15 Essential HTPC Tips for DIY Builders

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Apr 1st, 2013
15 Essential HTPC Tips for DIY Builders

In order to help you to get the most out of your custom Home Theater PC system, I have put together a list of 15 essential HTPC tips for you all do it yourself (DIY) builders. You will learn insider secrets from the experienced computer builders on how to keep your computer cool and silent.

1. Take the time to research

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There is no rush to build your HTPC, so take the time to carefully research components to make sure they are all compatible with each other.

Some common considerations when choosing parts are cost, performance, form factor (size) of parts, power consumption, ease of cooling, storage capacities, driver stability, etc. You should focus on the two often ignored factors, power efficiency and noise.

2. Think modular

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It is useful to think your home theater as a modular setup with separate front-end and back-end. Your main front-end should be a super silent Home Theater PC (HTPC), which does not need to have any storage for media files, TV tuners, or DVD/Blu-ray drive.

Store all media files to a separate Network Attached Storage (NAS) or back-end home media server that also does all the heavy lifting such as, recording live TV, scraping metadata, transcoding video files and online video streams.

Finally, you can extend your media experience to other rooms by adding Digital Media Receivers (DMR) such as Roku streaming player, Apple TV or Raspberry Pi. Keep in mind that you do not need to buy everything immediately, but you can add new modules later over time.

3. Use low power parts

One processor has stand out from the crowdThe key to building a quiet HTPC is to use low power parts which generate less heat and thus require less cooling. The more passive cooled PC you have the quieter it will be.

These areas are the main cause for heat which requires more cooling:

  • Small case: the smaller the case, the more difficult it is to get a proper airflow
  • Processor: choose a low TDP CPU such Intel Core i3
  • Power supply: inefficient PSU generates more heat, so get a 80Plus certified PSU
  • Hard drive: choose a laptop HDD or SSD disk
  • Graphics: use an integrated GPU as graphics cards generate a lot of heat
  • Memory: use RAM memory modules (4GB is enough) with a heat spreader

4. Size does matter

size_subThe case is probably the most important element as it will define what parts you are able to use.

Get a heavy one with 120 mm fan mounts as light cases often have side panels that vibrate. The case will also determine what type and size of PSU you can use.

When considering a case form factor, it is good to keep in mind that smaller mini ITX form factor cases usually have smaller fans which are louder than the larger ones used in micro ATX and ATX cases. A larger case also means that you can have a better airflow and room for more hard drives and other peripherals.

The case is probably the most important element as it will define what parts you are able to use. Get a heavy one with 120 mm fan mounts as light cases often have side panels that vibrate. The case will also determine what type and size of PSU you can use.

5. Focus on low TDP rating

tdp_sub

Thermal Design Power (TDP), is something that HTPC builders with noise requirements should definitely pay attention to. The TDP describes the maximum amount of power the cooling system in a computer is required to dissipate.

You should choose a low-TDP processor with a max TDP (Thermal Design Power) of no more than 65 watts. The low-power CPU runs at reduced voltages and emits less heat which requires less cooling.

6. The less fans the better

computer proccessor

Try to limit the number of fans in the case, as more cooling fans means more noise.

Larger 120 mm case fans move air much efficiently with less noise compared to smaller fans. Be sure to check dB (slower RPM) and CFM (air movement capability) ratings in the fan and get the lowest dB and hiqhest CFM combination possible.

A fan controller is absolutely needed as motherboards often adjust fans to run faster (and louder) than needed.

Stock CPU coolers are quite loud as well, so it is recommend to get an aftermarket CPU cooler to reduce the noise. Pay special attention to the height of the CPU cooler and the height of the case to make sure it will fit.

Lastly, a fanless (passive) power supply is a bit more expensive option, but this way you will remove the PSU fan noise completely.

7. Integrated graphics is fast enough


Nowadays, integrated graphics chips are powerful enough, so you will not need a discrete graphics card such as GeForce GT430 that used to be good HTPC GPU. Do not even try to use a gaming card. Most passively cooled graphics cards will need too much airflow, so they are not ideal either.

There are two different integrated graphics platforms that seem to be the most popular among the home theater PC community: AMD Trinity (Radeon HD 7540D) and Intel Ivy Bridge (HD 4000). Both platforms will be sufficient for all HTPC tasks.

8. Use SSD as system hard drive

SSD (Solid State Drive) hard disks have become a lot cheaper nowadays, so it is recommended to use an SSD as the system disk to cut down on drive noise and heat. A 32 GB SSD is enough for the system disk on a Linux-based PC, but 64 GB is recommended for a Windows-based PC.

If SSD is too expensive for your budget, it is recommended to swap a 3.5 inch hard drive for a 2.5 and you will be able to reduce the noise levels as there are less moving parts and they consume less power.

9. Store media on NAS server

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Network Attached Storage (NAS) is a storage that can be accessed over a home network as opposed to a single computer access. In other words, a NAS server allows you to share media files between several computers and other devices. Additional benefit is that NAS servers include multiple HDDs which allows you to backup and mirror media files.

There are many ways to set up a NAS. In the following tabs, you will find more details about commercial NAS devices, unRAID or FreeNAS.

10. Ditch optical disk drive

optical_subNowadays, many people are downloading or streaming digital content from iTunes, Spotify, Netflix, Hulu or by other means from the Internet. If this is the case for you, perhaps you do not even require a DVD or Blu-ray player to watch movies.

In fact, you do not necessarily need an optical disk drive at all as it is possible to install both Windows and Linux operating systems from an USB drive.

In general, it is a good idea to remove optical disk drive from your HTPC. Optical disk drives are mechanical and sometimes break, they use power and are large.

So, if you do not watch DVD or Blu-ray discs, then optical disk drive is not needed anymore. If you occasionally need to watch DVDs, you can have an external USB DVD drive on hand.

11. Clear that cable clutter

cable_subCable management improves internal airflow by reducing cable clutter within HTPC to promote accelerated heat removal.

In order to reduce the cable clutter, it is recommended to use modular PSUs and cable ties.

A modular power supply provides connectors at the power supply end, allowing unused cables to be detached from the power supply, producing less clutter, a neater appearance and less interference with airflow.

You should also use cable ties that will help you to make your cabling clutter free and thus improve the airflow. Another tip is to run the cables along the edges or under the motherboard.

12. Monitor temperature levels

temperatures

Use temperature monitoring software to such as SpeedFan to ensure you have a sufficient cooling after finishing the build.

SpeedFan is an hardware monitoring software that is able to change fan speeds according to system temperatures. In the SpeedFan application, you should look at the Core # for the best temp gauges. The optimal temp is about 5 to 8 degrees warmer than the ambient temp in the room.

You may need to play around with number of cooling fans, fan speeds and temperature levels over time to find out what nets you the best balance between good temperatures and good noise levels.

13. Calibrate your TV

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Your TV definitely does not produce the best possible image quality out-of-the box.

Did you know that you can improve your media experience significantly simply by adjusting the contrast, brightness and color settings properly?

One such tool is a free AVS HD 709 calibration disc, which you can either burn to a Blu-ray disc or simply play the video file with your media center software.

Here are few things to keep in mind:

  • Do not use the factory settings as they are often set too bright
  • The time of day matters, so calibrate it at evening
  • Calibrate each input separately as the settings can vary between devices
  • Try THX Tune-Up iOS app to assist finding the right settings

14. Use your existing remote

Flirc

You do not necessarily need to get a new remote control, but you can use either HDMI CEC adapter or Flirc USB adapter and pair it with your existing remote control.

HDMI CEC adapter allows you to use your existing remote to send key presses to HTPC via HDMI interface on your TV.

Flirc is another interesting adapter that turns IR signals of any remote into keyboard commands.

15. Set up gigabit network

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While wireless network is convenient, it is also too slow when it comes to steaming high definition video files from external back-end server to your front-end HTPC.

Therefore it is a good idea to get a gigabit router and connect your front-end and back-end systems with Cat 6 ethernet cables.

Keep in mind that your Internet connection will not going to be faster than 100mbit, but your internal home network will be much faster.

What’s next?

So, now you know the essential tips to build your ultimate home theater computer. Check out the following four recommended HTPC systems to get ideas for the optimal components.

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