Building a Home Theater PC

VLC

I’ve always favored a dedicated home theater PC (HTPC) in my living room instead of relying on a smart TV or stream box.  I enjoy the functionality and flexibility of a Windows PC over restrictive and sometimes clunky streaming hardware.  It’s nice to seamlessly switch between streaming Netflix, consulting episode guides on Wikipedia, and watching clips on YouTube.  A PC also gives you access to a large catalog of streams beyond the normal services and it simplifies the experience.  You can navigate between many different networks and content providers within one browser, forget about switching between slow dedicated apps.

HTPCs used to be simple and inexpensive.  A low end processor with a little bit of RAM was all you needed.  All of the difficult work that is normally handled by the processor, such as video decompression, is instead handled by a dedicated graphics chip on the motherboard or integrated into the processor.  This is termed “hardware acceleration.”  Media players such as VLC and Flash based media streams all knew to task the graphics chip with the video decompression.

Then YouTube ruined everything.  Early in 2015 YouTube switched to an HTML5 video player.  While this seems like good progress the HTML5 player has one large flaw, it does not support hardware decompression.  The player relies on the processor to all video decoding and is very taxing for any processor.  People immediately found their YouTube videos stuttering and skipping, myself included.  Playing any 1080p video would choke my CPU.

It’s extremely frustrating to have a home theater PC that cannot play a lowly HTML5 YouTube video.  At the time of writing my old HTPC was 5 years old.  I decided to update and put together a new low cost HTPC that could tackle anything.

Here’s what I put together:

CaseSilverstone HTPC Case – One of the most important parts of the build.  You want something small and attractive but also low-key.  The case should have some flexibility and be easy to work on.  This case meets all criteria.

ProcessorAMD A10-7850K – Quad core processor to tackle any and all decoding and decompression.  I thought it was overkill when I started and used a dual core processor instead – that was a mistake.  I switched to the A10 here and haven’t looked back.  YouTube 1080p 60 fps streams are smooth and clean.

CoolerArtic Alpine 64 – Normally I’m happy with stock CPU coolers but in this case the AMD supplied fan has a bit of a whine and a distracting tendency to change speeds.  This cooler is inexpensive and silent.

MotherboardMSI FM2+ Micro ATX – Solid Micro ATX board with support for the processor.  Great BIOS for easy setup.

MemoryCrucial 4GB DDR3 – Single stick of 4 GB.  This should be sufficient but there’s room for expansion in the future.

Hard DriveKingston 120GB SSD – Quiet, snappy, and inexpensive.  Perfect for the OS but think about a larger 3.5″ disk if you plan on “downloading” a few TV series.

BluRay DriveLG BD-ROM Drive – Optional but nice if you still have some physical media in your catalog.

Power SupplyCorsair CX 430W – Good budget power supply with modular cables to reduce clutter inside the case.

OSWindows 7 SP1 x64 – The old standby here, I prefer it over Windows 8, plus there’s talk of a free upgrade to Windows 10.

All in, you’re looking at about $530 for a complete build.  I was able to save a lot of money since I was upgrading my old HTPC.  I spent about $220 just upgrading the guts of the system with the new motherboard, processor, and RAM.  Mission accomplished and I should have a rock solid HTPC for the next few years.

That’s it!  Happy building.

Building an Autodesk Inventor PC – 2015 Edition

Inventor

The core of a good Inventor workstation should be a fast CPU, lots of RAM, and an Autodesk approved workstation graphics card.  This build is very similar to my Solidworks PC write up which has been very popular.

Like most other solid CAD packages, your performance is limited by the CPU and which only runs single-core for everything except simulation and rendering.  An Intel i7-4770 processor will provide good performance for the price even if you’re using only a single core on the chip.

16GB of RAM is a minimum and important for dealing with large assemblies.  This stuff is cheap and can easily be expanded in the future.

A basic CAD workstation graphics card should be sufficient and won’t hinder performance.  They key here is stability and performance with Inventor which is why you want something like the Quadro K2000.  Workstations graphics cards are essentially glorified gaming cards but they have extremely stable drivers.

Those are the important bits, the following list covers the complete build.  All components are from Amazon because they have fairly competitive prices and good customer service.  Shop around though, your experience may vary.

The system price at time of writing is is $1400.  Part prices are not listed here because they seem to change week to week.  Expect the system price to trend downward in the next few months.

Processor – Intel i7-4770 – good performance for the price

Motherboard – MSI Z97 PC Mate LGA – feature-rich motherboard to provide flexibility in the future, has a fancy BIOS and will support up to 32gb of RAM

Graphics CardQuadro K2000 – you’re paying for stability here

Memory – Kingston 16GB – fast and cost effective

Storage – Samsung SSD 840 EVO-Series 500GB – a nice solid state drive for speedy performance, I think it’s important to stick with a name brand here to ensure good performance over the life of the drive

DVD LG Electronics 24X – sigh, can’t quite escape physical discs yet.  With writing feature for all of your documentation purposes.

Case – Corsair Carbide Series 200R – a nice clean case that’s easy to work on

Power Supply – Rosewill 80 PLUS BRONZE 550W – Solid power supply with more than enough wattage, will support expansion in the future

OS Windows 7 64-bit OEM – The old standard here, I prefer it over Windows 8

That’s everything you need for a complete build!  The case comes with all necessary hardware and fans, the power supply has all the cables, and the CPU has it’s own cooler and heatsink.

Need monitors?  I’m a big fan of the 24-inch Dell Ultrasharp because of the positioning flexibility.  It’s easy to setup your dual monitor view in any configuration.  Ergonomics are a big deal if you’re sitting in front of monitors for 8+ hours a day.