Step 1 – Choose your case.
While the availability of small form factor PC cases are becoming increasingly widespread, as is the availability of small form factor motherboards and components, the choices aren’t as varied as standard size cases and components. Also you’ll find that small form factor components tend to be more expensive.
The next thing you’d have to contend with is the problem of heat. Cramming the latest technology into a tiny case inevitably puts components that generate a huge amount of heat (CPUs, graphics cards, northbridge, etc) closer together which then puts a greater emphasis on cooling. While you could cool the tiny rig with large fans you then encounter another problem, sound. Sure your teeny weeny home theatre PC is smaller than a poodle puppy and looks good near your TV but it generates the equivalent sound of a 747 during takeoff. Defeats the object I think you’ll agree.
Ditch the dreams of an ultra small HTPC because it’ll just cause you headaches. Me personally, I value functionality over aesthetics, with that in mind I went for a huge full tower PC case which was built for quiet operation and has the bonus of looking good too. I went for the Thermaltake Armor case in black. After a while you do get used to it in the front room and it becomes part of everyday life. Don’t forget that you don’t have to place your HTPC case near your TV, you could tuck it away behind the sofa. If your case is going to be on show it’s a good idea to choose your components so that they match colour-wise.
Step 2 – Choose Your Processor.
There are only 2 manufacturers of processor that you should consider; Intel and AMD. There are other manufacturers of processors but they are relatively uncommon and you will have a hard time trying to find components that are compatible. Personally I have always gone for AMD processors with self build projects, they perform on par with Intel processors and are generally cheaper when compared like for like with the Intel chips. Your choice of speed of processor is entirely up to you, some people like to go for the fastest they can afford, while it is true that you need a fairly fast processor you don’t need to go overboard if you’re just using the your media center PC in the living room to watch TV and listen to music. If you plan to use your media center PC for anything else such as games or video editing then you ought to really focus on buying an upper range model of processor. Don’t forget though that generally the faster the processor the more heat it will produce, and heat is the one thing that we’re trying to keep to a minimum due to the cooling. In my HTPC I opted for an AMD Athlon XP 2400+. This processor is by no means fast by today’s standards but it performs the job well using Windows Media Center 2005 (and Windows Vista) and even copes fairly well with the games that I run occasionally. This processor is really cheap now as it has been superseded; a quick search on eBay sees some XP 2400+ processors selling for less than £40. If I were to build one again right now I would probably be opting for a processor that would fit a socket 940 motherboard as this would ensure that the PC is upgradeable in the future should I need to.
Step 3 – Choose your motherboard (or mainboard).
The motherboard will be your key purchase, it might not be the most expensive component but choosing a motherboard wisely can maximise the performance of all the other components that are going to attach to it. You don’t want to be spending £200 on a processor which isn’t performing to its capabilities due to a wrong choice in your £50 motherboard do you? Your choice of motherboard will be primarily determined by your choice of processor. If you have chosen a AMD XP 2400+ processor like the one I have then you will need to choose a socket A motherboard. If you have chosen a newer AMD processor like the AMD Sempron 3600+ for instance, then you will most likely need a socket 940 motherboard. If you’ve chosen a newer Intel processor like the Pentium D 930 then you will most likely need a socket 775 motherboard. Look at the manufacturer’s documentation that accompanies the processor and it will tell you which socket of motherboard that it will fit into. Please note that you must buy the right motherboard that will fit your processor, otherwise the two will not fit together in anyway and they will be entirely incompatible.
Now you have determined which ‘socket’ of motherboard you need it’s time to shop around. Make sure you buy a motherboard with a decent chipset manufacturer such as Nvidia (nforce chipset), Intel, or VIA (the chipset of the motherboard is handles data traffic between your processor, memory, and any peripherals you may have installed). If you plan to use your Media Center PC primarily for watching TV and listening to music then you might want to consider opting for a motherboard with on board graphics (graphics card built on to the motherboard), on board sound card, and on board LAN/wireless card. This would pretty much take care of most of the components you would need all on one board. If you’re going to use your Media Center for games at any point then my advice would be to choose a motherboard that doesn’t incorporate on board graphics as the on board graphics built in to motherboards, though they will perform the job of displaying video adequately, don’t tend to be that powerful when it comes to gaming. You could also opt to have a separate sound card that Surrey Realtor provides higher quality sound it all depends on how serious you are about the sound that’s going to be coming from your HTPC, for most I think the onboard sound would do (tip: whether going for onboard sound or a separate sound card, make sure it’s capable of at least 5.1 surround sound for use when watching DVDs. Even if you only plan on using 2 speakers, these cards can be configured for 2 speaker output). In my HTPC I opted for the MSI K7N2 Delta-L socket A motherboard. It came with onboard LAN and onboard 5.1 sound but I chose to add a separate sound card for reasons I shall divulge later.