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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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  • iTzSnypah - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    I didn't like how you flipped the point of the article. You start off by stating AMD APU's make good budget HTPC's. However then you recommend a $130 Seasonic PSU that is 80+ gold. For $70 you can buy a Rosewill Capstone PSU that is also 80+ gold. Building with these expensive components makes building on AMD silly, even for HTPC. Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    I also recommended a $38 Antec PSU.

    Note that the everything other than the mobo and the APU itself can be used for a build further down (maybe the budget builder wants to move on to a premium HTPC). I always suggest picking components which will serve their purpose for at least two or three builds / upgrades.
    Reply
  • edge929 - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    Trinity is just around the corner so unless you're not planning to game, it's better to wait. Trinity should also drop the prices on Llano chips if you can wait ~1 month. Reply
  • silverblue - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    Trinity has reportedly been delayed until September (if you believe semiaccurate.com, that is)... Reply
  • randinspace - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    I use mine for writing novels that never make me any money since it's the only "desktop" PC I have or frankly even need ATM :P

    For those who haven't tried it, you can write a novel on just about anything that uses a real keyboard (ex: docked ASUS Transformer, iPad with bluetooth keyboard, that 7 year old Centrino laptop you bought with your student loan...) these days as long as you stick with it, but productivity tends to suffer more when your biggest potential distraction changes from a game of FreeCell to an entire TV series at your fingertips.

    Back on topic: great article Ganesh. Having lived in a metaphorical cave for 5 straight years (aforementioned Centrino laptop, which in its defense at least has a better looking if not higher resolution LCD than a lot of stuff on the market these days) I hardly even knew what I was missing out on until I stumbled upon one of your HTPC guides.
    Reply
  • jeffkro - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    I have the 100W llano HTPC and a really recomend sticking with the 65W. The stock fan for the 100W is pretty loud even when the mobo lowers the speed. Reply
  • ashvagan - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    Would you review the low budget ones and see if they can run the usual 720p stuff just fine? Which ones are recommended really? Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    Zacate is OK for 720p / 1080p24 stuff. But, it struggles with deinterlacing (even for SD content):

    http://www.anandtech.com/show/5738/zotac-zbox-nano...

    I wouldn't advise Zacate for media PC (except if usecase is something like a hotel setup where the type of content being played back is known beforehand -- say, always 1080p24 H.264 with compliant profile or something like that).. As I mentioned in the concluding remarks, Zacate is more efficient for use in headless setups (i.e, running as a media server or storage server platform, where low power is useful). Unfortunately, the GPU prowess of the Zacate is just not needed there.
    Reply
  • wiyosaya - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    As an activity that I would like to do would be recording HDMI to some medium, in particular, Blu-ray or hard-disk.

    There are several HDMI capture cards on the market that would allow recording from HDMI sources such as satellite or cable set-top boxes, or other playback devices such as Blu-ray players.

    If the content protection bit is not set by the content provider, this should be easily accomplished.

    I see such recording falling under "fair use" rules when it is for personal use, i.e., viewing in your own home for not-for-profit uses.

    Such capability is one big hole in the market, IMHO, and there is no sign that stand-alone Blu-ray recorders will ever come to market, and those very few from JVC that are already available do not have HDMI inputs.
    Reply
  • Casper42 - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    Why would you want to drink from a fire hose?

    HDMI is a display protocol and as such is very high bandwidth.
    Cable, Sat and even Blu-Ray have much lower bandwidth requirements before decoding.

    Why wouldn't you instead want to find a solution to convert/capture the incoming stream rather than the outgoing display?
    ATI cracked open the door to M Card powered Cable tuning and Silicon Dust is fairly well received as well.
    Blu Rays can be easily ripped now a days, and finding mass market movies WITHOUT the Content Protection enabled is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
    Reply

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