The Couch Potato
Your living room deserves a PC, too
The only PC that gets more use than the desktop in my office is the system sitting under the big-screen TV in my living room. Home-theater PCs make excellent entertainment platforms, whether they're playing BitTorrent downloads, offering TiVo-like PVR functionality with no monthly fee, serving up the latest games, or simply enabling Facebook-stalking from the couch. Here's one that's ready for a little bit of everything, including blending in seamlessly with your living room.
|Processor||AMD Athlon II X2 240||$50.99|
|Graphics||Integrated Radeon HD 4250||$0|
|Memory||Mushkin Enhanced 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333||$41.99|
|Storage||Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB||$99.99|
|Lite-On iHOS104-06 Blu-ray reader||$39.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DG||$29.95|
|TV Tuner||Hauppauge WinTV-HV3 1850||$99.99|
||Seasonic M12II 520 Bronze||$74.99|
|Total||Buy this complete system at Newegg||$647.90|
You don't need a lot of horsepower to handle basic home-theater PC duties, which is why we're only spending $50 on this system's CPU. Intel's offerings in this price range bear the Celeron name, and they don't look all that impressive next to the Athlon II X2 240's dual 2.8GHz cores. The Athlon also has the benefit of compatibility with AMD's superior integrated graphics chipsets. You could spend more and get higher clock speeds, but the alternative on the next page is a better way to add more power to this home-theater PC.
Really, this base configuration only needs a cheap CPU that'll plug into a standard socket. The 240 fills that role by letting us use a Socket AM3 motherboard that's ripe for future upgrades. As an added bonus, the processor's 65W TDP should make it easy to cool without generating a racket.
We'll need an aftermarket cooler, too, because this particular CPU is an unboxed OEM model that doesn't come with a heatsink of its own. For that role, we've selected Scythe's SCSK-1100. The last thing you want from a home-theater PC is the dull whir of fan noise invading your living room, and the SCSK-1100 looks like it should be pretty quiet. We also need a low-profile cooler that will fit within the confines of the microATX enclosure we're using for this build—taller tower-style designs simply won't do. Newegg's user reviews of the SCSK-1100 are overwhelmingly positive, with 90% giving this cooler four or more stars. Sounds like a good option.
AMD's new 880G integrated graphics chipset does a little of everything. Its integrated Radeon HD 4250 graphics core has enough grunt to handle older and casual games, plus you get a video decode block primed to accelerate playback of all three HD formats commonly used by Blu-ray movies. Team that with the SB850 south bridge, which offers plenty of second-gen PCI Express connectivity and 6Gbps SATA ports, and you have the most cutting-edge integrated graphics platform around. Heck, the SB850 even has more advanced PCIe and SATA implementations than Intel's mid-range and high-end desktop chipsets.
Asus' microATX M4A88TD-M/USB3 is one of only a handful of 880G-based motherboards to feature AMD's new south bridge. This board has a trio of video outputs for the integrated graphics, a dedicated S/PDIF output for audio, and the usual mix of Gigabit Ethernet, SATA, and USB connectivity. A couple of USB 3.0 ports are also provided if you want to take advantage of SuperSpeed devices.
Cheaper 880G boards are available, but most of them use an older SB710 south bridge we'd prefer to avoid. Asus also tends to offer better BIOS-level fan speed controls than its competitors. That's already an important feature on the desktop, and it's even more vital for a home-theater PC.
Do you need 4GB of RAM to watch
downloaded legally acquired episodes of The Walking Dead? No. But memory is cheap again, relatively speaking. This 4GB Mushkin kit costs just $5 more than what we paid for a 2GB kit in the last guide. 4GB kits were selling for around $70 back then, making it foolish not to splurge now.
Keep in mind that exploiting 4GB of memory all but requires a 64-bit operating system. If you're planning on using an older 32-bit version of Windows XP to fuel your HTPC (and we would never condone reusing Windows licenses in such a manner), we'll forgive you for cheaping out and only going with 2GB of memory.
Speedy storage isn't necessary for a home-theater PC. In fact, opting for a faster mechanical hard drive can often be counter-productive, as 7,200-RPM models tend to make more noise than low-power drives that spin their platters closer to 5,400 RPM. This is especially true at higher platter counts, and we want to pack our HTPC with as much storage as possible.
Western Digital's Caviar Green 2TB fits the bill perfectly. There's plenty of storage capacity for HD content, plus a low spindle speed to reduce noise levels. Seagate's 5,900-RPM Barracuda LP 2TB is available at the same price as the Caviar Green, and it's actually a little quieter. However, we've had reliability issues with a couple of other Seagate models, and the 'cuda does have a higher percentage of negative Newegg reviews than the Caviar.
On the optical front, we definitely want to be able to play Blu-ray movies. Lite-On's iHOS104-06 Blu-ray reader obliges, and it can also play and burn standard CDs and DVDs. This is an OEM drive, so it doesn't come with cables or the software necessary for Blu-ray movie playback. If you need either, step up to the iHOS104-08, which costs an additional $20.
Unless your speakers or receiver accept multi-channel digital output, the Couch Potato really needs a discrete sound card. You don't have to spend much for a big upgrade in sound quality, though. Asus' Xonar DG is a recent Editor's Choice award winner that can be had for just $30. The card's excellent sound quality belies its bargain price. You do miss out on a few features of the fancier Xonar DX we've included in the alternatives, but the DG is all you need to power a set of 6-channel analog speakers. If you have a halfway decent set of speakers or headphones, your ears will thank us. If you don't, you should absolutely consider a complementary upgrade to your sound system.
Our TV tuner of choice used to be Hauppauge's WinTV-HVR 1800. That model has since been replaced with an updated 1850, which retains the original's PCI Express x1 interface, NTSC and ATSC/clear QAM tuners, and hardware MPEG2 encoder. Hauppauge also throws in an all-important MCE-compatible remote. With a four-star rating based on nearly 400 Newegg user reviews, the 1850 looks like an excellent choice for the Couch Potato.
There is no shortage of microATX cases on the market, but precious few are compatible with standard ATX PSUs and full-height expansion cards. Silverstone's SG02 can handle both, and its understated looks won't upset the aesthetic balance of your living room. The case also features an 80-mm auxiliary fan that should hold up better than the smaller-diameter fans commonly found in microATX enclosures. We've found that tiny fans tend to whine at a higher, more annoying pitch than larger ones. All fans get noisier over time, but in our experience, the smaller ones start to squeal earlier than their big brothers.
With dual 5.25" drive bays and room for two 3.5" internal drives, the SG02 offers decent expansion capacity if you want to beef up the Couch Potato. The case's internals are also large enough to accommodate 12" graphics cards should you wish to do a little gaming on your big-screen TV. See the alternatives section on the next page for a more specific suggestion on that front.
Seasonic's M12II 520W looks just about perfect for our home-theater PC. The modular design will make it a lot easier to clean up the cable routing inside our cramped microATX enclosure. With a claimed efficiency of greater than 87% and 80 Plus Bronze certification, the M12II shouldn't radiate much wasted energy as excess heat. That should allow the 120-mm fan to keep the unit cool without making too much noise—a common trait among the Seasonic PSUs we've used.
We don't need all 520W for this particular configuration, but the extra juice gives us some headroom for future upgrades. With five years of warranty coverage, we'd expect this unit to last for a while.