Official Theaterverse HTPC build guide
One question I often get asked when discussing streaming TV, HTPC (Home Theater PC), and home entertainment equipment is what I use. Today I will show you just that, as well as some additional recommendations to help customize your setup to meet your needs as well as links to the products with current pricing information.
Some HTPC enthusiasts recommend Android TV boxes or things like the Amazon Fire Stick and Fire TV for the heart of a home theater system, and some of them are really great. The main benefit of using an android based system is the ability to use apps like Netflix or Hulu, but they often can be laggy and you can’t really run DVR / PVR software on them. I use a full desktop system that has enough horsepower to play just about anything I throw at it, run PC games and emulators, and handle my PVR recording all on one box that is about the size of a modern game console or cable box. There are some downsides to doing things this way that you should be aware of. Running things like Netflix is possible but a little bit more hacky than using a simple Android app, and due to studio paranoia and DRM there is no way to get 4k resolution from a PC to your TV at the time of this writing. As I don’t have a 4k TV this isn’t as important to me as horsepower.
Now that we have decided to use a full desktop PC the question is whether you should go Intel or AMD. Intel processors are generally a little more powerful, but are also more expensive. I wanted to keep costs low for my build, so I decided to go with an AMD FX-6300 Black Edition Processor. This bad boy has 6 cores at 3.5 GHz as well as the ability to be overclocked a bit further. It also comes with a CPU fan, but we won’t be using it. We will be getting an upgraded CPU cooler to keep the AMD, which are notorious for running hot, at the optimal temperature.
I went with an inexpensive MSI board for my build, but after getting it home and installed I realized the bios did not support hard drives over 2TB of space. Instead I am going to recommend the similarly priced Gigabyte 78LMT-USB3 motherboard with support for large hard drives. This board supports up to 32GB of DDR3 memory and fits in our case. This unit also has an on-board HDMI port if you would rather not purchase an upgraded video card. The MSI I chose did not, leaving me no choice but to buy one.
We don’t want problems with heat, especially if you choose to overclock. Trust me, don’t skimp on the CPU cooler. You MIGHT be able to get away with using the stock CPU cooler if you don’t intend to overclock, but we are shoving all this hardware into a compact case that, depending on your TV stand, might be in a semi-enclosed environment. Heat + Electronics = Bad Time. I went with the Cooler Master GeminII M4. It is compact and fits in our case but also has a big fan, with big fins and 4 heat pipes. I can’t imagine you could do much better in the space we have available without rigging up some type of water cooled system. It is worth noting that this CPU cooler comes with thermal compound, however some people have said that using Artic Silver yields better results. For what it is worth, I used the compound that came with the cooler and had no trouble, but the option is there if you experiment.
Our motherboard supports DDR3 memory so that is what we will need to buy. I went with 16GB of Crucial Ballistix Sport memory. I have always had a good experience with Crucial, and they give you a lot of bang for your buck. I personally feel that today 16GB is about the minimum you need for a smooth experience for an HTPC or otherwise. You could probably get away with less if you don’t plan on doing any gaming. I am a pretty casual gamer, but if you want this system to run more system intensive games you might want to bump up the amount of ram you buy. The motherboard I recommended has 4 RAM slots so there is plenty of room to double up down the road if you so choose.
For my personal system I had a 4TB external hard drive laying around that I removed from it’s enclosure and used as an internal hard drive. I wasn’t able to utilize my space as well as I wanted to as the motherboard I chose had space limitations, and because I went with spinning disk hard drive my system takes ages to boot. I recommend that you learn from my mistakes and use a SSD for your OS and an additional large hard drive for your media storage. The speed increase from the SSD will make your system much faster booting, and should eliminate all remaining lag.
I included a 120GB SSD in my recommendations to keep costs low. You could get a larger disk by choosing different options on the product page if you feel like you need more space. We will pair that with a larger traditional hard drive to store our media on.
I simply used a DVD writer out of an old computer in the off chance I decided to play a DVD. My family has largely moved beyond physical media at this point. We more or less skipped right over Blu-ray but if you still have some physical disks you would like to play it would be smart to pick up a drive. I am going to recommend this LG multi-writer. It can read and write CD DVD and Blu Ray.
We need a case to hold all these goodies, and I couldn’t be happier with this one. It looks nice, works well, holds everything we need and comes with a 300 watt power supply. Be aware that it is slim case so if you opt to get a video card instead of using on-board video you will need to get one that includes a half height bracket. It has a nice two-tone front and a nice blue led ring around the power button. It is a bit deeper than a typical cable box, but when it is laying on its side it is no wider.
Because the motherboard I chose had no on-board HDMI this was not an optional purchase for me. I went with a decent but inexpensive Nvidia GeForce GT 610 because the games I am playing are not particularly GPU intensive. This card isn’t terrible with 1GB of 64bit DDR3 memory, but you won’t be playing your games on the highest settings at 100 fps either. You can either use the on-board video, use a little bit better of a card like I did, or go with the most powerful half-height video card you can get your hands on if you are planning on doing more heavy gaming.
A great system is nothing if you have no way to control it. You have a lot of options here depending on what fits your use case best. I personally use a FLIRC and a Phillips universal remote. The FLIRC is an excellent option because you can emulate keyboard presses with any remote, even the one that came with your TV. Another good option would be some type of PC remote control / air mouse like the one from Aerb I have linked below. An air mouse comes in handy for controlling the underlying OS from the couch as well. Either one is a good option and I actually have and use both, but my wife prefers using one single remote control for everything. In that case the FLIRC excels.
As an alternative, if you don’t mind something a little less conventional, something like this might be up your alley.
Here things get personal. What OS and software you decide to install on your HTPC is totally up to you. My media center software of choice is Kodi, but Plex or Media Portal might be more your thing. The other choice that must be made is the OS. I use Windows 10 on my living room HTPC because of game compatibility. If you aren’t playing many games you might find the Kodibuntu or LibreELEC Linux distros to be better suited to your needs (and free!)
So there you have it, the official Theaterverse HTPC. This system is great, and I will likely make the upgrades I suggested to you in the future as well but you get the benefit of learning from my mistakes. It might not be the cheapest system you could get your hands on but it serves as my HTPC, my DVR, and my game console all rolled into one good looking system. If you have some parts that you could re-use like the optical drive, a hard drive, or maybe some RAM you could really shave the price and make out with a system that will put most TV boxes to shame.
If you have any suggestions, or stories about your own builds we would LOVE to hear about them. Post a comment below!