Building the Ultra Quiet Mini Home Theater PC- March 6, 2010
Why build a new HTPC?
I built my first HTPC back in 2006. As with any noob, it took me months to get it stabilized and behaving the way I wanted it. Details aside, I have learned a lot since then and a lot has changed since then. Windows 7 with Media Center has brought things up a significant notch. With only a few minor annoyances, it makes for a great HTPC platform.
My HTPC goals in 2006 were all about: "Can I build one?", followed by: "Can I build it to be quiet?"
My new goals for the 2010 HTPC is to build it:
1. Completely noise free, (or with just 1 slow-turning 120mm fan?)
2. To run very cool (this goes hand-in-hand with noise free).
3. To run "green", meaning a unit that consumes very little power when it is running and next to nothing when it is idle. Hand-in-hand with #1 and #2 above.
4. Very small. My 2006 HTPC is as big as my Denon digital receiver which is a standard size stereo component. I would like it to be as small as possible without sacrificing airflow (cooling/no noise).
5. Powerful enough to handle ANY HTPC task and sometimes simultaneously. This includes:
a. Blu-ray playback6. With low cost in mind. I spent well over $2000 <eeek!> on my first HTPC. I would like to build this one as inexpensively as possible. under $1K for sure.
b. DVD playback
c. Recording TV off 2 tuners at once, or playing and recording at the same time.
d. Playing web-based or NAS movies
e. Ripping a DVD
f. General web browsing and surfing
All of the above became doable with the Mini-ITX form factor that includes the Atom processor combined with Nvidia's ION.What I Chose and Why:
This year I decided to purchase as much stuff on-line as possible rather than rely on the limited inventory of brick and mortar stores. Since I live in Canada, I deliberately ruled out any US retailers that did not have a Canadian website. I did this because of the high hidden costs for duty and brokerage fees that UPS and FedEx charge you at your doorstep. It's hard to know if something is really cheaper when you get slapped with these high fees. So all my prices are in Canadian dollars and I ended up ordering most of the stuff from www.newegg.ca
. I like Newegg because they have a huge inventory of popular choices, well stocked, and you can check the customer reviews if you are having trouble choosing a component.Zotac IONITX- F-E Atom 330
Released late November 2009, this latest version of Zotac's IONITX motherboard has some great features:
â€¢ It has the Atom 330 dual core 1.6GHz, so it has a good balance of powerful and power economical.2.5" Notebook HDDs
â€¢ the F-E version comes with a PCI-E slot on the mobo, which means you can plug in a TV tuner card.
â€¢ Need to add your own PSU. Unlike the A series which had 90watts built onto the board, the F-E version requires you to add your own PSU. Although this adds cost, it allows flexibility for choosing components.
â€¢ Onboard gigabit LAN, a must for large video file transfer to and from the Network Attached Storage (NAS).
â€¢ 5.1 audio with S-PDIF and Coax out. Goes right to my Denon Receiver for DTS and Dolby Digital surround sound.
â€¢ 3 SATA ports. I will use them all: 1 HDD for OS/apps; 1 HDD for storing recorded TV, internet TV, and Blu-ray movie files; and 1 optical drive.
â€¢ 2 memory slots for 4GB of DDR2 800 ram. 2GB could suffice, but since this is going to be running Win7 64-bit, 4GB gives me plenty of room.
â€¢ Nvidia's ION is a fully capable GPU that can handle HD video playback. The Zotac F-E comes with an HDMI port (and supports HDCP) so it's ready to plug in my flat panel TV.
â€¢ Wi-Fi is a plus, but I prefer to hardwire this HTPC to my LAN for Gigabit transfer speeds to and from my NAS.
I am choosing these because they are small, rugged and consume way less power than conventional HDDs, plus they are (usually) quieter than the 3.5" models.The Western Digital Scorpio Blue 2.5" HDDs
were rated highly for how quiet they were, which is high on my priority list. I chose a 320GB for the OS and Apps drive, and 500GB for the TV and media drive. As mentioned, most of my media files (video, music, photos) are on my NAS. I like to put my operating system and applications on a different drive from my media files for 2 reasons: It keeps disk fragmentation on the OS to a minimum. Recorded TV can create plenty of fragmentation. Secondly, I am hoping with the announcement of the 25nm architecture for Solid State Drives (2010 Q3) that the price of SSDs will come down significantly this year. By Christmas 2010 SSDs will be faster, higher capacity, and cheaper. I would like to replace the OS HDD with one of these.RAM
I just chose whatever was popular and inexpensive on Newegg.ca. WINTEC AMPX 2GB 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 800 (PC2 6400) 4GB
will do the trick.TV Tuner CardHauppauge WinTV-HVR-2250 Media Center Kit Dual TV Tuner 1213 PCI-Express x1 Interface
It was essential to me to have the ability to record TV. I trust Hauppauge even though I had some bad experiences with my first 2006 TV tuner card. Their customer service was excellent however, and they even replaced my first card with a more stable one. Hauppauge has come a long way and this new low profile, dual tuner card with NTSC Cable, QAM, ATSC , with IR Remote control seemed like the perfect fit.The Case
This was a tough decision and I went down many different form factor ideas to finally arrive at my decision.
I really trust Antec. they make a high quality, well designed case that is actually a PLEASURE to assemble. their ISK-300-150 is a really nice case: http://www.antec.com/Believe_it/product.php?id=MjIzOQ==
The only downside is it requires a slim optical drive. Since I am looking for a Blu-ray reader, DVD writer combination, I discovered there is not many choices in slim optical drives and they can be very expensive. I find optical drives can be one of those components that fails or goes out of date before anything, so it seemed prudent to me to go with a full height 5.25" optical. Although this means more power consumption, consumer options and competition make these a better choice. This unfortunately rules out any cases requiring the slim laptop optical drive form factor, so farewell Antec...
Another factor is cooling, I hate fans smaller than 120mm because they move little air for how fast they have to spin. High RPM means high noise. Any slim line case has very little room for fans, and they usually have 80mm fans or smaller in them. These are noisy little insects, so no slim cases.
A-Tech Fabrication wins for the coolest (no pun intended) case ever! The HeatSync 300 is, well, one big heat sink! http://atechfabrication.com/products/He ... Client.htm
The only down side is it would cost $545CAD with shipping which is about half the cost of my entire build! Check the link and drool on...
Fitting the low profile PCI-E 1X TV Tuner card is another consideration and although you can get many PCI-E adaptors to change the orientation of the slot, it just made more sense to buy a case with room and an opening for the low profile card.
I ended up choosing from what was available on Newegg.ca meeting the above mentioned criteria. I decided on:APEX MI-100BK Black Steel Mini-ITX Tower Computer Case 250W Power Supply.
I like the Shoe box form factor of this case only because it will fit neatly on the shelf beside my Denon receiver (11.80"D x 8.70"W x 5.10"H). It accommodates the 5.25" optical drive, and has plenty of room for cooling. Frankly the 250W power supply is not worth using at all. By removing and installing a PicoPSU instead, I can cheat the heat by keep the AC-DC adapter externally, thereby reducing heat and fan noise.Power Supply
I chose the PicoPSU because they are quiet, cool, and it creates more room in the case. PICOPSU-150-XT Power Kit: Includes Pico PSU 150W DC-DC ATX PSU & 105W AC-DC Power Brickhttp://www.ncix.com/products/index.php? ... e=Mini-Box
It was difficult to determine how much wattage I would really need for normal, peak, and maximum power conditions. After talking to the manufacturer Mini-box: http://www.mini-box.com/s.nl/sc.8/category.13/.f
and the people at Zotac , I discovered the motherboard runs at about 65W under maximum load, the TV Tuner card (~+14Watts),the 5.25" optical drive (~+25W), the extra HDD (~+4W). This comes to ~108 watts at maximum power. This number is theoretical so I have to test it to see what it really is. Until I test the finish system under load, I felt that the 150watt PSU with the 105Watt AC Adapter would be the best choice. See the results below.
NOTE: the Zotac IONITX-F-E comes with a 20pin PSU connector. You will need a 20-24 pin (male-female) adaptor if you decide to use the 150watt PicoPSU. All Mini-Box's other models of PSU (120w, 90w, 80w, 60w, etc.) are 20pin PSUs. I just ordered a 20-24pin adaptor from Newegg.The 5.25" Blu-ray Optical Drive
I chose the Asus 8x Internal Blu-ray ROM, 16x DVD-RW, SATA BC-08B1ST.
It was available locally and it was only $120CAD. One attractive feature I have yet to test is the TTHD. ASUS claims the technology is:
"...an innovative suite of advanced video enhancement technologies that deliver unsurpassed quality for DVD movies on PC-based home theatre systems. TTHD fills the gap between standard resolution content and high-definition display capabilities, Boosting DVD video quality to achieve HD-like results and smoother playback, TTHD enables you to enjoy your high definition display."
Here is what a review said about the technology: http://www.bjorn3d.com/read.php?cID=1787&pageID=8424
"The TTHD (True Theater High Definition) enhancement improved DVD playback quality tremendously and the technology impressed us to no end. TTHD changes DVD quality to almost HD quality and it happens in the background with no degradation of playback speed. "
So an nice bonus for the old DVD content!
All items # are from Newegg.ca except where noted.
Product Description Prices In Canadian $ (CAD)
WINTEC AMPX 2GB 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 800
ZOTAC IONITX-F-E Intel Atom 330 (1.6GHz, dual-core) Mini ITX
Rosewill 8" Sata Power Splitter Cable
BYTECC 6" Power Supply Cable
Western Digital Scorpio Blue 500GB 2.5" SATA
Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-2250 Media Center Kit, Dual TV Tuner
APEX MI-100BK Black Computer Case
Western Digital Scorpio Blue 320GB 2.5" SATA
ASUS Blu-ray drive with tax (Not From Newegg.ca)
The 150Watt PicoPSU kit with 105W AC adapter with Shipping and Tax (not from Newegg.ca)
SYSTEM TOTAL $922CAD
There it is. Just under $1000CAD...
As I mentioned this will be Win7 64-bit running Media Center primarily. Win7 will decode DVD movie formats right out of the box and has a ton of codecs built in to support other video formats (it will even play Quick time formats without installing it from Apple, you just have to associate the format with WMP11.
What to use for Blu-ray playback?
I used to be a big Cyberlink PowerDVD fan until discovered they removed the ability for it to play ripped Blu-ray movies. It may seem like a waste of time to rip Blu-ray movies but sometimes, for convenience, it is required.
I am now using Arcsoft's TotalMedia Theatre 3 Platinum
http://www.arcsoft.com/estore/software_ ... Code=TMT3P
It works very well as a stand-alone player, as well as having a menu item in the Media Center
interface. And yes it plays ripped Blu-ray files! Which, as of Feb 2010, is no longer an option in Cyberlink Power DVD. Update: I had some issues with TMT3 170 build as it blue screen crashed on me. I rolled it back to TMT3 161 build. I hope they can fix the problem soon...
If you like watching internet TV (like Revision3 shows) and podcasts, I would recommend installing Miro
Miro is free and will automatically download the latest editions of your favourite shows and store them for as long as you like. Miro has not embraced the remote control or the 10ft. interface yet, which is the only drawback to this software; so get out your keyboard and make your best squinting face.
As an added bonus, Miro will play MKV video files, so to date I have yet to install any extra codecs on my Win7 HTPC.
One Remote to Rule Them All and In the Darkness Bind Them...
Yes everyone's dream. I am not a fan of the Logitech Harmony remotes. Although they offer task-based ease of operation and a great way to program them on-line, they are, frankly ugly and have too many buttons on them. I may be a bit old fashioned but I like a remote with tactile buttons, so you can feel when you press a key also without looking at it. The windows MCE style remote like the one that comes with the Hauppauge card I think it a really great design; a simple set of well-placed buttons. I want to be able to program those 4 coloured buttons to blast IR to my Denon Receiver and my LCD TV.
I will be using LMRemote
as my way to program the remote for all my apps and devices. I find it hard to recommend this application simply because it is very difficult to get it all working the way you want. It's powerful, but complex, and not as user friendly as it could be.
A Note on Adobe Flash Video Playback
As you may have read, Atom motherboards are not the best at handling Flash. This is due to Flash 10.0.X using CPU for processing video streams and not using GPU to accelerate any video. I don't think this is a huge concern because Adobe's next version of Flash 10.1 will take advantage of GPU for video acceleration and Adobe already (Mar. 2010) has version 10.1 of flash in Beta testing. Once fixed, this will not be an issue anymore. Also HTML 5, the future or HTML, it will decrease our web dependency on Flash.
Assembly (See RESULTS and CONCLUSIONS after the pictures below)
Assembly was pretty easy, but tight; I am so glad I ditched that 250W PSU that came with the case. The PicoPSU is such an elegant implementation, and provided way more room for airflow.
So much hope, so much promise...
Get that Huge PSU outta there!
Mounted the DC jack for the AC power adapter here
This was a great solution for mounting the drives in this case
Had to mount the drives backwards so the SATA cables would not get in the way of the fan.
Note that this 120mm X 12mm high fan was replaced with the 120mmx25mm 1200rpm Scythe KAMA PWN Fan.
The new 120mm X 25mm fan still fits and moves more air.
So Tiny compared to my old HTPC...
Right next to my old Denon Amp.
So with all that hardware correctly installed and the software setup I ran some wattage tests to see really how much power this little HTPC was drawing. Here are the results:
ACTIVITY POWER CONSUMPTION
: 7 - 8 watts
(Just the desktop or MCE open but not tasked.) 30 - 34 watts
(2 TV shows being recorded in the background and watching a DTS Blu-ray disc.) 46 watts average, 53 watts peak
As you can see a 150watt PicoPSU is overkill, however the choice was largely due to availability. The 90 watt only came with a 60 watt AC Adapter which is getting perhaps too close to the my peak wattage. The other configurations offered by PicoPSU simply were not easy to get (living in Canada I tried to get the items mostly on what was available from trusted merchants who did not have to ship across the Canadian boarder and charge me all the hidden fees). No regrets on the 150watt PicoPSU. Seems to work just fine.
Heat & Noise Results
Fan measurements are with a single Scythe Kama PWM 120mm 1200RPM Fan blowing down on the CPU heat sink, no case fans. Fan speed was set in the BIOS. Room Temperature was 22Â°C.
BIOS MCP Temperature Mode Fan RPM
Quiet 540 - 600
Medium 900 - 1080
Full on 1200 - 1260
With the fan running in "Quiet mode", other than a few 2.5" HDDS noises (boy, those WD Scorpio Blues really ARE Quiet), I have to shush everyone in the room and bend my head down close to hear anything from this unit. "Is it really on?" I ask myself. So lacking a dB meter for any real numbers, I took the stats off the Scythe box, which says:
â€¢ The fan speed is 310(+-200) - 1200rpm (+-10%)
â€¢ Noise level is between (immeasurable) and 24.89dBA.
â€¢ Air movement between 12.38CFM - 52.71CFM
Here are my subjective
measurements (I have no Db meter):):
BIOS Mode is barely audible
, not really noticeable from the couch 8-10 feet away.
and "Full on"
BIOS Mode is slightly noticeable, but still very quiet
Heat has become my #1 concern with this build. Playing Blu-ray in that ASUS optical drive seems to tax the system the most and therefore generates the most heat. NOTE:
I talked with Zotac technical support about my heat numbers as they were well above any other PC I have built around the AXT mobo configuration. They said that the Zotac IONITX-F-E should run "below 90C" and between "30-60C idle, 60-90C load". That was reassuring to hear, yet it still seems high to me. I have been using CPUIDs Hardware Monitor to monitor the peak temperatures.
Here are the temperature readings Trying 2 different fan speeds. One test is with the machine on idle, two with Blu-ray playing with DTS sound and recording 2 TV shows simultaneously in the background:
SENSOR No load,fan @75% Blu-ray load,fan@75% Blu-ray load,fan@"Quiet"
Peak Â°C Peak Â°C Peak Â°C
CPU1 46 63 94
CPU2 46 62 93
GPU 45 49 76
HDD1 34 51 59
HDD2 34 52 62
As you can see, running this 120mm 1200RPM CPU fan at 540-600RPM "Quiet" mode would be disastrous, but at "75%" (1200RPM) the numbers are quite acceptable to me (based on the reassurances of Zotac's Technical support representative). UPDATE - Mar 25, 2010I have upgraded the BIOS with the Oct 12, 2009 firmware and it included and automatic setting for managing the fan. The setting works really well and it keeps the noise down and the temps down when the machine is loaded.
Here are some samplings over a few sessions of the new peak temperature numbers:
Â°C Â°C Â°C Â°C
So as you can see my HDD and CPU temps are within the acceptable limits. Kudos to Zotac for adding a BIOS temperature mode that seems to work well with little adjustment.
Other Observations & Conclusions
CPU1 61 62 64 65
CPU2 63 62 64 64
GPU 51 51 51 52
HDD1 43 42 46 44
HDD2 44 45 47 45
Another note, It seems to take Arcsoft's TotalMedia Theatre 3, combined with my ASUS Blu-ray combo optical drive, quite a long time to start playing the Blu-ray discs. I am not sure why this is, but I would say it takes away the feeling that this system has Blu-ray playback handled. If anyone has similar issues I would love to hear them and how you solved them. Is it TMT3? Is it the ASUS optical drive? Both?
After playing a Blu-ray movie for 2hours and 20mins that disc was extremely HOT when I took it out of the player! I don't like this, and this is not even the summer where the room temperature can go up another 10Â°C. I will have to examine the circulation of the case. Or perhaps the slim optical drive, although more expensive and less available, is worth it? Things to consider...
My dream of running this Mini-HTPC quietly with one 120mm fan was definitely achievable! The system is barely audible, it has all the power to perform the HTPC tasks, and it's about half the size of my old system. It sips 34watts when idle and peaks at 53watts making this a pretty green machine. I would recommend these components to anyone considering building a HTPC along these lines.
I would love to hear your thoughts and please, ask me any questions you have!