Free time is hard to come by these days. Since the beginning of the year I've hit Vegas, Barcelona, Santa Clara, New York, Santa Clara (again), Austin, Seattle, Chicago, Santa Clara (again) and Folsom. Before the end of June I'll add Taipei, San Francisco and Seattle again to the list. My travel schedule as of late has taken its toll on a number of things, one of which has been my ability to spend much time in the theater I built a while ago, inspired by this old AVS forum thread.

I've needed to rebuild the HTPC in there for a while. Truth be told, my most reliable HTPC was an old AMD 780G platform (Gigabyte's GA-78GM-S2H) but it lacked the HD audio bitstreaming capabilities that I was looking for. Since then I've tried adding sound cards with bitstream audio support, played with ION, experimented with Boxee, and finally moved to a Clarkdale based HTPC. All of these solutions had their quirks and for whatever reason none was quite as stable and appliance-like as the original 780G. That's usually how things go however. If it ain't broke, don't fix it right?

Times have changed however. The trend towards remote mass storage and smaller form factors applies just as well to HTPCs. Four years ago when I started thinking about the HTPC and theater I wanted a chassis that could accommodate a bunch of 1TB drives for holding all of my content. As a result, the HTPC chassis had to be much bigger than necessary. Improvements on the SoC front meant that I could almost drive the whole theater off of something Atom based, although Intel dropping the ball on serious Atom GPUs and pushing NVIDIA out of the market meant that solution wasn't going to work.

Whenever I finish a big review, especially one that I put together under an incredible time crunch, I like to take a little bit of time to do something fun. Whether it's going out for a drive or actually play one of the many games I'm constantly testing, it's a necessary part of the post-review process. It keeps me sane. After the Zenbook Prime review posted, I had a little bit of time while running data for the follow-up. I also had a stack of hardware I'd been assembling to tackle the sad state of my unstable and presently unracked HTPC. Partially out of a desire to clean the lab up a bit, I started piecing together what I hope will be the spiritual successor to my old 780G HTPC.

I've got a Promise Pegasus R6 with far too much storage driving much of my lab: benchmarks, test data, OS images, you name it. I also have a decent amount of leftover space for HT content so that became my makeshift NAS. It also meant that I didn't need room for any real storage in the HTPC, which further meant that I could go mini-ITX. Originally I expected my HTPC to remain a fixture in the theater but it turned out that I was constantly swapping components in and out as companies sent along HTPC-worthy gear that needed testing. Going mini-ITX and abandoning the idea of something large and rackmounted will make that part of my life a lot easier.

The build started with Intel's DH77DF mini-ITX board. It supports Ivy Bridge but for the time being I'm just using Intel's Pentium G850:


Intel's DH77DF

The Pentium G850 is a dual-core Sandy Bridge (32nm) based design with Intel's HD processor graphics (basically an HD 2000 without Quick Sync, BD 3D, Intel Insider and Clear Video HD). I underclocked the CPU to 1.6GHz from its stock 2.9GHz frequency as the decode block is doing much of the heavy lifting here. The stock retail heatsink/fan is capable and quiet enough given that the HTPC ends up tucked away in a corner of the room with audio easily drowning out any noise it would make.


Intel's SSD 310, mSATA

The motherboard happens to have a mini-PCIe/mSATA slot on it, giving my old Intel SSD 310 mSATA drive a purpose in life. Small SSDs make for great HTPC boot drives (silent, cool running, low chance of failure right before you want to watch a movie). The mSATA interface also removes the need for running SATA and power cables, a welcome benefit when building a cramped mini-ITX system.

For memory I needed something low profile, so I ironically turned to a bundle of AMD memory I've been wanting to do something with:

If you didn't get the memo, AMD sort of officially entered the desktop memory market recently. It's a partnership between AMD and Patriot Memory at this point, where AMD selects the components and Patriot validates, distributes and supports the AMD branded DIMMs. There's only a single DRAM vendor approved today although I hear they are trying to expand the program. From AMD's perspective it's a quick way to increase top line revenues, although the memory business isn't extremely profitable. The memory works well and more importantly it's a lot more low profile than most of the high-end DIMMs I have laying around the lab, which works for my needs.

Picking the right mini-ITX chassis was a struggle as I don't believe that there many (any?) good looking mini-ITX HTPC cases on the market today. I've been pushing Antec for years but it turns out that despite the coolness of mini-ITX, motherboards and cases built around the spec just don't sell well. I really do hope this eventually changes as companies like ASUS have been taking the form factor seriously for a while now.

I ended up with Antec's ISK110, an admittedly non-HTPC-looking chassis but one that definitely gets the job done. Assembly was pretty simple once I realized that I had to unscrew and pull the front panel out a bit in order to get the motherboard installed.

The ISK110 uses an external 90W power supply. With my underclocked Pentium G850 the entire system pulls around 23W while watching a movie and peaks at 33W when installing software/doing other more CPU intensive things. Power consumption is a bit higher than I'd like but unfortunately the Intel board doesn't allow user customizable core voltages, so I'm not able to exploit the awesome benefits of voltage scaling.

The box is running Windows 7 and XBMC, while I'll rely on the PS3 for any BDs I haven't had time to rip. I haven't yet watched a full movie on it yet but it worked well in all of my tests thus far. I'm particularly excited about the portability aspect of the machine, especially since I end up moving it around a lot more than I expected to.

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  • Parhel - Thursday, May 24, 2012 - link

    What brought Anand to Folsom? He shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die. Reply
  • kkwst2 - Friday, May 25, 2012 - link

    That's the nicest prison I've ever seen...but there is lots of blues. Reply
  • wrkingclass_hero - Friday, May 25, 2012 - link

    I wish I could uprank you. Reply
  • Aikouka - Thursday, May 24, 2012 - link

    Anand, I noticed your comment on HTPC cases, and I always had a bit of trouble finding a good case too. Well, that was until I saw a thread on the AT forums awhile ago about HTPC cases, and someone linked to a site with some nice brushed aluminum cases from Wesena.

    Here's the link in question:
    http://www.shop.perfecthometheater.com/Wesena-chas...

    and the thread:
    http://forums.anandtech.com/showthread.php?t=21840...

    I'm a fan of the HTPC-ITX5 myself. I'm considering replacing my older Core i3-540-based HTPC with an Ivy Bridge-based system once Intel releases the low wattage parts. I use a Core i3-2100t in another system. The nice part about the t-series processors is that they are pretty much what you want (low clocks, low wattage, etc.).
    Reply
  • Chapbass - Thursday, May 24, 2012 - link

    Haha, funny you found that thread Aikouka, I just came on here to post the exact same thing. Wesena cases seem pretty slick for the money. I ended up building my HTPC case on the extreme cheap (as in, 130 dollars for basically the whole thing, minus a couple parts I already had), but I've been eyeballing a newer wesena case for a while. Reply
  • pseudo7 - Thursday, May 24, 2012 - link

    XBMC - nice choice! Reply
  • Aikouka - Thursday, May 24, 2012 - link

    XBMC has one large annoyance with it that I just cannot figure out. If I leave XBMC open for days, any video played will stutter. It's a very slight stutter, but it is definitely noticeable. If I close XBMC and reopen it, it will return to normal... for a couple of days. Reply
  • Pirks - Thursday, May 24, 2012 - link

    XBMC is crap written by fat pimply opensource penguin fellating dorks in moms basements. I installed it yesterday, switched to different account in Windows 7 - shit, the stupid POS forgot all its settings. No language, no plugins, nothing. I have to run the idiotic thing under admin account all the time. I switch to my original account - it runs well. I switch to second (limited) account - it requires admin password again to run, if I want to get my settings/plugins back.

    Opensource is usually pretty lowly POS and google's crapdroid and other pengion fellating abominations prove it again and again. Opensource == low quality stuff. But FREE! Woohoo! FREEE CRAAAP! EVERYONE REJOICE! It's crap but it's FREE crap. It must make me fucking happy about it, yeaaa
    Reply
  • l3bowsk1 - Thursday, May 24, 2012 - link

    Tell us how you really feel...

    "I have to run the idiotic thing under admin account all the time."
    Things are incapable of idiocy. People on the other hand...

    XBMC doesn't meet your misguided expectations, and you complain that its a flaw in XBMC? It's acting like *any other application* would in a multi-user Win7 envorinment. Don't like it? Run it under only one user ID. Problem solved. Personally, I like that it stores separate user preferences, since I can set up different source settings and skins depending on who's logged in.

    And your attitudes around open source are poorly informed and frankly, not even worth the effort to try to correct. I could talk about how a majority of top-tier multi-billion $ products and services are built in some way around open source projects (Mac OS X and iOS, Facebook, PS3's system software, Salesforce.com, the list goes on). Or I could talk about how modern concepts of agile development - that make possible Microsoft's quick fix turnarounds on Patch Tuesdays, Firefox and Chrome's rapid version releases, etc. - draw directly from development frameworks and processes developed in the open source community.

    I could talk about a lot of stuff, but you wouldn't listen, because you're a moron, with a piss-poor understanding of how technology works, which you've so deftly illustrated by confirming that you don't even know how Windows User accounts work. So sit down, and STFU.
    Reply
  • Pirks - Friday, May 25, 2012 - link

    You shut up, idiot. You're trying to lie to me that "It's acting like any other application would in a multi-user Win7 envorinment."? Really? Then try to run a NORMAL closed source app liek uTorrent or something under different accounts and you'll notice how it is smart in keeping separate use profiles in appropriate \users\<username> folders. If you don't know how normal apps (not opensource crap) work under multiple accounts your better shut your dirty hole. Reply

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