Build A Home Theatre PC for $317

Although I’ve been planning on it for a while, I’ve been putting off the purchase of a home theatre PC for my house. I’ve been storing all of my media on a server running in my basement, but I didn’t have any way of playing that media on the TV in my living room. An HTPC seemed like the logical answer.

The only issue I had was that I was on a budget. I wanted to have this system powerful enough to handle 1080p video with no trouble, load up quickly, play anything that I can throw at it, and still be affordable. After watching some sales and pricing out the components, I managed to build a fully-functional system for only $317.

The HTPC case.

Here’s the component list for what I ordered:

  • AMD Athlon II X2 250 3.0Ghz 65W processor – $62.99
  • Foxconn A74ML-K AM3 Micro-ATX Motherboard – $46.99
  • Rosewill WMC Remote – $24.99
  • Sapphire ATI Radeon HD 4350 low-profile video card – $45.99
  • hec Black Media Center case w/ 300W power supply – $59.99

A few notes about this:

  • I already had a hard drive, so I didn’t have to buy one. I saw some for $36 recently that would do just fine for this.
  • I had bought the wrong RAM (I bought DDR2 when I needed DDR3), but I had a friend who did the same thing but bought DDR3 when he needed DDR2. We traded RAM and I gave him $20 and we called it even.
  • Operating System not included. I found that ATI’s proprietary Linux drivers don’t cut it for 1080p video and the sound output didn’t work with the TV in my living room, so you might want to find a Windows licence.
  • I had an existing HDMI cable and a TV that supported HDMI output. You will either need both or will have to figure out another way of getting your video and sound on your TV.

My first build used Ubuntu 10.10 for the operating system, but I found that 1080p video just wouldn’t play smoothly. It looks like ATI just hasn’t put the spit polish on the Linux drivers. When I tried a full 1080p video it dropped several frames per second and maxed-out the graphics processor. So, I decided to go with a Windows build. I happened to have a spare licence of Windows 7 Professional, so I used that as my base operating system, and I’m really happy with it.

The media centre I’m using is XBMC Media Centre, which was originally designed to work on the classic Xbox (fun fact: I soft-modded a friend’s Xbox to run it; it works great until you throw something high-def at it), but now runs on Windows, Linux, Mac, or Apple TV for XBMC. If you’re looking for a home theatre frontend, I highly recommend this. It’s seriously one of the best pieces of software I’ve used, and it has support for a MySQL media database, which is great for me because I have multiple frontends that share content. After an install and a quick configuration change, it worked out of the box after I gave it my server login credentials.

The remote took a bit to get going. I found a guide online to disable Windows Media Center from loading when I hit the Windows logo on the remote, and set it up to open XBMC instead. Also, rather than booting into a Windows environment first, I configured Windows to load XBMC as its graphical frontend rather than explorer. This means that there’s no menu bar at the bottom, no applications running in the background to slow down processing power, and it’s much harder for people to use the computer for other purposes. After I got the remote working, I packed up the keyboard and mouse; I have no use for them anymore, as it should be with an HTPC.

All in all, I love this new thing. It runs so quiet I can barely hear it, uses little-to-no power, and will play absolutely anything that I have. It’s more expensive than those pre-built ones that Western Digital makes, but is customizable, can be used for other purposes such as surfing the internet, and has a compatibility list that can be summarized by “it can play it”. If you like your digital media and want to play it on a TV, build one of these; you won’t regret it.

Ubuntu’s Koala Has Good Karma

It’s not like me to gush over operating systems. Particularly looking at what we’ve dealt with in the past. If we’re lucky, we got stability in an OS, but usually at the expense of it looking terrible. This year seems to have caused things to change, however. With the release of the Windows 7 RC, Microsoft has restored a good amount of the faith that it lost after churning out the load of crap that it called Vista.

The open source community is never far behind, and Canonical’s Ubuntu 9.10 operating system is a work of art. Seriously. I would frame it and mount it on my wall if I could. Unfortunately I can’t, so all I can do is gush about it and tell people about all of it’s amazing features. Non-techies: just smile-and-nod your way through this post :).

Ubuntu One

Cloud computing is all the rage these days, and Ubuntu has jumped on the bandwagon by presenting One, a personal cloud for the synchronization of files across multiple Ubuntu computers. Set up your account, get your 2 gigs of free space, move files into the Ubuntu One folder, and let them sync. Easy as pie.

ext4 Filesystem

Following in Fedora’s footsteps, Ubuntu has set ext4 as 9.10’s default filesystem. Although you won’t make the switch if you upgrade, fresh installs will feel the warm glow of ext4 during their install.

Uncomplicated Firewall

One of my main complaints with Ubuntu’s previous setups is that it fails to include a firewall by default, and that has been remedied in 9.10, with the introduction of ufw, the uncomplicated firewall. No more sifting through the iptables’s man pages to figure out how to add a simple allow rule; ufw makes firewall management easy.

Faster Load Times with Upstart

Another popular trend recently has been the goal of reducing boot times as much as possible. Fedora Project made waves as they aimed for a 20 second boot time from BIOS to login page. Although they were a little short of their goal, they made some important headway, showing that not every single scrap needs to be loaded and cached on boot. Ubuntu has carried this forward and has made a similar goal. Although they don’t mention any specific time-related goals, they made the switch to Upstart, which makes the loading page look smooth and cuts the boot time significantly.

Overall, I’m really happy with the progress Ubuntu has made. Although a lot of previous versions have fallen a bit behind on the times in exchange for having a stable system, they are catching up with the times and even pushing the envelope with new ideas. If you were looking for a reason to switch to Linux, put this one at the top of your list. If you’re not convinced, download the LiveCD and try it out without installing (although your performance will suffer since it’s loading from a CD…duh…).

Thanks for giving this a read, everyone. If you like what you see, or have any suggestions for further writings, drop me a line in the comments section below and give me a vote on Reddit or Digg. I read each and every one of your comments: I promise :)