HTPC on the Cheap, Part 1 [Update 1]

Jan 18, 2011 by

A few Entertainment 2.0s ago we discussed building your own low cost HTPC. I have always been a big fan of Intel with my Revo HTPC, however for most people the Atom/ION combination is just not powerful enough for them. The Intel i3 is a great HTPC processor paired with Intel HD Graphics, however, this comes at a price. I decided to go where I have never gone before…AMD. AMD processors and Radeon graphics are both powerful and¬†affordable. Check out the full review here in Part 2.

So here is my goal:

  • 2 ATSC/QAM tuners
  • Dual Core+ processor
  • 2 GB+ RAM
  • 500GB+ Hard Drive (TV Recording)
  • 1080p/Netflix HD/Hulu/Youtube HD flawless playback
  • $500 price point
  • The first things to do is to pick out the processor and motherboard. I looked around at all of the processors that AMD offers and it was a tough decision with prices of dual and triple cores ranging between $57 and $80. The Athlon II X2 240 (on Amazon) offers a 2.8GHz dual core processor and only pulls in 65W for $58, while the Athlon II X3 450 (on Amazon)is a 3.2GHz triple core processors but pulls in 95W of power. This was an extremely tough decision as I am on a tight budget, but the decision was easy once I found the motherboard, which was to go with the Athlon II X3.

    The motherboard needed to support the AM3 chipset of the Athlon II chips and had to have the Radeon HD 4250 onboard. Since I want to build a small HTPC I found the BIOSTAR A880G+ (on Amazon), which features the 4250, has HDMI out, a PCI Express 2.0 x16, 2 PCI Slots, and 4 Sata ports. This little beauty was only $55, and had a $10 mail in rebate. To top it off if you bundled it with the Athlon II X3 you saved an additional $15, which brought the total of motherboard and processor to $110, which is a steal!

    Since I found myself such a great deal on the motherboard and processor I decided to splurge just a little bit and get 4GB of DDR3 RAM. The choice was easy as G.SKILL has been my preferred memory of choice for some time, their
    G.SKILL Ripjaws Series 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3
    for only $49 will compliment the motherboard nicely.

    Finding a nice computer case on a budget that has a nice design is extremely difficult to do. Finding a small form factor case adds complexity to this process as most cases are cheaply made, or just don’t look attractive. I took a long time to look through all of the MicroATX cases that Newegg had to offer, and I landed on a case by APEVIA. It features a 420W power supply, four hard drive bays, and a front LCD temperature display which is a nice touch. This little guy looked like it would look nice sitting under my television and was only $80, plus it had a $10 mail in rebate bringing it down to $70.

    Let’s get the software out of the way right away, we are going to be using
    Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium
    . It has the main feature we’re looking for: Windows 7 Media Center.¬†We need an operating system, so there is no way to get around it. This will add on $100 to the base price of your machine.

    For tuners I really wanted to put an internal card, however most of the dual tuner cards are PCIe x1, however the motherboad only supports x16. You could go with 2 PCI cards which would be just fine as well, however to make everything simple I would recommend picking up a
    SiliconDust HDHomeRun Network-based Dual
    (on Amazon). This is a network tuner, and Josh could not recommend it enough. It was on sale for $90.

    You can get absolutely crazy with hard drives if you would like. I would recommend a nice SSD for your main drive, and a larger data drive, but with only $80 left in the budget I had to keep it simple. I was in luck today as I found a nice
    SAMSUNG Spinpoint 1TB
    (on Amazon) on sale for $55. With $25 under budget you could stop here and checkout, or maybe you want to simplify your life with a nice
    Media Center Remote
    (on Amazon) for $23. I would obviously recommend a nice Harmony remote, but that is not in the budget. If you don’t need a remote then you could always get a dedicated hard drive for Windows so the 1TB drive is dedicated to Recorded TV.

    Now I maxed out the $500 limit here with everything I thought you might need, however this HTPC can be done for less. Let me break down some reductions:
    1.) PCIe Dual Tuner (-$20)
    2.) Cheaper Case (-$20 to $40)
    3.) 2GB RAM instead of 4GB (-$20)
    4.) No Media Center Remote (-$20)
    5.) Smaller Hard Drive? (-$20)

    With these you could easily bring it below $400, even less if you shopped around for deals on the Athlon II X2 processor. I went a bit overboard, but I think this is a solid configuration.

    The question you have now is how does it perform? You will find out in Part 2, I still have to build it! I just received the parts in the mail today, so check out this sweet unboxing video below!

    Update 1:
    Adding video/picture blog:

    Construction Gallery:
    [nggallery id=3]

    First Bootup:

    Bios sneak peak:

    Quick analysis + hard drive noise:

    Windows Experience Index:

    System properties:

    Check out the full review here in Part 2.