Build an Under $500 Gaming and XBMC HTPC 2014
Building a Home Theater Gaming Computer in 2014
I admit that I'm a bit of a geek when it comes to electronics. I regularly look into new release products and try to get my hands on anything that comes out. One thing I've noticed in 2014 is just how easy a home theater PC can be built by people who have absolutely no knowledge on the subject. My hope with this post is to help newcomers and experienced builders alike realize the total freedom and flexibility that can come by making your own HTPC.
What you'll ultimately get here is a look at a great gaming PC that can run Blu-Ray Discs, emulators, XBMC, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon prime streaming, and the latest PC games all for just about the price of what you're looking to pay for an Xbox One or PS4. Personally I'm also looking for 4k support for a future HDTV upgrade.
What I'm not trying to do:
This PC isn't meant to run all of today's games on the highest settings. I have a gaming PC for that. Instead, it's built for lower power and space consumption. On the other hand, I still wanted a case that could house a dedicated graphics card, handle a standard modular power supply, play my steam and Origin games with decent settings, and have enough flexibility for upgrading in the future.
Intel Haswell vs. Ivy Bridge Vs. AMD's Richland APU
Choosing a CPU
The CPU is, perhaps, your most important piece of hardware when it comes to building a HTPC. In 2014 you have a ton of choices that really make a lot of sense. First off is Intel's new fourth generation Haswell processors. With lower power consumption and better integrated graphics, this processor line just makes sense. That being said it's not for ultra budget builders. In addition, if you have a discrete graphics card, then you can probably get just as much performance out of your Ivy Bridge Processor.
Another good option is for AMD's APU or accelerated processing units which come with a built-in graphics card that beats out even performance for Haswell's integrated graphics. Because I'm looking from a gamer's perspective and want a dedicated graphics card and low power consumption CPU, I'm still going to go with an Intel-based processor and corresponding ITX 1150 or 1155 motherboard. If you do decide on a Trinity or Richland-based APU, then you'll need a compatible socket FM2 motherboard.
Good possibilities would include the Ivy Bridge i3-3220T. Intel's T series of processors is much more efficient when it comes to power consumption and this particular model puts out a max TDP of 35 watts. Considering I'll be putting this HTPC in an enclosed space, this seems like a good way to go. Another advantage is that with the recent release of Haswell, the 1155 ITX motherboards have all gotten a bit cheaper allowing me to dedicate more of my budget to other areas. If you'd prefer to have performance vs. the more energy efficient T processor, then simply go with the i3-3220 for about $20 less.
A downside to this processor would be if you're trying to use integrated graphics. With Intel's i3 processors coming out soon it may be worth waiting for the i3 in many situations. Intel's Ivy Bridge struggled on its own with 23Hz dropping a frame every now and again, while it seems that Haswell has fixed this particular bug. Again, for dedicated graphics card users, this shouldn't be an issue.
For more in-depth information on Haswell and HTPC's I highly recommend Anandtech's recent article.
The i-3220 is about $20 less but doesn't have nearly the efficiency of this T model from Intel. An i5 model doesn't seem necessary here, but a Haswell version might be just what you're looking for if you're trying to avoid a discrete graphics card.
Reader HTPC Processor Poll
What type of processor do you plan on purchasing?
Best Gaming HTPC Graphics Card Under $100
Why I chose the Radeon HD 7770:
If you're looking for strict performance from a graphics card in the under $100 category, then the Radeon HD 7770 is your best bet. It's not necessary to run HD video as the integrated graphics for Haswell or even Ivy Bridge will do that for you.
That being said, if you're wanting to have a little wiggle room when it comes to playing games and want 4k support as well, then the HD 7770 is a good starter card. If you're willing to spend more, then I'd recommend the 2GB version of the GTX 650 TI Boost or the HD 7850. Both are very similar performers in the $150 to $170 range.
What's the Best Mini ITX HTPC Gaming Desktop Case
Why I'm going with the Elite 120:
I've used many cooler master cases in the past and have really appreciated their look and ease-of-use. With their release of the Cooler Master Elite 120 in 2012 I've been itching to get my hands on it because of it's ability to house a full length graphics card.
Before getting too much into this case I also wanted to mention that Cooler Master recently showcased their Elite 130 model at Computex 2013. While it seems pretty similar, some prefer the look of its front mesh panel vs. the look of the aluminum brush finish on the 120.
Compared to cases like the BitFenix Prodigy I like that it's quite a bit smaller again, with enough room for a full-sized graphics card. Perhaps the best thing the Cooler Master Elite 120 has going for it vs. the BitFenix Prodigy is that it costs about half as much at around $40 and is significantly shorter.
Choosing the Right Motherboard
Not everyone needs a motherboard which supports overclocking, has wi-fi, and 7.1 channel support. If you do need wi-fi and a few more options, then I suggest a mini ITX board for our Ivy Bridge processor like the Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI. Because I don't want to spend quite as much and I want to stay within my budget I'm going for the ASRock B75M-ITX which doesn't have Wi-fi, but does have 7.1 CH HD Audio support. ASRock motherboards give you quite a bit of bang for your buck and have getting better in terms of quality as of late.
Keep in mind that if you go with a newer Haswell processor that you'll need the newer LGA 1150 boards. Similarly AMD FX series processors need a socket AM3+ board, Llano APU's Socket FM1, or Trinity and Richland APU socket FM2 motherboards.
Pictured: The ASRock B75M-ITX is a very capable budget ITX board. It supports 7.1 CH HD Audio, has an HDMI out, and has a very modern level of functionality.
Inexpensive and decent quality. While the HD 7770 may list it's specifications at 500 watts, you'll be more than fine with this model. This is especially true with all the green considerations we've built in.
What Power Supply Should You Use for an HTPC?
While there is no best type of HTPC power supply to use it does seem to make sense here to go with power supplies which are modular and 80 plus.
A modular power supply will allow you to remove the cables you don't need to use and an 80 Plus power supply will keep your entire system energy efficient. An 80 Plus certified PSU is especially important to someone like me who plans to keep their system running a significant portion of each day.
Finding inexpensive, but quality ram is the way to go for this build.
$500 HTPC Final Thoughts
Overall this build gives you gaming and support for everything you'd need. While there are other options out there, I'm satisfied we did a good job at showcasing a build which fits the majority of our readers. That being said I'd love to know what you're dream HTPC build is or what you currently have. Use the open discussion area below to discuss any current or future ideas.
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© 2013 Brandon Hart