Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Build your own HTPC

I just finishing building a home theatre PC (HTPC). Thought I'd share the specs in case anyone is interested in mooching off all the research I did to pick these components.

It's an Antec Overture case (quiet case) with a Athlon XP 3200 (AMD wins on cost/benefit every time), EPOX 8RDA3+ motherboard (nice motherboard with great features, comes with lots of high quality cables), ATI RADEON 9800 PRO video card (top of the line card, comes with Tivo-like software), Audigy2 ZS sound card (allows up to 7.1 speakers), Seagate 160 SATA Barracuta drive (quiet, high speed drive), Samsung combo drive (black, a quiet drive), and 512MB of Corsair DRAM in two sticks (allows dual channel for increased speed).

Should run beautifully. Entire system was just a bit over $1000. I did need a receiver -- I picked the ConsumerReports highly rated Panasonic SA-HE100 -- to power the speakers, but you might be able to get away without that if you have powered speakers. Connecting the sound card to the receiver is a bit of a pain -- you need special cables to split the signal and convert 3.5mm stereo jacks to RCA male jacks -- so I'd recommend powered speakers if that option is available to you.

Update: Two months later, I'm still working on getting this system configured with the Sony VPL-HS20 projector. The primary problem is that the 9800 PRO All-in-Wonder card seems to barely support component video output, working only in a very few resolutions and often with bad artifacts. In addition, all DVD software players apparently also contain restrictions on using resolutions higher than 540p, but only enforces that restriction when using TV outputs (like S-Video, composite, or component video), not with DVI output. Bizarre. So, I ended up switching the system to use DVI output, which works wonderfully, but requires pulling a DVI cable. In tests, using DVI does resolve all the issues, allowing a wide range of resolutions and providing crisp output.

Update: In early July, I have the system finished and configured. It does work well using the DVI cable. I'm able to use every pixel of the projector (1386 x 788), watch DVDs, watch TV, play music, browse the web, do PowerPoint slideshows, and play games. Unfortunately, the TV recording software bundled with the ATI Wonder card is pretty weak, definitely not as easy to use as Tivo; I may have to replace it with SnapStream. And, although DVDs play beautifully, the bundled software doesn't provide full support for 5.1 speakers, so I may have to upgrade the DVD software as well. But, generally, it's a great system with incredible flexibility.