HTPC Update #4: Buying a Home Theater PC

I'm ashamed. I must embarrassingly hand in my nerd card.

This month, for only the second time in my adult life, I purchased a computer. No longer can I haughtily proclaim "well, I build my own PCs." Gone is the geek-cred I felt enshrined me as an elitist in the elitist world of PC gaming. But it had to be done, and I'll tell you, it's awesome.

So let me save you some money, and go through the various bits of the PC I bought, so you know where to spend your money on a PC you might buy, or want to build yourself.

First, I need to explain. About a year ago I moved my gaming PC into my theater, and extolled the wonder that is the HTPC. Lamenting its aging and anemic performance, I bought it some life with a new video card.

The problem is, a video card can only do so much. Heavily populated areas in games like Star Wars: the Old Republic and Battlefield 3, were nearly unplayable. Anything that relied on processor (or RAM, for that matter) were just too much for my PC to handle.

I'd been planning on upgrading both for months. I could update the motherboard to accept a faster/newer processor, and these days RAM is pretty cheap. This is what I call "major heart surgery." I knew, best-case, the whole thing would take the better part of a day, and I just haven't found the time.

Worse, every time I'd think about it, I'd slide down a slippery slope: well if I do this then I should just do this, but if I do that then why don't I just do this. By the time I was shopping for entirely new motherboard/CPU/RAM combos on the Internet, I realized it was time to give up. I had waited too long, and every piece of my PC was too many generations behind.

It was time to start over.

Begin at bit 0

I'd been out of the game for a while. The first few hours of my adventure were spent just getting caught up on what the best processors are, the size and speed of modern RAM, and so on. I'll get into this in the various sections below. Once I figured out what was what, the hunt began for a suitable builder.

At the top tier of computer "manufacturers" (really "assemblers" is more apt), you've got companies like Dell, HP, Lenovo, etc. For the most part, buying from one of these firms is like buying a car from the dealer's on-hand stock: there are minimal option choices. You're stuck with a lot of odd groupings ("want this case? you can only get this processor") and you're limited in your ability to spend more on the pieces that matter, and less on the pieces that don't. This is all by design, they want you ordering off the menu to keep their tiny profit margins intact.

On the next tier down, you've got the big-name (if there is such a thing) specialty assemblers. Probably the best known is Alienware, which Dell absorbed years ago. Alienware is cool, but crazy expensive. Speccing out the PC I wanted resulted in angina-inducing dollar shock.

The next tier down are myriad assemblers based largely or entirely on the web. Fortunately, the better of these companies are widely reviewed by the PC press, giving you insight on the final quality of your build. IBuyPower is often well reviewed, but I settled on CyberPower. When it came to available options, ease of use for the online configurator, and of course price, they seemed the best pick. Keep in mind, I spent my own money on this thing AND they're getting press out of it. One of us is a sucker, and I don't think it's them.

"Build" your own

What drew me to CyberPower is the gigaton of options available for every aspect of the computer. Even better, there are no artificial restrictions forcing you to chose certain options based on other selections. Sure if you pick a mini-ATX case and you want a full size motherboard, it's going to stop you, but if you want a crappy video card and a ton of RAM (as I did, for reasons I'll explain), it lets you. By picking and choosing, you can fine-tune your computer to suit your specific needs, saving money in the process. It's the next best thing to building it yourself.

There are a lot of choices, so I figured it'd be worth some words to go through each section. I do mention specifics to the CyberPower builds, but just about any decent assembler is going to have similar options to chose from.

Case

This is largely a choice of personal preference. I got the Raidmax Viper Mid-Tower Gaming Case because I thought it looked cool. If actual cool is your thing, I recommend checking out one of the cases that supports 240 mm liquid cooling (more on this later). Laser engraving, neon lights, etc are up to you. Mine came with the lights you see in the pictures. They're easily deactivated.

If you think you'll use a lot of USB connections, there's an option for a 6-port expansion module. Not sure why you'd use this, honestly.

I do recommend getting a case fan upgrade. The larger the fan, generally, the quieter it is. Little fans have to spin faster to move the same amount of air. Faster spin means louder and higher pitch.

I also opted for the Noise Reduction Technology options because why not? Most HTPCs are working in environments with a lower noise floor than a typical office, so anything you can do to make them quieter is a good thing. I'm not convinced half an inch of foam does a lot to muffle sound, but it can't hurt.

CPU

At the microsecond of this writing, Intel's Core i5-3570K processor is the best value going for a gaming PC. According to Tom's Hardware (one of the best resources on such things) it doesn't make a lot of sense to get anything more expensive. If you're going to use your HTPC for things like editing/encoding videos, maybe a faster processor is worthwhile. For games, the 3570K seems ideal. These things change quickly, so I recommend checking Tom's for the most up-to-date speed tests and ratings. For playback of Blu-ray and downloaded videos, even the 3570K is significant overkill.

There are options for overclocking, where the assembler cranks up the MHz on the processor to get a little more performance. Intel even offers a "Performance Tuning Protection Plan," or extended warranty, for those interested in overclocking. I've never had the desire. I suppose it will eke out a bit more performance, but I don't see the need. HTPCs are "only" running at 1,920 x 1,080, so they don't need the ultimate in performance. There's probably a cost/benefit analysis to be done here, spending more money on faster performance now versus getting a new computer/parts sooner because you didn't overclock.

Cooling

Get the best cooling solution you can. I highly recommend liquid cooling with big fans. There are going to be some limitations here based on the case you chose. If you're not overclocking, some quiet 120mm fans will probably be fine. If you have the option for larger fans, go for it.

Motherboard

Tons of options here, and I'll admit, I get lost in the details. They're all likely to have the important stuff, like SATA III, PCIe 16, and so on. You shouldn't care about on-board audio or video, as we're offloading all of that to the video card. Many of the more expensive options offer dual (or even quad) video card slots. For an HTPC, I don't see the point. A good video card can run 1080p with all the quality options maxed. It's inevitable that games will come out that tax the video card, so a dual setup now will only prolong the life of your rig by a finite amount. I'd say you're better off with one good card now, and save the money on the motherboard.

I'd recommend getting one that has four slots for RAM (instead of 2), otherwise, get whatever name brand is on sale. I got a Gigabyte GA-Z77 motherboard, but I would have been fine with ASUS or Intel. MSI and ASRock seem decent as well, but I don't have any experience with them.

CyberPower has a footnote on the site that says "Intel Z77 Chipset motherboards include standard features: USB 3.0, SATA-III Raid, & HDMI." This means all but the cheapest motherboards have these features.

Memory(s, in the corner of my mind)

You'll never be sorry getting a lot of really fast RAM. I tried to save a few bucks here and got 16 GB in 4 GB sticks. If you don't mind spending a bit more, I'd recommend getting either two sticks (8 GB each) for an easier upgrade later, or 32 GB. The latter is probably overkill, but it can't hurt.

Video Card

For gaming, the video card is by far the most important part. That said, and like I've been saying, we're only running at 1080p so you don't need some uber craziness. I saved a bit of money by getting the cheapest card CyberPower offered (which annoyingly isn't no card, using the motherboard's video), and then installing the NVIDIA 560 Ti I bought last fall. The 560 Ti is still a solid card, but once again I'll refer you to Tom's Hardware for what the best cards are right now. My gut says something in the $200-$250 range will be perfect.

Cyberpower has an estimated FPS calculator in a sidebar, though its accuracy is dubious. It's somewhat handy to give an idea of what different parts do. Keep in mind it's estimating for 1,920 x 1,200, not 1,920 x 1,080, a difference of about 10%. Your TV can't use anything over 60 fps, but it's always good to have a bit of headroom.

Power Supply Upgrade

I highly recommend a decent power supply. Modern video cards suck a lot of power, and a bad/underpowered PSU can cause crashes. A big fan also assists in thermal management. It's possible for no-name brands to claim X number of watts, and deliver far less. There was a sale on a no-name 700-watt PSU, which I only bought because I plan to salvage the excellent 620-watt Corsair power supply from my old PC if the need arises. I'm also a fan of Thermaltake and I've heard good things about Cooler Master.

Hard Drives

Solid State Drives (SSDs) have finally come down in price where we mere mortals can afford them. The better ones are crazy fast. This allows faster startup times, faster game and level loading, and so on. They also don't have any moving parts, making them quieter than traditional drives, and, in theory, they'll last longer (NEVER rely on just one hard drive for your data, always back up everything in multiple locations). 

However, they don't offer much storage space for the money. I got a 240 GB OCZ Agility 3 SSD drive as it was on sale. This is likely all I'll put in this computer, but that's me. I don't plan on using this PC as a media server, and I have multiple data backups elsewhere. If I change my mind, I'll add a big platter.

If you want to store all your movies and music on this computer, I recommend a medium sized SSD for the primary drive, and a big honkin' traditional drive as the #2. This gives you the best of both worlds. Music files are small enough that there's no issue storing them on the slower hard drive. Movie files only load once, so at worst you're waiting a fraction of a second longer to start a movie. Not a big deal.

You store whatever games you're playing on the SSD so they and their levels will load faster. How many games do you play regularly? Four or five should fit even on a 60 GB drive.

As I'm not storing a lot of personal data on this drive (photos, music, etc), I didn't mind going with OCZ, who I hadn't heard of. If you're less willing to take a chance, I've had good luck with other products from Corsair, Kingston, SanDisk, and of course Intel.

But like I said, and I can't stress this enough, never put all your personal data on one hard drive. The old adage holds true: there are only two types of hard drives, those that have failed, and those that will fail. Invest in an external hard drive, or a NAS (Network-Attached Storage) drive. Best money you'll ever spend.

Optical Drive

I got the cheapest option here too, as I have a BD burner already. Up to you on this one, save some money and use a separate BD player, or put everything all together in one HTPC case.

Sound

I can't believe I'm saying this, but I didn't get a sound card. With an HTPC, there's no need. You connect to a receiver via HDMI, which only transmits digital. If you want/need to connect analog, then spending money on a sound card makes sense.

If you want better sound than what's in your receiver, I recommend a USB DAC. I use a Wadia 151PowerDAC mini on my work PC.

The Rest

From WiFi to software to keyboards and mice, the rest is largely personal preference. I don't particularly like wireless mice for gaming.

Poowwwwweeeeerrrr

I got regular emails from CyberPower informing me where my order was in the build process. On arrival, everything was well packed. As you can see from the photos, cable management was excellent (better than the photos, actually, as I had to free up some power lines for my video card).

Thanks to Win7, the processor, and the SATA 3 hard drive, startup is stupid fast. Having long suffered at the hands of slow startup with two of my three current PCs, I nearly cried it was so fast. Also, there's basically no bloatware like what you'd get with Dell or HP. After getting it all up and running, I unplugged it all and installed my 560 Ti. It booted up flawlessly.

So how does it play? After maxing out all the settings, I played a gloriously gorgeous Battlefield 3 until 4 AM. You know, for "research." Everything loads and plays so quickly, I'm kicking myself I didn't do this months ago.

Would I buy from CyberPower again? Absolutely. As I mentioned above, this is only the second computer I've purchased since college (not counting a laptop). The other is an HP I'm typing this on, which is by far the worst computer I've ever used. Horrifically bad. I'm speccing out its CyberPower replacement right now. . .

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