A Home Theater PC or “HTPC” is a computer that is hooked up to a television. Because of the versatility of computers, an HTPC is really the ultimate all-in-one component for a home entertainment center. A computer can function as a CD player, DVD player, Bluray player, console gaming system, DVR, digital audio player, digital video player and web TV console to name a few.
Building an HTPC follows the same rules as building any other computer, but there are several special considerations that can come into play.
Join DIY all day as we examine different approaches to building an HTPC and help bring the versatility of a computer to your living room TV.
[This article is a sub-guide of our site's larger How to Build a Computer guide. It assumes that you have already read Buying Parts, CPUs, Motherboards, RAM, HDDs, Optical Drives, Cases, Wirless NICs, PSUs and OSs.]
[Want to skip the specialized systems and workstations? Skip ahead to Before You Place Your Order.]
For many HTPC builders, aesthetic is important. Having a big mid-tower case on your entertainment center is undesirable for many. As such, there are many cases out there that are built specifically for HTPCs.
HTPC cases are quite compact and (usually) use smaller motherboards like micro-ATX or mini-ITX. Many of them are designed to look like a DVD player or some other traditional component you’d find on an entertainment center.
What form factor case you get will have broad impacts on the other parts you pick out. When selecting your case you’ll want to look at what type of motherboard it takes, also check to see if a special power supply is required and if the case requires “low profile cards.” Take note of the dimensions of the case, as some cards may be too long, and some heatsink/fans may be too large to fit a smaller case’s dimensions.
If you want to be able to use hand-me-down parts (more on this below) consider buying an ATX HTPC case or just a regular ATX desktop case.
ITX & Micro-ATX
ATX, micro-ATX and ITX are form factors for motherboards and cases. The major difference between the different form factors is their size. ATX is the standard size for desktops and is the largest of the three. Micro-ATX is smaller and is often used in budget (lower-end) desktop computers and is commonly used for HTPCs. ITX, technically called “mini-IXT,” is the smallest board used for personal computing. These boards will allow for the smallest possible size for a custom computer.
Micro-ATX setups will have comparable cost to a regular ATX setup. ITX setups are going to be more expensive. As a general rule, as parts get smaller, performance goes down.
Micro ATX motherboards typically only support two RAM DIMMs rather than the four that ATX boards typically support. For ITX, some boards use 204 pin laptop memory instead of the 240 pin normally used for desktop systems. This memory is slightly more expensive. Be sure to take note of what memory your board uses if you’re buying an ITX board.
Smaller boards also have less expansion slots. Micro ATX typically has three slots, although there are a few boards available with four. This is enough to cover a wireless card, capture card and a video card. You’ll want to make sure that the slots the board match what you need for your cards, as the board may include PCI, but no PCIe or vice-versa.
ITX boards typically have only one expansion slot, some don’t have any. This forces you to make some choices when it comes to the board you pick out and the other components you get. ITX boards have integrated sound, video, and sometimes wireless, so having expansion cards is not 100% necessary, but if you want better performance for video, you’ll want to get an APU (see below) or a stand-alone graphics card.
You’ll want to look at the LGA 1155 socket for Intel systems and the AM3+, (if available) AM3 or FM1 (see more below) for AMD.
AMD’s “A-Series” processors, are quite useful in HTPC setups, especially for ITX boards. AMD calls their A-Series processors APUs or “accelerated processing units.” What this means is that one of the cores on the processor is actually a GPU, which runs the onboard graphics.
With an A-Series CPU you can get good video performance, like the ability to watch HD video at 1080p and decent gaming capabilities, using the integrated graphics on the motherboard. Typically that level of performance is not available without buying a stand-alone card. That’s not to say that getting an A-Series processor will let you play Crysis: Warhead on enthusiast settings off the onboard graphics, but you should be able to play most games without issue.
Intel also integrates a GPU onto their CPUs under the banner “Intel HD graphics.” Its performance has generally been less than spectacular, however for Ivy Bridge chips (see processor selection for more on Ivy Bridge) Intel’s onboard graphics performance has improved quite a bit. AMD is still the leader for CPUs for onboard graphics, but for user’s that prefer Intel and want to run an onboard setup Ivy Bridge is a mostly comparable substitute for A-Series.
The newest A-Series processors (the ones you want to get) use the FM2 socket.
TV-tuner cards or capture cards are sometimes used in HTPCs, they allow a computer to accept an inputs designed for televisions such as coaxial cable, HDMI and S-video among others. The utility of these cards from an HTPC perspective is usually to record and digitize television content.
A TV tuner card and a capture card are two different things. A TV tuner card is capable of capturing video just like a capture card, but actually has a “tuner” in it. This means that if you hooked up basic cable to it you could change the station, without the use of some type of receiver. A capture card can accept a TV inputs, but does not include an actual “tuner.”
The inputs also tend to differ between TV-Tuner cards and capture cards. A TV-Tuner card will always accept coaxial cable (that’s what it “tunes”) and may or may not accept any other inputs. Capture cards support a variety of different analog and digital inputs such as HDMI, RGB, S-Video and RCA. Some of them include adapters to support all four.
For most purposes a capture card works better for an HTPC than a TV-tuner card as it supports higher quality inputs. Unless you have a specific need for a tuner, get a capture card. TV-tuner/capture cards are not required to build an HTPC.
Low Profile Cards
Depending on the type of case you’re using for your HTPC, low profile cards may be required. If you run a stand-alone video card, using low profile puts you at a disadvantage. High-end cards are typically not available for low-profile. This can be (mostly) mitigated by using an A-Series processor.
Low profile cards will be listed as “low profile,” “low profile ready” or “low profile bracket included.” “Low profile ready” and “bracket included” are the same thing. It means that the metal bracket that the card is screwed onto is removable, and that a standard and low-profile bracket are included.
In addition to replacing nearly every other component on your entertainment center, an HTPC can also replace your TV with the use of a projector. A projector is a low-cost way to get a very large screen for your living room, family room, den or man cave. Combined with a TV tuner or capture card, it can be used for cable or satellite services as well.
RF Mouse and Keyboard
Since people don’t sit as close to their TVs as they do to their computers it’s nice be able to operate your HTPC from a distance without the normal restriction of wires. An RF (radio frequency) mouse and keyboard is one way to accomplish this.
RF technology is considerably cheaper than Bluetooth keyboards and mice and just as functional for an HTPC.
There are a variety of different RF input devices out there like keyboards that include a track pad so they can serve as an all-in-one mouse and keyboard for an HTPC. Some users may prefer a trackball style mouse instead of the traditional mouse style since it can be difficult to use a mouse on some surfaces and inconvenient to move a mouse pad around. Wireless input devices will use batteries, but a set of rechargeables and a charger will help cut down on the costs of using an RF setup.
A Bluray drive, to me, is essential for a modern HTPC. If you get one it will replace the need for a CD player, DVD player or Bluray player. These drives can be picked up for less than $100 these days and will greatly reduce the number of devices you need on your entertainment center.
The cheap approach to building an HTPC is to make them out of hand-me-down components from your main system(s.) This is what I do with the HTPCs at our house, although the nicest video card of any of our four computers is in the HTPC hooked up to our living room TV. This is because we do some gaming on this computer.
Using hand me down components can impact what type parts you select for your HTPC. If you’re intending to use this approach you need to get components that are compatible with your main systems. This primarily means getting an ATX case.
Hooking up to a TV
Any computer can become an HTPC by hooking it up to a TV. What you need is a way to hook it up. Exactly what hookups a TV has are not standardized, so depending on the TV the hookup used can vary. Ideally it is best to use to newest video hookup available to produce the best picture. This would be the hierarchy of the most to least desirable video hookups:
3. VGA (sometimes called WVGA)
4. RGB (also called “component”)
In addition to hooking up video, you also need to get audio from the computer to the PC. HDMI, if you have a direct output on your video card, will carry both audio and video to your TV. Video cards with HDMI outputs have integrated sound cards on them so you’ll have video and audio simply by plugging an HDMI cable from the card to the TV.
All the other video hookups require a separate way to hook up the audio. For DVI or VGA, most TVs have a paired 3.5 mm audio input. This is the common plug used for computer speakers and headphones. If your TV has a paired 3.5 mm jack, you simply need to buy a male-to-male 3.5 mm audio cable. If your input is paired with red and white RCA hookups, you’ll need to buy a 3.5 mm to RCA adapter, an RCA audio cable (if you don’t already have one) and (usually) a coupler to hook them all together.
The other setups: RGB, S-Video and RCA will all use the red and white RCA inputs for audio. This means you’ll need a 3.5 mm to RCA adapter, an RCA audio cable and (usually) coupler, the same as for the above mentioned RCA inputs. Few video cards directly support these types of analog connections anymore. If you’re purchasing an adapter to convert your VGA or DVI into one of the analog connections, note that the adapter will only work if your video card supports “composite out.” If it doesn’t the adapter will be useless. To use one of these connections if your card doesn’t support it you’ll need to get a more expensive video converter.
If you want to use multiple audio outputs for your HTPC, for example having one go to your TV and another go to a stereo system, you’ll want to buy a 3.5 mm audio splitter. In some circumstances, there will be no matching ports on your video card and TV. In these cases an adapter is necessary.
Note that TVs use a few different of types of DVI connections which have different configurations of pins. If you’re going to be running DVI, make sure that you get a DVI cable fit into your TV. Virtually all video cards use the “DVI-I Dual Link” configuration of pins that you can see in the picture. This connection will accept all the other DVI connections, so you want to buy a cable that matches the pin configuration on your TV. It is not an issues if the cable has fewer pins than what your video card has holes for.
This pick-your-parts list is just one of many ways to build an HTPC. This list uses micro ATX, so this system would need to be upgraded independently with no hand me downs. I’ve selected these parts/paths to feature the specialized part I’ve mentioned above. If you prefer to recycle your parts from other computers you’ll want to select an ATX case.
HTPC prices can very widely depending on the type of setup you choose. For the search paths I’ve selected below, $800-$900 is a good target price range. Your actual costs will vary depending on what specific parts you pick out. You may want to go above the minimum for some parts like the case, wireless card, motherboard or others. I like to get PCI wireless cards which are more expensive than their USB counterparts. For reference on parts selection review my parts selection articles for CPUs, Motherboards, RAM, HDDs, Optical Drives, Cases, Wirless NICs, PSUs and OSs.
Don’t forget any other additional items you may need.
These aren’t just any links…
When indicated, the links below will lead you to a specific part. Most links lead to a Tiger Direct “guided search” path to show only compatible parts for this specific system. By using these links, you will be only see parts that are compatible with each other. The search paths lead to parts that have my recommended specs for this system type. Make any purchases within fourteen days of your “click” to give DIY all day credit for the referral and help support our site. Thank you!
PSU: Power Supplies (Buy a power supply only if needed, many HTPC cases bundle a size matched PSU. If this has enough wattage and the connectors you need—use it! If you buy a separate PSU, make sure it matches the style needed for your case i.e. ATX, Micro-ATX or “flex” style.)
RF Keyboard: Search Results→RF Keyboard
Capture Card: TV Tuner/Capture Cards
Do you also need?
Projector: Projectors→Home Theater 16:9
Thermal Compound: Heatsinks/Fans/Cooling→Thermal Paste
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