MythTV: HTPC build

| by Ken | in Technology Add comments

A lot has happened since my last post on MythTV. When I left off then, I had built MythTV on a borrowed desktop (dual booting with Oracle Enterprise Linux and with Mythbuntu) and I had created an additional Front End on my Windows 7 laptop (which was only really worthwhile as a test). The next logical step to testing out MythTV as a replacement for my Comcast cable box and ReplayTV is to get a working MythTV set up in my family room instead of just in my office.

The first step was hardware. I didn’t have another computer I could repurpose for this assignment and this box was going to need some specialized components. I looked around on Craig’s List and at the local MicroCenter for off-lease computers that would be relatively cheap and would be adaptable. I found only a few candidates and all of them were going to require enough modifications that it eroded the cost-effectiveness of getting a used computer. Besides, I didn’t want to pay for a Windows license that I wouldn’t be using.

I decided it was time to build my own. I’ve thought about doing this before and thought it would be kind of fun but always ended up deciding that going with a used computer would be more cost-effective. Since I’d ruled that out this time, I dove into the research. What a chore. It’s very complex in part because there are so many options. Intel or AMD? What generation CPU? What size motherboard? What sort of case? Integrated graphics or separate card? And what ports would be required? And that’s all in addition to the typical and relatively simple questions of RAM, CPU speed, and disk drives. Probably the hardest part of all is making sure all the pieces work together – does the motherboard have the right headers on it to be compatible with the case which has to fit the power supply which has to match the motherboard connector and on and on. I found that it was an iterative process where I would start with some questions tentatively answered only to have subsequent choices invalidate previous ones.

Here’s what I ended up settling on as requirements:

  • HTPC case – I decided that I wanted a case that would not only fit into the racks with my other components in the home theater but also function as a DVD player (with eventual use as BluRay player), have space inside for multiple hard drives for future expansion, and support full height cards in case a video tuner card that works with a cable card hits the market in the future.
  • HDMI – This requirement was important for me because my TV has only HDMI digital inputs. I also have an HDMI splitter/switching system setup so that I can feed two TVs simultaneously (one in a remote room) from any one of 3 HDMI inputs. Having the HTPC output HDMI was the only way to fit into the existing home theater system.

  • Serial port – Okay, this is a weird one. And I know it is potentially not going to work. But my aim is to get my existing remote (OFA 8811) programmed with the additional smarts to run the HTPC. And then to use my existing Niles Audio Remote Control Anywhere kit to feed IR signals directly into the serial port without needing to get an additional IR receiver for the HTPC.
  • speed – About all I could say about the speed of the computer is that it would need to be reasonably speedy but not super fast. Especially since I plan to do most of the tuner and video capture work in specialized devices like my HDHomeRun.

Those basic requirements got me started and I was able to settle a few other general items.

  • Intel Core Duo – The options are dizzying with CPUs, but I had to choose somewhere to start and I decided to go with something before the current state of the art. It was partly a financial decision because the fastest newest CPUs are in demand and too new to have dropped in price. But I also didn’t want something that was a few years old and would be considered obsolete. And I decided to go with Intel because the equivalent AMD chips weren’t noticeably cheaper and the motherboards for Intel chips were more likely to meet my other requirements.
  • Micro-ATX – Again, this was mostly decided by the cases that I was looking at. ATX mobos were too big and generally ended up being in really big cases. I gave serious thought to Mini-ITX too, but those boards seemed to not be full featured enough.

With this all sorted out, I was able to choose the components. I did all of my shopping at NewEgg because of their great prices and selection. (Although I did have to pay attention to return policies in case my research had overlooked something.) Here are the components I chose:

  • $69.99 – nMEDIAPC Black Aluminum panel & Steel HTPC 1000B Micro ATX Media Center / HTPC Case – I liked that this case was full height and had a slot on the front for the DVD drive. It also has the option of having a programmable display added later which might be nice for a home theater component. So it’d be a good look for the home theater and it met my spec requirements. The only disappointment with the case is that the button for the CD eject that is part of the case didn’t quite meet up with the CD drive’s button. I think there may have been a bit of a manufacturing defect in the case that caused the drive cages to be a little out of alignment with the rest of the case. Not enough to warrant dealing with an exchange, though, especially since it might not be limited to this one case. A little wad of masking tape made up the difference between the pieces.
  • $74.99 – ASUS P5N7A-VM LGA 775 NVIDIA GeForce 9300/nForce 730i HDMI Micro ATX Intel Motherboard – I definitely spent the most time changing my mind about motherboards. I ended up going with this one because it had a good integrated NVidia graphics set whereas most of the others with HDMI ports were Intel that were only so-so. Of course, I could have gone with one of them and then get an add on graphics card but it’d be hard to get both a mobo and a good graphics card for $75 (after a $30 rebate)
  • $69.99 – Intel Pentium E5500 2.8GHz LGA 775 Dual-Core Desktop Processor BX80571E5500 – Choosing the CPU was tough because I found myself doing a lot of “for only $20 more” and then again and again. So I chose this one because it seemed like the best bargain in terms of dollars per speed.
  • $24.99 – Rosewill RV350-2 350W ATX 2.2 Power Supply – I figured I’d probably need about 300W and I checked NewEgg’s power calculator and it came out in the ballpark. When I was shopping, this 350W one was about the same price as others that were 300W and this one was reviewed as being pretty quiet. It also had the right complement of connectors for what I needed right now. I was disappointed when it arrived to discover that the two SATA connectors were on one bundle and that the connectors were pretty close together making it a literal stretch to connect to the hard drive and DVD drive but that was easily solved (see later) and it probably isn’t that common a case layout so it’s probably more my case’s fault than the power supply.
  • $47.98 – G.SKILL 1GB 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 800 (PC2 6400) Desktop Memory Model F2-6400CL5S-1GBNQ – The motherboard had a compatibility list so I went with what was cheap from NewEgg, well rated by reviewers, and in the compatibility list. Also, the RAM looks really cool with red aluminum panels.
  • $4.99 – Arctic Silver AA-1.75G Thermal Compound – Probably not necessary but lots of reviews were saying how the Intel heatsinks didn’t come with good goo so this item seemed like cheap insurance.
  • $5.98 – OKGEAR 18″ SATA 6 Gbps Cable, Straight to Right Angle W/Metal Latch, UV Blue, Backward Compatible with 3 Gbps and 1.5 Gbps – the motherboard came with some SATA cables, but I figured they would be pretty cheap and they were so I’m glad I sprung for the better cables.
  • $2.99 – OKGEAR 6″ molex 4pin male to two 15pin SATA Power Cable Model GC6ATAM2 – This cable was ordered later when I realized the power supply’s SATA bundle’s connectors were too closely spaced to reach the separate bays on in the case I chose.
  • $1.99 – http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16882021058 – Another addition after the fact, I realized that this would make life easier connecting up the the home theater receiver to the analog output.

    I already had a 250 Gbyte hard drive (a warranty replacement from a while ago) and a DVD drive (I upgraded another desktop to have a better drive). Shipping came to $30.82 which results in a total PC cost of $336.71 (after $30 motherboard rebate). I’ll probably swap out the DVD drive for a BluRay drive when prices come down a little more. But at least for now, that’s a lot of PC in a pretty hefty and full-featured case for $336.71!

    And probably the best news of all is that it all fit together. The pieces fit where they should have (except for the power supply cable issue and the case’s DVD eject button alignment mentioned above, both of which were easily fixed), and they work together as they should. The HTPC booted up just fine on the first boot with the install CD and I was off and running. More on that in the next post.

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