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Home Theater PCs (HTPCs) are becoming more and more popular due to a number of reasons. The desire of consumers to watch and enjoy their media, be it Blu-rays/DVDs or broadcast content, in an independent manner (i.e. not limited by DRM restrictions such as with Tivo recordings or even just optical media) has enabled the HTPC industry to gain a lot of relevance, as opposed to getting tied down with non-upgradeable consumer electronics equipment. All three major vendors (Intel, AMD, and NVIDIA) pay quite a bit of attention to the HTPC market in their products, but it is universally agreed that AMD represents some of the most economical HTPC building blocks targeted towards budget system builders, so that's our focus for today.

It has now been almost a year since the Llano lineup was launched; by integrating a CPU and GPU into the same die and bringing along AMD's expertise in the GPU arena for HTPCs, these APUs (Accelerated Processing Units) offer a lot to the budget HTPC builders. In today's piece, we will be taking a look at how to build a HTPC system using the Llano platform. We'll cover options based on various form factors, and performance and cost will be analyzed. Note that the Llano processors might not be the latest and greatest, but when it comes to pricing, it is going to be quite difficult to beat--at least until the desktop variants of Trinity come around. We will also assume that you are aware of the technical merits of the Llano APU lineup, as we will not be covering any benchmarks or doing any comparative studies across products from other companies.

The purpose of a HTPC system is to enable one or more of the following activities:

  • Media playback: The media could be either stored locally (on a hard drive, NAS, Blu-ray, or DVD) or be streamed from the Internet (from sites such as Netflix or Hulu). Media files include pictures and music files in addition to videos.
  • Optical disc backup creation: This involves the archiving of Blu-ray and DVD movies onto a physical disk (such as a hard drive or a NAS) after removing the DRM protection. This enables consumers to enjoy the content on their purchased discs without the annoying trailers and advertisements, or the need for a Blu-ray drive (e.g. on tablets or smaller HTPCs).
  • Recording and/or editing video files: This involves using a TV tuner to capture broadcast content and record it onto a physical drive. The recorded content could then be edited to remove commercials or for any other purpose before being stored away. Sometimes, it might be necessary to transcode the video files as well (say, converting from one H.264 profile to another). This is much more computationally intensive compared to splitting/joining media streams with similar characteristics.

Some users might also want to use their HTPC for activities such as:

  • Gaming: This is, by far, the most common extension of a HTPC outside its original application area. Thanks to the powerful integrated GPU, we have seen that the Llano APUs are quite good with almost all games at mainstream quality settings. If a budget gaming+HTPC build is on your radar, you can't go wrong with the Llanos--provided you understand that high quality settings and 1080p gaming are likely too much for the iGPU.
  • Network DVR/IP Camera recording: This is quite uncommon, but some users might like to have IP camera feeds viewable/recordable through their HTPCs.
  • General PC Tasks: These include basic web browsing, downloading and other similar tasks (which almost all HTPCs are bound to be good with)

Readers using their HTPC for any purpose other than those mentioned above should feel free to let everyone know in the comments section.

AMD's Llano lineup includes a range of processors with TDP ratings from 65W to 100W. Note that simple playback tasks are going to be quite power-efficient, thanks to integrated hardware decoding, so the relatively high TDPs shouldn't put one off. There are also plenty of FM1 socket motherboards based on the A55/A75 FCHs (Fusion Controller Hubs). The choice of the Llano APU, motherboard form factor, and other components should be made depending on the desired usage scenario. In the next few sections, we will take a look at the choices available.

APU, Chipset and Motherboard
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  • lurker22 - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    Can you get a complete system for $150 like the Foxcon one? Reply
  • JAK620 - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    I have a A8-3850 system. Built it as soon as it was available on Newegg last year.
    The CPU temperature constantly maintains at the 40~52 celcius in the summer and ~40 in the winter. (has to do with the room temperature).

    I am sure that it is not the coolest but it is pretty good enough for me to build a system without an additional graphic card, which generates more noise from the graphic card's fan.

    Unless you play a lot of games, I think that Llano has a good balance for me so far. I do not play many games on PC but still can play ME, NSF: Unleashed 11 & 2 and the likes in 720P without issue.

    Not to down play Sandy Bridge but I think that Llano is a good option as well
    Reply
  • CeriseCogburn - Monday, June 11, 2012 - link

    Because they're nutso Spivonious, that's why. If they tell themselves they must not hear a tiny fan over the blaring TV show or movie, they can justify been full on loonbat crazy and going wacko scrimping down into barely workable crud mode instead of just tossing their old core 2 or athlon 2 etc in a case and adding the video card they have laying around that will whip the pants off all their llano trinity HDxxxx junk.

    It's like a specialized hobby for wackos, who on other days go off into insanoville over $10 on a new gaming video card purchase.

    Frankly, I find it disturbing to say the least, but then there's what (some or most) enthusiasts are. I see the same thing when they want to make a NAS, or have a "server", etc... they just go bonkers to "do it the way the culture tells them they must" or something I don't get it.
    Reply
  • max40watt - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    I stand by my little AMD Fusion NES HTPC as the nicest little HTPC I've ever made.

    <a href="http://photobucket.com" target="_blank"><img src="http://i302.photobucket.com/albums/nn87/max40watt/... border="0" alt="Interior NESpc"></a>

    <a href="http://photobucket.com" target="_blank"><img src="http://i302.photobucket.com/albums/nn87/max40watt/... border="0" alt="NES PC Boxee"></a>
    Reply
  • max40watt - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    Darn you lack of html.

    http://i302.photobucket.com/albums/nn87/max40watt/...

    http://i302.photobucket.com/albums/nn87/max40watt/...
    Reply
  • Einy0 - Wednesday, June 06, 2012 - link

    NICE! Love the concept. Reply
  • djfourmoney - Thursday, June 07, 2012 - link

    I sort of want to take a new empty PS1 and build a console with it using a E350/E450 APU which can easily handle tweaked ePSX settings. But all the games can be located on my server instead of locally on a drive. Reply
  • dgingeri - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    I have two questions:

    1. would an A4-3400 be able to handle BluRay playback, Hulu, and Netflix? If not, what level would handle it? That's not very clear here. I'm looking to build a lower power HTPC just for those duties. Any conversion, ripping, or other apps will be handled by my main machine and shared across the network. I don't need the HTPC to handle anything else.

    2. As long as we're looking at the Llano chip, I may as well ask, what laptop version would be able to handle World of Warcraft and Diablo 3 at decent details and 1366X768 resolution at a decent frame rate. I'm looking to buy a laptop for those games specifically for when I'm traveling.
    Reply
  • burntham77 - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    On an E-350 APU, Blu-ray works just fine, although I did have to adjust the memory settings in the BIOS so it used the maximum amount (512 megs in my case). You might have to do the same with the A4-3400. Also, I use Cyberlink's Power DVD 11 Ultra (ebay has great prices on that) as the free version that came with my Blu-ray drive did not provided proper audio decoding. Reply
  • DWwolf - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    A3500 is probably the sweetspot as far as performance goes. Better GPU for decoding, still max 65W. Triplecore for the demanding stuff. Reply

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