Build a 3D Home Theater PC With Sandy Bridge

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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