How to Build an HTPC
Building an HTPC-2
Building an HTPC-3 (powerstrip)
This will be a series of web page "articles" on how to build an HTPC.
What is an HTPC? It is a Home Theater Computer. Generally used to replace or enhance DVD players, replace "TIVO"TM hardware for "time shifting" (recording favorite shows for later viewing) and watching Television broadcasts, or Music (CD/WAV/MP3) playback.
1) "rev1" (revision 1) : This will be an ongoing, rambling series of upgrades to an old computer in an attempt to get it to play DVD's and "over the air" (OTA) High Definition HDTV broadcasts through a HDTV display. We will make mistakes, correct them and try out various hardware and software. We will change cards and cases and describe the pain and suffering as well as hopefully some tips and tricks to make things easier.
2) "rev2": We will focus on building from scatch, a simple "PVR" type HTPC, built for "TIVO"TM like abilities and music library creation and playback.
3) "rev3": We will be a more "high end" system. We will put together selected new components in an attempt to show how exactly to build an HTPC with a very wide range of functionality from scratch with as little trouble as possible.
1) HTPC Rev1.
The first step was to decide what we wanted from an HTPC (Home Theater PC).
We wanted a system that we could build with our old PC (Athlon 1200) with hardware stuff we had laying around and slowely upgrade it.
(A) HDTV OTA reception.
(B) DVD playback at good resolution on HDTV (RPHDTV in this case)
(C) Display of our "desktop" in a usable form for limited email and web surfing/driver downloads.
(A) - There are a number of PCI HDTV tuner cards that will provide OTA HDTV, OTA analog, or Satellite/Cable tuner functions for your computer. Here is a list of some of the more popular models:
Digital Stream HiDTV
Telemann hipix DTV-200
Macro Image Technology (MIT) MDP-130
These all have strengths and weaknesses depending on what you are trying to do. Satellite/Cable and or NTSC (analog TV by antenna) tuning is often an important consideration, although not important for our current aims. We'll get into analog TV in the "rev2" project. Right now we want a ATSC (HDTV OTA in the USA) tuning and recording capabilities from the card and the ability to watch DVD's from the PC's player/recorder to our HDTV.
We chose the Digital Stream HiDTV card to start our project, since it was new, had a remote with a good distance spec, and offered support with an online forum as well as email and telephone.
(B) There are Tons of DVD players out there and DVD player software as well. We aren't going to recommend anything here right now. Keep in mind that a faster DVD player will make more noise and a noisey HTPC is not a good thing. You don't need a 16X DVD player, although at this time it's pretty hard to find anything slower.
(C) Displaying the desktop (and this includes DVD playback) on a widescreen HDTV is going to be one of our greatest sources of pain. While some video card companies suggest they have hardware and/or drivers that makes this easy, they don't. Video card manufacturers are doing a pitiful job in this area. Don't dismay though, a Taiwanese company - Entech makes an extremely powerful (if not so well documented) utility called "powerstrip", which, while not the easiest thing to understand how to use, can pretty much set up your video card to display resolutions and scan rates that almost any display can work with.
Using XP Media Center? Microsoft has a great page on "Connecting Your Windows XP Media Center PC to a TV Display"
Here's the hardware we had to start with:
Motherboard: Asus A7A266 with an Athlon Thunderbird 1200
Nvidia Geforce2 MX200
ATI Radeon 7500
ATI Radeon 9000 Pro
Maxtor 5T040H4 7200RPM 40GB for OS
Seagate ST360021A 7200RPM 60GB For Storage/Recording
512MB RAM PC133
M-audio Dio 2448
M-Audio Audiophile 2496
Hercules Digifire 7.1
We tried to provide as much of a static free work area as possible.
Here's our stuff, pictured above.
The first thing to do is install the motherboard or "mainboard". Cases come with "standoffs", which is a funny looking screw, with a female screw hole on one side and a male screw at the other. Different motherboards come with holes in different locations, as do the cases. Your first step is to add these standoffs to the proper holes. To do this, first put the motherboard in the case (using proper anti-static techniques) , aligning it as best you can to the holes in the case, with the rear connectors facing out of their proper connection holes in the case or "popout" rear connector plate. New cases come with these replaceable connection cover plates to fit your motherboard. New motherboards which require non-standard output connector setups will come with their appropriate plates.
See the picture above. You should mark through the holes with a pencil so that you can then insert the proper standoffs.
You will notice that in the holes pictured above, one hole has pencil markings. This would be the hole we marked with a pencil earlier. Insert a standoff here!
Also notice the funny looking hole. This is a hole that will require a plastic standoff (hate em!).
Above is a plastic standoff inserted through a motherboard. These are a total pain! You must get the round part on the bottom of the standoff into the "wide" part of the funny looking hole and slide it into place. Not very fun. It's often easier to cut off the smaller round thingie from the bottom of these standoffs, leaving the larger part to provide support for the motherboard. This is maybe not the best solution, but better than getting mad and stomping all over the motherboard.
Next, connect your front panel connections to the motherboard. This is a true pain in the posterior. Some motherboard manufacturers make it pretty easy. Some don't. If any of your LED's don't light up properly, they may be connected in reverse. You will need to change which side of the connector goes to which pin on the "header" connector.
Here we are, installing an AGP slot video card. The card is in the slot, but not yet fully inserted.
Here is a picture of the AGP video card fully "seated" in its connector.
We next installed all of our PCI slot cards. Here is a picture of a card lined up with the slot, but not yet pushed down. This card must be pushed down into the slot, and securely fastened with the slot screw.
Here we are tightenining the slot screw. You do not need to overtighten these screws, this is a computer, not a tank.
Here are our cards inserted in the motherboard.
Installing Hard drives is easy, right? Well, sort of. If you are installing a single hard drive, just connect the blue connector to the motherboard or Hard rive controller cards "IDE1" or "IDE0" controller connector, whichever is the lowest number. Connect your DVDROM drive to the higher numbered connector. If you have one drive per cable, or "channel" you should then connect the black connectors to the drives. If you have two hard drives or a DVD and a CDROM drive, then you will also have to use the grey connector. Your "master"Hard drive (the one where your Operating system will be installed) should be connected to the black connector, and the other drive would be connected to the grey connector. Using the "CS" (cable select) jumper setting is a good idea if you don't want to get into the whole "master" and "slave" thing. See here for more on this.
What about the DVD and CDROM? What about mixing hard drives and CD/DVD drives on a cable?
Again, see here!
The point here is that planning is involved. Look at your cable before mounting the drives in your enclosure! Do you need to put the master drive above the slave drive? Probably so. Possibly not, it depends on the length of the cable and your cabinets layout. Plan First!
Above are some pictures of "Round" IDE type cables for ATA66/ATA100 and ATA133. Use round cables to help you to get the best possible airflow to your drives. Plus, they do look cool and are more durable then "standard" flat cables.
To mount a cdrom drive or DVD, you need to insert it from the front! Don't try shoving it in from the rear. Also note that the screws used for CDROMS, DVD drives and floppy drives are smaller than the screws used for Hard drives. The screws are smaller and the threads are finer.
Above is a DVD drive mounted and with the cables attached. The power cable is the white connector with four wires. The data connector is a long, wide connector, connected with a flat or round cable. The other small connector is for audio. This would be connected to the sound card. Many drives also have a similar but smaller connector with two wires - a digital audio connector. These last two connectors are not always needed, since the sound can often be transmitted on the PCI "Buss". In some cases it is better or easier to use these audio connections, depending on your specific hardware.
Here is a picture with everything connected. Notice how we tried our best to keep the flat cables in this installation "out of the way". This would certainly have been easier with round cables.
Installing the Operating System:
Hey, we're not on the payroll for Microsoft, but we installed Windows XP Home Edition. We love it for an HTPC. It's more stable than Windows 98SE (second choice). Cheaper than XP Professional (aren't you paying enough!?). XP professional has no extrs we know of that would benefit an HTPC, but go ahead and get it if you like. It ain't bad, just not necessary for an HTPC.
See Microsoft and your hardware vendors documentation for installation instructions. We'll get into some "hacks" later.
Installing the HDTV Tuner card and Zalman Quiet cooling!