Build a 3D Home Theater PC With Sandy Bridge

Today's personal computers come in a variety of designs and sizes--the era of the one-size-fits-all beige box has long passed. But as our living rooms become more theaterlike, with multichannel speaker systems and big-screen high-definition TVs, the thought of plugging a boxy PC into an entertainment center seems unappealing.

The HTPC, installed in an AV rack, along with a set-top box and an AV receiver.
Enter the home theater PC. An HTPC is a specially built system that lives alongside your other audiovisual components and is designed to look like it belongs in the same rack as a multichannel receiver, satellite or cable set-top box, and other devices. The HTPC can be the repository for your entire digital media library; you can view your home video and photographs on the big screen and hear digital music on high-quality speakers, or share everything with other PCs over your home network. The HTPC also gives you the ability to play 3D Blu-ray movies (as well as standard Blu-ray and DVD movies).

Intel's Sandy Bridge Processor

If you want to build such a system, make Intel's new Sandy Bridge CPU the core ingredient. When Intel designed Sandy Bridge, the company built a graphics engine right onto the CPU chip itself. Although it isn't a great graphics processor for games, the video engine is vastly improved over previous Intel efforts.

The CPU in this HTPC project is an Intel Core i3 2100S processor. The 2100S is a 3.1GHz dual-core CPU with 3MB of L3 cache that supports Intel's Hyper-Threading technology, so it can run four threads at once. This is the lowest-end 65W Sandy Bridge CPU. Intel also offers the 2100T, which is rated at 35W but runs at a somewhat slower 2.5GHz. However, the case you should use for this project is fairly roomy, so the faster, slightly hotter CPU will work fine.

Intel has beefed up the built-in video engine to enable full hardware acceleration of both decoding and encoding high-definition video. That includes all commercially used HD codecs, including Microsoft VC-1, MPEG-2, and H.264. As a result, the video engine fully accelerates Blu-ray playback, while the CPU just idles along. The graphics processing unit actually has dual video engines built in, enabling features such as picture-in-picture without getting the CPU involved. In addition, Intel's HD Graphics supports HDMI 1.4 and dual video blocks, which means that it can handle stereoscopic 3D Blu-ray playback.

The Sum of the Parts

A CPU alone does not make a system, of course. You should consider several factors when you determine the parts list for your home theater PC.

  • The case must blend into your AV component rack.

  • The motherboard should be compact, and it should support HDMI-out.

  • Memory needs to be reliable (low-voltage memory is preferable, to minimize heat and power).

  • The power supply has to deliver robust power without making a lot of noise.

  • If you plan to play Blu-ray discs, you need a Blu-ray drive.

  • If you'll use the HTPC as a media repository, you'll require a really big hard drive.

Let's take a quick look at the component matrix for this system, including the cost.

Home theater PC parts list

The motherboard is Asus's current top Micro ATX Socket 1155 motherboard, which is the socket that Sandy Bridge CPUs need. This particular motherboard also supports SATA 6 gbps (two ports) and USB 3.0. The Kingston LoVo supports voltages as low as 1.25V, which means less heat generation.

The nMediaPC 1000B case. This particular version includes the optional LED display on the front. Memory card and USB ports are hidden underneath a flip-down door.
The nMediaPC case would certainly look at home in a typical AV rack. Toss in the Seasonic power supply, which is fanless, and the overall combination is pretty quiet, though not absolutely silent--the case itself has a pair of small, 60mm fans in the rear. The Seasonic X460W is rated as 80-plus gold, which means that it's very efficient when the system is idle as well as when it's running flat out. The result is less power consumption and heat generation--both of which are critical for a power supply without a cooling fan. It's also a modular power supply, so you can attach only the power connectors you actually need, reducing your machine's internal cable clutter.

This Silverstone NT07 looks a lot like a standard Intel cooler, but the fan has more blades and runs more quietly.
The Silverstone NT07 rounds out the cooling. The interesting thing about this CPU cooler is that it fits into the same space as the standard Intel cooler, which makes installation easier. However, the fan has more blades and is quieter than the stock Intel cooler.

The 2TB Western Digital GreenPower won't win awards for raw hard-drive performance, but it is quieter and cooler, which is important. The 2TB capacity means plenty of storage for digital media. The Asus Blu-ray combo drive plays back Blu-ray movies, and can burn DVDs (and play DVD movies) as needed.

Finally, you'll need software. Windows 7 Home Premium (the 64-bit version, naturally) is the OS of choice. CyberLink's PowerDVD 10 Ultra 3D worked well in our 3D HDTV testing, so you'll need that for 3D Blu-ray playback. The entire package, including software, comes in at under $1000.

Tips for Building Your System

Assembly is straightforward; you'll have no worries about graphics cards, though you might consider adding an HDTV tuner card.
The nMediaPC case is roomy, and all the components are pretty standard, so building the system is a straightforward exercise. Still, every PC build is slightly different, so I'm offering a few tips and tricks that helped me as I built this system.

  • Install the power supply into the case before you install the motherboard. That will make life somewhat easier.

  • The nMediaPC chassis offers a removable bay for storage that extends across the width of the case. A pair of screws hold it in, and it easily slides out. Install the optical drive and hard drive, and then preattach power cables before reinstalling the bay. These cables are modular, so you can then run them to the power supply. I was able to use one cable (with multiple SATA connectors), which minimized cable clutter.

  • Motherboard configuration with the Asus board is dead simple. The new Socket 1155 motherboards now use EFI (extensible firmware interface) instead of the old BIOS setup routines. You can now use your mouse in the motherboard setup.

  • Attach the SATA cables to the motherboard prior to installing the storage bay--especially the hard-drive cable. You need to take this step because the first two SATA connectors point toward the back of the motherboard, rather than up from the motherboard. If you install the storage bay first, attaching the SATA cable to either of the first two connectors is quite awkward.

  • If you choose a different optical drive, make sure that it has a standard bezel, with buttons in the usual places. Some Blu-ray drives have oddly shaped bezels that may look cool but won't work with the flip-out door on the nMediaPC case.

  • You'll want to download the latest Intel HD Graphics driver to ensure stereoscopic 3D Blu-ray playback. The driver on the motherboard installation CD isn't the latest version, and it won't support stereoscopic 3D.

  • After installing Windows 7, you'll have to install the network driver before you can run Windows Update or activate Windows. The motherboard CD does include all necessary drivers for the motherboard itself (also known as the "chipset INF driver"), the on-board audio, and the network driver.

  • The HDMI port fully supports audio through HDMI, so you don't need audio cables if you're routing HDMI to your HDTV or through an AV receiver with HDMI inputs.

Playing 3D Blu-ray Movies

The stack of components used in this HTPC. Note how the case looks like a typical, though somewhat large, AV device.
One primary purpose of this system is to play stereoscopic 3D Blu-ray movies. Intel representatives told me that Blu-ray 3D would work fine with 3D HDTVs, using whatever 3D glasses and built-in HDTV technology are available. It won't work, however, with existing shutter glasses for 120Hz PC displays. Intel will enable stereoscopic 3D for PC displays when 120Hz DisplayPort panels ship later in 2011.

Once I got Windows up and running and PowerDVD Ultra 10 installed, I attached the system to a 42-inch Panasonic TC-P42GT25 plasma 3D TV in the PCWorld Labs. This is when that pesky issue with the Intel HD Graphics driver revealed itself. After we downloaded and installed the latest driver, we had glorious stereoscopic 3D. We tried Ice Age 3 3D, IMAX Deep Sea 3D (which looked spectacular), and a sampler of Disney 3D animation clips.

Next Steps

My system is up and running, and handles 3D Blu-ray beautifully. It's now sitting in my rack of AV gear--so I'm tempted to add a 3D HDTV to my own home theater. However, we could add plenty more tricks and features to this HTPC.

First, if you plan to use your HTPC in your entertainment center, you'll want to add IR remote support. The easiest option is USB; a variety of IR dongles support Windows Media Center. If you use one of those, setting up a programmable remote is relatively straightforward. For example, you can easily configure Logitech Harmony remotes to support Media Center IR receivers.

What about gaming? Intel's HD Graphics technology is fine for very light-duty gaming, but if you want to play anything serious, you'll need to add a discrete graphics card--which could lead to other problems. For one thing, that spiffy Intel video processor simply won't work with another graphics card installed, so you'll need to rely on the GPU's own video-decoding capabilities. Although current-generation Nvidia and AMD GPUs have fairly robust video blocks of their own in hardware, any card capable of high-end gaming performance adds heat and noise. And if you still want support for stereoscopic 3D on your HDTV, you'll need the cards using the latest Nvidia 500 series or AMD 5000 or 6000 series graphics processors. (Check to see if your 3D TV works with 3D Vision glasses on Nvidia's compatibility chart.)

When you set up your HTPC, you used a keyboard and mouse to install Windows; for ongoing use, you may want to add a wireless keyboard and mouse combo to the system. Almost any current-generation wireless keyboard and mouse will work, and you'll want something fairly standard if you plan on gaming or doing a lot of typing. However, something like Logitech's DiNovo Mini is very handy if you need only occasional character entry.

Now that you've built your HTPC, you have a complete platform for exploring digital media on the big screen. Since you've set up Blu-ray playback on a PC, updates to the playback software can add new features. You can add HDTV tuner capability, turning your PC into a high-definition DVR, for instance. You can also create a robust digital media server with packages such as the free VLC.

Or you can just kick back, put on your 3D glasses, and enjoy the show.

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