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Build your own low-profile HD Media PC / HTPC Gordon Laing , October 2009
 
Building a Low Profile High Definition HTPC

Building a successful Media or HTPC typically involves more thought and planning than a normal office system, but can yield excellent results. Imagine a single appliance which can play virtually any format from streaming online content to the best Blu Ray titles, along with having powerful Personal Video Recording facilities. Just because it’s a powerful PC doesn’t mean it needs to be big, ugly and noisy either, and in this article I’ll show you how to build a quiet, low profile system that’s equipped to handle HD content.

Like many PC enthusiasts, a number of my hardware projects are under a state of constant evolution. Rather than building new systems entirely from scratch, I prefer to upgrade key components on existing configurations where possible, to achieve the desired results.

My Media PC is such a system, although due to its ‘mission-critical’ status, I try to hold back any tweaks or upgrades until I have a number to do at once. This minimises the potential down-time of a system which provides most of the digital entertainment in the Laing household!


But now the time has come to upgrade my Media PC, with the ultimate goal of delivering High Definition content without breaking a sweat. The previous configuration was based on a CoreDuo T2600 mobile processor in an Asus N4L Micro-ATX motherboard – an interesting combination originally chosen equally for its low power and low profile possibilities.

The low power and high-performance capabilities of the original mobile CoreDuos has of course now graduated across Intel’s entire processor family from desktop to server models. The latest Core i7 models would be overkill for a Media PC that’s almost exclusively used for playback, but a modern Core2Duo model would deliver a decent upgrade at a lower price while also allowing me to choose a motherboard that could use my existing investment in DDR-2 memory. While this machine wouldn’t be used for 3D gaming, the choice of graphics chipset would be critical as I wanted it to accelerate the decoding of HD content.

As always, the system would have to run as quietly as possible, and while the previous CoreDuo mobile configuration discreetly kept itself cool in a low profile case, I was sceptical about achieving the same result with higher-performance components. Switching to a full-height desktop case would literally provide much more breathing space not just for CPU coolers, but also flexibility in the choice of graphics – after all, the choice of low profile graphics cards is pretty limited, especially if you want them to accelerate HD content and run quietly.

After much research I was on the verge of buying a Moneual 932 case from Quiet PC. It’s not a cheap option, but it looks great, accommodates full-height components including a normal PSU, and features a touch-sensitive widescreen monitor on the front. The idea of navigating my music collection or the Spotify service from this screen without having to power-up the main display really appealed to me. It would also be useful for those inevitable trouble-shooting times.

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But the deal-breaker was the depth of the case which prevented the use of 240mm deep motherboards if you were also fitting a typical Blu Ray drive; believe it or not, these drives are a little longer than most DVD models. This restriction however eliminated most of the full-size ATX motherboards I was considering, not to mention many of the Micro ATX models. I could put up with that from a cheaper case, but not one costing this amount.

So I returned to my original low profile case and set about building a system which could run happily inside while achieving the desired level of performance. I’m pleased to report the selected components performed as advertised and it ended up being one of my easier builds. The hardware side of the project is complete and all that remains are some final decisions on the software configuration including the choice of either XP MCE 2005 or Windows 7 – but that’s another story for a future article! So what follows on the next page is a list of the components selected for this project – and ideal shopping list, or starting point, for anyone who wants to build a low profile, quiet-running media PC with HD playback capabilities.

Quiet low profile Media / HTPC shopping list.


All words, images, videos and layout, copyright 2005-2014 Gordon Laing. May not be used without permission.

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