Sunday, September 7, 2008

HTPC up and running finally!

One year ago, I started looking at building a HTPC for my living room (1)(2) but had it KIVed due to costs and more importantly the maturity of hardware HD decoding and availability of native HDMI+HDCP output combining both audio and video.

Recently, I revisited the project and am mighty glad to find plenty of options available and most of them at affordable costs. So over the weekend, I took the plunge and built my own "BD player" (and a whole lot more) for about 1k SGD.

The heart of the setup is the GIGABYTE GA-MA78GPM-DS2H motherboard. This mobo is based on the excellent AMD 780G chipset and features the ATI Radeon™ HD3200 (DirectX 10 capable) as its iGPU. It is actually a revision of the popular GA-MA78GM-S2H with an added DDR3 128MB SidePort Memory (essentially dedicated memory for the iGPU). It also features a native HDMI+HDCP output that delivers both audio and video.

The board is mated to an AMD Phenom X3 8650 processor and 2x2GB of DDR2-800 RAM. Triple core CPU is used as it is well suited for video and 3D rendering tasks, which will be the most common tasks on this PC. Plus you get more bang for the buck compared to the quad core ones. Power consumption and heat also come into mind. 2x2GB in Dual Channel mode provides more than adequate performance for now. Note that the board has 4 DIMM slots so you can add-on an additional 4GB at a later time. Also, although it supports DDR3 specs, the performance gain does not justify the cost today (its about 2x the price of the DDR2!).

Hard disk is a single 500GB Western Digital Caviar Green Power SATA 2 edition; Again chosen for its price and power/heat/noise characteristics. I only need one mid-size HDD in my HTPC as I have a NAS cum media server on my network. The casing I've selected can pack in 2 HDD giving you a total of 2TB if required.

And finally, the casing is the Antec Fusion Black 430. It is a rather big and heavy chasis but note that it only fits a microATX motherboard due to its unique tri-chamber design. Exterior wise, it resembles a conventional hifi component and features a LCD display and volume knob. The casing also comes with an IR receiver that is Vista and MCE compatible but without a MCE remote. This is fine by me since I use a Harmony remote anyway. The included 430W power supply is RoHS and 80 PLUS certified and is more than sufficient for the parts I'm throwing in. Chasis cooling takes the form of two 120mm fans which is very quiet at low setting. Any higher and they get audible but not annoying as the AMD stock CPU cooling fan. One gripe is that the fan speeds are manually set via a physical switch INSIDE the casing hence you can pretty much forget about adjusting them according to the CPU load.

The setup scored a Windows Experience Index of 4.1. As expected, the lowest value is due to the 3D performance. 2D scored 4.6 while the rest are well above 5.

The box is placed in a closed cabinet and after 30mins of running idle, both system and CPU temps can hit close to 50 Degrees Celsius. I may have to consider cutting up the rear of the cabinet to make way for an exhaust fan. Oh, and the stock AMD cooler fan is loud as hell at those temps (around 5k RPM). So do go out and get a decent aftermarket cooler.

The box is hooked up to my Pioneer PDP-508XG via HDMI. Resolution on the TV is automatically set at 1360x768 after the latest Catalyst drivers are installed. Setting to any of the HD resolutions (i.e. 720p/1080i/1080p) causes overscan when the TV is set to "TV Mode". You need to set it to "PC Mode" to get around this problem. Text is sharp and picture is good at the native resolution of 1360x768 hence I do not see a point in having the GPU output at 1080i/p resolution only to be downscaled later by the TV's internal processor.

Sound output is via HDMI to the TV and is pretty decent. I have it connected separately to my 6.1 Pioneer HTiB via optical S/PDIF but have to manually change the default sound device in the Realtek HD audio control panel before I can get sound output from there. Ideally I would like to output to both devices at the same time or better yet, selective output based on programs I run. e.g. Windows Media Center audio output should be via HTiB while the system sounds can be piped through the TV.

Here is the breakdown with costs for my setup:

CPU: Phenom X3 8650 HD8650WCGHBOX 2.3GHz Socket AM2+, $0 (bundle with mobo).
Motherboard: GIGABYTE GA-MA78GPM-DS2H AMD 780G chipset microATX, $355 (SLS Bell Systems)
Memory: Kingston DDR2-800 2 x 2GB Kit, $104.(SLS Bell Systems)
Graphics Card: Radeon HD 3200 (integrated in motherboard the chipset), $0.
HDD: Western Digital Caviar WD5000AACS 500GB SATA2, $101.(SLS Bell Systems)
PSU: Antec EarthWatts EA 430 (included in the case), $0.
Case: Antec Fusion Black 430, $339 (SLS Media Mart).

The following are on my todo list:

CPU Cooler: Scythe SCMNJ-1000 Ninja MINI (S$69).
TV Tuner: ??
Wireless Keyboard: Logitech DiNovo Edge S$399

CPU cooler was on my core list but too bad none of my selections had stock in any of the shops in SLS! But I really ought to get one soon as the buzz from the stock CPU cooler is killing me!

For the ODD, I had a choice between the LG and a LITE-ON DH-4O1S which costs only S$159. I had to drop the latter as it cannot write to CD/DVD while the LG one can. Since my choice of casing only allows me to have a single 5.25" device, I needed one that can read Blu-ray for movies but at the same time can read/write to CD/DVD for data/music/home movies! Forget writing to Blu-ray as the media is still way too expensive and the players are not as prevalent yet. (How many people you know owns a Blu-ray player?)

I'm still sourcing for an internal TV Tuner card to complete the setup. I'm split between looking for something that can accept HD input (via component or HDMI better) and has native hardware H.264 encoder or just settle for a conventional dual (DVB-T and analogue) TV tuner with hardware MPEG2, or even just a hybrid tuner without the hardware encoder since the 2.3GHz triple core CPU should be more than sufficient for handling the MPEG2 encoding in software. If you have any thoughts on this, let me know!

BTW, if you are going for the last option (i.e. TV card with no hardware encoder), be wary that you will need to jump through quite a few hoops to make it work in MCE or WMC.

Project updates:

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