How-To: Build a Home Theater


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Please note: I came across this How-To on a site I regularly visit. I did not write this How-To nor can I take credit for any of its content.

It took me a long time, but I finally built a full-featured Home Theater PC (HTPC). An HTPC is a computer that manages your entertainment center, centered around the television, that provides TV show recording, movie watching, and anything a hungry television needs from a single device. Once someone has a big screen TV, powerful Receiver, surroundsound speakers and a subwoofer, eventually they will want to build up on that. Stacking on a VCR, DVD player, MP3 player, and Tivo can get very crowded. Those people may want to build up their home theater system to provide DVD movie playing, MP3 music, and record & play shows. Some people want a few things out of their home theater, some people want a lot. I wanted a HTPC that would provide a lot more than what most people have. Here is what I wanted a HTPC to do for me:
Allow me to watch live TV (of course).
Provide Tivo/ReplayTV like features of pausing live TV, digitally recording TV shows, enhanced TV listings and show searches, and an ability to watch a recorded show while recording from live TV.
A DVD player for watching DVD movies, in surroundsound of course.
Play Divx/Xvid AVI movies on my TV.
MP3 music playing.
Local area network (LAN) access.
Internet access from my TV, allowing me to check email and weather from my couch.
Wireless keyboard and mouse, and a powerful remote control.
Playstation-like game playing, with great 3D graphics and games.
Ability to link up a firewire video camera or USB digital camera to my TV.
Prefer the computer to be extremely small so it fits in my entertainment center, and hopefully portable so I could load up a couple DVD/Mpeg2 or Xvid/Divx AVI movies on the hard drive and bring over to friends' houses for movie watching on their TV.
That is a lot of things to ask for. Could I do it under $1000 ? I was able to build a HTPC that gave me ALL of these things, all for around $650.

I have wanted to build a machine like this for almost a year, and whenever a hot deal came up on a part that I thought I might need, I purchased it, and stored it away until I had enough parts to build the machine. Some parts were purchased as hot deals, some were purchased at full price. Now on to the parts that I used to build my HTPC:
CPU: A Home Theater PC doesn't need the fastest processor available, I would suggest getting at least 2.4GHz because the price difference between 1.8GHz and 2.4GHz is negligible. I picked up a Pentium4 Celeron 2.6GHz retail chip for $120 from Newegg. I could have purchased a Pentium4 2.4GHz CPU which would have given faster processing power, but figured a fast Celeron would suffice while saving me money. Besides, I can always upgrade to a Pentium4 3GHz chip in a year when they drop to under $100.

Wireless Keyboard & Mouse: I suggest the Logitech Cordless Elite Duo. It is a very nice wireless keyboard & mouse package that can be found for around $50 today. I got it for $32 in January.

Memory: I suggest at least 256MB of RAM. Memory is so cheap these days, you can find 256MB 333MHz memory for around $50 or less. I ended up getting a 256MB module for $32 in March (splitted a pair of 256's with a friend).

Hard Drive: The bigger the better. 7200rpm is recommended. I ended up using a Western Digital 120GB 8MB-cache drive that I found last year from Dell for $69. If you use a hard drive greater than 120GB, make sure your motherboard's IDE controller can handle big drives.

CD/DVD drive: Any old CD-ROM drive will do. If you want to play DVD movies, you will need a DVD-ROM drive. CD-ROM drives can be found for around $20, and DVD-ROM drives for around $35 (such as a Lite-On 16x DVD-ROM drive for $34 from Newegg).

Case & Motherboard: The case is the most important and complicated decision you will have to make depending on what you want this HTPC to do. I wanted a computer case that was as small as powerful, preferably portable. A standard ATX case, even a mid-tower, would be way too big for my HTPC. What I quickly realized is that cases this small always come with the motherboard built-in. Since the computer is so small, motherboards that size are very difficult to find, and the ports on the case would have to match the motherboard exactly, so the motherboards come with the case. Examples of some great HTPC cases are:
Shuttle, which has many different kinds of tiny cube PC's. Shuttle cases come highly rated by most HTPC builders, and Shuttle has been in the tiny PC business for a while. Shuttle even makes a carrying bag that fits their cases. There are many different models of Shuttle XPC. review1, review2, review3, review4, review5
Antec has slimline cases, such as the Fusion, without any built-in motherboard. An ATX motherboard would have to be added. This would make a home theater unit about the size of a ReplayTV or Tivo. I would only recommend a case like this if your desired device must be low in height while width & depth do not matter, otherwise I would recommend one of the cubes.
AMS makes the Gbox. It's a cube machine that has a built-in handle on top. It has onboard Optical SPDIF in & out, onboard video, and LAN. I ultimately decided on this case for my HTPC mainly because I liked the handle. And this model actually lights up blue through the side windows, which looks very cool. Some older models do have S-Video and Composite outputs, but the newer ones do not. I amost wished I purchased an older model, because I was unable to do any TV output until I got a AGP card with TV-Out. They also have a brand new E-Cube that is coming out soon. AMS has lots of different kinds of computers with identical model numbers, so finding out exactly which one you will get is very difficult. Some have built-in S-Video output and some come with a DVI AGP video card. The one I got from Newegg had no onboard S-Video output and no DVI AGP card, which isn't so bad because a $50 AGP card can be purchased to get great 3D graphics and good TV output. review1, review2, review3, review4
MSI Mega PC. Looks very nice, with an optional TV Tuner capability, a volume control on the front, built-in radio tuner, flash card reader, a remote control, built-in modem, LAN, optical SPDIF, etc. review1, review2, review3, review4
ECS EZ Buddie. Looks a lot bigger than the small cube machines from AMS, Shuttle, and MSI. review1, review2
When looking at cases for home theater use, I would strongly recommend looking at the audio and video capabilities that come with the unit. A computer that small will have very few available card slots, so the more you pack into the motherboard, the better. I strongly recommend finding a case that has the following on the board:
SPDIF Optical digital 5.1 channel audio output. Try to get SPDIF Optical instead of SPDIF Coaxial.
VGA Output
S-Video Output
100 Mbit LAN
Most people would want a "Socket 478" Pentium4-compatible system that supports 1.8 GHz and above Intel processors. Most of those cases do have SPDIF outputs. I would suggest making sure it has Optical SPDIF, since most Receivers have Optical ports, and since Optical cables are much cheaper than Coaxial digital cables. One thing to note though, most cases do not have S-Video output, meaning you will have to get a AGP card that has S-Video output if you want your HTPC to run on your TV.

Based on your decision of the case, that will determine what kind of cards you will have to purchase. Keep in mind that most of the cube cases have only one AGP slot and one PCI slot, so choosing your cards must be done with some thought.

Video Input: If your case/motherboard does not have video capture capabilities (most do not have vid capture), you will need a card to do so. I suggest either the Hauppauge PVR-250 or the Adaptec VideOh USB2 external device. If you choose to use the onboard audio, I would recommend the Hauppauge PVR-250 PCI Card, otherwise get the Adaptec external device then get a Creative Labs Audigy2 PCI card for superb audio capabilities. I figured that my onboard audio was sufficient, and I filled my only PCI slot with a Hauppauge PVR-250 video capture card. The card normally costs $150, I found it for $100 recently from CircuitCity. The card even came with a very nice remote control whose buttons can be mapped to keystrokes.

I strongly suggest getting one of these two devices because they eat up the least amount of CPU, have hardware Mpeg encoding capabilities, and have good drivers that are supported by a lot of TV Software. I heard some extremely bad things about using a ATI card for video capture. I heard they are great only when you are watching live TV on the screen at that moment, but it doesn't work well when recording in the background. If one of the primary duties of the machine will be TV recording, stay away from ATI for video capture.

Video Card: If you want 3D video for playing games, you will need an AGP card because no onboard video will do 3D well. If your case does not have S-Video output, then you definitely need an AGP card that has S-Video output for your TV. I picked up a Sapphire Radeon Atlantis card that has TV Output, VGA output, and great 3D support from, where they had very good prices on a variety of Sapphire Atlantis cards. I picked up the Sapphire Radeon 9000 Atlantis AGP VIVO card that has both Composite Out and S-Video Out, for $59. The Radeon does support video input as well, but I bypassed its video capture drivers during install and used the Hauppauge drivers instead. I decided to get a Radeon card instead of a Nvidia GeForce card because the price/performance ratio of Radeon cards is now better than GeForce-based cards. Additionally, I heard the Radeon cards have slightly better TV output quality than Geforce cards, and that is the most important thing to me. If you have HDTV Cable, Hauppauge has some HDTV compatible cards, but I know nothing about them.

I had two choices on the operating system, Linux or Windows2000. Linux has a nifty little free utility called MythTV which provides Tivo/ReplayTV like features. It has lots of modules available, including support for remotes, music libraries, weather, web, etc. For my HTPC, I decided to go the Windows route for the following reason. I wanted a machine that I could load AVI codecs whenever I want, that would be easy to set up with my onboard digital audio I/O. I could do all that in Linux, but I want this to be a computer providing entertainment most of the time, not a machine that I would need to configure conf files and patch the kernel whenever I wanted to load a new driver.

I installed Windows 2000 SP4, got all the drivers installed, and decided to try SnapStream software. I chose SnapStream after reading a good review on SnapStream runs on Windows and provides all Tivo/ReplayTV functionality on the PC, including pausing live TV, digitally recording TV shows, good TV listings, and the ability to watch a recorded show while recording live TV. And it costs only $70. Snapstream strongly suggests either a Hauppauge PVR-250 card or a Adaptec VideOh external USB2 capture device, because both have powerful hardware Mpeg encoding which free up the CPU to do other things. For example, if you have a regular TV input card, such as an ATI card, it may eat up so much CPU that you really can't do much else while it records TV shows. With my Hauppauge card, I can record a tv show at a very high Mpeg2 quality (7054 kbps or 30min = 1550MB) and my 2.6GHz CPU is only 5% utilized. While recording a tv show and playing a show at the same time, my CPU becomes around 50% to 65% utilized. While recording from TV and playing a Xvid/DivX AVI movie at the same time, my CPU is only around 40% utilized. The hardware Mpeg2 encoding makes my HTPC run so fast at anything I throw at it. Its responsiveness at key commands is so much faster than my ReplayTV, its recording quality is better, and I can multitask several things at once without a hiccup.

I like the Snapstream software a lot. Purchasing the software comes with lifetime TV listings, so the $70 pretty much got me a full ReplayTV/Tivo with lifetime "service". SnapStream also has new cool features, such as non-Mpeg2 recording can broadcast live TV over a LAN or Internet. It has a 30-second quick-skip feature and a 7-second back feature, just like the feature found in original ReplayTV's and new Tivo's, which I really love because it instantly jumps 30-seconds in the future or 7 seconds back. Quickly jumping 30-seconds forward is great, because when commercials start, I hit the button 4-6 times and the commercials are over in a second. My brother tried the non-Mpeg2 streaming broadcast feature at his home, by tuning it to CNN, then logged in to his PC from work, and was able to watch about a 500 kbps live video stream of CNN. Although people with hardware Mpeg2 encoding cards (such as Hauppauge cards) will not support the streaming broadcast feature, the recorded tv shows can be copied directly to a CD-R or DVDR because they are already in Mpeg2 format, assuming the bitrates and resolutions match the VCD specs. That means I can actually record a TV show directly to Mpeg2 and burn it right onto a Video CD (VCD). Of course because my HTPC is linked to my LAN, I can keep recorded shows on other computers and even play them on any other computer in my house. I hooked my coax cable TV directly into the Hauppauge card, which it can change channels with its cable-ready tuner. At some point I will try a IR Blaster which would let my Hauppauge card change channels on my cable converter box, then I would use the coax cable from the cable box to the Hauppauge card. The IR Blaster is definitely something I will explore soon, since channels 2-99 are basic non-scrambled cable channels, and my cable box gives me channels 100-450 including 25 subscribed movie channels, which I would like my HTPC to support via the cable box.

If you already have a ReplayTV or Tivo that you want a HTPC to replace, then I strongly recommend the Snapstream software because it will give you the almost the same functionality that you've learned to love. If you never had a ReplayTV/Tivo, you may just enjoy the simple recording software that comes with your TV Capture card. If you want more information about Snapstream software, see the TomsHardware review and

Note that some video capture cards come with their own TV recording software, so you might want to look at them first before spending $70 on Snapstream.

Remember, consider that your HTPC's card slots are very limited. If you want the best quality sound, get a Creative Labs Audigy2 PCI card, then either use a AGP video in&out card or use the Adaptec VideOh USB2 external TV capture device.

After my first Snapstream recording, I was not impressed with the quality of the video. But when I reconfigured the software to use better quality video compression, I truly cannot see the difference between the live tv signal from my cable box and a recorded show from Snapstream. The quality of the compressed video has a lot to do with the capture card and its drivers, so people that don't use a Hauppauge card may have results worse than what I see.

So after lots of hard work and research, the project is finally done, and its price tag:
Intel Pentium4 Celeron 2.6GHz for $120
Logitech Cordless Elite Duo for $32
256MB 333MHz memory for $32
120GB hard drive for $69
DVD-ROM drive for $35
AMS Gbox CF-968L silver-color case for $236
Hauppauge PVR-250 card for $100 (assuming I get my $50 rebate)
Sapphire Radeon 9000 Atlantis AGP 64MB VIVO for $59
Snapstream software $70
Total cost of the machine was $624.

To build a HTPC you should prepare to spend over $700. I spent a little less, but I collected parts from good deals over a long period of time. Even after you have all the parts, you will need a lot of time to set it up. Putting a CPU, DVD-ROM, hard drive, and two cards inside a tiny cube box is not easy. You must have a steady hand and understand that you will be working in a very tiny space. When installing the receiver for the Logitech Elite Duo, make sure you only use the USB plug and not plug in both the USB plug and the round PS2 plug at the same time, then go into your system's BIOS and make sure USB Keyboard support is enabled, even if the USB keyboard already works without it enabled. Getting the Hauppauge drivers to work with Snapstream was painful, but all other drivers installed smoothly. I had to un-install and re-install the Hauppauge drivers a few times before the drivers and Snapstream were both happy. The Hauppauge drivers will conflict with any existing Intervideo codec's or software already on the machine, so you must uninstall anything made by Intervideo (including WinDVD) before installing the Hauppauge from CD. I had a spare 15" LCD monitor handy that I could use to configure the computer. You must hook up the HTPC to a monitor to set it up first and configure the TV Output drivers. An interesting thing about the Sapphire Radeon 9000 TV-Out card, it automatically detects whether you have an S-Video cable or a Composite cable plugged in to the card, even if the other end of the cable is not hooked up to anything. Both S-Video and Composite TV-Out ports cannot be used at the same time, but VGA and TV-Out can. My 36" Toshiba TV had lots of problems with the S-Video signal, and it took me a while after swapping out cables and adjusting settings, eventually the TV looks decent at using an 640x480 downgraded to NTSC. It's obvious that the computer resolution is being downgraded because small text is blurry and difficult to read.

If all you want is the ability to record and watch tv shows and watch DVD movies, I suggest getting a Tivo or ReplayTV along with a standalone DVD player because it's so much easier to set up and will be much cheaper. Even after I had all the parts, it still took me several days to get all the software installed, configured, and driver issues worked out, and I am a pro at building PC's. If you call yourself a professional at building PC's, then building an HTPC would actually be a little challenging for you. If you have built computers from parts less than 5 times, you may find the HTPC project may take you weeks. I really like my HTPC and after carrying it to my friends' houses for movie watching, I think they are now building one for themselves. Another benefit of having a small portable machine that I can carry around, I have a large rooftop deck that can hold 50 people, I can set up a white sheet on the wall and hook up my HTPC to my Infocus X1 projector via VGA connector, and play movies at true 800x600 resolution on a 100" widescreen image. I could have brought up a DVD player and used S-Video, but the ability to use the computer's VGA output for viewing a TV show or a movie to a big screen display device (a projector in this case) via a VGA connector, provides 50 times better quality than using S-Video. In fact, if you have a true HDTV television, it may already have a VGA or DVI connector that you can hook directly up to the HTPC, which will utilize the great HDTV image quality.