Building a 3D Capable HTPC

For those of you interested in a brief summary, building your own 3D HTPC is recommended for the technically inclined.  You will likely run into small snags and it is a bit pricey. Despite that, it beats ALL small media players such as popcornhour or wdlive in terms of features and performance.

I used to use my PC for my media playing needs before I purchased the original Popcornhour A-100.  Since then I have been using popcornhour up to version A-210.  Eventually I realized that the media player’s limitations were really starting to get to me.  There are limitations in 3D movie support as well as the lack of high definition audio support.  Not to mention the slow clunky interface.

I decided last week that it was time to go back to using a PC, though this time it will be a Home Theater PC dedicated to task at hand.  My goal was simple: Complete support for all modern audio and video formats and future proof it the best I can.

Step 1: Research

I’ve built plenty of PCs in my day, but never a HTPC, so I honestly wasn’t sure where to start.  Then I figured, since I plan to use XBMC it would be a good idea to check out their forums.  I began by reading this post by eskro to find out which type of setup I’d fit into.  My build fits into group #7, which then leads you to his recommended base specs.  Ultimately, I went with this base setup that he recommended.

[CPU] Intel Core I3-2100 Dual-Core 3.1GHz LGA1155 65W
[GPU] ZOTAC GT210 512MB DDR3 64-bit Fanless Low Profile
[CASE+PSU] Apex MI-008 Black mITX 250W

Step 2: Refining the Setup

As you can see, this setup does not include memory, hard drives, or a DVD/Blu-ray drive.  I also need to upgrade the video card to the GT430 to make sure I have 3D support.  I also decided the boot drive should be an SSD, since I want to make sure this thing boots up quick and has a snappy interface.  My final specs look like this:

[CPU] Intel Core I3-2100 Dual-Core 3.1GHz LGA1155 65W $122
[LOW PROFILE CPU FAN]  Thermaltake Slim X3 Low Profile 36mm Height CPU Cooler CLP0534 $23
[GPU] ASUS GeForce GT 430 (Fermi) 1GB 128-bit DDR3 PCI Express 2.0 x16 HDCP Ready Low Profile Ready Video Card $45
[CASE+PSU] Apex MI-008 Black mITX 250W $50
[HARD DRIVE] Storage  – Western Digital Caviar Green 2 TB $175
[HARD DRIVE] SSD – Kingston SSDNow V100 64 GB SATA II 3 GB/s $63
[KEYBOARD & MOUSE]  Logitech Wireless Combo Mk520 With Keyboard and Laser Mouse $43

TOTAL: $608

Small Case, Annoying Problems

As you can see, I had to buy a low profile cpu heatsink/fan.  The reason is that the default heatsink was too big when I was trying to install it.  I had no choice but to wait until the new heatsink came.  In fact, if I could do it over again I would also opt to get low-profile memory as well.  It is an extremely tight fit in there so any time something is offered in a smaller format, go ahead and buy it.

You may also want to purchase a 2.5 to 3.5 inch bay converter for the SSD to fit snug.  The western digital hard drive is a very tight fit as well and just bare fit with the SATA cables touching the cpu fan.  If I had to do it over again, I’d opt for the 90 degree SATA connectors to avoid them sticking out too far.

Install Windows 7 / Software

As you probably noticed, I did not buy a DVD/Blu-ray drive, mainly because I don’t intend on using it and would free up space for the future.  The only problem with that is there is no CD drive to install Windows on.  If you have a 8gig USB stick and have a Windows 7 ISO handy, then create a bootable USB thumb drive.  Though you can install whichever OS you are most comfortable with.

Playing Blu-ray ISOS

XBMC should be your media player of choice for your HTPC, but Boxee is also worth a look.  Both are free, so it can’t hurt to install both to see which one you prefer.  I opted to install the Nightly build of XBMC 11.00, which is scheduled to be released in Dec 2011.  Both have an awesome interface and its quite refreshing coming from a Popcornhour.

As you may know, XBMC does not support menu’s for a Blu-ray ISO file.  When you mount a blu-ray image via daemon tools, you will see an option called “Play Disc” and the movie will play.  If you want menu support then you will have to use something like PowerDVD 11.  Luckily they offer a 30 day trial.

XBMC 11.00 supports high definition audio formats such as DTS-HD and Dolby True HD.  Obviously, PowerDVD will also support these formats.

Playing 3D Blu-Rays

In order to get 3D Blu-ray ISOs to play you must first enable 3D support under the nvidia control panel.  There is an option to modify your 3D settings, so have your glasses handy and run through the quick setup process.  Once you do that, open up PowerDVD and 3D mode should work with no problem, assuming the movie is in 3D.

Also keep in mind that you need to purchase the Geforce GT 430 (or similar card) to have HD Audio format support and 3D playback.  It goes without saying that your receiver and TV also need to be 3D capable.  Your reciever must support HD audio formats and have 3D pass through via HDMI 1.4

Is an HTPC for You?

As you probably guessed, building your own HTPC and setting it up is a bit of a pain in the ass. It will likely be a weekend project, or at least a full day.  There are a lot of steps and things to set up before you can watch your movies in all their glory.  If you have never built your own PC, then I’d advise against building your own HTPC. Instead, you might want to purchase a pre-built one like the ASRock 3D for $699.  I also hear that new sigma chips to support 3D playback and HD audio will make their way to devices in 2012 (if they haven’t already).  That should be an interesting option for those of you who cannot handle building an HTPC.

As for performance, this HTPC setup will be able to handle anything you can throw at it this year and for several years to come.  Now that the system is set up, minor upgrades for more HD space, new video card, or new software updates will be extremely easy.  Furthermore, XBMC is actively being developed and will continue to improve much faster than anything else out there.  Similarly, PowerDVD will also be able to handle playing blu-ray movies with no problem with full menu support.

Is it Worth it?

If you want to take the plunge into HD audio and 3D blu-ray’s then it is most definitely worth it. I used to play mkv 1080p backup movies and thought, “what more could I need?”  Those rips are fine, and I’ll continue to play them, but for action movies nothing beats the original blu-ray. The movie experience now is truly awesome. Some people rent Netflix movies while others build an HTPC.  I happen to prefer the latter.

The bottom line is that if you have the time, money, and hardware then go with an HTPC.  Not to mention it’s also a handy extra PC for the living room.