Sunday, November 15, 2009

Putting Together a Home Theater PC (HTPC)

Several years ago I starting building a home theater PC (HTPC) with the intention of creating a DVR (digital video recorder). I had purchased a cheap mid-tower computer and starting pulling together various components. Along came Comcast and we've since been using their leased DVR solution with the digital cable package. This has worked alright but the cost of service continues to go up and up while our attention is turning more to Internet video content.

These past few months I've been following new solutions on the horizon with the release of Windows 7. I've researched barebones systems such as the ASRock ION 330HT, buying a Dell Inspiron 537s, and building from components using one of many Mini-ITX motherboard cases like the Antec ISK300-65. Most solutions for a small, quiet, low-power consumption system will run from $350-$500 on up from there.

I decided to focus in on one of the nettop solutions. Several are available now or soon:
After comparing features, cost, and availability, I settled on the Acer Aspire 3610 from The small form-factor, fanless operation, HDMI port, several USB ports, wireless N, 160GB SATA hard drive, eSATA port, dual-core Atom 330 processor and Nvidia ION graphics, and Windows 7 Home Premium made this one a hard system to beat for $329.

Now for the other pieces to bring this all together:

DVD player/burner

I recently purchased an HP Mini 311 netbook with an External USB LightScribe Super Multi 8X DVD+/-RW w/Double Layer. I can easily share this between the netbook and nettop as needed. Other similar drives can be purchased for around $50. Those who wish to have Blue-Ray support can find USB and eSATA compatible drives.


To supplement the internal hard drive, provide for backups, and store music and video, I purchased an Antec MX-1 eSATA hard drive enclosure to use with a refurbished 500GB SATA hard drive. The enclosure is quiet and claims to actively cool the drive so it can remain powered on at all times. So far so good.

Remote Control

For a remote control and infrared receiver I went with Anyware GP-IR02BK which is designed to work with Windows Media Center. It connects via USB and includes two channel infrared. This will run $25-$30 depending where you buy it.


The Acer Aspire Revo 3610 comes with a wireless keyboard and mouse that will likely be sufficient for most users. Both keyboard and mouse connect via a little USB receiver that comes nested inside the mouse. Thinking I might need a better keyboard for use from the couch, I went ahead and purchased the Microsoft ZV1-00004. While this keyboard doesn't come with an infrared receiver, it utilizes the same on that came with my remote control. I don't find I'm using it much so could have easily done without it.


So far I've been pretty happy with Windows Media Center on Windows 7. I've installed Boxee to gain access to Youtube, Pandora Radio, Hulu feeds, and many other sources of Internet content. I removed the trials for Microsoft Office and McAfee Security to start, and installed CCleaner for routine maintenance.

Final Thoughts

Next on my list of to-do's will be installation of a TV Tuner. Currently I'm considering the Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-1950 which connects via USB. It's compatible with Clear QAM digital cable but will likely require that we drop our Comcast service back down to a basic package to work. So, I'll do a bit more research first, but expect it will work just fine for over-the-air digital reception and FM radio. At that point I'll be able to experiment with scheduled recordings, pausing live TV, and taking advantage of the other Windows Media Center features.

Today I ripped several of my old music CDs to the external drive using Windows Media Player. I opted for the highest quality MP3 format and set all my media libraries to use the external drive. Well, back to an on-demand Netflix movie. It's coming through just fine over our wireless connection.


mikepdx said...

The Antex MX-1 enclosure remains on 24/7 to host our Windows 7 Homegroup file share which is accessible from our laptops also running Windows 7. This is also the file repository for music and recorded live TV using Windows Media Center.

I'm pleased with the hard drive and features, but the fan for the enclosure starts to buzz sometimes and I have to go knock it to make the noise stop.

mikepdx said...

Sounding more like the hard drive might be buzzing and not the enclosure after a close inspection so can't blame the MX-1.

mikepdx said...

Photo of the Acer Aspire Revo 3610 is found here:

They're very hard to locate at this time and I'm surprised to see the older version out there going for $100 more that it did several months ago. If I had to do it over, and based on what is available, consider the Zotac MAG HD-ND01. You need to buy an OS, but if you're into Linux you can pair that with and keep the price down for a new Home Theater PC.

mikepdx said...

Did I mention the TV tuner I got for this setup is the Diamond Multimedia TV Wonder HD 650 Combo USB. You can get it for $39 from now and some other online sites for $49 with a remote control. Works fine for over the air DTV. We get most channels with no antenna but I've just put in an order for the RCA ANT1450B Multi-Directional Digital Flat Amplified Home Theater Antenna. I understand the key is to buy an amplified model. These flat units look pretty good.

Haven't tried it pick up Comcast cable yet but it probably won't work with the encrypted QAM 256 signals I understand they are sending now with our package. Maybe if we dropped down to the bugdet package. By then we might as well just skip it and go full Internet content. :)

You'd think we watch so much television but quite honestly we don't. Therefore we see no reason to pay over $100 per month just for cable while we are also paying for premium broadband Internet service.

mikepdx said...

Acer Aspire Revo 3610's available again: