Look around the Web and you’ll find countless how-to articles for building a media PC or home theater PC (HTPC) for as little money as possible. And those stories are not wrong: just about any computer with a TV tuner card and the right software can serve as an HTPC. In fact, it’s not a bad way to re-purpose an old machine—the processor requirements for most of the living room tasks are not heavy, especially with a tuner card that handles the encoding onboard instead of pawning it off to the main processor.
But my goal for this project was to start from scratch and build a solid, competent and quiet machine. I’m not a gamer or a video buff, so I didn’t need a beast, but I wanted something I wouldn’t have to upgrade for a while. Some of the best advice and reviews I found in narrowing down my parts list was at htpcnews.com—a hobbyist site run by a handful of enthusiasts who test a lot of products and build a lot of systems. Also useful later on were the forums at snapstream.com. Here are a few notes on some of the parts and why I chose them, and below these, some lessons I learned from the build.
Case: Arguably the most important choice you’ll make, since it’s what you have to look at everyday. Frankly, just about every HTPC specific case I looked at was as pretty as most high-end audio equipment and a lot better looking than your average PC. Silverstone makes a number of beautiful cases, as does Ahanix. Beyond aesthetics, pay attention to what size motherboard a case can take: mini ATX or full ATX. Cases that use mini ATX boards are typically shorter and look a little sleeker in your A/V stack than full ATX cases (the case I used is bigger than anything else in my entertainment center), but have less room for expansion and require more care in fitting all the components inside. Because this was my first time building a computer, I wanted the spare room and flexibility of a full-size case. The reason I ultimately chose SilverStone’s LC03 case was for its front USB and Firewire ports and because those ports can be covered when not in use. If your stack allows easy access to the back of the case, this may not be as important to you, but for uploading photos and music, easily accessible ports are a must-have for an HTPC. Other things to look out for: