Saturday, March 28, 2009

Building a Home Theater PC

For the past few months, I've been using my Dell Inspiron 9300 laptop to steam video to my home theater. It works well for 720p videos and below, but totally chokes on 1080p. Also, it only outputs stereo audio, and I wanted to output 5.1 channel surround sound.

That's why I decided to build a HTPC. Ii needed to decode 1080p video, so a fast CPU was a must. The video card was less of a concern. I also wanted it to fit nicely in my TV stand, so I went with the smaller microATX form factor motherboard and case. The case is also shorter than normal, which means only low-profile cards will fit in the expansion slots (not a problem since I'm not using any expansion slots). Loudness was also a concern, but not a major factor.

Update: More pretty pictures! (with comments inline)

The components that I bought (total cost around $500):
  • Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 @ 3GHz
  • GIGABYTE motherboard with NVIDIA GeForce9400 graphics
  • hec microATX case with 270W power supply (has HDMI and optical S/PDIF outputs)
  • Seagate 1.5 TB hard drive
  • USB wireless adapter
The components that I had lying around:
  • 2 x 1GB memory
  • 250GB hard drive
  • Optical drive (borrowed to install Windows XP)
After getting it up and running, I found that it's able to decode 1080p video just alright (high action or noisy parts still result in some chopiness). The integrated GeForce9400 graphics kind of sucks. While I haven't tried playing any games, the new iTunes visualizer (which is very GPU intensive) doesn't seem as smooth as on my laptop's GeForce6800 (mobile version). And my laptop is almost 4 years old now.

I was hoping to get better performance by overclocking the CPU (Intel Core 2 CPUs are nicely overclockable), however I ran into some problems that I think are caused by the integrated GeForce9400 not being able to keep up with the faster FSB. The end result is that the system failed even a minor overclock from 3GHz to 3.2GHz. Compared to building my first computer, which I was able to overclock from 2.4GHz to 3.3GHz, this is terrible.


Daqing said...

That's quite similar to mine, built during last Thanksgivings: Gigabyte GA-73PVM/GeForce 7100; Core 2 Due E8400 (per your recommendation); Kingston 2x2GB; Antec 300 Mid Tower with 500W Power; plus my old DVD writer and 250GB HD. I am very happy with the system except one thing: very occasionally, the system reboots itself when playing a video. I haven't correlated the problem to anything yet: particular movie, the player, etc. Also I found that all downloaded movies have only 2-channel audios, so the sound effect is not as good as a movie on a DVD.

Andy Hou said...

If the system suddenly reboots without any error message then it sounds like the problem could be the CPU overheating. Try downloading prime95 and running the "torture test". If your computer reboots during the test, it's most definitely a hardware problem.