The correct choice of HTPC hardware is the cornerstone of future success.
HTPC systems differ from each other in many aspects, including capabilities, size, or price. Without proper planning and right choice, you’re at risk of spending too much money on getting what you don’t actually want.
Below is the short classification of HTPC types with their pros and cons.
A single-board computer (SBC) is a full-featured PC built on a single circuit board. Today’s most known example is various Raspberry Pi models.
If an SBC has a graphics card and a video output, it can be used for HTPC tasks.
Pros of using a single-board PC as an HTPC:
- Low costs: basically, you need to buy only the board itself and a memory card for OS (power adapter is desirable but optional, as well as USB flash drive, external HDD, etc).
- Small size: board itself is only several inches in size, it can be easily placed anywhere.
- Silence: boards have passive cooling system and no moving parts;
- Energy efficiency: RPi consumes well below 10W under load, other SBCs are pretty much the same.
- Easy to install free software: there’s a number of ready-made HTPC-oriented operating systems (LibreELEC, moOdeaudio, OSMC, OpenELEC, Pimusicbox, Rasplex, Runeaudio, Volumio, Xbian), with installation procedures as simple as writing the downloaded binary image on a memory card.
- Limited models: Raspberry Pi boards are the most popular ones, well supported and tested for HTPC requirements; other boards receive much less attention both from devs and users.
- No upgrades: it’s practically impossible to upgrade an SBC, except to attach some additional modules (e.g. a WiFi module or analog audio output).
- Linux only: single-board PCs are currently the realm of Linux (although some SBCs can run RISC OS, BSD or Windows IoT, these OSes a hardly of any use for an HTPC now).
- Limited software: practically, the choice is pretty much limited with several ARM Linux distros and the above-mentioned readymade systems (also Linux-based).
- Sub-par video quality: the resulting picture is hardly any better than on smartphones or SMART TV players because the boards are simply not powerful enough for any advanced video processing features. Besides, hardware decoding capabilities of SBC are rather limited, and its CPU may be too weak for software decoding. In other words, you may well come across a media file that your SBC can’t play.
- Not universal: it’s hardly possible to use an SBC as a general-purpose PC even though it’s technically possible to attach a keyboard and mouse to it.
PC with Integrated GPU
Majority of today’s CPU chips (both Intel and recent AMD) have a graphics card inside and don’t need an external GPU to work as an HTPC.
Generally, such an HTPC can be built in two flavors: with either an onboard CPU or a socketed CPU.
Motherboards with onboard CPU
Onboard CPU is soldered directly to the motherboard and therefore is not replaceable. It often has a passive heatsink because soldered CPUs are generally cooler (and less powerful) than their “normal” socketed counterparts.
However, onboard variant less expensive than buying a socketed board, a CPU and a cooler separately.
Such motherboards mostly come in mini-ITX form-factor. Many of them have no PCI-E x16 slot, and even if there’s such a slot, it has only 8, 4, or even 2 physical PCI-E lanes, depending on CPU model. That is, these boards are not well suited for a discrete GPU.
Motherboards with socketed CPU
These motherboards have a special slot (socket) for a CPU. That is you have to buy a CPU and a cooling system separately. It also means that later you will be able to upgrade CPU, cooler, or both.
Socketed boards come in any size, from mini-ITX to ATX and anything in between. Number of expansion slots varies, but nearly all boards today have at least one PCI-E x16 slot for GPU, with all 16 physical lanes.
Pros of integrated GPU:
- Universality: such an HTPC is, in essence, a “normal” desktop PC, which can be used for many tasks besides video and audio playback.
- Silence: it’s not hard (though expensive) to build a completely silent HTPC without sacrificing playback quality.
- Flexibility: you can use Windows or Linux or both, with a lot of different software to choose from.
- Upgrade: with some caveats, most parts can be upgraded or exchanged.
- Fairly small size: it’s possible to build a relatively small and silent HTPC with a mini-ITX motherboard with onboard CPU, an M.2 SSD, and a Pico-PSU.
- Fairly efficient: it normally takes less than 100W under load, and like 10W in standby.
- Expensive: compared to single board computers above.
- Fairly large size: again, compared to SBC above.
- Average picture quality: actually, hardware decoding in desktop CPU is pretty much the same as in SBC boards (and, for example, smartphones, for that matter) and integrated GPU is simply not powerful enough to do any advanced image processing in real time. However, if hardware decoding of certain media files in GPU fails, CPU may go on with software decoding.
A note about notebooks and small form-factor PCs (Intel NUKs and the like) since they’re often considered as an alternative to SBC boards and desktop PCs. And they are — with some caveats.
Physically, a notebook or a PC box can go well as an HTPC. Also, these things are small, silent, flexible and low-power.
However, they’re much more expensive than SBC boards, and often even more costly than desktop HTPCs with IGP.
With all that, their playback quality is hardly much better than that of SBC or IGP. Shortly, notebooks and PC boxes just don’t pay off well if used for HTPC tasks only.
PC with Discrete GPU
HTPC with discrete GPU is normally built on a socketed motherboard. It means you will have to buy CPU, cooling system, and a compatible PSU separately.
Pros of HTPC with discrete GPU:
- High-quality video: a discrete GPU is capable not only of hardware decoding but also of high-quality real-time image processing (like Jinc/Ewa-Lanczos, NNEDI3, NGU or RAVU) done with shaders. The more powerful is the GPU — the more sophisticated algorithms it can do.
- Easy upgrade: when any new media features arrive, it often enough to upgrade the graphics card only.
- Universality: actually, it’s a full-featured desktop PC, it can do a lot of things, even video transcoding, gaming or mining.
- Price: an HTPC with integrated GPU is really expensive. Besides, you would probably want to buy costly high quality parts to make your system low noise. Building a silent, i.e. a completely passive thing will be even more expensive. For example, a passive PSU alone costs more than a fully geared Raspberry Pi board. Stylish HTPC cases are very expensive too.
- Energy efficiency: modern cards draw less than 10W when idle, but under load this figure may increase tenfold.
- Size: a GPU (even a low-profile one) with a mATX or ATX board and a powerful PSU require quite a large box.
Well, that’s the moral of the above classification?
On internet forums I often see remarks like “There’s no need for a discrete GPU in HTPC because a Raspberry Pi can do the same.” Nope, quite often it doesn’t.
Actually, the moral is simple: there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, in HTPC building too.