Ye Olde HTPC gets a long-overdue upgrade

I built my first proper home-theater PC so long ago that I don’t remember exactly when. Five years ago sounds about right, but it was probably even longer. I’d had PCs hooked up to my television before, of course, but that was more along the lines of an S-Video cable running from my primary desktop rather than a custom build meant for the living room. There really wasn’t much point in having a home-theater PC back when my living room shared square footage with my dining room, kitchen, and the Benchmarking Sweatshop, all in a dingy little basement suite you had to crouch down just to get into. Such was the life of an in-debt student fresh from blowing all his money on a six-week post-graduation bike epic across Europe.

Ye Olde HTPC was based on a Pentium 4 2.26GHz processor that wasn’t all that spiffy even at the time. It started with 512MB of RAM and a single Western Digital hard drive. IDE, of course. Graphics horsepower, if you can call it that, was provided by a GeForce FX 5600 cooled by a passive Zalman heatsink. One of Zalman’s massive Reserator water towers kept the processor cool, and I used an ATI Remote Wonder to control everything from the couch. This system was built to be a TiVo substitute, and I picked up a Hauppauge PVR-250 to handle video capture and encoding.

Most of the parts were gathered from what I had lying around at the time, and with a little help from Windows XP, BeyondTV, Winamp, and eventually XBMC, I had myself a pretty sweet home-theater PC. The system wasn’t a gamer by any stretch, but it handled PVR duties and SD video playback with aplomb and had no problem maintaining smooth frame rates with Winamp’s trippy music visualizations. 

The guts of Ye Olde HTPC, complete with a rounded IDE cable

My little HTPC that could was extremely reliable for a system that stayed on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, year after year. I did end up replacing a few dead components here and there, swapping in a new motherboard after some capacitors blew and a fresh PSU after the original passive SilverStone unit started sagging. A sound card was added eventually, as was a second hard drive, and the whole system migrated into a new case somewhere along the way. In an epic feat of endurance, the CPU, memory, graphics card, tuner, and even the original hard drive stubbornly soldiered on from the very beginning.

I suppose that’s why I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that this system was only replaced a few months ago. Right up until mid-February, the lone PC in my living room was running a Pentium 4 processor and a GeForce FX GPU. For a guy who spends his days testing bleeding-edge PC hardware, that’s borderline shameful.

Obviously, I should’ve upgraded sooner. But as the guy who spends most of his waking life knee-deep in PC hardware, the last thing I want to do in my spare time is put together another system. Keeping my desktop rig up to date is already a challenge, and the home theater PC also falls below my notebook and closet file server on the priority list.

This year’s Winter Olympics finally gave me the excuse and motivation I needed. Roughly a bazillion tourists, athletes, media, and associated support staff descended on my fair city, bringing with them obscene lineups, offensive prices, and traffic… everywhere. That’s why I spent the entire time barricaded in my home watching the games on TV like everyone else.

First, I needed some HD. We were hosting a party for the gold medal hockey game, and watching it in anything less than high definition would have been uncivilized. Besides, rumor had it that Lindsey Vonn was pretty hot, and that seemed like the sort of thing I would appreciate in high def. As it turns out, I spent more time drooling over Canadian skier Ashleigh McIvor. But I digress.

The new system’s still naked

I’ve had some grand plans for a custom home-theater PC enclosure for a while now, and since preliminary work on that project had already begun, I decided to skip a case for the new build. TR’s old hard drive test platform was perfectly happy running without a case for years, so the new HTPC would surely be all right. My girlfriend wasn’t crazy about the idea, but the promise of a stealthy custom enclosure quelled her objections to having the guts of a PC strewn across the shelf under the TV.

Once again, I cobbled together a system mostly from parts I had sitting around the lab: a low-power Athlon X2 4850e CPU, Gigabyte 785G motherboard, Caviar Green hard drive, 500W Seasonic PSU, and an X-Fi-based AuzenTech sound card. I have no intention of wandering outside the realm of very casual gaming on this rig, so the 785G’s integrated graphics are more than adequate. A Scythe Ninja cooler sits atop the CPU and barely makes a sound, ensuring that the system as a whole is almost completely silent, even running outside of an enclosure.

If I had a receiver hooked up in the living room, I probably would’ve skipped the sound card completely and used the motherboard’s onboard audio via the S/PDIF or HDMI outputs. But I needed good analog output quality, so a discrete sound card was a must. The X-Fi got the nod over a Xonar purely because I’ve yet to find a DVD-Audio playback app that works more reliably than Creative’s own, which isn’t compatible with the Xonar.

So what about HD? I don’t watch nearly enough television to justify paying for high-def cable, and I’d rather not be tied to my provider’s PVR box. I do, however, have great line of sight to Mt. Seymour, which hosts an antenna that broadcasts several HD channels over the air, including the one that would be handling Olympic coverage. NCIX had a Diamond TV Wonder HD 650 on sale, complete with analog and digital tuners and a bundled MCE remote, so I was set. The original plan was to add this tuner with my existing PVR-250, which I figured should get a chance to keep chugging in this fancy new build as a sort of reward for its years of dedicated service. Unfortunately, the PVR-250 didn’t play nicely with the 64-bit version of Windows 7 that I’d already purchased. I’m an idiot for not checking compatibility beforehand, but the Diamond tuner soon went on sale again, and since the first one seemed pretty solid, I picked up a second. 

The antenna poses on the mantle next to a retired bike frame

The tuners would need an antenna, of course, and the interwebs provided me with all sorts of suggestions for rolling my own. And so I did, with a few coat hangers, some spare wood and wiring from the garage, a balun, and a couple of cheap cake trays from Walmart. The end result works like a charm and looks even more ghetto than the PC itself, but it’ll eventually take up residence out of sight in the attic.

Overall, I’m quite happy with my new home-theater PC. It’s more responsive than the old system, which would occasionally hiccup, and whose Remote Wonder would flake out unless you held it at just the right angle. My girlfriend also finds Windows Media Center much easier to navigate than the combination of BeyondTV and XBMC that ran on the old rig, if only because she can now deal with one interface for everything. I’m reasonably content with MCE, too, but I’d go back to XBMC in a heartbeat if it had PVR capabilities built in. Maybe that’s because I’ve been using versions of XBMC since back when it first appeared as XBMP on the original Xbox. Or maybe it’s because the music visualizations built into MCE look horrifically dated next to even what I was able to run on that original Xbox.

Otherwise, the system has been rock solid and almost completely silent. I did have a few problems with the tuners not recording standard-definition programs correctly if they came right after a high-def recording, but that was quickly fixed by an automatic update. Next on the list is a Blu-ray drive and a wired Xbox 360 remote for Audiosurf, Beat Hazard, and the odd trip down the rabbit hole in American McGee’s Alice. Oh, and that custom enclosure, which I’ll get around to. Eventually.

Comments closed
    • wira020
    • 9 years ago

    Why use 2 PVR card?? I’ve never tried Tv card…

    My ideal HTPC would actually be a Laptop… until I get married of course…

    • alex666
    • 9 years ago

    I posted earlier about the problems I had with PowerDVD on my HTPC system. Well, this past Friday Cyberlink decieded to upgrade my software, then tells me that I need a retail version of the software for the upgrade, the software I had installed was rendered inoperable, and even a re-installation could not fix it. A cluster-**** of the first magnitude. I said the hell with it and went out aq bought a new Sony Blu-Ray player with built-in wireless and geez, life is easier. I really like the Sony with the drive itself plus the streaming features. The price was right, too, and it struck me that the reduced prices of blu-ray players (and some game consoles) may render the HTPC obsolete.

    • Rakhmaninov3
    • 9 years ago

    Would look better online if you had your gf present it like you did with that one power supply roundup of Olde

    😉

    • mcnabney
    • 9 years ago

    Amateurs

    Haven’t heard mention of Media Browser, HDHomerun, or anything related to 1080p/HD audio content.

    A true HTPC is small, quiet and capable. Which means there should be a server tucked away to hold all of the content.

      • burntham77
      • 9 years ago

      The HDHomerun, while difficult and time-consuming to setup sometimes, is a very handy product.

    • ShadowTiger
    • 9 years ago

    I have an idea for a custom enclosure. Assuming that picture is the final location of your HTPC, maybe you can just get a perforated sheet of metal or something and just attach it from above with hinges. That way you still have easy access, its pretty much hides the PC from view, and there is still airflow.

    • burntham77
    • 9 years ago

    I love my HTPC, but I do wish my little house in Las Vegas got a better signal so I could use an antenna to get the local stations in HD. As is I still use cable for that.

    • ZGradt
    • 9 years ago

    Hehe. I remember using a 25 ft. S-Video cable back in the day with a bunch of RCA cables strung together and a TVWonder RF remote. I wish HDMI cables weren’t so damned short. I never did make a real HTPC because I couldn’t stand the interference on the video coming from the TV tuner. Nowadays I just use my Xbox or PS3 networked to my PC.

      • Deanjo
      • 9 years ago

      “I wish HDMI cables weren’t so damned short.”

      Get longer ones. Monoprice has them very reasonably priced up to a length of 100 feet.

    • Chrispy_
    • 9 years ago

    I have toyed with the idea of a custom enclosure for years, but despite designing a couple of ultra-simple, ultra-sexy aluminium (yes that’s the correct spelling – do you call uranium “uranum”?) things for ATX and then MicroATX, the reality of production costs always bit me.

    Unless you have access to a really well-equipped machine shop (read: expensive) even simple boxes cost a lot to make. For the same money you can buy something really, really nice.

    I gave up and for the last three years my HTPC has been sitting in this £75, bland-yet-quiet Antec 2480B.

    §[< http://t1.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:wi8pAd9zZjtTZM:http://www.modster-pc.co.nz/shop/images/NSK2480-B.jpg<]§

    • Farting Bob
    • 9 years ago

    I have a well off friend who put a I7 920 into an HTPC and yet still uses his main PC for any encoding work, while his poor 920 has probably never seen more than 20% CPU usage.

    • Ashbringer
    • 9 years ago

    My HTPC is pieced together from left over computer parts and a cheap software HDTV tuner from Amazon.com. It works enough for my needs, which is beginning to turn into a YouTube machine.

    • d0g_p00p
    • 9 years ago

    Nice bike frame, looks like a Cinelli.

      • Veerappan
      • 9 years ago

      Yeah, I was trying to identify the make/model of frame… you might be right.

      And now I know yet another person who uses retired bike parts as home decor. We’ll see if my wife eventually comes around 🙂

      • LoneWolf15
      • 9 years ago

      Welds look too lumpy for a Cinelli.

      • Dissonance
      • 9 years ago

      A Devinci, I’m afraid. Not nearly as nice as a Cinelli.

    • adam1378
    • 9 years ago

    I have an old Dvico Fusion5 card laying around because now I live with my fiance and she will not allow me an antenna anywhere. To be honest I don’t miss using it anyways because I am happy with the Uverse HD and just using the htpc as a BR server. And on a side note, 3tb of hard drive space is not alot of room for BR iso with True hd audio.

    • dragmor
    • 9 years ago

    Does that Passive GeForce FX 5600 have 2 x DVI ports?

    If so, do you feel like shipping it to Oz?

    • Bauxite
    • 9 years ago

    Waiting for my ceton card to actually ship and I can take the rest of the pile of parts and finally plug it all in.

    • jackbomb
    • 9 years ago

    I rebuilt my HTPC not too long ago. Went from a P3 Tualatin/Radeon 3650 AGP to a Pentium M overclocked to 2.82GHz and a new Radeon 5750. I pulled the processor out of a dead notebook.

    Easily handles BD playback and DTS-MA bitstreaming.

    • tcunning1
    • 9 years ago

    Now that Comcast has scrambled ALL channels except the main broadcast ones, my sweet HTPC is pretty much useless for recording anything. (Just as they planned, I broke down and got the Comcast DVR, which actually works really well).

      • tcunning1
      • 9 years ago

      BTW, has anyone figured out how to get anything OFF the DVR in file form? I did some poking around and a Firewire cable seems to be one option but I haven’t tried it yet.

        • JustAnEngineer
        • 9 years ago

        A) Get a TiVo Premiere. Your cable company will have to set up the cablecard. Then just use TiVo desktop to move stuff to your PC.

        B) Get a cablecard tuner for your PC.

          • LoneWolf15
          • 9 years ago

          I have the Premiere XL myself. My only wish is that it had a third tuner so I could watch one show while simultaneously recording two others, rather than one-and-one.

          Other than that it’s a good box, and I have the TiVo add-on for my HP Mediasmart EX490 server that lets me back up shows.

          The other option is Centon’s Cablecard 4-tuner card for PC. Pricey, but nice.

    • eitje
    • 9 years ago

    MY HTPC is a Shuttle SD11G5. So quiet!

    • alex666
    • 9 years ago

    My HTPC is still a bit of a beast, with an e6750 running OCed but cool at 3.6GHz, with a Visiontek 4850 and a LG Blu-Ray/HD combo drive, and the system attached to an LG 48″ HDTV. Great system for movies and even quite a few games, but . . . the software for Blu-Ray drives is just pathetic right now. I wonder what others are doing. I set up this system two years ago when I could still get HD videos which I found superior to BR, and then HD died out and now we are stuck with BR and really only one company that makes software for it. I upgraded the OS from XP to W7 some months back and that made the software situation even worse.

    • not@home
    • 9 years ago

    My HTPC was built in 2003 and is definitely showing its age. It has gotten a CPU upgrade (from an Althon XP 1700 to a 2000) and that is all. The mobo is starting to go so I will need to replace it soon. I just do not have the time or the funds for it. It only gets used 3 or 4 times a month so it is pretty low on the priority list, although, if I upgraded it I would use it more.

    • vvas
    • 9 years ago

    Pardon the thick question, but why do you need two tuners exactly?

      • Dissonance
      • 9 years ago

      For times when there are two programs I want to record at the same time. It doesn’t happen all that often, but enough that the second tuner’s worthwhile.

      I don’t really watch much live television at all… everything gets recorded for commercial-free consumption. The second tuner allows for more freedom there, plus the ability watch and time-shift live TV while recording another program.

        • NeelyCam
        • 9 years ago

        I would’ve gone with a FusionHDTV dual-tuner instead, so you don’t have to play with splitters and lose 3-6dB of signal – especially if you’re using OTA.

          • insulin_junkie72
          • 9 years ago

          Dual-tuners still are going to have internal splitters.

          Signal loss-wise, it’s going to be six of one, half dozen of the other.

            • Trymor
            • 9 years ago

            I’ll take the half dozen, bakers of course.

            Try

    • KyleSTL
    • 9 years ago

    I’ve had a similar experience with my HTPC. It started out as new appointment for an old computer (Athlon XP-based) and that got put into a new case (Antec NSK2480). Then I did a system rebuild (nVidia 7100 motherboard, Hauppauge 1850 tuner, Celeron CPU, new 640GB HDD). Later added a second (Hauppauge 1600) and third (ATI Digital Cable Tuner) tuner, BluRay drive, Pentium E5200 CPU and second 640GB HDD. Most recently I upgraded the HD3650 GPU to an HD5670 for better gaming capabilities and TrueHD and DTS-HD audio formats. I think I’m done for a little while, but now I need a receiver capable of decoding the HD audio formats. Darned technology addiction.

    So now I have a computer with 5 total tuners, and tons of space for all my music, pictures, videos and TV recordings and no need for any other AV equipment. I think it makes life simpler, but it’s hell to explain to a gues ‘how the tv works’.

      • LiamC
      • 9 years ago

      Hah. We are thinking the same. NSK 2480, check. 3650 upgraded to 5670, check. I’m using Samsung F3 drives for storage though. And an E8400. Need to replace the LeadTek Digital/Analog receiver though with maybe a twin digital.

        • JustAnEngineer
        • 9 years ago

        Mine’s currently in a Mini-P180 case (which I got on a heck of a sale to replace an Asus TM-210).

    • ssidbroadcast
    • 9 years ago

    What’s a balun?

    Edit: Wikipedia is my friend… but how is that word pronounced?

    • Corrado
    • 9 years ago

    I’ve got something similar, using Boxxee though, as I have a DVR from the cable company. I’m running a PDC 3ghz, 2gb ram, 500gb HD and a 4350HD Radeon with HDMI out. Its nearly silent as the radeon is passive, I have resistors soldered inline with the heatsink fan and the machine used an external 12v power brick on the Intel G41 motherboarded barebones. I had the HD laying around, but everything cost me a grand total of $198 shipped from newegg. I installed AirMouse on it and use an iPod touch as the remote for it.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 9 years ago

      AirMouse is cool but have you played with Logitech’s TouchMouse? I like it quite a bit.

    • JustAnEngineer
    • 9 years ago

    Did you disable Aero on the desktop? My 785G + Windows 7 setup had trouble with 1080i full screen playback. I fixed it by dropping in an old discrete graphics card rather than disabling Aero.

    Mine doesn’t look nearly as ghetto as yours does.

      • Dissonance
      • 9 years ago

      Nope, still running Aero, and no problems playing back HD recordings or watching those channels live.

    • 5150
    • 9 years ago

    I recently took the A+ test for S&G (I passed LOL). Anyway, there was a question about how to improve the airflow in a case, the answer was a rounded IDE cable. Time to update the test folks.

    BTW, awesome antenna.

      • jsncable
      • 9 years ago

      wow, I got mine like 15 years ago.. My questions where like what fire extinguisher do you use on a computer fire. I allways thought that was an odd question.. My answer is always the closest one.

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