Building the perfect beast...start of my HTPC project

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Building the perfect beast...start of my HTPC project

Postposted on Thu Jan 17, 2013 6:09 pm

Well, although my Popcorn Hour C-200 content streamer works okay, for what I paid, it never rose to the level of what the company promised. There's been a long-awaited firmware update that's never arrived that was supposed to fix a mediocre UI, the network throughput never matched the original specs (due to CPU overhead), and I realized the only way to get what I really wanted was to build a mediacenter PC. I wanted cool, quiet, good performance, stability, and reasonable price. And so the project begins.

Core i3-3225: Yes, I know I could find less expensive CPUs. However, while AMD Trinity CPUs cost a little less, the mainboards that would have been right cost $20 more. At this price, I get the power savings of Ivy Bridge, and Intel HD 4000 graphics, more than enough for what I want. I also get QuickSync and AVX extensions this way.
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Scythe Big Shuriken 2 Rev. B: When you want good cooling, low noise, and a small form factor, this is what you get.

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Intel DH67BL mATX mainboard: On sale at NewEgg in a combo that combined a Rosewill RHRC-11001 HTPC remote, this was hard to beat. About the only thing I could wish for was a USB 3.0 front header, but it isn't serious. HDMI, Intel gig NIC, solid and stable. Also, a bonus is that Intel media boards have a CIR header for an infrared sensor.
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Corsair CX430M modular power supply: Just as I was looking for a great value in a modular power supply, Corsair came up with the CX430M, and NewEgg came up with the Shell Shocker deal for $45 plus a $20MIR. Made by CWT, this should be a great choice for a reasonable price.
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Finding a case for a good price that did I what I wanted wasn't easy. I wanted flexibility going forward, and I wanted it to fit in with the general HTPC theme. In the end, I chose the (most likely to be discontinued nMediaPC 7000B, and bought the accessory 20x2 LCD kit for it. It can fit 120mm fans and comes with two, which I will be quieting with a basic Sunbeam rheostat controller that fits in one of the slot covers and supports two fans.

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CIR infrared receiver: The case has an IR window, specified as "for DIY-ers only". Well, I found a company that sells an infrared receiver that supports Intel's CIR header; it comes with a mounting bracket. I'd rather have internal than the Rosewill receiver, so I'm going to see what I can do to make this work.
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The other items I have on hand. A LiteOn BD-ROM drive coming from my content streamer, a basic hard drive (either a 160GB WD AV drive, or a 250GB Seagate that came out of my ProLiant microserver), and a 2 x 2GB DDR3 kit that I've had lying around. Building shall begin this weekend; I plan to use Windows 7 x86, with XBMC loaded on top; just waiting for a few last-minute bits and pieces to arrive.
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Re: Building the perfect beast...start of my HTPC project

Postposted on Thu Jan 17, 2013 6:22 pm

That's not a bad looking case for an HTPC. It looks pretty similar to the SS Grandia I'm using though nMedia seem to have sacrificed GPU cooling and airflow to make the CPU socket more open; Probably a good thing for anyone planning on using the IGP.

Watch the fan bearings on those slim Scythe fans We bought 18 of them as part of a renderfarm upgrade to Sandy/Ivy i7's; All 18 scythe fans needed replacing within 12 months because the hubs leak oil, without fail. Some died within a couple of months.
I thought it was just a bad batch but apparently the internet seemed to agree that the extra slim Scythe sleeve-bearing fans are total junk.

Oh, and Scythe went bust, possibly because their dubious fans let down their awesome heatsinks!
Anyway, if vertical clearance is an issue with replacement fans, as it was for me in 2U cases, I eventually found a 15mm high Yate-Loon model with ball-bearings that should last for years of 24/7.
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Re: Building the perfect beast...start of my HTPC project

Postposted on Thu Jan 17, 2013 6:48 pm

Scythe USA went bust, as I understand it; Scythe Japan is still alive, I believe.

Scythe fans vary. There are models I wouldn't buy, but their S-Flex (Sony fluid dynamic bearing, now renamed the Kama Flow 2) and Gentle Typhoon (Nidec double-ball bearing) fans are incredible. The Gentle Typhoons are some of the best-built fans I've ever seen, and the S-Flex models didn't move the same air but are quiet and long-lasting, and both lines come in multiple RPM/airflow/noise levels. If I wasn't on a budget, I might look for the low-speed Kama Flow 2's for this case (I may still down the line, FrozenCPU still stocks them last I checked). I would agree that some Scythe products (fan controllers, for example, and the Slipstream fans) aren't great. As for heatsinks, this is about the only high-rated low-profile heatsink I've found; other Scythe heatsinks are decent, but I think their tower units are outclassed by competitors either on price or performance.

I'm not sure I'll keep the fan from the Big Shuriken, but I've also got things set up so that I could probably run the CPU fanless if I need, as the nMedia case fans will create a cross-flow over the heatsink. Alternately, I may have just enough space to do a quiet 120x25mm fan instead, I'll have to measure.
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Re: Building the perfect beast...start of my HTPC project

Postposted on Thu Jan 17, 2013 7:06 pm

You've already bought the Scythe heatsink I think, so you may not want to do this because you'll hate yourself but...try running the Intel heatsink fan at 12V just to see what the maximum possible noise could be (it will be lower most of the time in use because of PWM control.) Intel stock heatsink fans are very quiet ever since 45nm CPUs, they just aren't great for overclocking. You may be pleasantly surprised.
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Re: Building the perfect beast...start of my HTPC project

Postposted on Thu Jan 17, 2013 7:21 pm

The hardware seems to be the easy part. The hard part now comes in software selection. Everyone has their favorites, but I'm curious to see what you go with.

I recently added a BD player to my HTPC, and little did I know that I was going to pay anywhere from $60-90 just for BD playback. PowerDVD 12 Ultra or Totalmedia Theater 5 are the only ones usually recommended*, but after going BD, I found myself rather unimpressed with its IQ on my 42" plasma sitting 11' away from the screen.

Good luck with the build ! I enjoy the various HTPC builds going on around here just to see how others use their HTPC.
Last edited by Captain Ned on Thu Jan 17, 2013 8:29 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Building the perfect beast...start of my HTPC project

Postposted on Thu Jan 17, 2013 8:13 pm

Walkintarget, ***************************************************************************

I don't have a huge need for Blu-Ray playback (most of my media is stored on my server) but on the occasion when someone brings a BR disc over I'd like to be able to play it.
Last edited by Captain Ned on Thu Jan 17, 2013 8:30 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Reason: EDIT BY MOD - Captain Ned - Discussion of bypassing BD encryption is a Forum Rule 1 violation.
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Re: Building the perfect beast...start of my HTPC project

Postposted on Thu Jan 24, 2013 8:34 am

This is looking good. I'm planning on upgrading the HTPC this spring, so I'm following your journey with keen interest.

I currently run an older (much older!) nMedia case that has been the source of a long term love/hate relationship. Please let us know your experiences with the new hotness.
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Re: Building the perfect beast...start of my HTPC project

Postposted on Fri May 10, 2013 8:26 pm

Well, it's been a long time since I opened this thread. I had a lot of downtime where I couldn't get to this.

And then, I was at Sam's Club the other night, and for $29.99, found this bargain:

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Logitech K400R wireless keyboard/touchpad combo. Perfect for finishing this project and for times when the remote on its own isn't enough. With the SO out tonight, I pulled my content streamer, and put the box in place.

The case is a little large. On the plus side, it allows full-height cards; if I want a Ceton PVR card at some point, I can do it. It's ultra-quiet, and I'm very happy with that. Performance is great using just the Core i3 and the HD4000 graphics. I just installed XBMC 12.2 (Frodo), and just looking at it, I can see it's the perfect choice for a media center front-end, though I may change the default skin.

The Logitech keyboard is a bargain; if you have a membership and need a modest keyboard for a bit of wireless work, I highly encourage it. For $30, it's not the end-all be-all device, but for what I paid, it's great. I only need a ten foot range, and it's just fine for that.

The Rosewill IR remote works fine, though I'd prefer larger buttons. I haven't installed any drivers; I may have to, as the one thing I'd love is if there were on-screen overlays for volume and a few other things (though that may be expecting too much, I don't know if that will be an option).

At any rate, I consider this project a success. Picture and playback quality and smoothness beat my former Popcorn Hour C-200 easily, and should work great for years to come.
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Re: Building the perfect beast...start of my HTPC project

Postposted on Sat May 11, 2013 3:55 am

So if I may ask: what are the issues you had with the C200? I've been eyeing off the A400 as a possible (relatively) cheap (and certainly easier than building my own) media playback device, but if there are problems with the C200's playback and there's no reason to believe they've been resolved in the later hardware...

Main issue is that I have a bit of stuff in interlaced VC-1, which isn't handled well by open source software (VLC, Handbrake, etc.) - converting it all to H.264 would be ... painful. The Popcorn Hour does play it, though, hence my query.
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Re: Building the perfect beast...start of my HTPC project

Postposted on Sat May 11, 2013 10:05 am

sjl wrote:So if I may ask: what are the issues you had with the C200? I've been eyeing off the A400 as a possible (relatively) cheap (and certainly easier than building my own) media playback device, but if there are problems with the C200's playback and there's no reason to believe they've been resolved in the later hardware...

Main issue is that I have a bit of stuff in interlaced VC-1, which isn't handled well by open source software (VLC, Handbrake, etc.) - converting it all to H.264 would be ... painful. The Popcorn Hour does play it, though, hence my query.


The C200 had an average interface; it didn't stand up to the "Can your wife work this?" test, though any techie could. I had less issues with it that some, but there were audio decoding issues for some people, and some movies had voice/video sync issues. The vaunted gigabit Ethernet never got more than 100TX rates due to Sigma Designs issues (the NIC was part of their processing setup). Popcorn Hour has promised to eventually update its firmware to match the interface of the new C300/C400 devices, but they're having so many bug-squashing issues with those that I don't see that coming down the pike soon. They blamed a lot of it on their ability to work with Sigma Designs programming people --however, they are still using Sigma processors, so if that's their issue, it hasn't changed their methods, and IMO, it's their product, not Sigma's. From what I've read on the C300/C400, I wouldn't touch them; nice in concept, poor in practice. Actually, I wouldn't spend more than $100 for any off-the-shelf system, I'd probably get something like Western Digital's or something like that if I was going out-of-box. Then I wouldn't be so disappointed if it didn't live up to my expectations; the C-200 was a $299 box, and for that, you're close to basic HTPC territory.

Building my own system means I have more control over fixing issues. I can fool around with video codecs and drivers. I can choose the interface I want, be that Windows 7 Media Center or XBMC. As much as I wanted a "don't-mess-with-it" device, I found that most content streamers purported to be high quality (e.g., Popcorn Hour, Dune, etc.) had complaints about lack of firmware support that made them not as good as advertised; with the proper HTPC, I can beat that.

One bug I'm currently having; in the middle of video playback, I'm getting audio stuttering via the Intel HDMI out, which can lead to sudden video stutters too. I think it's probably fixable, as this is early days, but I'll need to figure it out. If I hit pause, then play again, the stutter goes away for a time.
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Re: Building the perfect beast...start of my HTPC project

Postposted on Sun May 12, 2013 5:21 pm

Walkintarget wrote:The hardware seems to be the easy part. The hard part now comes in software selection. Everyone has their favorites, but I'm curious to see what you go with.


XBMC for Windows (I haven't tried Linux) is stellar. It has only been a few days, but I'm running Frodo (12.2) and am amazed by its polish. I'm probably going to switch from the standard Confluence skin (which is good, but a little boring) to the Ace skin, which keeps things organized, but adds a little pizzazz.

I probably will have to buy BluRay software if I really want to use it. I'm not sure of how necessary that is, but everything I have read says gives the nod to Arcsoft TotalMedia Theater as integrating the best with XBMC. I may wait until I need it though.

In the meantime, I have a device that looks more professional than my content streamer, and acts like it too. Playback was good on the Popcorn Hour, but seems more fluid, and color reproduction seems better on my guilt system. The box remains whisper-quiet. The LCD is just for show really, but adds a very professional look to it.

These are horrible pictures (cell phone camera, compounded by a flash that picks up a ton of dust that doesn't show when looking at the unit here, but here's the basic idea. My Tivo Premier XL is on top of the system.

Image
Image
Image
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Re: Building the perfect beast...start of my HTPC project

Postposted on Sun May 12, 2013 7:20 pm

And a final picture of the main screen (Ace theme) on my 42" Panasonic TH-42PX75U plasma TV, which has been an excellent unit for me.

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Re: Building the perfect beast...start of my HTPC project

Postposted on Sun May 12, 2013 7:58 pm

LoneWolf15 wrote:The C200 had an average interface; it didn't stand up to the "Can your wife work this?" test, though any techie could. [...] I'd probably get something like Western Digital's or something like that if I was going out-of-box. Then I wouldn't be so disappointed if it didn't live up to my expectations; the C-200 was a $299 box, and for that, you're close to basic HTPC territory.
Thanks. I actually do have a WD Live; I'm very unhappy with it. The user interface, to be polite, is clunky; from what I'm reading here (and what I've seen elsewhere on the 'net), the Popcorn Hour suffers from similar issues, even if it is a little less clunky (and at two or three times the price, it flipping well BETTER be.) Sure, I'm a techie, I can deal with it ... but I don't want to deal with that sort of stuff; I get enough of it at work.

It's a crying shame that there isn't a nice, simple, "set and forget" media streaming device out there; I blame the film studios and their ilk for crippling that market before it even formed. It'll happen, I'm sure, eventually ... but in the meantime ...

Thanks again for all the information.
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Re: Building the perfect beast...start of my HTPC project

Postposted on Sun May 12, 2013 8:28 pm

sjl wrote:It's a crying shame that there isn't a nice, simple, "set and forget" media streaming device out there; I blame the film studios and their ilk for crippling that market before it even formed. It'll happen, I'm sure, eventually ... but in the meantime ...

Thanks again for all the information.


Welcome.

Note that XBMC really is "set and forget" once you have done the initial setup, which is really easy. If you want it to be really KISS principle, I'd consider a Raspberry Pi and its XBMC build; your one downside is if you do a lot of optical media, you either need to kludge it in or have a BluRay player.

On Windows, XBMC has some huge advantages, not just in simplicity when installed, but in the ability to be powerful through its add-on system. There are a ton of easy-download add-ons, and then separate ones if you want to go a little more complex. It blows away the interfaces of my D-Link DSM-520 (my first content streamer) and the Popcorn Hour in is flexibility, and it's clear that user-friendliness as a goal as well.

Due to Windows 7 having Media Center built in, there are also other plusses, such as the ability to wake the PC via remote once it goes to sleep, and other commands that a WMC-compatible remote offers native to the OS. XBMC takes good advantage of this. I really had to do very little to get things set up; other than loading the software, I didn't have to do anything more than when I set up the Popcorn Hour.

Finally, there are features the Popcorn Hour didn't have. Huge is that if I press Stop on a video, I can hit play and get an option to resume from where I stopped; not having that was a major gripe for me on the C200.

Are there issues with any of it? Well, rewind is almost too fast in a way, and when you hit play again, it takes a moment for audio to pick up, so I end up rewinding a few seconds before I'd really want to hit play. It's not huge though, and once again, this is the first weekend I've really been playing with the box while hooked to my TV, so I'll probably find a few minor tweaks that might improve things. I'm already happier with its playback than the C200, and I now have control of how I want things to look and work.
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Re: Building the perfect beast...start of my HTPC project

Postposted on Mon May 13, 2013 3:46 am

For anyone that's interested in controlling your HTPC without an additional keyboard, I've been using an iPhone app called "Mobile Mouse." It basically turns the top portion of your iPhone screen into a trackpad and the lower portion into a keyboard. It requires a server application running on the HTPC to work.

It has some drawbacks, you can't use it to click okay to a UAC message, its difficult to drag and drop and it costs about $2, but for most normal HTPC activity its very easy and obviates the need for another gadget.

I've been using it about two months and I like it far more than my wireless keyboard/mouse that I was using before.

I'm in no way affiliated with whoever makes Mobile Mouse. I'm just a happy user.
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Re: Building the perfect beast...start of my HTPC project

Postposted on Mon May 13, 2013 11:26 am

I have a K400 keyboard, the original. I was hoping for two things when they updated it to make it close to perpect.
1) Bluetooth 4.0 option
2)Low power back lighting

Otherwise, it is a great HTPC keyboard & even travel keyboard, for my tablets.
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Re: Building the perfect beast...start of my HTPC project

Postposted on Mon May 13, 2013 1:07 pm

Another satisfied K400 user here, along with a couple other friends who have HTPC setups. The physical construction is a bit flimsy and cheap for a full-time user but for HTPC duty it works great.
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Re: Building the perfect beast...start of my HTPC project

Postposted on Mon May 13, 2013 5:43 pm

+1 for K400.

But I found it absolutely unusable until I disabled the tap-to-click function on the trackpad.
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Re: Building the perfect beast...start of my HTPC project

Postposted on Wed May 15, 2013 8:46 pm

I also like/recommend the K400.

I may have to give XBMC a try. I nearly have this whole WMC thing figured out, so it's time to muck with it. :)
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Re: Building the perfect beast...start of my HTPC project

Postposted on Fri May 17, 2013 9:39 am

LoneWolf15 wrote:Note that XBMC really is "set and forget" once you have done the initial setup, which is really easy. If you want it to be really KISS principle, I'd consider a Raspberry Pi and its XBMC build; your one downside is if you do a lot of optical media, you either need to kludge it in or have a BluRay player.


I don't do a lot of optical media. Or, more accurately, what optical media I do have has somehow managed to find its way onto hard disks, and put itself through transcoders (in the case of DVDs) to H.264 format. It looks like the Pi will handle everything I want to throw at it, now that I've paid for the MPEG2 and VC-1 licenses, but I'm not 100% certain yet (for a couple of reasons); I should know more in a couple of days, when I've had more of a chance to fiddle. Some nuisances here and there with the tagging, but that should be relatively straightforward to deal with.
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Re: Building the perfect beast...start of my HTPC project

Postposted on Fri May 17, 2013 11:50 am

Dposcorp wrote:I have a K400 keyboard, the original. I was hoping for two things when they updated it to make it close to perpect.
1) Bluetooth 4.0 option
2)Low power back lighting

Otherwise, it is a great HTPC keyboard & even travel keyboard, for my tablets.


Bluetooth would be definitely nice (I would love to see more bluetooth keyboards and mice, proprietary dongles suck) but there are a couple of other items I would like to see added as well such as solar charging like the K750 and for the love of God and all that is Holy, a properly spaced and sized left SHIFT key. Whoever thought having to skip over the up arrow to hit the left shift should be shot.

I have a K400 but replaced it with a Motorola tablet keyboard because it has a full sized shift, is bluetooth and overall better built (and better range).

http://www.ebay.com/bhp/motorola-androi ... h-keyboard
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Re: Building the perfect beast...start of my HTPC project

Postposted on Mon May 27, 2013 12:17 pm

Well, I went back to XBMC's default "Confluence" theme. It's good; I like the Ace theme I was using better, but had some strange graphical corruption issues with submenus; I don't know if that's due to display scaling or otherwise.

The only oddity I'm having right now is that if I let the system sleep then go back, there are times when XBMC's menus remain dimmed, as if it had gone to low-brightness mode to protect the TV screen. It still functions during this, and quitting XBMC and running it again resolves the issue. As I said, I'm running the Windows variant; Linux variants may or may not exhibit the same behavior.

I'm still happier with the fluidity and color reproduction of this system over the Popcorn Hour. Note that Intel also released new drivers this May for the HD2500/HD4000 that are meant to tune performance, both in basic gaming and video playback. Alternately, an AMD A6-5400K (Trinity) dual-core can be had for cheap right now and has the Radeon 7540D integrated. If Intel had not fixed some of the issues that surrounded HTPC use from the earlier HD2000/HD3000 line, this is probably what I would have chosen, or I'd have gone with the cheapest i3 and a fanless Radeon 6450 for video, or I'd wait for a desktop version of Kabini, which has AVX baked in.

I did forget one other thing; having the IR in the case did not work out. The nMedia 7000B notes state that the IR window is "for hobbyists only"; that is a real understatement. There isn't enough space behind the window due to case support structure. I ended up breaking the lovely CIR board I bought trying to get it installed, and ended up going with the USB IR receiver that came with the Rosewill remote. The IR window on the case needs to be repositioned; where it is right now makes it worthless.
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