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Build your own low-profile HD Media PC / HTPC Gordon Laing , October 2009
 

Components to build a quiet low profile Media PC / HTPC


HTPC Case: Moneual 301

 

PC cases are often overlooked, but have a huge impact on which components can be accommodated, not to mention the ease with which the system is built or upgraded. Media PCs add the additional concern of aesthetics to the equation, demanding an exterior which fits in with existing home theatre components, while also running quietly.

I chose to recycle an existing Moneual low profile case which had served me well. This particular model has been replaced by the 301 version which is almost identical other than minor cosmetic changes, and is available from Quiet PC in silver or black.

The case measures 432x105x410mm and is discreet and attractively designed. It features a built-in VFD display, card reader behind a flap and a replacement bezel for your optical drive – the latter won’t work with all optical drives though and only has labelling for DVD, rather than Blu Ray. There’s no IR sensor built-in as standard, nor any dedicated window for one, although you can squeeze one next to the VFD; if your IR casing is large though, you may need to dismantle it and just mount the circuitry.

The case is only designed for use with Micro ATX motherboards, but will accommodate models measuring 240x240mm. It’s a low profile case, which means you’ll only be able to fit low profile expansion cards, and the maximum height for a CPU cooler is 70mm. While many smaller cases restrict your options for a power supply though, the 301 can take a full-size standard ATX model.

 

Processor: Intel Core2Duo E8400

 

When choosing a processor, it’s important to think carefully and realistically about the intended use. Core i7 may represent the state-of-the-art from Intel anyway, but it’s overkill for a Media PC that will be used mostly for graphics-accelerated playback.

Core2Duo models would be more than sufficient, so the big question was whether to go for dual or quad core. Had the system needed to transcode media on the fly, encode video files or run multiple applications at once, then quad core would have been the natural choice. But again my particular Media PC would only typically be running one application at a time, making dual core a cheaper and more sensible choice – after all, for less than a budget quad core, I could buy a dual-core model with a higher clock speed and a typically bigger Level 2 cache.

If the system were to be used for overclocking, I’d have gone for a Core2Duo E7400 or E7500 which offer more scope with their relatively low FSBs. But concerns over cooling and stability meant this processor would be run at its stock speed alone. The E7x00 would still probably have been more than sufficient, but instead I opted for the Core2Duo E8400 which at the time of writing represented an excellent combination of price and performance. It runs at 3GHz on a 1333MHz FSB with a considerable 6MB Level 2 cache at its disposal, and also supports Virtualisation, which is absent on the E7x00 series; as time goes on, the E8500 which is identical other than a slightly quicker 3.16GHz clock, should also prove a good buy.

 

Cooler: Zalman CNPS8700 NT

 

No-one likes a noisy PC, but it can be a deal-breaker for a Media system which has to run discreetly in your living room. Quiet coolers with innovative heatsinks and large but slowly spinning fans have become widespread over recent years, but the issue I had for this particular configuration was to find a cooler which could operate effectively in the confines of a low profile case. There’s plenty of heatsinks which will fit in a low profile case, but many compensate for lower headroom with smaller, faster and ultimately noisier fans.

Having had a great deal of success in the past with Zalman as a manufacturer of high quality quiet coolers in the past, I turned once again to the Korean manufacturer through its distributor Quiet PC. As luck would have it, the latest CNPS8700 was short enough to squeeze into a low profile case, while providing sufficient cooling for most dual and quad core Socket 775 processors. There are actually two versions of the CNPS8700: LED and NT. I went for the fractionally pricier NT model which features a four-pin PWM header allowing full control from the motherboard.

Like other Zalman heatsinks, the CNPS8700 is pretty hefty and larger than it looks – indeed measuring 120x123x67mm, it only just managed to fit in the case as the PSU is almost pressed up against the edge of the motherboard. There are dimensions and diagrams on the Quiet PC website and I’d recommend anyone with a smaller case examines them carefully to ensure it will fit.

In practice I’m pleased to report the CNPS8700 easily kept the Core2Duo E8400 cool when under load, and was barely audible even from close distance. It was a perfect fit for my low profile configuration, and the downward blowing fan also provided some airflow around the surrounding components.

 

Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-E7AUM-DS2H

 

My choice of motherboard was fairly restricted by the other components: I’d already selected the Intel Core2Duo E8400 processor, wanted to re-use existing DDR-2 memory, while the Moneual 301 case demanded a Micro ATX model. I feared this combination may involve compromise, but found a board that not only exceeded my expectations, but also made me rethink my previous snobbery over integrated solutions.

Gigabyte’s GA-E7AUM-DS2H is a Micro ATX motherboard designed for HTPCs. It’s a Socket 775 model with four slots for DDR-2 memory and integrated graphics, but before the high-performance enthusiasts turn away, consider the chipset in use here: the GA-E7AUM-DS2H employs nothing less than a Geforce 9400. This means DirectX 10 and CUDA support, and crucially for my requirements, PureVideo HD for hardware acceleration of HD content. You can even enjoy SLI by fitting a card, although it has to be a certified Hybrid model and running under Vista.

The GA-E7AUM-DS2H additionally boasts a wealth of external connectivity, including the choice of three video outputs: VGA, DVI and HDMI. This would also allow you to use a case with an internal touch sensitive VGA screen, although note your main display would need to be digital as the DVI output is digital only (DVI-I) and can’t be adapted to deliver analogue VGA.

At the time of writing, my GA-E7AUM-DS2H is connected to an older analogue HD projector through its VGA port and is performing admirably. I’ll report back in the future over its HDMI configurations, but in the meantime the GA-E7AUM-DS2H is shaping-up to be one of the best integrated HTPC motherboards to date.

PS – a quick note on cables. High definition signals place quite a strain on analogue VGA cables, with many suffering from ghosting, especially at longer lengths. I’ve tried many different cables with varying success, but can highly recommend those from Blue Jeans Cable, who will ship anywhere in the World.

 

Blu Ray / DVD drive: LG GGCH20L

 

A Blu Ray drive was mandatory for my HTPC, but as someone who originally backed the wrong horse, compatibility with HD-DVD was also essential. Compatibility with both HD formats, along with DVD and CD, pretty much narrows your choice down to two models produced by LG: the GGCH20L and the GGWH20L.

Both models are essentially identical, except the latter can record Blu Ray discs, whereas the former can only read them. Both can still record DVDs and CDs though. Since I didn’t need to write Blu Ray discs, I saved some cash and went for the cheaper GGCH20L.

There’s not a lot to say about it, other than noting it’s a Serial ATA drive and like most Blu Ray drives, longer than an average DVD model; as such owners of smaller cases or models which press the optical drive against the edge of the motherboard should ensure there’s sufficient room.

Oh yes, one other thing: I could easily boot from an OS installation disc using this Serial ATA drive, but depending on your motherboard and the Serial ATA configuration, you may need to scroll down to the bottom of a long list of ‘First Boot Devices’ in the BIOS Setup pages before finding a specific reference to the LG drive. If you simply choose the generic optical or DVD drive from the top of the list, you could be pulling your hair out wondering why nothing is happening. That one had me fooled for ages.

 

Hard disk: Samsung SpinPoint HD753LJ

 

The two most important requirements for an HTPC hard disk are capacity and noise – unless you’re streaming, you’ll want plenty of local storage for those big files, but you’ll also want them delivered with the minimum of whirring and clicking.

Everyone has their favourite hard disk manufacturer, and for me it was Seagate for a long while. With quiet operation in mind though, a colleague persuaded me to give Samsung a try and so far I’ve been very impressed with its 500 and 750GB models.

I’ve selected the larger of the two for this project: the SpinPoint HD753LJ, although like other 750GB drives it can generate a fair amount of heat. Those with cooling issues may prefer the 500GB version.

Out of the box both disks ran quietly without any audible clicking, although Samsung’s ‘ES Tool’ utility can set the Acoustic Management to run more quietly still. I didn’t feel the need to try this, although I did use the ES Tool to reclaim the full capacity of a Samsung drive for a separate RAID project; it runs in DOS mode from a bootable floppy or CD.

 

Memory: Crucial DDR2 PC2-6400 2GB kit (1GB x 2)

 
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For many years now I’ve been using Crucial memory without complaint. Its online Memory Advisor Tool will tell you exactly what RAM will work for a specific motherboard, laptop or pre-built system, and recommend the maximum or best value configurations.

I re-used an existing 2GB kit consisting of a pair of 1GB PC2-6400 modules, which is more than sufficient for an HTPC running Windows XP MCE 2005, although Vista and Windows 7 owners may benefit from having more.

Remember Microsoft’s 32-bit desktop operating systems will only be able to use a maximum of around 3.2GB though, so install any more and it will effectively be redundant. That said, the benefits of dual-channel access means four 1GB modules or two 2GB modules remain an ideal configuration for overall value and performance. If you’d like to exploit more than 3.2GB though, you’ll need to use a 64-bit OS. While Vista and Windows 7 are readily available in 64-bit versions, remember you’ll also need 64-bit drivers for your hardware, which may not be practical for all HTPC configurations. The moral is to research your proposed hardware (and application) configuration before committing to a 64-bit OS.

 

Power supply: Corsair HX 520

 

Completing the system is the power supply, but even though we’ve already chosen the ‘exciting or glamorous’ components, it’s important not to skimp here or just go for any model. Having the right power supply can ensure your system runs smoothly, efficiently and quietly. For my particular configuration, I re-used an existing fanless model, but if I were building from scratch I’d go for the same power supply currently housed in my main office PC: the Corsair HX 520.

While 520 Watts is much more power than my HTPC configuration consumes, it’s important to remember a PC power supply only draws what it needs and runs at its most efficient roughly halfway through its rated range.

So let’s say a system consumes 250 Watts when running at full load. You could deliver this with a 300 Watt PSU, or even a 250 Watt model at a push, but both will be struggling and running very inefficiently. In contrast, 250 Watts is a doddle for a 500 Watt PSU, which will deliver the required current stably and efficiently. And because it’s not working anywhere near as hard, it’ll generate less heat and run more quietly.

In my ‘Why Power Supplies Matter’ article I found switching to the Corsair HX 520 reduced the power consumption of my office PC by 10%, while also running cooler and more quietly. A win-win situation, and considering a decent PSU hardly costs the Earth, it’s simply not worth skimping.

 

The story so far...

At the time of writing, the configuration described above has been running happily with a Windows XP MCE 2005 test installation, although I’ve also popped Windows 7 on a second disk to see how it compares. These are part of a longer evaluation period where I nail-down the software configuration, including the operating system, drivers and video playback programs. Once I’m happy with this final setup, I’ll write a follow-up article fully describing it.

In the meantime if you’d like to discuss the choice of components above, or you’ve built a Media PC / HTPC of your own, we’d love to hear all about it in the forum!


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

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