Building a media center does not need to be expensive. If you are planning to build a home theater PC at an affordable price, we have written this guide to help you to get started in finding the right components under $500.
This example system is capable of playing Blu-ray videos and 1080p HD video files. It is not designed as a gaming computer, but it is capable of handling the basic home theater computer activities with ease.
As a case we chose a compact and affordable Apex MI 100 that comes with a nice black finish. This is a mini-ITX case that is ideal for dual core Atom 330 machine, but not for much more powerful system as it does not have additional cooling fans by default.
One useful tip from a user review is to remove the power supply first, then install the motherboard, then the hard drive, then the Blu-ray drive, and finally reinstall the power supply. This should make fitting the components into a small case easier.
Zotac IONITX-A-U is a motherboard / processor / graphics card combo. It has an integrated NVIDIA ION graphics chip (same as in 2009 version of Mac Mini) which delivers excellent performance for the HD video playback. The Atom N330 dual core processor is slightly underpowered for our example system, but does not matter in the 1080p HD video playback due to the excellent ION graphics.
However, this system is not perfect for full screen flash video, such as Hulu as this service is rather heavy on the CPU when playing back 720p HD video. On the positive note, Zotac motherboard comes with a comprehensive range of ports on the back (HDMI, DVI and VGA for video; TOSLink Coax, SPDIF optical, HDMI and analog for audio; gigabit ethernet; USB ports; one eSATA port). Overall, this motherboard is an excellent choice for a low cost system.
4 GB is a minimum amount of memory nowadays, so we chose Corsair XMS2 (2 x 2 GB) memory kit that is the most frequently bought memory together with the Zotac IONITX-A-U motherboard.
Blu-ray drives have become really affordable in the recent months, so we chose Lite-On Blu-ray drive instead of the traditional DVD optical drive. Lite-On has received good and consistent reviews and no other manufacturer can beat this price ($65) at the moment.
Western Digital 1 TB Caviar Green hard drive is currently at the number 2 position in the Amazon’s best selling hard drives list, so it is very popular hard drive. It spins at the speed of 5400 RPM so it will not generate too much heat which is an important factor in our example system.
We chose IOGear’s HTPC keyboard to control our system as it comes with an integrated trackball mouse. This keyboard is very popular among media center users due to its size, integrated mouse and good wireless range.
Last, but not least you will need a HDMI cable to connect the computer to your HDTV.
All in all, this custom HTPC system will cost you only $485 without an operating system. It has all the needed components to turn your living room into the digital age. In this example system, we chose components that are affordable, but still capable for playing 1080p HD video and Blu-ray discs.
If you are interested in slightly more powerful and expensive system, continue reading our optimal HTPC guide.
Summary of the example system
|Apex MI-100 HTPC Case
Zotac IONITX-A-U Atom N330 Motherboard
Corsair XMS2 4 GB PC2-6400 800 MHz Memory
LITE-ON 4x Blu-ray Disc
Western Digital 1 TB Caviar Green Hard Drive
IOGear Multimedia Keyboard with Trackball
HDMI TO HDMI 6 foot cable