Ask anyone using a Home Theater PC in their entertainment center to define the “ultimate HTPC” and you’re sure to get a myriad of answers. When I set out to build my own version, I outlined three areas of most concern: power consumption, storage capacity, and quietness/volume. What I designed and built ended up meeting those requirements:
- 74 watts at idle, 83 watts under load (Blu-ray playback).
- 8tb of storage capacity with another 8tb of expansion available.
- <17dBA noise. That’s quieter than a library!
With the initial requirements in mind, I set my eyes on a case from atechfabrication.com called the Mini-Server 5x. This case blends easily with other audio components, holds five hard drives, and utilizes a low power consumption 200 watt power supply with a fanless CPU heatsync design which dissipates heat directly into the aluminum case fins. Atech offers a lot of options to customize the case to your liking and for this build I chose an IR port for a Windows Media Center remote and a Griffen Powermate control knob for volume control. Customization comes at the expense of build time however, as it took 10 weeks (or about the same time it would take to build a custom Porsche) to get a fully completed case. Granted, I had the almost completely assembled case in my hands at 5 weeks, but it took another 5 weeks to get the Powermate knob back after refinishing. Initially quoted at 2-3 weeks, Atech didn’t come anywhere close to the quoted timeframe but I can attest the wait was well worth it. The build quality of the case and components is top notch and the machine work is remarkable.
The Intel DH57JG motherboard was the logical choice for its great feature set in a mini-ITX footprint. Consisting of an integrated 1.3 HDMI port with a 1080p output and ten-channel Intel high definition audio with Dolby Home Theater, the DH57JG contains everything needed for a great home theater experience. I loaded the motherboard with an Intel Core i3-530 2.93ghz processor and a matched pair of Corsair XMS3 4gb DDR1333mhz memory. The i3-530 was chosen because it provides all of the power necessary for running multimedia applications while consuming only 73 watts or less.
A Panasonic UJ-235-A Blu-ray reader/writer was selected for optical drive duty. The UJ-235 is one of the few if not the only slim slot-loading optical Blu-ray drives available today. Typically used in a laptop application, it was chosen for its combination of minimal space and power consumption. The search for optical drive options left me wondering, why are there so few options available today for slim line Blu-ray drives? Just a year ago there were more options available from Sony and Asus to name a few. Could there be a lack of demand?
In previous computer builds power consumption has never been a concern. Building a power hungry gaming computer with the latest graphics processor and 1000 watt power supply simply isn’t needed in a computer used primarily for watching movies and playing music. In a HTPC which will also double as a file server and operate 24/7, trimming power consumption where it isn’t needed is especially critical. It also makes good financial sense as lower power consumption means lower cost of operation. Atechfabrication has several pico PSU power supply options of which I chose the 200 watt offering, which was the largest power supply I could find in a design to fit in this case.
Storage capacity was addressed by utilizing four of the largest capacity SATA drives available at the time of this build, the 2tb Western Digital AV-GP WD20EVDS, connected through a 3ware 9750-8i controller card in a RAID 5 array. Once fully configured, this resulted in 5.45tb of useable storage space. The WD AV-GP drive offers large capacity while only utilizing 6 watts of power each under load and 5 watts at idle. That may sound insignificant until you consider most drives utilize about twice that amount, and then multiply that usage across four drives. The fifth drive is an Intel X25 Extreme 64gb solid state drive selected to handle operating system and application duties. The X25 uses only 2.4 watts under load and 0.6 watts at idle! Did I mention the X25 loads the OS in lightening speed?
After getting everything installed and put together it was time to conduct some testing. Checking the BIOS and Intel Desktop Utilities showed the voltage readings to be well within their tolerances. Idle CPU temps hovered around 29°C and climbed to a maximum temperature of 40°C under load with an ambient temperature of 25°C. Measuring power usage using a Kill-A-Watt meter indicated 74 watts at idle and 83 watts under load (watching a Blu-ray movie) or an average usage of 78.5 watts. At the average local electrical rate of $.11/kWh it will cost $6.24 per month to run 24/7. Although disappointed the idle power usage wasn’t lower, the system still uses about half the power of the average desktop computer and significantly less than a gaming system which will result in an annual savings of $75-150 per year as an always-on file server.
Loaded with Windows 7 Ultimate 32bit, Office 2010, PowerDVD and all updates and patches resulted in 26gb of usage leaving 33gb for future expansion on the X25. To handle the movie collection I installed MyMovies, which provides a management solution within Windows Media Center to browse through and play movies, browse cast, play trailers and much more using your media center remote. I also setup the HTPC as a media server to stream movies on demand to other PCs within the house. Finally, I installed IIS, Apache, MySQL and PHP on the HTPC to make it a 24/7 file server and personal non-public intranet and web server.
Everything seemed to be running fine, except for a single problem from the most unexpected source. The 3ware controller outfitted with a BBU-07 battery backup unit was reporting high temperatures that gradually climbed to 53°C and caused a fault, shut down of the controller and computer lockup. Without adequate ventilation within the case and a poor factory heatsink, the problem recurred after every bootup. Because of the close proximity of the heatsink to the harddrives, the radiant heat seemed to also be having an effect on raising their temps too. Several days of searching chipset heatsinks led to the Thermalright HR-05 SLI/IFX chipset cooler. Replacing the stock heatsink with the new chipset cooler brought the idle temp of the controller to 30.5°C and 39°C under load. A huge improvement for sure, but now a new problem arose. The HR-05 heatsink blocks the power and SATA port for the optical drive, so where one problem was solved a new one has arisen.
For now, I am accessing all of my media from the hard drive array without the use of the optical drive. I am replicating an optical drive with Slysoft Virtual CloneDrive and mounting Blu-ray images directly from the hard drive. I plan on working with Glenn at Atechfabrication to create a new front panel which moves the optical drive to a better location without blocking the ports.
Future additions may include an external HD tuner for watching live TV and using the HTPC as a DVR (digital video recorder). For now, I am happy watching Internet TV and Hulu. I also have a secondary SAS port available on the 3ware controller which can be used to connect to an Atechfabrication Mass Storage case and add another 8tb of storage space (or more, as larger drives become available).
Overall, the Ultimate HTPC has met all of my expectations. I can launch Blu-ray movies from the couch within Windows Media Center without having to touch a disc, stream movies and music to other computers within the house, and share files (pictures, etc.) across the network and remotely while consuming very little electricity and virtually no noise. It is the Ultimate HTPC!!