Category Archives: HTPC

The Solid State PC

A silent PC is one that makes absolutely no noise, and by necessity has no moving parts (including fans). Such systems usually use very low-end hardware limited to trivial tasks such as running a cash register. The system introduced today, a Solid-State PC (SSPC) is a powerful quad-core i5 PC which runs most software faster than the majority of modern PCs, yet uses less than 25W idle.

Continue reading The Solid State PC

Cheap HTPC mini trackpad and keyboard

Note: Just trying out the video review format for the first time using my Canon Kiss X4 (Rebel T2i or 550D).  Maintaining focus and handling the product and talking at the same time presents its challenges, but I hope I can get used to it.  The depth of field is very shallow but at least you can see everything clearly with the exception of the darkened on/off switch.  I’m not sure if there’s any benefit to using 1080P for this video, but at least it makes the 360P and 480P and 720P version look very clean due to down sampling.

This is the iPazzPort bluetooth keyboard and trackpad. The name sounds funny where I can visualize a picture of a fat cat sitting on the couch with the caption “I can haz remote controlz?” But jokes about the name aside, this seems like a very viable product.

At $42 shipped from China (or $50 at buy.com), it’s the lowest price that I know of for a mini bluetooth keyboard/trackpad. Lenovo has something for $60 and Logitech has the DiNovo for $150.

The keyboard has a backlight for darker rooms and the keys offer some good tactile feedback while the trackpad and scrollbar work smoothly and accurately. It’s also a thin device with average build quality that feels pretty good in the hands overall.

BlueTooth paring was simple and you didn’t need any special drivers. Just push the button at the bottom and scan for it in the Windows BlueTooth user interface, then key in the pairing key and hit enter on the keyboard. The wireless range works well beyond 30 feet so it should work in any size living room.

The bottom part of this chassis feels slightly loose and the on/off button doesn’t glide on and off easily, but I’ve just left it in the permanent on position since the device goes to sleep on its own to conserve battery life. It has a lithium ion battery that recharges via the USB port, but I don’t know how long the charge lasts when I don’t bother turning the thing off. I’ll post an update on battery life days or weeks later when I need to recharge this thing.

Overall, this is a good form factor device that works well. If you need to control an home theater PC in the living room, I don’t think there is a more affordable option than the iPazzPort.

How to get a nice Home Theater PC for $595

As I’ve previously explained, an Intel G45 motherboard and Intel Conroe-L “Celeron” processor makes the ideal computer system as oppose to an NVIDIA Ion system.  Now I’ll give you the full configuration list of parts for building a great HTPC system for under $600.

Thermaltake Mozart Xaser

Blu-ray and NAS storage capable Home Theater PC (HTPC)

Item Cost
Foxconn G45 MicroATX motherboard

ICH10R storage controller (RAID 0, 1, 10, 5) and Blu-ray capable HDMI graphics

$92
Intel “Celeron” 430 Conroe-L 1.8 GHz

Stock speed much faster than dual-core Atom, and can easily clock to 2.88 GHz

$40
2 GB DDR2-800 RAM $22
Lite-on Blu-ray ROM drive $90
Western Digital Green 1.5 Terabyte Hard Drive $140
Thermaltake Xaser Mozart HTPC chassis (supports 5 internal hard drives) $109
Hauppauge 1196 WinTV HVR-1250 Hybrid Video Recorder PCI-Express 1x $52
Seasonic S12 330 watt 80 Plus power supply $50
Total $595

At $595, this is an unheard of price for an awesome HTPC system that you can hook up to your HDTV television set via HDMI cable.  Not only can you play Blu-ray movies, surf the web, and watch Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and every other website, you can also do some casual PC gaming on your living room TV.  A good Blu-ray player without any recording and storage capacity will cost you this much money and Blu-ray players typically have very annoying one-minute startup times but this computer can sleep and wake in a few seconds for instant-on gratification.  You can also add 4 more hard drives to this chassis and have this double as a super fast gigabit network attached storage (NAS) server and the RAID 5 controller in the motherboard makes fault tolerant storage feasible.

To make sure this is compatible with your HDTV set, you need an HDTV with HDMI inputs with either 1280×720, 1366×768, or 1920×1080 native resolution (preferably the latter which is usually called “Full HD 1080P”).  A nice 42″ LCD 1080P HDTV these days can be had for under $1000.  You don’t need to worry about sound because HDMI covers both video and audio so it’s nice and simple with only one cable and connector to worry about.  Also make sure you don’t make the mistake of buying hundred dollar HDMI monster cables.

Lastly, if you’re going to buy an OEM copy of Windows Premium Edition, wait till fall for Windows 7 and it should be available for around $120.  I would also suspect that vendors will soon be offering free Windows 7 coupons for those who purchase Windows Vista.

Update 5/17/2009 – Note that the Blu-ray optical drive comes with an OEM copy of PowerDVD.  The OEM copy is limited to stereo audio which is fine if you’re plugging this HTPC directly into your HDTV which typically only supports stereo anyways.  If you’re going to plug this into a 5.1 or 7.1 receiver, then you’re going to need to upgrade to the full retail version of PowerDVD.

Also note that this type of system will idle around 40 watts or less and peak at well under 90 watts.  The 330 watt power supply makes it somewhat difficult to achieve very low power states because the power consumption is too low to be in the optimum range of this power supply which is one of the smaller PSUs you can find.  But if you load in 4 more energy efficient hard drives, we might expect the idle power consumption to remain below 55 watts which is extremely reasonable for a 6 TB storage device (using RAID-5).

At $179, NVIDIA Ion solution loses all of its appeal

Update 5/15/2009 – I made a mistake and didn’t factor in the DC power supply you get with the $179 price on the Ion.  That means I need to include a power supply in the alternative.

TechReport just reviewed one of the first mini-ITX NVIDIA Ion platform solutions from Zotac which involves an NVIDIA 9300 graphics adapter and Intel Atom 330 1.6 GHz dual-core CPU.  The problem is that its MSRP is priced at $179 and at that price, one can buy a far better integrated graphics Intel G45 motherboard and Intel Conroe-L 1.8 GHz CPU for less money.  While the street price for the Zotac Ion solution might be less than $179, it will likely not be too much lower.  The superior performing G45/Conroe-L solution shown in Table 1 could be had for a mere $132 $175 which completely strips all of the appeal of the Ion solution.  The street price for the Ion system should come down in price a little but the lack of performance for the money is some concern for me.

Table 1 – Bare bone platform

Item Cost
Foxconn G45 MicroATX motherboard

ICH10R storage controller (RAID 0, 1, 10, 5) and Blu-ray capable HDMI graphics

$92
Intel “Celeron” 430 Conroe-L 1.8 GHz

Stock speed much faster than dual-core Atom, and can easily clock to 2.88 GHz

$40
Sparkle SPI220LE 220 watt PSU $43
Platform total $175

Furthermore, I can’t say I’m too confident about motherboards based on NVIDIA chipsets since I’ve been burned on them before.  The NVIDIA 7050 platform which was introduced less than two years ago never got S3 suspend mode working right without crashing during wake up.  The original BFG review board based on the NVIDIA 7050 chipset bombed the suspend test and a recent ECS model GF7050VT-M I got for my cousin had the exact same problem.  What’s even more shocking to me was that driver development seems to have ended in 2007 which is the same year the product came out.

This is not to say I don’t like NVIDIA graphics cards which are not the same thing as their motherboard chipsets.  I actually favor NVIDIA graphics cards because they support a development platform called CUDA which allows some applications like password cracking and video encoding to operate 10 times faster than the fastest CPU.  Video game support also seems to be better with NVIDIA graphics.  But the 7050 chipset fiasco has left a foul taste in my mouth for NVIDIA motherboard chipsets and the price doesn’t impress me too much either.  Intel graphics on the other hand have always lagged in terms of video processing and gaming support but that’s getting better recently especially with the G45 line.  More importantly, Intel motherboard chipsets have always been well supported and while they’re not always perfect (no product is), at least I know that newer drivers will come and fix the issues.

Be sure to check out my follow up on how to build a perfect Home Theater PC for under $600.

Blu-ray PC blues

In an effort to build the cheapest computer I can build that plays Blu-ray DVD movies, I put the NVIDIA 7150 chipset with Intel Allendale dual-core 2.93 GHz (overclocked) test bed to work.  I’ve already been having some problems with this inexpensive embedded NVIDIA chipset but I wanted to put it to the most challenging video load it can handle.

To start off, I put in a Pioneer BDC-S02BK Blu-ray ROM drive in the computer and put it to the test using PowerDVD 8.0 trial edition.  The result was an absolute failure and I couldn’t even get the drive to recognize “The Other Boleyn Girl” 2008 Blu-ray edition that I rented from Netflix.  The drive would recognize HQV Blu-ray edition test disk but the frame rate was just awful and at times it was like watching a 5 fps slide show and the CPU hit near 100% for both CPU cores on the Intel Allendale 2.93 GHz processor.  Mid way through, PowerDVD 8 crashed and took about 5 minutes to terminate the process.

So I went to Fry’s and picked up a Lite-on BD-ROM drive for $110 and that came with an OEM edition of PowerDVD 7 which only permits 2-channel audio but that was fine for me since I’m only hooking the computer up to my DLP HDTV.  I put the disk in and “The Other Boleyn Girl” worked with PowerDVD 7 but it was still jerky at times and the CPU hit 90+ percent again.

At this point since this motherboard and embedded GPU is absolutely worthless for Blu-ray, I’m going to try and pick up an AMD Radeon HD 3450 PCI-Express graphics card with full H.264 and VC-1 acceleration for $37.  I’m going to switch to an inexpensive Intel G33 chipset motherboard because I want the S3 sleep state to work so that the computer can have instant on capability.

The NVIDIA 7150 motherboard is crashing whenever it wakes from S3 sleep state and I don’t know if it’s a bad implementation by XFX or if all NVDIA 7150 chipset motherboards have this problem.  Since I can’t get any support on this from NVIDIA or XFX after repeated queries, I’m going to assume the worst until I get my hands on another 7150 to test and suspend my recommendation of this chipset for now even if you’re not using it for Blu-ray playback.

Build the ultimate 5-TB Home Theater gaming PC that rips or burns 6 DVDs simultaneously

My former colleague Adrian Kingsley-Hughes pondered whether it was feasible to rip (to digitally archive) his entire DVD collection in to a computer.  Adrian estimates that he has at least 600 DVDs and that each would take 30 minutes to rip which works out to 12.5 days of non-stop ripping.  So I popped Adrian an instant message telling him that it’s actually nowhere near as bad and that it could be done 6 DVDs at a time and each batch would probably take no more than 15 minutes which works out to 25 hours of solid ripping time.  After chatting for about an hour, I think Adrian was fairly convinced that this was more than feasible and that perhaps he would even attempt it.

But how would you actually build such a machine?  A key consideration is that you never want to use PATA interface optical drives configured as master/slave because of severe performance problems for ripping or burning DVDs.  The other problem is that it’s difficult to hook up 6 PATA drives is the difficulty in wiring those thick or wide PATA cables and motherboards don’t come with 6 PATA ports.  But this is an easy problem to solve because many of the newer Intel P35-chipset motherboards have 8 SATA II ports which allows you to easily connect many hard drives and optical drives.

Adrian and I pondered some hardware options and Adrian suggested the “Sharkoon Rebel 12” full ATX tower chassis he sourced from the UK, the ICY DOCK MB455SPF-B 5 in 3 Multi Bay, and an Adaptec 1430SA 4-port SATA II RAID controller.  I found the Sabrent SBT-SRD4 PCI 4-port SATA I controller for $60 and since SATA I is probably 10 times faster than what you need for an optical drive and we don’t need RAID, I suggested the cheaper option.

I also suggested that this DVD ripping station would be an awesome storage NAS (Network Attached Storage) box as well as an awesome HTPC (Home Theater PC) and gaming system all at the same time.  This not only saves you money because you don’t need to build multiple solutions, but it saves on energy costs since this is a low-power machine.  It also has the ability to burn 5 or 6 DVDs at a time which allows you to quickly make multiple copies of your kids school recital to hand out or hold on as backups.

I have put together two build lists.  The first is a 5-drive ripping/burning station with 3.75 TB of storage that also serves as an HTPC computer.  The second is the ultimate 5 TB NAS, HTPC, Gaming, Ripping/Burning PC that can be built at an affordable price.  Given the fact that the average DVD requires about 6 GBs of storage, the first configuration will store 625 DVDs and the second will store 833 DVDs.  The 5 TB solution can also store around 8000 CDs uncompressed.  If you want to record TV programming at 5 Mbps, the 5 TB system will let you store 2,222 hours of programming.  If you want to record over-the-air HD programming at 15 Mbps, the 5 TB system will let you store 740 hours of programming.


Note: You are free to mix and match or substitute your own preferences in hardware but if you’re not sure about something, stick with the exact build list.

Configuration I – 3.75 TB NAS, 5x Rip/Burn, HTPC

Component Price
GIGABYTE GA-EP35-DS3R LGA 775 Intel P35 ICH9R (8-SATA ports) 128
Intel Pentium E2180 Allendale 2GHz dual-core 70
2 GB DDR2-800 DIMM 43
SeaSonic S12 II SS-330GB ATX12V 330W “80 Plus” Power Supply 68
COOLER MASTER COSMOS 1000 RC-1000-KSN1-GP Black/Silver 225
Leadtek PX8500 GT TDH HDMI GeForce 8500GT 256MB 88
(Quantity 6) Western Digital Caviar GP WD7500AACS 750GB – OEM 720
(Quantity 5) LG Black 20X DVD burner (SATA) 160
Sabrent SBT-SRD4 PCI 4-port SATA I 34
Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-1250 MC – White Box 1187 PCI-Express 66
Sub total (including shipping) 1602

Configuration II – 5 TB NAS, 6x Rip/Burn, HTPC, Gaming PC

Component Price
GIGABYTE GA-EP35-DS3R LGA 775 Intel P35 ICH9R (8-SATA ports) 128
Intel Core 2 Duo E7200 Wolfdale (45nm) 2.53GHz 3MB L2 cache 132
2 GB DDR2-800 DIMM 43
SeaSonic S12 II SS-330GB ATX12V 330W “80 Plus” Power Supply 68
COOLER MASTER Stacker 830 Evolution RC-830-KKN3-GP Black 260
ICY DOCK MB455SPF-B 5 in 3 Multi Bay hot-swap backplane 93
PALiT NE/960TSX0252 GeForce 9600GT SONIC 512MB 177
(Quantity 6) Western Digital Caviar GP WD10EACS 1TB 1116
(Quantity 6) LG Black 20X DVD burner (SATA) 192
Sabrent SBT-SRD4 PCI 4-port SATA I 34
Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-1250 MC – White Box 1187 PCI-Express 66
Sub total (including shipping) 2309

Notes on the hardware

  • The motherboard comes with an ICH9R RAID controller but that’s only for 6 of the SATA II ports.  The other 2 SATA ports use a separate IDE controller on the motherboard.  The extra 4-port Sabrent PCI adapter gives you a total of 16 SATA ports.
  • The 2 GHz Intel Allendale is overkill for the storage and HTPC application so it’s plenty fast and it’s a very low power chip on idle and peak power consumption.  The faster Intel “Wolfdale” E7200 is even lower power despite its faster performance.  You can expect both systems to idle 100 watt range.  Both of these CPUs have plenty of room to overclock and a safe overclock can be achieved by simply adjusting the FSB clock speed from 266 to 333.  But be sure you don’t allow the effective memory clock to go above 400 MHz since the Gigabyte motherboards like to adjust the memory ratios.
  • 2 GB DDR2-800 DIMM memory is pretty standard on any computer these days because of the low cost and it gives you room to overclock.  You could get 2 of them just to get dual-channel memory.
  • The quality SeaSonic 330 watt power supply is more than enough for both systems.  These CPUs are extremely low power and even the Western Digital hard drives are “green” and they only consume half the power of ordinary hard drives .  The NVIDIA 9600 Graphics card is probably the lowest power consuming video card capable of adequate game play.  So there is absolutely nothing in this computer that will overload the power supply and there’s not much more you can add to the system as it’s already physically filled to capacity.  If you’re planning on using an Intel Quad-core CPU or a much more powerful GPU, it will still be adequate but you could switch to the 400 watt power supply if you want extra room to grow.
  • The NVIDIA 8500 is fine for HTPC but it isn’t a gaming card.  The NVIDIA 9600 Graphics card is not only low power but it can run games adequately fast for 1680×1050 or even 1920×1080.  This PALiT card even has a “Displayport” port which allows ultra high resolution displays but I selected it because of the HDMI port.  The Leadtek 8500 also has an HDMI port so check out my old HDMI survival guide .  Note that the sound works by you running an S/PDIF digital audio cable from your motherboard to the video card.  The video card then consolidates that audio signal in to the HDMI port so you only need a single HDMI cable going from your video card to the HDTV.
  • The Hauppauge WinTV card is both an ATSC digital SD/HD TV tuner and an analog cable TV tuner adapter for maximum versatility.

RAID configuration tips

Be sure to only use the non-ICH9R ports (it is color coded on the motherboard) for the optical drives and leave the 6 Intel ICH9R ports for the hard drives.  Note that if you want good RAID-5 write performance, you must install the Intel RAID software and enable “write-back cache”.  The downside to enabling “write-back cache” is that it can lead to data corruption if the power goes out while you’re writing.  That’s not a big problem for this application since you would simply delete the unfinished DVD ripping batch jobs and start them over again.

Disk ripping tips

To rip 6 DVDs at the same time, simply fire up 6 copies of “ DVD Decrypter “.  Since DVD Decrypter was discontinued in 2005 in response to a legal threat, it may not work on some of the latest DVD titles.  I would suggest putting those in a separate but small pile and use a commercial DVD ripper or look at the DVD backup guides on Doom9.org .  My friend Charles recommends using the AnyDVD commercial middleware that makes DVD Decrypter work for any DVD and that it’s worth the 40 Euros.

Is DVD Ripping legal?  According to Wikipedia entry on DVD Decrypter

“In the noted “321” case, Federal District Judge Susan Illston, of the Northern District of California [6], ruled that the backup copies made with software such as DVD Decrypter are in fact legal but that distribution of the software used to make them is illegal . As of the date of this revision, neither the US Supreme Court nor the US Congress has taken definitive action on the matter.”

So it appears that it’s legal to use but illegal to distribute but it’s far from settled.  If you’re not giving away or selling copyrighted movies and you’re only ripping DVDs that you purchased for personal use, it’s doubtful that you will run afoul of the law.

Lastly, this hardware does support the ripping of CDs.  Since CDs are so small to begin with, I would suggest that you rip your CDs to a lossless format rather than compressing it further for maximum quality.  You can always convert them later to MP3 or WMA format for your portable players.

Disk burning tips

Burning 6 different images at the same time may not be wise and may result in ruined blanks.  You can try it but I generally recommend synchronized burning of identical images (make multiple copies of same disk simultaneously).  The software I use is Nero Burning ROM which supports multiple targets and it works for both DVDs as well as CDs.

Operating System

If you want the flexibility of a Windows Media Center machine that can game along with the storage capability, then Windows Vista Premium Edition $95 is probably your best bet.  Microsoft’s Windows Home Server costs $160 and you can’t use it as a Windows Media Center and you can’t even get Video Drivers.  If you have an older copy of Windows Media Center Edition (same as Windows XP), that should work too.  Sure you won’t get the advanced storage features but it’s not worth the tradeoff to me and you can still share out directories with Windows Vista Premium.  Yes I’m cheap because computer hardware doesn’t grow on trees and I want a system that does a whole lot more than just storage.  It also takes a lot more power to run two computers since both the storage server and the media center PC needs to be turned on all the time and it makes perfect sense to consolidate the two.

If you have any other questions, please post a question below.