*** This guide has been updated on April 6th, 2015 ***
Getting your HTPC together is a little bit different from setting up a regular old PC. When you are setting up the HTPC, you want to think about saving yourself energy, socket space, and the risk of tripping over the wires.
While you are building your media center PC, you want to consider what you are actually going to use it for. Are you going to use it to watch movies? Are you going to have a killer music library selection? Or maybe you are just going to have it set up to look good for guests to admire?
This guide is very practical (because I have purchased these recommended components for myself, too), so after reading this you will feel much more comfortable in getting started with your own project.
If you want, you can also skip this long guide and go directly to the component recommendation page.
Research & Plan
Getting your media PC together is a bit different from setting up a regular old PC.
Before you proceed in selecting the components and cases, you should stop and think about how you actually intend to use your home theater computer.
You should also consider that your needs for the HTPC may change over time once you get more familiar with what you can actually do with it.
In general, people use their HTPC for the following tasks:
- Watching and recording live TV
- Watching streamed HD Internet content (Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, etc.)
- Playing media files (photos, music, videos) stored locally
- Watching Blu-ray and DVD movies
- Playing modern 3D games
- Browsing the Internet in the living room
My home theater connection diagram looks like this:
Follow these steps and not only will you be familiar with how to assemble an incredible piece of technology, but you will also gain the knowledge to keep it as silent as possible.
1. Choose a case
When it comes to an HTPC case form factor, it is the motherboard size that determines the size of your case (or the other way round). There are three main form factors to choose from: mini-ITX, microATX and ATX.
The mini-ITX such as Antec Mini-ITX Case ISK 300-150 is the smallest one, but also offers the least expandability and has a limited cooling options. The best decision is that you go with a micro-ATX or full ATX cases as there you will have a wide range of options, and you do not need to make too many compromises in terms of heat generation. Make sure you have room for the PC to vent, also.
However, if you like to play modern games with your HTPC, you should get a case such as the popular BitFenix Prodigy or Silverstone ML07 that can properly fit a discrete graphics card and is big enough to have good airflow.
- Budget: Antec ISK 300-150 Mini-ITX
- Value: Silverstone GD06B Micro ATX
- Performance: Silverstone ML07 Mini-ITX
2. Select a proven processor
The two processors you should even consider using are AMD and Intel. The AMD processor is more popular with PC builders because of the simple fact that they are cheaper and perform just as well as an Intel processor.
The main source generating heat inside a case is the processor. Therefore, you should choose a low-TDP processor, such as Intel Core i3-4130T Haswell or AMD A6-6400K Richland with a max TDP (Thermal Design Power) of no more than 65 watts. The low-power CPU runs at reduced voltages and emits less heat, which requires less cooling.
For a budget system I would recommend getting an affordable AMD A6-6400K Richland APU with a powerful on-board Radeon HD 8470D graphics.
However, the leaders are still the Intel Core i3 and i5 which have become the standard choice of many builders. Intel Core i3-4130T (35W TDP) and Intel Core i5-4570S (65W TDP) are based on the Haswell architecture with integrated Intel HD4400 (Core i3) and HD4600 (Core i5) graphics and low power consumption.
3. Select a good motherboard
The main purchase you should focus on is the motherboard because it will make or break the performance of all the components that will be attached later. Also, the type of motherboard you choose will depend on the processor chipset you choose.
ASUS and Gigabyte are known to have the most powerful micro ATX motherboards and they are probably the best producers of HTPC motherboards. Other good alternatives are ASRock and MSI motherboards that are very popular among HTPC users.
- Budget: Gigabyte GA-F2A88XN-WIFI Mini ITX
- Value: Asus H97M-Plus Micro ATX
- Performance: Asus Z97I-Plus Mini-ITX
4. Select a hard drive
SSD (Solid State Drive) hard disks have become a lot cheaper nowadays, so it is recommended to use an SSD as the system boot drive to cut down on drive noise and heat. A 60 GB SSD is enough for the system disk on a Linux-based PC, but 120 GB is recommended for a Windows-based PC.
However, you should use a standard hard drive for storing media files and recordings, since you won’t see any performance gain using an SSD for playing media files.
System boot SSD recommendations:
Media HDD recommendations:
- Budget: Western Digital Green 2 TB 2.5″
- Value: Western Digital Caviar Green 3 TB 3.5″
- Performance: Western Digital Caviar Green 3 TB 3.5″
5. Select the memory (RAM)
The most important thing to remember in this area is to make sure you get at least 2 GB of RAM and to make sure that the memory is compatible with the motherboard you purchased previously. Remember that RAM modules generate heat, so it is good to choose models such as Kingston HyperX LoVo, which are ultra low voltage memory modules for better internal temperatures.
The DDR abbreviation means Dual Data Rate and the numbers are the MHz that the RAM operates at. DDR3-1333 and DDR3-1600 are supported by the most motherboards, where the 1333 is enough for HTPCs, but 1600 has become the new standard.
- Budget: Kingston HyperX Fury 4GB
- Value: Kingston HyperX Fury 4GB
- Performance: Kingston HyperX Fury 8 GB
6. Select a graphics card
Choosing the right video card that consumes less power can be difficult as most brands do not provide any power consumption indicator. Because of special requirements for cooling, space and power, graphic cards for gaming, basic multimedia tasks and HTPC are totally different in terms of quality and performance.
If you plan on using your HTPC mainly for watching 1080p movies and some other regular media center tasks, integrated graphics is enough. However, if you like to play some modern games, then you should look at the performance HTPC build with a passive cooled discrete graphics such as AMD Radeon R7 250. Another great choise is a Gigabyte 750 Ti Windforce graphics card, which is an excellent choice for silent running HTPCs whilst offering strong performance.
Keep in mind that once you start getting more powerful video cards, the hotter your system will get and the louder those fans will blow. For this reason, I’d recommend to get a passive cooled model. We want to be quiet, don’t we?
Graphic card recommendations:
- Budget: Onboard
- Value: Onboard
- Performance: Gigabyte GTX 750 Ti Windforce
7. Select an optical drive
If you plan on watching any DVDs or Blu-ray disc movies you’ll need a DVD or Blu-ray drive. The main thing to remember when selecting an optical disc drive is that they get more expensive the faster they write data.
Optical drive recommendations:
- Budget: Samsung 8x SATA Slim DVD
- Value: LG Internal Blu-Ray Drive
- Performance: Silverstone Blu-ray drive
8. Determine the amount of fans
In order for your system to keep cool, it will have to be equipped with fans. The problem is that fans can be extremely noisy. The noise can be caused by the case fan, CPU fan, graphics card fan and power supply fans.
The best route to take is to go with a large (120mm) and slower RPM case fan such as Noctua NF-S12A ULN case fan and see if any other components that come with fans have a fanless alternative. This brings me to a good point; the more fanless components you have means there will be more heat building up in the case.
Try to limit the number of fans in the case, as more cooling fans means more noise.
According to my experience, stock CPU coolers are a bit too noisy, so it is recommended to get an aftermarket cooler. When choosing a CPU cooler, go for the largest cooler possible that will fit in your case. For most mini-ITX cases get Noctua NH-L9I (Intel) or Noctua NH-L9A (AMD) and for micro ATX cases, Scythe Big Shuriken 2 Low Profile CPU Cooler is your best choice.
CPU cooling recommendations:
9. Select a quiet power supply
Under normal conditions, power supplies are pretty loud because they are very busy powering all the components in your system. Please be aware that larger supplies (over 500W) are usually louder and not suited for HTPC environments. They also tend to consume a large amount of power.
For Intel Core i3 build with on-board graphics, you should not need more than the 400W. The best option is to choose a power supply at least bronze 80 plus energy efficiency rating.
If you would like to get a cheaper PSU, I would recommend getting Antec EarthWatts EA-380D. It is an excellent HTPC PSU and have been used in many home theater PC builds over the years.
However, if you want to have higher quality power supply, then a good choice is Seasonic G-360, which has a gold 80 plus energy efficiency rating. It is highly efficient and quiet PSU.
The highest quality PSU recommendation is SeaSonic SS-400FL2 400W, which is modular and fanless with 80 plus platinum rating, so there are no moving fans or unnecessary cables to create clutter inside the case.
10. Select a tuner card
In order to watch live TV, you’ll need a TV tuner.
I prefer using a USB TV tuner or Ethernet attached TV tuner as that way I do not need to add more PCIe cards inside the case, which would generate more heat. Some manufacturers are now offering a six slot digital cable tuner such as the Ceton InfiniTV 6 USB TV Tuner, which lets you record up to six different digital channels simultaneously.
Another good alternative is HDHomeRun, which is an Ethernet attached TV tuner that turns each of your networked computers into a full-featured digital DVR.
TV tuner recommendations:
Summary of the components
In this guide, I have shown you ten easy steps to build the optimal home theater PC for your requirements. In addition, you have gained required knowledge to keep the system as power efficient and silent as possible.
If you are interested in building your own HTPC, check out here the complete list of the recommended HTPC components.