In this guide, I will show you from start to finish how to build a quiet mini-ITX system that will be suitable for playing full HD videos, listening to music and viewing your photos.
Nowadays, it is possible to buy affordable mini computers such as Raspberry Pi that are able to play full HD videos, so you might wonder why would it still makes sense to build your own HTPC.
In my case, I wanted to have much faster user experience for my media center, so I needed something more powerful than Raspberry Pi.
This guide is based on my recommended AMD Richland-based budget HTPC that I have built myself.
The following components for the AMD-based budget HTPC have been tested and proven to work well in my test bench.
Antec ISK 300-150 is better than any other mini ITX case I know of. The build quality is good and the case looks very stylish.
You might want to consider getting a quieter case fan such as Noctua NF-R8 PWM, since the original is a bit noisy.
According to my recent readers’ CPU poll, both AMD Richland and Intel Haswell were very popular choices. In terms of performance, both AMD and Intel are good choices for this build. The main differences relate to power efficiency, ultra HD (4K) readiness and price.
Because I wanted to have this build be as affordable as possible, I chose AMD A6-6400K Richland due to its low price. AMD A6-6400K has more than enough performance to run the OpenELEC operating system. It may not be as power efficient as Intel, but according to my tests, it runs cool enough for a near silent operation.
AMD and Intel processors come with a decent CPU cooler that is enough for most people. However, if you want an even quieter operation, you should get an after market CPU cooler. The Antec case that I’m using is so small that the majority of CPU coolers won’t fit inside the case.
The best CPU cooler that fits inside this case, according to my experience, is the Noctua NH-L9 cooler. There are two different models available: Noctua NH-L9A is intended for AMD processors and Noctua NH-L9I is for Intel processors. Noctua NH-L9 is very high quality and will make your HTPC slightly quieter when compared to a stock CPU cooler.
There are not that many mini ITX motherboards available for AMD FM2/FM2+ platform. The MSI motherboards are the cheapest ones, but you will need to update the BIOS in order to use it with the Richland generation. The problem is that you will need a previous Trinity generation processor to do the BIOS update.
For this reason, I decided to get a Gigabyte FM2+ mini-ITX motherboard that comes with built in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
Kingston HyperX Blu is solid memory for a good price. It has very fast performance and a low heat signature.
According to my experience, 2 GB RAM memory is enough for Linux-based OpenELEC operating system, but if you intend to use Windows operating system, then 4 GB is recommended.
PicoPSU power supply (optional)
The power supply that comes with the Antec ISK 300-150 is okay for most of us, but some people might find it too noisy for their requirements.
If you want to make your mini-ITX computer completely silent, I would recommend replacing the stock power supply with a PicoPSU 150 XT power supply. You will also need to get a 12V AC to DC power adapter with the PicoPSU 150 XT power supply.
System boot drive
An SSD (Solid State Drive) is the best thing that you can get to boost the performance of your HTPC while keeping it silent.
There is no need to get more than 60 GB for OpenELEC, however, 120 GB is recommended for Windows-based HTPC.
Media hard drive (optional)
I wanted to use as big of a hard drive for media files as possible, so I opted for Western Digital Green 2 TB 2.5 inch hard drive.
The WD Green 2 TB is thicker than regular 2.5 inch HDD, but it will just fit inside the Antec 300-150 case. It runs super quietly, so it is a very good choice for this build.
Optical disc drive (optional)
Nowadays, you don’t necessarily need an optical disc drive at all. If you wish to occassionally use a DVD or Blu-ray drive, I would recommend using an external USB Blu-ray drive, and plug it in when ever you need to use it.
If an internal optical disc drive is important to you, you can fit a slimline DVD or Blu-ray drive into the Antec ISK 300-150 case.
The Flirc remote companion is a USB IR receiver that outputs presses on a remote control button as keyboard input to any application such as XBMC.
In my opinion, the Flirc is a must have for anyone who wishes to use a remote to control their home theater computer.
Keyboard & mouse
Logitech K400 is a great keyboard and mouse for use on the living room couch with Windows-based HTPC. While you don’t necessarily use a keyboard to control your media center, it is good to have a keyboard and mouse available in case you need one.
Building the HTPC
After you have purchased and received all of the selected components, you are ready to start building your own mini-ITX system. You should reserve couple of hours to complete the following steps.
Start with the motherboard
I would recommend that you start by putting the motherboard on the table. You can put a plastic bag under the motherboard to protect it from the static electricity.
You should install the CPU and cooler to the motherboard before mounting it inside the case.
Install the CPU
First, completely lift up the CPU socket locking lever. This is important step, because otherwise the CPU will not attach properly to the board.
Second, align the small triangle markings on the CPU and the socket and then gently insert the CPU into the socket.
Third, lower the locking lever and latch it into the fully locked position.
Install the CPU cooler
The installation of the CPU cooler is relatively simple and straightforward. Just keep in mind that you need to install the CPU cooler to the motherboard before you insert it into the case.
Stock CPU cooler
First, apply a thin layer of termal grease to the surface of the CPU. Place the CPU cooler on top of the processor and mount it on the retention frame.
Then, turn the cam handle from the left side to the right side to lock into place. Last but not least, attach the power connector to the CPU header on the motherboard.
Aftermarket CPU cooler (quieter option)
If you decided to use Noctua NH-L9 CPU cooler, follow these steps to install it properly.
Press a small drop of NT-H1 thermal grease onto the center of the heatspreader. Then put the Noctua NH-L9 onto the CPU and fix it from the rear side of the motherboard using the mounting screws.
Lastly, connect the fan to the motherboard using the power connector. You should also attach the Low-Noise Adaptor (LNA) to the fan’s power cable to further reduce the fan’s operating noise.
Install the memory
It is only possible to install the memory module only one way since there is a notch that indicates the correct direction. After inserting the memory module to the motherboard, snap the clips at both ends into place.
Open the case and remove optical drive bay
Now, it is time to take the case on the table and open it by unscrewing the screws. After removing the case cover, unscrew the optical drive bay and place it on the table.
Mount the motherboard inside the case
Take the motherboard’s back panel cover and insert that to the back of the case. Then take the motherboard and mount it inside the case and gently push it to the back of the case so that the screw holes align with the motherboard and the case.
Tighten the screws to secure the motherboard in place.
Install the after market case fan (optional)
If you decided to use the after market case fan, simply remove the stock case fan by unscrewing the screws and install the Noctua case fan.
I would recommend using the low-noise adapter (LNA) cable that comes with Noctua case fans to lower the voltage and make it spin more slowly and quietly.
Install PicoPSU power supply (optional)
If you decided to get the PicoPSU power supply to make the system completely silent, remove the stock power supply by unscrewing the screws at the bottom of the case.
Snap in the picoPSU module to the motherboard’s 24-pin power connector and connect the 4-pin power connector to the motherboard as well.
Attach the DC-to-DC connector to the back of the case using the provided screw. Connect a 12 V power adapter to the DC-to-DC connector.
Plug in the cables
In the next step, connect all the internal connectors and cables into the motherboard. If you are using the stock power supply, plug in the power connector cable from the power supply to the motherboard. There are two connectors that you need to put in place, namely a 24-pin main power connector and 4-pin power connector.
Next, make sure you have connected all fan headers, including both the CPU cooler and case fan.
Next, connect the power switch, reset switch, and system status indicators on the case to the front panel header of the motherboard. Follow the instructions in the motherboard’s user manual to achieve the correct pin assignments. Keep in mind that the colored wire is usually the positive (+) and the white is negative (-). Sometimes the positive side is marked with a small triangle on the connector.
Please note that you can leave the hard drive activity and power LEDs unplugged if you do not wish to have any bright lights in the front panel.
There is also an USB port in the front panel, so connect that to the USB header on the motherboard as well. You may also connect your case’s front panel audio module to the front panel audioheader on the motherboard.
Install the solid state drive
Insert the solid state drive to the optical drive bay and screw it into place. To connect the solid state drive, plug in the SATA connector to the hard drive and the motherboard. In addition, insert the power connector to the back of the hard drive.
Install the media hard drive (optional)
While you can fit two 2.5 inch hard drives insude the Antec 300-150 case, make sure that you attach the Western Digital 2.5 inch 2 TB hard drive to the right hand side of the case when viewed from the front side.
There is not much extra room for the thicker WD Green 2 TB hard drive, so make sure that there are no wires between the drive bay and PSU that might raise the drive bay higher and block the case cover.
Close the case
Now, you can put the case cover back on and tighten the screws.
Lastly, plugin the power cable, HDMI cable and USB adapters for the Flirc remote control companion and keyboard.
Congratulations, you have completed building your own mini-ITX system and you are now ready to start configuring it.
When turning on your system for the first time, it is recommended to configure the BIOS settings to adjust boot drive priorities and fan speeds.
Press the “Delete” key to enter the BIOS setup on startup.
First, change the boot priority to either DVD drive or USB stick depending which media you will use to install the operating system. If you are installing OpenELEC operating system, change the USB drive as the “Boot Priority #1” in the “Boot Option Priorities” in the “BIOS Features” menu.
Adjust fan speeds
In the “M.I.T” menu, go to “PC Health Status” and set “CPU Fan Speed Control” and “System Fan Speed Control” to “Silent”.
Underclock your CPU
You can underclock your CPU by adjusting the “Advanced Voltage Settings” in the “M.I.T” menu to consume less power, thus making it run cooler. I underclocked the AMD A6-6400K from 1.4V to 1.2V (CPU Vcore), reducing consumption by 20 watts.
Wake on LAN settings
If you wish to wake up the HTPC over LAN, for example with your iPhone, you need to enable the “LAN PXE Boot Option ROM” setting in the “BIOS Features” menu.
Install operating system
Microsoft Windows 7 and 8.1 are the most common operating systems and they are often used in HTPCs. A Linux-based operating system called OpenELEC is also a good and free choice for tech savvy users who are knowledgeable enough to fix any issues that occur.
If you are deciding between a 32bit and a 64bit version, you should get a 32bit OS if you use less than 4GB RAM memory. Keep in mind that there can be some compatibility issues with 64bit OS on some software, but this has become less of a problem in the past few years.
XBMC Media Center has been the favorite HTPC software of advanced users for years, but thanks to the distribution of OpenELEC, it is easier than ever to install XBMC on Linux to turn your HTPC into an appliance. The benefit of using Linux instead of Windows is that you will get a fast booting computer that is instantly ready to be used as a media center.
As OpenELEC advertises, I was able to install the OpenELEC to my budget HTPC in less than 15 minutes.
Windows 8.1 is the recommended operating system if you wish to watch Blu-ray disc movies, use media server applications such as PlayOn or play games. After installing Windows 8.1, remember to install all necessary drivers such as the graphics drivers. I’d recommend that you set up an automatic login and launch your favorite media center app automatically to make your Windows-based HTPC feel more like an appliance.
Here you can find instructions on how to install and configure Windows 8.1 for HTPC use.
The main reason I recommend Windows 8.1 is that it is the latest available Windows operating system. In fact Windows 7, 8 and 8.1 are all good choices as HTPC OS. I have not really noticed any significant improvement in Windows 8.1, so if you currently have Windows 7 or 8, they will be fine for HTPC use.
In this guide, you have learned how to choose the right components for a quiet mini-ITX HTPC and assemble the complete system. If you are interested in following my recommendations in practice, you can find the full component list for the AMD Richland-based budget HTPC.