A while back I outlined the contents and rational of my HTPC. That system was designed to run XP Media Center, and while it could handle HD ATSC (or FW) content, it lacked HDCP so it wasn't able to do HD-DVD playback (technically it probably could have if I connected to my TV via VGA, but I use a DVI connector). Now that my issues with Vista have been sorted it was time to do an update.
Case: Ahanix D4 Media Center Enclosure
($220) - The case comes with a 350 watt PSU, but I didn't use it in my
MCE; Ebay it to make some money back. The case is the most important
thing to get right when building any PC. It is the part I hold on to
the longest, a good case can last through many upgrades; the config
below is the 4th HTPC to sit in it. For a long time I tried to go
budget when selecting a case, and always regretted it. Get the best
case you can afford, getting cut up when you're messing around in the
case really sucks. Unless you really need to get a micro case go for a
full ATX. Motherboard selection is very limited in the micro-ATX
format and you can always put a micro board in a full size case if you
find one that suites your needs. This is a great case, when I bought
it there wasn't much selection in this form factor, now the landscape
is very different with some really nice cases from Silverstone and
other vendors. If I had to replace this one I would probably opt for the Zalman HD160; although replacing the fans with quieter ones would be the first change with that case.
One negative for this case is this case is cooling,
stock it has two 60mm fans in the back and no mount in the front. Originally I only added a 60mm-80mm adapter to one of the mounts in the back and it cools
OK. Around the time I replatformed on Vista I modified the case for better cooling. Cutting a hole in the side and adding a 80mm fan dramatically reduced the case temp. At the time I was having stability problems with my pc that were later isolated to the video card so this modification probably wasn't necessary. That said, better cooling directly translates into a longer lifespan for your components. As much as I like to swap the parts in my pcs, I'd rather it was because of desire instead of need.
PSU: SILVERSTONE Strider SST-ST40F
($70) - Like the case, a good PSU will last through several PC upgrade
cycles. In a HTPC noise level is more important than raw power. I
opted for a 400 watt, which will provide ample power for several hard
drives, a single video card, and a fast CPU. Get one with PFC, your
components will thank you.
Motherboard: ASUS M2N-SLI Deluxe ($130) - When building a new PC, I usually choose the motherboard first. It
forms the foundation of the PC, selecting a good board will save you
time and money in the long run. I stay away from budget and
overclocking boards; stability is a must in a HTPC. When I built my
current PC, the selection of Core 2 Duo boards was terrible so AM2
might not be the best price/feature/performance selection right now,
but it was then. Things I look for are gigabit ethernet, firewire,
digital audio outs on the board (not through a riser card), and lots of
slots, both PCI and PCI-E. This board is passively cooled, so make
sure you have a good case fan(s) in the back.
I didn't do a good job of selecting a board when putting together the first iteration of this PC and ended up going through three AM2 motherboards before this one, each of the other ones had some problem that I couldn't live with (some major; others, like no WOL support, relatively minor). So when I say that the M2N-SLI Deluxe is the best AM2 board available there is some experience behind it. I've never had an ASUS board before, for the same feature set they've always tended to cost more than the competition. I helped someone build a Vista MC and he choose this board. While doing the build I noticed lots of little value adds (like a detachable pin out for the front panel) that make doing the install and working with this board much easier. The best thing is that it is the most stable board I've ever owned.
There are many other features that are really nice, but I'm only going to mention one that might get overlooked; it has an internal parallel port connector. If you use a parallel port based VFD chances are you've snaked the cable out the back of your case to and connected it to the back I/O panel. Not only is this not visually appealing, the cable (which at least in my case has no shielding) runs right over or next to some of the noisiest (electrically) components in your case. After switching to an internal connector and routing the cable around the back of the board the display hasn't corrupted once, where with my previous board it usually corrupted every week or so.
CPU: AMD X2 4200+ (65 Watt) AM2
($97) - Get two cores, video conversion is multi-threaded; scanning
for commercials on one core, recording, playback, etc on the other; you
won't regret it. Intel and AMD both have excellent choices across the
budget spectrum. The AM2 chips are cool, fast, and available in low
power models. Ultimately, make the chip choice based on the
motherboard you select, but it's hard to go wrong with any modern (i.e.
don't get a P4) dual core cpu. If your HTPC is going to sit in your A/V stack I'd stay away from a quad core, heat and noise are the biggest concerns, four cores in a box don't play nice with either. AMD released some ultra low power cpus (45W) not that long ago; if building today, seriously consider picking up one of those. With the current generation of video cards finally handling most of the load for HD content using one of those will reduce noise and heat.
HSF (Heatsink and Fan): Retail HSF ($0) - I wish it was quieter, but it's not loud enough for me to do anything about it.
Videocard: PNY VCG8600GXPB
($120) - I usually get passively cooled video cards, but I broke that rule because when I got this one there really weren't many options with fast RAM, HDCP support, and passive cooling. There were some driver issues at first, but after the 162.22 driver release I don't have any complaints. Picture quality is great, CPU usage is low, no problems with HDCP; and it's shorter than my last card so I can use the other hard drive bracket.
After I got this card ATI release it's HD2600 series; right now it seems that Nvidia has the edge when it comes to PQ but that tends to swing back and forth with driver releases.
RAM: OCZ OCZ2G8002GK 2GB
($64) - Get a lot of fast RAM, at least 2GB. Running Vista on anything less is painful, I haven't tried with more so I can't speak to the value there, but everything I've read indicated that 2GB is the right number, but at these prices... In most applications RAM is more
important than CPU, but RAM is easy to upgrade. Comparing today's price with the price I paid a few months ago is painful, I'm tempted to go to 4 because who knows tomorrow it could be back at $100 a GB.
Hard Drive: Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 ST3320620AS ($80)
: Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 ST3500630AS ($120) - There's little to no difference in speed between SATA 150 and SATA
300 drives, but some SATA 300 drives have NCQ which does make a
difference in multi-user environments. Even the simplest systems can
benefit from the feature, and for what 500GB costs you can get a couple.
There was a time when I tried to put as much disk as possible in my HTPC, now when I add storage it all goes in the WHS (currently around 1 TB; adding 500GB soon). The problem with storage (ok, maybe I'm alone here) is that you can never have too much. Whenever I add capacity I end up filling it up (the wife wants to keep the entire season of "So You Think You can Dance" in HD); putting a NAS on your network and attaching it via gigabit ethernet is a great way to extend the capacity of your HTPC w/o putting lots of disc in the box.
Optical Drive: LG GSA-H22N
($30) - Someone may have a legitimate reason to spend more on a DVD
drive, but IMO as long as it burns and reads DVDs, cheaper is better.
This drive is quiet and fast, hard to go wrong with that in a HTPC. Now that SATA drives are closer in price to their PATA competition; I'd definitely get one of those to reduce clutter in the case.
Network Card: Integrated Gigabit ethernet.
TV Tuner: AVerMedia M780 ($90) - After struggling with my ATI HD Wonder in Vista for far too long, I read about this card over at The Missing Remote and wanting to finally find some use for all those PCI-Express slots, I decided to pick one up replacing both the HD Wonder and my Hauppauge MCE150. So far the only issue I've had was that the s-video to composite converter that cm with it didn't work; $5 at Fry's fixed that. PQ is very good, a little different than the MCE150 for SD; I'm not going to say better definitively, but certainly no worse. And so much better than the HD Wonder (although this is mostly in headache), strangely enough MC reports lower signal strength in the ATSC wizard, but I get no drop outs and excellent video and sound.
Remote: Logitech Harmony 680
($85) - Completely optional, but makes the experience so much nicer.
The activity based control brings the SAF way up. Before I had this
remote, I had a more traditional universal remote and navigating the
inputs on the receiver and TV was a pain for everyone but me.
IR Receiver: Microsoft MCE 2005 Remote ($40) - Not much to say, you have to have it.
Keyboard/Mouse: Gyration RF Keyboard and Mouse
($85) - A true anywhere in the room keyboard and mouse solution. The
keyboard is small, so it fits nicely away when I don't want to see it.
The mouse takes some getting used to for in the air use, but it is
intuitive and really works.
Next Gen Optical: XBox 360 HD-DVD Drive ($180) - Had some issues with the in-box USB cable, but other than that the drive is flawless and it's nice to have an external dvd drive around the house for those WHS installs. For me the biggest barrier for moving to either format was cost of the hardware. The BR drives are still crazy money, so I'm in the HD-DVD camp at least until the hybrid players get reasonable.