Build Your Own HTPC: Detailed Shopping List and Build Instructions

More on each component and the build

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:

by Mike Haney
In this photo, I'm using the Intel heat sink/fan unit instead of the Zalman. Funny story: I installed the Zalman first only to find that it only had a three-pin connector and the socket had four pins. Too lazy to actually look at the Intel directions, I freaked out, pulled it off and used the Intel HSF instead. Only when the build was done and I was cleaning up did I notice that I could use the three-pin connector and just skip a pin, so I ripped everything back out and installed the Zalman instead. You can also see here the cables from the unused included front ports and the 3.5-inch bays lying outside the case.Mike Haney
by Mike Haney
I actually chose to install the hard drive in the third slot, underneath the 5.25-inch bays. For some reason, when I tried to mount it in the 3.5-inch bracket, which holds two drives and attaches just to the right of the 5.25-inch bracket, the front of the drive didn't sit flush with the front of the case. I'm sure there's a workaround, but this seemed like a fine solution and left my 3.5-inch bracket open for the card reader and extra front ports.Mike Haney
by Mike Haney
The 3.5-inch bracket is re-installed and the DVD drive is in place. I've also inserted the video card into its slot.Mike Haney
by Mike Haney
Here, I've inserted some extra USB and Firewire ports in the second card slot, and put the tuner card in the fourth slot. I eventually had to switch these around after learning that the tuner card has to be in the second slot for XP to see it.Mike Haney