Cheap HTPC is a Champ
Two weeks ago I decided to create a HTPC on the cheap. The goal was simple build a powerful HTPC for under $500. I put together full list of parts that you can read about in HTPC on the Cheap Part 1. The main points are 2 TV tuners, large hard drive, smoking fast AMD Athlon II X3 processor, and a motherboard with a Radeon 4250 built in. This machine should be able to play 1080p content, Netflix HD, Amazon VOD, Hulu, and just about anything else you would want from a HTPC. I have already had an Acer Aspire Revo machine as my main HTPC for just about a year now and I even created RevoHTPC.com to showcase how I completely configured it, but after just 2 weeks with this new HTPC I am basically blown away. Here is a full breakdown of everything I have gone through.
Building a computer can be a challenge if it is your first time. Luckily this was my third time putting together a computer, and all of the parts just fell into place. One issue I did have was with the power supply inside the case. It only had 1 Sata power connection, so I did have to run to my local Fry’s electronics to grab the 4pin to Sata power adapters which added an additional $6 to the configuration. If you are only going to be using 1 drive then you would be fine, however I have 1 drive as the main OS drive (80GB) and 2 1TB drives. One drive is dedicated to recorded television shows, and the other is all my music and video files until I have a home server up and running again (waiting for Vail to officially release). Loading up Windows 7 was easy and painless as usual, and I found an amazing tool online that allowed me to transfer my setting from my Revo to this new machine, which is mcBackup. This tool simply allows you to save your configuration and then reimport it. There are more features to mcBackup such as automatic backups every night, but I just uninstalled it when I was done. After setting up all of my tuners inside of Media Center I went ahead and installed Hulu Desktop and the Media Center Integrator. I also installed the Revision3 media center plugin, Media Browser, Netflix, and Internet TV.
Inside of the Bios I adjusted the UMA buffer for video to 512MB. By default this is set to auto, however we really want 512MB of RAM dedicated to the Radeon 4250 since we are using this as a main HTPC, and not a normal computer. I only ran into one little issue, which was that I couldn’t get 5.1 audio to pass through the HDMI. The Biostar A880G+ said right on the box that is supported 6 channel audio so I was extremely confused after installing the driver from the included CD and the official AMD HDMI audio driver. No matter what I did it just wouldn’t work. I talked to Josh about the issue and he pointed me over to the Realtek website where I found the ATI HDMI Audio Device R2.55. After uninstalling all of the old drivers and installing R2.55 Windows still displayed 2 channels for audio. Then I went into media center and configured the speakers and it pushed out 5.1 just fine when watching movies or television. I did attempt 5.1 with VLC, but it still only output 2.0 audio, which is a let down. I am thinking that the problem most likely has to do with my sound bar that I am using, Sony HT-CT100, which is a 3.1 system that accepts up to 7.1 audio. Perhaps when I move and get a full receiver and surround sound system I can test it out again, but that will not be for a while.
Besides these few tweaks everything fits into the case that I purchased. And it is sitting happily in my entertainment center. If you are just getting started on HTPCs check out the Beginner's Guide to HTPCs over at the missing remote.
I am inside of Windows Media Center about 99% of the time when using my HTPC, which means it needs to be snappy, responsive, and just work. I must say with this processor WMC is super fast, the menus fly, the guide works splendidly, and the movie gallery is smooth. I mean this thing is really fast and really makes you love the media center user interface. Inside of the bios there is a setting to automatically adjust the fan based on the CPU temperature and turning this on made the machine completely silent. If the CPU gets too warm 37C or higher then the fan ramps up and you can hear a quiet hum. I have only ever had this happen once when I closed the front door on my entertainment console. It was back down to normal temperature in a few minutes. When recording a show and watching a 1080p movie the core CPU temperature was only 33C.
Now as far as CPU usage it is really amazing how little is being used and how fast this machine is. My standard test was recording an HD show and watching a1080p movie CPU usage hovered at 2-8%, which is absolutely crazy. Pulling up Netflix and watching HD content only tagged the CPU at 30%. The real big test however is to see if this machine can handle a lot is to have an extender and watch television on both of them at one time. I hooked up my Xbox 360 and the first thing that I noticed is that it worked really great and was fast and responsive. CPU usage was alright averaging around 40-50%. It should be said that the extender used up an additional 200MB of RAM. It is looking like the 4GB of RAM is really helping out and is recommended. I tried to play all sorts of content to really see if I could bring down this machine, and it was basically impossible.
Basic playback of television was extremely smooth and never had any issues at all. Even if I brought up the mini guide on top of live television there was no stutter at all. Playing movies and videos was flawless as well, there is absolutely nothing to complain about here. There was nothing I could throw at this machine that it couldn’t play. Even 1080p movies inside of VLC played back great. The Radeon 4250 pairs with Athlon II X3 is just a great combination.
I decided to renew my subscription to Netflix just for 1 month to test out this new build. One big problem with my Acer Aspire Revo was that it could not handle Netflix HD. Since Silverlight is not yet GPU accelerated it really took down the CPU and would just choke. This wasn’t the reason I left Netflix, it was mostly because I ran out of interesting shows and movies to watch and there was no reason to keep paying $8 a month. However, now that I have been gone for a while from Netflix the circumstance has changed and there are a lot of new shows and movies, and Netflix HD streams absolutely perfect on this machine. Not only does it stream perfect, the user interface inside of WMC is really fast and responsive. It is a pleasure to flip through and see what I haven’t watched yet and just add it to my queue.
Internet TV is a feature inside of WMC that offers a lot of content from CBS and other sources. The steam is usually just standard definition video with some commercials and is all Flash based. Everything was pretty flawless as well.
Good old Hulu Desktop has been my best friend on the Revo ever since Flash 10.1 came out. Hulu has a huge collection of television shows for free. I am not a huge fan of the entire user interface, however it was very snappy and High Quality streamed perfect.
One question a lot of people asked me when I put up the first article was how much more power this new machine was going to consume. So I went out and purchased a Kill a Watt so I could monitor power usage in different circumstances. The standard use case would be that the HTPC sits idle, then you have just watching television, and then recording a television show and watching 1080p content. I figured that for around 17 hours a day the HTPC sits idle, 4 hours of normal usage, and 3 hours of heavy usage. Of course this can vary every day, but I figure this is a good estimate. I decided to make a super crazy Excel spreadsheet to measure everything I possibly could on both my Revo and this machine and I was really surprised by the results. The Revo I had could never go above 60W, but I also had a whole bunch of other attachments including 2 hard drives and a USB hub. The new HTPC has a 420W power supply, and the CPU itself is 90W so I knew there was going to be a difference.
There are a lot of different things that I measure, but the most important are the Watts (current power being used) and KWH (Kilowatt Hour, which is how much power the machine uses after 1 hour). Most power providers simply charge you a standard rate for each Kilowatt you use. I have APS here in Arizona, and I am on an odd power plan where it cost 16 cents per kilowatt (9am-9pm weekdays) and then 5 cents all other times. If you do the calculations it looks like the Acer Aspire Revo would cost me around $35.50 for a full year while the new HTPC would cost me around $53.25. I am completely comfortable paying just $17-$18 more a year to have this HTPC. If you want a full breakdown you can download the full Excel spreadsheet here.
Overall I am extremely happy with this new HTPC. Everything just works and works very well. It is almost night and day from the Revo. I was always happy with my Acer Aspire Revo, however I am thrilled about this new setup and I don’t think I can go back. If anyone has any more questions please feel to leave comments and I will respond.