Building an HTPC

The HTPC

So a year or so ago, my mother decided it was time to replace our ailing chunky television with a new, beautiful LG Plasma 50” wonder. In addition, the plans were laid to turn the living room into a serious entertainment center, and saving began for surround sound.

Well, Tweeter Home Entertainment went out of business shortly after we had planned the surround sound system, so we were able to get a significantly better system for much less cash, meaning there would be extra leftover money for something else: a Home Theatre PC.

So my mom tasked me with building a massive-storage media monster, and I did so. It’s beautiful, the proudest thing I’ve put together with my hands, and I only had to spend four hours to get the audio working. (Audio is my biggest hurdle in terms of computing. The first major problem I ever faced was trying to get audio on our first PC to work. I never succeeded. I've faced countless problems related to audio since then and I can honestly say I've spent more time fixing audio issues than any other issue.)

Anyway, before I go into a detailed description of making this machine, here’s the basic specs:

  • Intel Q9550 Core2Quad 2.83 GHz
  • 8GB DDR2 PC2-8000 (4 x 2GB) RAM
  • 6TB (4 x 1.5TB) SATA Barracuda 7200.11 HD (RAID 5 configuration)
  • 1GB ATI Radeon HD4550 Video Card

Unlike most HTPCs, I didn’t bother with a TV tuner or a Blu-Ray drive, simply because neither of these things would be useful in my house; we don’t bother with Blu-Ray because we get all of our DVDs from the library, and we don’t really watch TV so a TV tuner would be pointless.

All the materials The first thing I did was acquire all of my materials and make sure everything was set. Here’s where I ran into my first problem: RAM. I had ordered an 8GB kit from TheNerds.net, but only one 2GB stick was sent.

I called them and they, quite rudely, explained that it wasn’t their fault and that they would accept a return but would not send me the 8GB. They refused to accept responsibility for the error, claiming that it was a typographical error on their website. Frankly, I don’t think this is the right way to do business (they should have swallowed the cost of the error), and I would urge against anyone using TheNerds.net for any purchases. I’ve used them before for my job, but will never use them again.

The MoBo inside the case Anyway, I went to Fry’s to pick up the 8GB of RAM, and got back to work. The case I used is the nMediaPC 2000B, perfect for my needs as it boasts plenty of space, including room for six hard drives. It also has a beautiful look that fits perfectly into a home theatre system, as well as a front card-reader and plenty of front USB, Firewire, eSata, and audio ports.

Anyway, I loaded up the Motherboard, an ASUS P5Q Pro Turbo (awesome because of the four DIMM support, as well as seven (!) SATA ports and tons of expansion slots), into the case. I figured I would need risers to mount it (I was right) but luckily the case included them. No problems there!

The CPU and heatsinkThe next step was popping the processor onto the MoBo. Now, I’ve had a lot of experience with procs in the past, but I haven’t dealt with these new Core 2 Series processors. So it shocked me and amazed me when I saw that there were no pins on the Q9550! I’m used to Zero-Insertion-Force processors, but having no pins really redefined the meaning. I lined up the processor and plugged in the heatsink.

Originally I was worried the Intel-provided heatsink wouldn’t be powerful enough. However, I used it because the specs exceeded third-party heatsinks available for reasonable costs; if I had an unlimited budget, I’d replace it with something really powerful and quiet, but this heatsink is just fine otherwise.

All the RAMThe reason I used a Q9550 and not a less powerful but cheaper proc like the Q9400 is that it was on sale at MicroCenter. Actually it wasn’t, but they had a sign up that said it was for an obscenely low price. It didn’t check out in their computer with that price, but I found a manager who instructed the salesman to match the posted price. I must say this Q9550 is the sexiest processor I’ve yet encountered.

Anyway, after I popped in the four DIMMs of RAM, I installed the video card, wireless card, and began work on the various drives. First, let me say that I have a special spot in my heart for hard drives. At school, I use an ancient 4 GB hard drive as a hammer. At camp, my office is decorated with ancient hard drives, opened to look like platinum records. But holding four 1.5TB hard drives in two hands represented the most raw storage I’ve ever seen in one place at one time.

So much storageSix Terabytes of hard disk space! Wow. I plugged them all into the drive chassis, as well as the IDE DVD burner. [I chose IDE as opposed to SATA because the MoBo supported it, and I figured having an extra SATA port for future expansion was more valuable than having the burner be SATA. After all, IDE is not the bottleneck on optical drives.]

After all four hard drives and the optical drive were mounted in the chassis (nMediaPC provides special screws for quiet operation – very nice), I began cabling the whole system, using an OCZ 700W power supply for the almighty electricity needed to run the system. Again, I was very impressed with the sheer number of connections the OCZ offered, meaning that this machine is just ripe for future expansion.

CablingI finished the cabling, lowered the drive chassis and powered on the system. I used ASUS’s tools for managing the RAID array (which is awesome – hardware RAID is always far superior to software RAID, especially because Windows’ RAID controller is crap) and created two drive arrays: one 500 GB the other 4 TB. [RAID 5 decreases the storage by one hard drive amount, but provides redundancy to protect against single drive failure.]

I rebooted and began the Windows 7 Home Premium install process. The install went great, and I began installing drivers. Soon, I had a problem: no audio over HDMI.

Ugh. My audio troubles began. Three and a half hours later, I had stereo over HDMI. And thirty minutes after that, Surround Sound. Whew. Four hours working on audio? I’m improving!

Well now everything works. It’s a beautiful machine, my mom has begun loading her music and favorite movies (though there’s enough space for millions of songs or thousands of movies) and it’s working awesomely with our surround sound system. The final cost was just shy of thirteen hundred dollars (those hard drives are expensive) and I had a lot of fun putting the machine together. It’s a true beast of a Home Theatre PC.

  • Pingback: Huge differences in customer service | L’histoire de sa vie()

  • Casey

    Eww Windows! Do yourself a favor and put Linux on the thing.

    • Well let's be honest. While I run Linux (Karmic Koala FTW) on my PC, nothing holds a candle to Windows Media Center. I mean, it's pure gold for HTPC capabilities.

  • May

    Boy, if I'da known it was that simple, I coulda done it myself!! NOT.
    Thanks for all the work you did Nathan!!!