The convergence of the PC and home theater was destined to happen. PCs are simply too good at accessing and playing back multimedia content to keep out of the living room. But if you’re going to put a PC across from your couch, you want it to look as good as the home theater components next to it. Predictably, there was an explosion of new cases designed to house home theater PCs.
One could argue that the perfect home theater PC hasn’t been built yet. However, over the years, certain characteristics have established themselves as being particularly useful for HTPC applications. This natural selection has left us with a core feature set that largely defines the genre. Home theater enclosures typically favor desktop-style designs rather than towers. Their front panels normally have doors or flaps that conceal unsightly jacks, drives, and ports. Some even integrate LCDs to display snippets of useful information like the time, date, details of what’s being played back by the system. All of these things help today’s HTPCs blend in with home theater components like your average receiver or amplifier. They’ll fit into the same entertainment units, too, since home theater PC enclosures tend to stick to similar dimensions.
nMedia’s HTPC 2000B case has the right dimensions, a slick front bezel, and an optional integrated display, so all the basics are covered. Should you consider it for your next home theater PC build? There’s only one way to find out.
Even the bottom is black
The HTPC 2000B might not be the most creative name for a product, but at least it’s somewhat descriptivethe B denotes the black version. A brilliant silver-anodized model is available as the 2000S.
Don’t worry; the ill-fitting top lid is the result of yet another shipping mishap. It’s tempting to say the rough handling gives us a real-world test of nMedia’s packaging quality, but considering this case came all the way across the Pacific, my experience probably won’t be representative of the norm. At least the 2000B feels like it can take a bit of a beating. The case is crafted from a combination of steel and aluminum, and it weighs in at a reasonable 20 pounds.
Even with a small bump in the top panel, the HTPC 2000B does a fine job of mimicking your typical home theater component. With a 17″ width and 16.4″ depth, it should stack nicely with other standard gear. The case’s 6.6″ height should be tall enough to accommodate a good number of aftermarket tower heatsinks without compromising compatibility with home entertainment units, too.
In the looks department, the 2000B features a glossy black stripe down the middle that offers just enough contrast against the expanse of brushed aluminum that makes up the front panel. Care has been taken to ensure that each element adorning the front is properly aligned, from the centering of the LCD over the group of stenciled icons below it to the left-justified nMedia logo, buttons, and “HOME THEATER PC” graphic.
nMedia incorporates two drop-down flaps into the front bezel to cover the 3.5″ and 5.25″ external drive bays along with the integrated card readers, audio jacks, and external device ports. Both flaps extend all the way to the edges of the case, making it easy to flip them down. They also stay tightly shut when closed.
From left to right, the bottom access panel hides 3.5-mm microphone and headphone jacks, one eSATA then two USB jacks, and finally a Firewire port. The ports are spaced far enough apart that they can actually be used at the same time.
The power and reset buttons have chrome trim and a good feel to them, but I’m not sold on their glitzy styling when the rest of the front panel has a strong industrial, minimalist theme.
On the far right is an array of memory card readers that will accept CompactFlash, Secure Digital, Smart Media (does anyone actually use Smart Media anymore?), and Memory Stick cards. An indicator light, er, indicates card reading and writing activity, and yet another USB port should squash any worries about having enough ports to plug in your USB-powered rocket launcher alongside more mundane peripherals.
There’s nothing but passive venting on the left side of the case, but on the right side is an intake vent covering a 120-mm fan. The lack of a filter means you can probably expect dust to get inside the case easily, however.
Adorning the back panel of the HTPC 2000B is a pair of 80-mm exhaust fans and some passive venting above the expansion slots. The expansion slots don’t protrude into the case. Instead, they sit flush to the rear of the enclousre, and the 2000B has a metal ledge just above them to provide an anchor for each device’s mounting bracket.
I don’t normally pay much attention to the bottom side of an enclosure; they’re usually unfinished or completely uninteresting. However, the HTPC 2000B’s underbelly is nicely finished and clear of any mounting holes or other markings. This little touch probably won’t matter to most people, but it’s definitely out of the norm, so I thought it was worth a mention.
Under the hood
Even with a dent in it from my courier from hell, the HTPC 2000B’s lid came off smoothly after I loosened the two thumbscrews anchoring it at the back.
The internal layout divides the front and rear areas of the case, with all the drive bays up front and the motherboard and power supply at the rear.
The entire drive cage assembly lifts out in one easy step, giving you unrestricted access to the guts of the enclosure. No fewer than three internal USB headers are needed to fully exploit the external USB jacks, card readers, and the optional LCD screen. With all of these front-panel goodies, one will need to plan cable routing carefully in order to avoid clutter.
The power supply remains the toughest component to place in an HTPC chassis, and nMedia’s decided to go the simplest route and squeeze it right next to the motherboard, like in a standard desktop case. This placement should make cable reach from the power supply a non-issue.
Considering that home theater PCs often perform DVR duties, abundant storage capacity is a necessity. With four 3.5″ hard drive bays equipped with rubber grommets, another internal bay that lacks vibration-dampening materials, and an external 3.5″ bay that can accommodate hard drives, the 2000B offers plenty of capacity. My review sample arrived missing a couple of grommets, though, and it’s odd that they’re not used on all the internal drive bays. The external 5.25″ optical drive bay doesn’t have them either.
With most all-in-one drive cages, at least one bay ends up being difficult to access because its mounting holes are blocked by other drives. nMedia avoided this problem with the 2000B’s 5.25″ drive bay by drilling the cage for anchor points located on the bottom of most optical drives. They’ve done this for the top two 3.5″ drive bays, as well, but because the bottom-mounted anchor points for 3.5″ drives are closer together, drives installed to the lower cages will block access to them.
After fastening our motherboard assembly into the case, I put the completed drive cage in place. It was then that I noticed how cramped things were getting in the HTPC 2000B. The Asus motherboard we use for testing has those popular edge-mounted jacks for SATA and IDE drives, and while they might help to avoid clearance problems and clutter in traditional desktop towers, they make system assembly more tedious in this particular case. I found it easiest to use a pair of needle-nose pliers to get the SATA cable connected, but one could also simply connect the cables first before carefully folding them under the drive cage as it’s lowered into position.
Unfortunately, the drive cage area wasn’t the only place where we experienced problems due to the cramped HTPC 2000B/s cramped internals. Like most PSUs, the Enermax unit we used for testing has a protruding metal grill protecting its intake fan. When installed inside the 2000B, this grill butts right up against the case’s 80-mm exhaust fan. The exhaust fan won this little scuffle, bending the fan grill in slightly, but thankfully not enough to interfere with the power supply fan. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem; I’d just flip the PSU so the fan faced the other way. However, unlike many recent enclosures, the 2000B doesn’t support multiple PSU orientations.
A GeForce 8800 GTS 512 card was the last piece to go into the system, and it was also a tight squeeze. The card itself fit fine, but to get auxiliary power plug connected, I had to feed it through the drive cage. This graphics card is 10″ long, which is pretty common, but anything even an inch longer may not fit into the 2000B at all due to the close proximity of the drive cage. Of course, a lot of folks outfit HTPCs with only moderately-powered discrete GPUs or integrated graphics in an effort to keep noise levels low. The smaller graphics cards associated with lower-end GPUs should have no problems squeezing into the 2000B. Graphics cards with power plugs protruding from their top rather than rear edges will be easier to install, too.
Optional goodies: LCD, keyboard and remote
A lot of higher-end HTPC cases come with a built-in mini display of some sort. The HTPC 2000B does have a spot for one, but you have to order the $30 nMedia PRO-LCD separately. As far as case LCDs go, the PRO-LCD is pretty average. Its brightness and contrast are all right, but the individual pixels are very noticeable, and the yellow-green tint doesn’t exactly complement the blue LED around the power button.
To get the display working, you have to plug it into an available motherboard USB header and download drivers and a software package from nMedia’s website. This routine is certainly convenient enough for most people, but it would have been nice if nMedia had included a software and driver CD with the display.
My wish list also includes the option of plugging the LCD into an integrated USB hub on the front panel instead of occupying another motherboard header. The Asus mobo we used for testing only has two internal USB headers, forcing one to choose between the front USB ports and the media card readers when the LCD was hooked up.
Once it’s all set up, the display itself offers an impressive array of customization options. The display can cycle through several pages of information, from hardware temperatures pulled from SpeedFan to details on what’s currently playing in Winamp, Windows Media Player, and even Windows Media Center.
The M.Play Home Center software can even be configured to notify you when new e-mails arrive. I’m not entirely sure how many people would want their entertainment PC to interrupt a movie with new message alerts, but it’s a cool little feature to have available.
Although it’s not included with the case, nMedia also sent over its $80 HTPCKB wireless keyboard and remote kit for us to try. After using the wireless keyboard with my own HTPC for quite a while now, I must say I’d never go back to using a full-sized wireless keyboard and mouse again. Not only does the HTPCKB have built-in trackball and mouse buttons split between the top two corners, making navigation of a traditional desktop environment far easier than messing with a directional pad on a remote, there’s also a scroll wheel and an extra left-click button on the front edge where you’d find the trigger buttons if this were a game controller.
The keyboard’s compact layout may prevent proficient typists from getting up to 100 words per minute, but the smaller overall footprint and attention to comfortable ergonomics make the HTPCKB shine in its natural environment. Most people aren’t going to type an essay on an HTPC, but I suspect they’ll happily reach for this keyboard to punch in an actor’s name in an IMDB search after watching a movie.
As for the remote, it’s nicer than your standard Vista Media Center Edition unit thanks to the inclusion of a built-in trackball. For navigating media center programs, the remote fits the bill very nicely. However, I found myself reaching for the keyboard more often.
Both the keyboard and remote are connected wirelessly to an included RF dongle that plugs into a USB port. The signal strength is good enough to pass through several obstructions, but the reliability of the connection wavered beyond about 20 feet from the dongle. Powering the remote will cost you two AA batteries, and the keyboard takes four. Neither device is showing any sign of wearing out the included alkaline batteries even after my rather regular use over the past several months.
Heat and noise
The real test of any home theater PC enclosure is its ability to handle modern components without making enough noise to distract you from media playback. To put the HTPC 2000B through its paces, we paired an AMD 790FX-powered Asus M3A32 MVP Deluxe motherboard with a Phenom II X4 940 Extreme Edition CPU cooled by a Kingwin Revolution RVT 9225 HDT with a 92-mm fan rated for 28 dBa at 2800 RPM. Two 1GB sticks of Corsair CM2X1024 DDR2 memory round out the system alongside an XFX GeForce 8800 GTS 512, a generic DVD/RW optical drive, and a 200GB Maxtor hard drive.
During my testing of the HTPC 2000B, I noticed that the CPU fan would change speeds quite dramatically depending on the load on the processor. The very same system running inside a Thermaltake Spedo full tower didn’t invoke the same dramatic changes in CPU fan speed.
The basic truth here is that the 2000B doesn’t move enough air to keep a modern quad-core CPU like the Phenom II X4 940 as cool under full load as massive towers like the Spedo. Shocking, I know. However, thanks to our motherboard’s built-in fan speed control, with a little help from SpeedFan’s manual controls, I was able to get the 2000B idling with relatively low component temperatures and acceptably quiet noise levels. Obviously, our system configuration is quite a bit more powerful than one really needs for a home theater PC tasked primarily with multimedia playback. But we’re more interested in testing the case’s limits than seeing how easily it can handle a bunch of low-power hardware, which wouldn’t be much of a challenge at all.
We used the rthdribl HDR lighting demo to load up our system’s GPU and tapped Prime95 to stress the CPU, measuring the component temperatures reported by SpeedFan, GPU-Z, AMD’s Overdrive Utility, and the motherboard’s own PC Probe software. We’ll be comparing the HTPC 2000B’s performance with that of Thermaltake’s Spedo, a full-tower enclosure that I’ve worked with extensively. The Spedo offers excellent cooling performance thanks to its two 120-mm intake fans and a combination of two 120-mm and one 220-mm exhaust fans. Obviously, the Spedo isn’t in the same class as the 2000B, but I don’t have any other home theater PC chassis to test the nMedia unit against.
With the computer simply sitting idle, the HTPC does a fine job of keeping the graphics card and motherboard cool. As expected, however, the case doesn’t expel heat from around the CPU area as well as the Spedo. The spacious Spedo’s CPU core temperature is a good five degrees cooler than that of the 2000B.
With the GPU fully loaded but the CPU still relatively idle, the HTPC looks a lot better. The Spedo still offers lower temperatures, but considering its massive airflow advantage, the fact that the 2000B is only a few degrees warmer is quite encouraging.
The CPU temperature gaps grow under a combined load, but the HTPC 2000B still manages a reasonable showing considering that we’re dealing with a fully-utilized quad-core Phenom with a 125W TDP. A typical home theater PC will use a much cooler processor.
You aren’t likely to notice a few degrees difference in component temperatures from your couch, but what about the 2000B’s noise levels?
The Spedo’s noise levels didn’t change depending on our system load, but the 2000B’s did, so I tested it at all three load levels. The good news is that, even under full load, the HTPC 2000B is relatively quiet, and it gets quieter as the load level decreases, which bodes well for more modest setups that won’t generate quite so much heat. Since most of the 2000B setup’s noise came from the CPU fan, I expect swapping in a lower-wattage processor would have the most dramatic impact on noise levels.
There are many compelling reasons to build a home theater PC, and the wealth of options available to enclose such a system certainly helps make the case for finding one that will look particularly nice in your living room. Why then should you choose the nMedia HTPC 2000B over alternatives available on the market?
Well, frankly, I’m hesitant to say that you should. nMedia has done a fine job of matching the status quo, and its $109 asking price is certainly more affordable than some. But the case has several problems. Though the the overall construction is solid, less attention seems to have been paid to how all the individual components of a system will come together inside the chassis. The chassis exhaust fans shouldn’t be so close to the PSU mount that they interfere with common bottom-mounted fan grills. We’d prefer to see the 2000B equipped to handle PSUs in multiple orientations, too. Additionally, while most people won’t need a full-sized graphics card in their home theater PCs, the fact that the 2000B’s drive cage conflicts with longer cards is disappointing.
I’m also a little put off by the mishmash of colors used for the front-panel LEDs, particularly since those seeking an HTPC enclosure tend to be picky about aesthetics. However, the 2000B’s front bezel layout is otherwise very attractive, the spacing of expansion ports is excellent, and I have nothing but positive things to say about the drop-down flaps and that stealthily conceal the front-panel ports and drive bays. The finished bottom of the case is another nice touch, as is the included 120-mm intake fan.
nMedia has also done a good job with its HTPCKB wireless keyboard and remote combo. The keyboard is sturdy and as small as possible while retaining full functionality. I love the embedded trackball and the ergonomics of the whole package. The remote is great, too, and it’s all you need to control a 10-foot GUI.
The HTPC 2000B isn’t as well executed as nMedia’s keyboard and mouse combo. However, if you’re looking for an attractive and affordable chassis that has enough airflow for the lower-power hardware commonly found in home theater PCs, the 2000B is certainly a viable option. And if you decide that you really do want the integrated LCD and the wireless combo, you can always add them later with the dough you saved on the case itself.