Recommendations and Conclusion
Slight drawbacks aside, the hardware selection here is really good if you’re wanting to build an ultra lower power machine. I don’t have any watt meters, so I can’t tell you off-hand how much power it consumes, but I’m sure it’s much less than my desktop! There are a few little quirks here and there, so you’ll need to consider carefully some of my choices and weigh them with your own needs.
I need MORE POWER
If you need more power, you should consider purchasing a board based on NVIDIA’s Ion chipset. It has an integrated 9400/9500m depending on the platform and handles 1080p HD well according to the reviewers. The Intel 945 chipset can handle SD and lower resolution HD but chokes on 1080p. Personally, it seems to do well enough for my mum’s needs. Ubuntu even initialized with most desktop effects enabled and they worked!
If you do purchase an Ion-based board, you’ll need to make a few concessions. There aren’t many available right now for starters; worse, they come with a mini-PCIe connector. Standard PCI-express video capture cards won’t work with these systems, and you’re going to be hard-pressed to find one that does. USB video capture cards don’t seem stable on Linux just yet, so if you’re building a PVR, you might be stuck with some of the Hauppauge PCI-based solutions for now. Or sink a $100+ into Windows.
I won’t recommend the Anyware remote unless you can’t find a decent, cheap IR receiver. The receiver is a little better than the remote, the remote is not programmable, and not all of the features work under Ubuntu out of the box. If you need a combined MCE and universal remote, look into one of the Logitech solutions. They’re expensive (~$60+) but worth it. I’ll be purchasing one in the future for my mum so she doesn’t have to bother with the current stack of remotes she uses. Be aware that some of the Logitech Harmony remotes available on Newegg are factory recertified (fancy word for “refurbished”) and may not come with an IR receiver.
As a brief aside: One unusual thing I’ve noticed about the Anyware IR receiver is that it’ll hang after a cold boot. Rebooting the system appears to fix the problem. I can only assume it’s an LIRC config that I’m missing somewhere.
Be aware that the most difficult decision and piece of research in a project like this ironically falls within the confines of selecting the right case to put all these parts in. There are a lot of mini-ITX cases available and very few work reasonably well. Some have ultra lower power PSUs that won’t pump out enough juice to power a system. Some are so small that airflow is poor and may overheat components. Perhaps most importantly: If you need a full-height PCI slot, you’re going to be sorely limited to what you can select. Cases like the AthenaTech Mini-ITX tower may appear aesthetically pleasing but the drive bay cover issue I mentioned earlier will cause problems. Unless you have a desire to purchase a new *ROM drive every 6 months because the tray motor has burned out, you’ll have to remove the spring as a minimum.
All things considered, this was a fun project and relatively inexpensive. There are literally dozens of ways you can cut corners and save some money in the process, but be sure to weigh your individual needs, capabilities, and future plans before looking at what you can cut. Do a little research up front and make sure that the operating system you plan on using with your HTPC will work with the components you’ve selected. Windows 7 will be out in a couple of days, so if you need a media center PC that “just works,” you might want to fork out a hundred dollars extra for the Home Premium edition. It comes with Windows Media Center so you needn’t purchase a completely crippled operating system. Of course, if you’d rather save yourself some money, grab Ubuntu instead but be prepared to put in a little extra effort. Be aware that Windows 7 Home Premium supports only 1 physical CPU so it’s likely that the dual core Atom 330s won’t work as well as you might expect. I’m hoping this limitation refers to physical dies but I couldn’t find any confirmation in the literature.
Oh, and if you’re planning on playing foreign DVDs, you won’t have much choice. Remember: DVDROMs can have their region code changed a total of 4-5 times before they have to be reset by the factory. Thanks to the motion picture industry, legitimate foreign DVD purchases are largely unplayable in the US without a dedicated player (plus a converter since they’re recorded in PAL) or software that borders on the verge of legality. So long as the consumer remains complacent and ignorant of this fact, we’ll forever be slaves to the powers that exist in our media industry. Thankfully, Linux gives us choice.