In 2016 I decided to build an HTPC for my Panasonic 50VT60 and Sony HT-CT380 setup. Previously I’d had a Pioneer BDP-140, and then a BDP-450 to play media files from a self-made NAS. But I’ve become disappointed in both because of their somehow unstable work, relatively low-quality video processing, and lack of features. Those players might be performing well with optical discs, but I used their ODD drive rather rarely, anyway. At last, I decided to combine NAS and media player into one piece of equipment, with the best possible media playback, and more advanced options. That’s how my own HTPC build was born.
This article demonstrates how I picked hardware parts. It wasn’t rocket science, only some planning and research.
First, I put down the features I wanted in my future HTPC:
- quality media processing, including high-quality settings of MadVR or mpv;
- enough space for my collection of audio and video;
- at least two HDMI outputs to separate video from audio;
- reliable network capabilities for streaming and downloads;
- fully operational with a remote control, without keyboard or mouse;
- overall size must fit its place in TV stand;
- quiet enough to work at night;
- not too expensive.
Then I drafted a list of hardware that could provide the above features:
- a discrete graphics card for high-quality video processing,
- a motherboard with a PCI-E x16 slot for a discrete GPU,
- a HDD for my media files,
- a SSD for operating system,
- a power supply unit with all required connectors and powerful enough to drive a discrete GPU,
- a case large enough to hold all those parts, and small enough to fit into its place under TV (a 16″ deep and 12″ high niche).
However, I didn’t buy anything until all parts became quite clearly arranged and matched. In other words, I built my HTPC on paper first.
The hardest task was to find an HTPC case that could satisfy my requirements, especially regarding physical dimensions. I took case question as my starting point and made several iterations first searching for a model of appropriate size, and then re-drafting my hardware design to make the case, the inside parts, and my feature list match.
Case: Thermaltake Suppressor F1
The case is an 11x10x13″ cube, and this size suited me perfectly. At the same time, this cube case is large enough accommodate a mini-ITX motherboard, a standard (high-profile) discrete graphics card, a standard ATX power supply, and two 3.5″ HDDs. Besides, it comes together with a huge 200mm front fan, and the price is amazingly inexpensive compared to typical “HTPC cases”.
Graphics Card: Gigabyte GTX 1060 Mini-ITX
Graphics card was the second hardest thing to choose after the case. A discrete GPU is required for quality video processing: some MadVR’s and mpv’s processing features run on GPU, and CPU’s integrated GPUs are simply not powerful enough to run them with high-quality settings. Besides, a discrete graphics card means additional HDMI, DisplayPort, and DVI outputs, and I would need those additional outputs to separate video stream from audio.
I have never been an ATI/AMD fan, and don’t have much experience with ATI/AMD GPUs, so I naturally considered Nvidia for my HTPC. I wanted the latest model at that time with the newest hardware acceleration abilities, with enough shaders and CUDA cores, but not too expensive and power-consuming.
Gigabyte’s GTX 1060 Mini-ITX 3Gb model was a mid-range Geforce card with all the latest GPU capabilities, suitable performance, reasonable power consumption, and the price I was ready to pay. What I liked about that particular model were its small size, only 6W consumption in idle state, and semi-passive cooling system. Later the card turned out to be very good at mining too.
Motherboard: Asrock H110M-ITX
Because of the case and the GPU, my choice of motherboards was narrowed to mini-ITX models with a PCI-E x16 slot. Among them, H110M-ITX was one of the cheapest.
In addition, it supports DDR4 RAM and has a network chip from Intel (I believe that Intel’s network chips work better, that Broadcom’s or Realtek’s ones). Actually, it was the LAN chip, that lured me into buying this particular board.
The board does lack “cool” things like an M.2 slot, or S/PDIF output, or Wi-Fi module, but I didn’t need them anyway.
Processor: Intel Celeron G3900
Since I planned to have a discrete GPU in my HTPC, CPU’s capabilities were not all that important. It was enough for CPU to fit its socket on the mainboard. So I simply chose the cheapest one for 1151 socket: a 2×2.8GHz Intel Skylake. Its “low power” variant (G3900T 35W TDP) was more expensive, and I didn’t want to build any passive cooling systems anyway, because of additional costs and possible issues.
UPD. I’ve upgraded the CPU to Kaby Lake i3-7300. For no particual reason, just because of its newer integrated GPU (I use it for better 4K HEVC and VP9 hardware decoding) and because I always wanted to have a 4GHz CPU… Maybe later I will move it to my working desktop PC or will use it for Dolphin emulator or something.
Processor Cooling: Thermalright Macho 90
The case limited my cooling options. CPU cooler had to be a 140 mm high at most, not too wide, low-noise solution. I decided to search for a tower model, because a tower would make better airflow inside my case, compared to a top-down. Also, I wanted my cooler to have a big low-RPM fan and as many heatpipes as possible.
At last, I chose Thermalright Macho 90: a tower cooler 135 mm high, with a 92mm PMW-driven fan of as low as 800 rpm, and four heatpipes. Its max TDP of 160W (that is 3 times higher than G3900 needed) should ensure that the fan’s RPM would stay low without risk of CPU overheating. The price was relatively high, but the cooler received some positive reviews about its “performance vs noise” ratio.
System Memory: Samsung 8Gb
That was easy. An HTPC hardly needs more than 8Gb (actually, no more than 4Gb or even less — but let’s put some overhead).
Intel G3900 CPU supports DDR4 2133. Asrock H110M-ITX motherboard supports DDR4 DIMM modules. After putting these two and two together, the cheapest DDR4 2133 DIMM at the time was Samsung’s 4Gb piece.
I got two of them, for possible future needs and better dual channel (although it’s hardly important).
Hard Disc: WD Red 2Tb
Actually, that WD Red HDD came from my old NAS.
WD advertises their “Red” series as a “NAS solution”, that they mean compatibility with NAS controllers, reliability under 24/7 load, low noise, power, temperature, and vibration. I don’t know whether those statements are true, but my HDD was fast, cool and dead silent, even under 24/7.
The only downside was that without some tweaks those NAS disks might really work somehow unstable if connected directly to “normal” motherboards. Fortunately, I knew how to tweak the disk (there’re guides on that on the internet) for my HTPC motherboard, and thus saved some good money.
Solid State Drive: Smartbuy S9M 60Gb
Nothing special is required from an SSD to run a typical OS on a typical HTPC. So I simply ruled all old 32Gb models out, and then looked for the cheapest ones among the rest.
Smartbuy, a Taiwanese CD manufacturer, just happened to produce several cheap SSDs at that time, that were noted very positively, primarily due to their Phison controller and MLC memory chips from Toshiba. So I took one of those Smartbuy’s 60Gb pieces.
Power Supply: Seasonic G-360
My HTPC case was designed for a standard ATX-size PSU, Gigabyte recommended a 400W power supply for their GTX 1060 GPU, and I wanted an efficient and low-noise unit.
First, I searched for a passive 400W ATX and found that all suitable passive solutions were quite expensive.
Then I went for an active 400W model with big low-RPM fan and ”80 PLUS“ certificate. Unfortunately, there were not too many alternatives of that kind, but finally, I found a 360-watts Seasonic. Several internet reviews (one, two, three) confirmed its peak load up to 450W, nearly 80% efficiency at 50W, and very low noise level under up to 200W load. Therefore I got that model despite its quite expensive price and non-detachable cables.
Remote Control: Chinese PC Remote
Well, I made shortcuts here. I didn’t went for a universal or any “real” IR remote, neither I messed with USB-CEC adapters.
Instead, I just bought some Chinese IR keyboard from Aliexpress. It has a shape of a remote control and works wirelessly via IR receiver, but technically it’s more of a PC USB keyboard (I will not go into details here). That particular “ATian” model has plenty of keys, and an IR receiver with a cable long enough to plug it into a rear USB port. I bought that keyboard-remote thing, and created shortcuts for the functions I needed to operate my HTPC.
Those who managed to get up to this point might have some questions. Here I answer the most common ones.
Q: Is it the best HTPC that you would recommend to everyone?
A: No, it’s neither the best, nor the smallest, the cheapest, or any other ”the -est“ HTPC, and I’m not going to “recommend” it to everyone. Instead, this is an HTPC that satisfies my own personal wants which I described at the beginning of the article.
Q: Is it possible to build a smaller (cheaper, brighter, etc.) HTPC than yours?
A: Yes, it’s quite possible.
Q: Well, but what about software?
A: HTPC software is a large separate topic, i will cover it in another article.