic number 737-31150 anywhere… but it sounds like a diagnosis. Since that issue was only under "Known Issues Under the Windows Vista Operating System" – I reluctantly dropped back and installed Windows XP Media Center 2005. After a few hours of that mess, installing the latest patches and drivers, I fired up my recently purchased WinDVD 9.
Installed the OEM version of PowerDVD and in all of it's glorious audio deprivation, no green pixels. Perfect Blu-ray & HD DVD video playback.
Not a hardware issue – but a software issue. (Sounds like my life in Enterprise Infrastructure! Oh wait… I work in software now! Doh!)
Well – it could be a hardware AND software issue – but I could care less. I'm spending dollars for something that works so that WinDVD software is going back for a refund and I'm sticking with WinDVD. (Both version 7.3 & 8 it seems, however…)
So I'm back to Vista Ultimate with Vista Media Center and Cyberlink for now… And it's working!
So that's my wrap up and first impressions of my first real HTPC. Granted, my XBOX 360 did quite well as a Media Center Extender so most of the "infrastructure" was already in place. Networking, media center components, audio, etc weren't an issue. Stemming from the arrival of our new flat-panel TV, it was a fun effort to bring an HTPC into the mix and to finish up a decent media viewing package.
With this last piece, I'm pretty wrapped up in terms of home theater changes for a while. It's true – we've called this room in our house "The Media Lounge" from the first day we moved in. It's where we watch movies and where I really get to listen to music at decent volumes. Curious about what else was already in place before the HTPC came along?
- Sony STR DE-945 550-watt Dolby Digital Receiver
- Paradigm Mini Monitor Main, (2) V2 (Front), (2) V1 (Rear)
- Paradigm 12" Powered Subwoofer PS-1200
- Paradigm Center Channel CC-370
- HD TiVo with 500 GB "My DVR" Expander
- Microsoft XBOX 360
- Nintendo Wii
- Sony Bravia KDL-52XBR4 52" LCD
- Berkline Powered Leather Home Theater Stadium Seats
- Media Server with 2 TB online storage
- Backup Server with 2 TB backup storage
- Dell PowerConnect 2716 16-port gigabit router with CAT6 in-wall connections
For some assistance, there's already a great number of resources available on the Internet. Be sure to check these places out:
- AVS Forum – The Official Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-S2H RS780 mATX Thread
- Coding Horror – Building Your Own Home Theater PC (Reread this AFTER I picked up the motherboard… The comments are always as good as the articles since Jeff Atwood has great readership)
- Ars Technica – Ars System Guide: HTPC edition
- (More to come as I stumble across them… the GIGABYTE motherboard is pretty popular…)
Now it's time to go hide some more wires and perhaps convince C to allow my to run the speaker wires in the walls as well…