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.
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.
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 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.
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.