Off the Shelf

If all you want is a more flexible set-top-box, I recommend the Acer Revo RL100 (it is fast enough to run Windows 7 with it's AMD Athlon II Neo dual-core processor, and the 500GB hard drive can store plenty of recordings). It even has a BluRay drive.

Custom Build an HTPC

If you want a bit more power and storage space, then your best option is to build your own HTPC. This is how I built an HTPC - not a top of the range, over-powered machine - but a machine with decent speed and memory to do everything I need it to do.

1. Choose a Case

The first thing to choose is the case. The cosmetics are very important - if the HTPC is going to be on display in your sitting room, you want it to look good. But there are also technical implications - aerodynamics (you don't want noisy fans like you have in a standard PC), and size (you want enough room to fit a fast processor and multiple hard drives, but you don't want an enormous box taking up half the sitting room). There are many HTPC case solutions available; the Wesena E5 (Silver) 100% Aluminium HTPC Case is one very smart example. And Streacom do a range of fanless home theatre cases with aluminium chassis - particularly good if you want to keep your HTPC silent. I chose the black SilverStone LASCALA SST-LC16B-MR because I wanted room for multiple hard disks and full height PCI cards [and I thought the VFD (vacuum fluorescent display) looked pretty cool]. It's a bit bigger than other models, but it comes with a remote control as well as a USB port and flash card reader built into a discreet flap below the LCD display.

2. Motherboard

Once you've chosen the case, you know what size motherboard you can get (some of the very small cases can only fit micro ITX motherboards). The SilverStone LC16 case can fit micro-ATX or full ATX motherboards. I chose the micro-ATX Asus F1A75-M PRO Motherboard as I wouldn't need the extra expansion slots that a full ATX motherboard provides.

3. Processors

And then any of the AMD Socket F1 processors would work with that, so I chose the AMD Llano A6-3500 Tri-Core Processor with Integrated AMD Radeon HD, 6530D Graphics and Socket FM1. This is a 65W chip, so will use less electricity and create less heat than the faster 100W chips - a good balance of power and energy saving for an HTPC.

4. Fans

A good CPU cooler is essential, I chose the Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Pro Rev.2 CPU Cooler as that was pretty much the only cooler with a sideways mounted fan that fits in the case. Ideally the fan would blow towards the rear of the case so that it is complementing the flow of air from the two rear exhaust fans and the front fans, but because of the mounting restrictions of the Arctic cooler it has to be mounted across. I still think the airflow in the case will be efficient, and the diagram below shows how the air is predicted to flow:


To install the Antec front intake cooling fans you need to remove the hard-drive cages to access the metal blanking plate. [gallery include="1982,1983,2006"]

5. Hard-drive & Memory

The Samsung 128GB 830 SSD SATA III in place (looking a bit small in the large space!), and the Antec TriCool 92mm fan which is mounted at the front of the drive cage pulling cool air in from the front of the case.

In the foreground of the above photo you can see the Corsair 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3 Vengeance Memory. The Asus motherboard can take up to 64Gb - but I thought I'd start with 8Gb, as that should be plenty for the job in hand.

6. Power Supply

I kept the wattage of the Power Supply Unit (PSU) as low as possible; Antec High Current Gamer 400W Power Supply. 400W might not sound much when you would expect at least 650W in a desktop PC these days, but in fact when you do the maths it is plenty. And as most PSUs aren't very efficient when running below 20% capacity, it's not good to have too much power!

7. TV Card

Finally, if you want to use your HTPC as a PVR (Personal Video Recorder) and to watch live broadcast TV (rather than just streaming catch-up-tv), you will need a TV card. Ideally you want a PCI card not a USB tuner, and there are only a few PCI HD cards on the market at the moment. The brand I recommend is TBS - they have a range of digital TV and satellite PCIe cards. I chose the TBS PCIe DVB-T2 Dual TV Tuner Card (TBS6281), but if recording multiple channels at once you may need the TBS PCIe DVB-T2 Quad TV Tuner Card (TBS6285). There is also the BlackGold dual DVB-T2 Tuner card. Both are High Definition Digital Free to Air Tuners with dual tuners - so you can watch one channel and record another, they are also backward compatible to the standard non-HD DVB-T as well as the new HD DVB-T2. There probably isn't much between them - they may even be based on the same microchip, but I am favouring the TBS Tuner Card as reviews show that its drivers are more up-to-date, and it is cheaper!

Full list of kit used:

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