September 17, 2013
I no longer own any laptops. Everything in our house is a tablet: multiple Nexus 7s, multiple iPad 4s, and a Surface Pro. In fact, the only traditional computers I own are my triple-monitor desktop home office beast, and the small Home Theater PC (HTPC) that drives all our home entertainment in the living room.
It's a Mini-ITX case with compact, console-like 3.8" × 8.7" × 12.9" dimensions. It is a class act, totally at home in any civilized home theater environment.
I love that little HTPC to death. It is such a versatile, flexible, always-on box. The longer I work on my HTPC project, the more I believe the evolution of the HTPC is a nice metaphor for the overall future direction of the PC. In summary:
|2005||~$1000||512 MB RAM, single core CPU||80 watts idle
|2008||~$520||2 GB RAM, dual core CPU||45 watts idle
|2011||~$420||4 GB RAM, dual core CPU + GPU||22 watts idle
|2013||~$300*||8 GB RAM, dual core CPU + GPU×2||15 watts idle
15 watts at idle! Incredible, isn't it? But you probably also noticed how some of these stats aren't improving so much. Basically, they don't need to – we've reached such an absurd overabundance of computing power that slathering more on top no longer gets us much. It's been about 2½ years since my last HTPC build, and (*) all I did this year is swap out the motherboard, CPU, and RAM:
I started by removing the overhead drive tray, then pulling out the motherboard and anything attached to it. Notice there's a ton of room in the front of the case where the old power supply used to be. No need for it. We're using a more efficient and way smaller PicoPSU. That space is now available for an extra 2TB 2.5" drive, sitting there on some mildly sticky sheets of sorbothane. Once you factor in the PicoPSU, it's a roomy build despite the compact dimensions.
Then I mounted the motherboard, attached the front USB and eSATA headers, the power/reset switches, and the aforementioned PicoPSU, which you can see sticking out of the motherboard's power header near the hard drive. Note that everything not directly attached to the motherboard is driven off a single power connector, so there are two SATA splitters in use. This particular PicoPSU and power brick are rated to 60 watts which is enough for what we're doing.
The top drive tray slides in with 3 screws. There's also a place just underneath the two drives above for a slimline Blu-ray or DVD drive, but I found I have virtually no use for optical media any more, so I've skipped it.
The main motivation for this upgrade is the lower power usage and better GPU performance of the Haswell CPU, versus the Sandy Bridge CPU that was in there. Everything else remains the same, though I have been selectively upgrading bits and pieces since 2011:
Yes, that's right, 4.5 terra-friggin-bytes of storage. What can I say? I like me some media, man. The 512GB boot SSD is a little excessive, I'll grant you that, so feel free to replace the drives with something more modest in your build. I'm just addicted to SSD speed and didn't want to compromise too much on total storage.
You may wonder why I bothered upgrading memory, since the trusty DDR3-1333 RAM in the old HTPC works fine in the new motherboard. Fair question. Normally, RAM speeds are little more than a curiosity on modern computers, as minor improvements in memory speed have long since ceased to produce meaningful differences in benchmarks. But we are using Haswell's on-die GPU, and it relies on main memory as graphics memory. Even a low-end video card will have 1GB of ram on it these days, and games certainly expect GPUs with at least 256MB or 512MB of dedicated, extremely high speed graphics memory. This is the rare case where you do care about memory performance. Consider these AnandTech game benchmark results:
It's a bit difficult to read, but think of it as "percent better than vanilla DDR3-1333", since that's the baseline zero value here. The sweet spot is DDR3-1866 CL9 (light blue bar). That grade of memory is only nominally more expensive, and gets you reasonably near the top of each graph, but this motherboard doesn't support anything higher than 1600. DDR3-2133 CL9 (dark purple bar) is also out there.
Other than lower power consumption, and a modest bump in CPU power, the really big improvement is GPU performance. It's kind of a complicated matrix, but the i3-4130T chip has an Intel HD 4400 GPU, compared to the HD 2000 GPU that was in the i3-2100T I upgraded from. For example, Dirt 3 on medium detail at 1024x768 notebookcheck.net shows a gain from 21.4 fps to 44.6 fps for these specific GPUs – more than double the GPU performance, at the same 35 watt TDP!
That's the other reason I was excited about this upgrade: Steam's Big Picture mode. With that doubling of GPU power, this 15 watt idle HTPC we just built … is now a credible gaming machine!
You will need an Xbox 360 Wireless kit for PC
, which works perfectly
with Steam Big Picture mode. Just plug and play, provided you stick to the 190 Steam games with full controller support
. You'll still have to tinker a bit sometimes to get things to work, and you won't be running Battlefield 4 in hi-def at 60fps or anything, but overall it's quite promising
and bodes well for a console-like future. I've had solid results with slightly older games in 720p using medium and occasionally high detail levels, depending on the game.
So what exactly do we get for our upgrade troubles, 2½ years on?
- A 32% drop in idle power, from 22 watts to 15 watts. And an overall reduction in power consumption when the machine does happen to be doing something. 17 watts when in an active torrent, for example, up to around 50 watts when playing GRID 2.
- A credible gaming box for the first time, thanks to 2× the GPU power. It also coincides nicely with the maturing of Steam's Big Picture mode. When Gabe Newell talks about Linux as the future of gaming, this is the sort of machine he's referring to.
I'm not sure how much lower we can go on power, but I'm absolutely certain that Intel's on-die GPUs will continue to roughly double in power each generation for the forseeable future. This little HTPC box just keeps getting more versatile over time, while costing me less (in power consumption, at least) every year. It's the funnest build ever. HTPC, I love you, man!
Posted by Jeff Atwood
What do you use for software now? I've been using Windows Media Center 7 + MediaBrowser, which I'm happy with, but I am worried about its future.
For HTPC software you should really try JRiver Media Center. They have a Windows and a Mac version and there is a Linux version in the works. It is a quality piece of software and there is a great community of people using it.
Is there a difference between the Intel Core i3-4130T and Intel Core i3-4130 (without the T)?
JRiver also supports MadVR for video rendering, so you can have nice upscaling algorithms (e.g. Jinc windowed Sinc functions) and use a 3D-LUT for display colour correction.
You can also use MadVR with the free and open source MPC-HC player.
You will need a decent GPU for MadVR though ...
Cool Setup! I'm tempted to build something similar. How loud does the system get when playing games?
Don't you think that a 2013/2014 HTPC device should be much smaller? Not as small as Apple TV but perhaps about the size of OUYA?
PS I also really want a perfectly silent HTPC with passive cooling, I hate hearing that hum coming from the cooler(s). Well, the HDDs are still making noise (a 2-4Tb SSD is not affordable)
So... What do you use for coding? You're still a programmer, right?
I can't imagine writing code on an HTPC, not to mention a tablet.
I agree that for people that use computers only for content consumption, htpc+tablet is usually enough.
@NoamTamim: I’m guessing that would be his “triple-monitor desktop home office beast”. The HTPC isn’t general-purpose, it’s just for entertainment.
Even though I'm not a gamer, I find this to be an exciting convergence. My teenage sons, who are gamers, watch movies with me -- and might just be very charmed by the possibility of playing their Steam games on the big screen in the family room.
14W seems like an awful lot of IDE power usage when a Roku box draws 2W under load. A Core i3 seems like serious overkill for a HTPC. What about the Bay Trail Atoms or an ARM system?
>This little HTPC box just keeps getting more versatile over time, while costing me less (in power consumption, at least) every year.
Have you done a cost calculation? I'm sure it cost you less in power to run, but how long will you have to run this to break even on the hard ware you just paid for?
How well would this system run if you added a tuner card? My current HTPC has a dedicated GPU and CableCARD tuner, so this system isn't quite up to snuff yet.
I have that same case, as it offers a GPU slot. You might be thinking: You don't need that.
But I really need my HTPC to pass-through dts-hd and dolby-ma to my receiver. The only one who can do this is Nvidia GPU's (on linux)
Do you know if it is possible through Intel?
I'm starting to turn cold on laptops too. I can hook up a bluetooth mouse and keyboard to my tablet, and with remote desktop software I can use my tablet as a laptop running from any PC anyway.
With Splashtop, for Android at least, if you have a tablet with Tegra 3 and a PC with a supported nVidia graphics card, you can even play DirectX games on your tablet streamed from your PC.
I have a laptop capable of playing games, but it's a pain to get it to work. The mobile nVidia graphics card has a lot of compatibility issues, it doesn't work as fast as full graphics cards for graphics-heavy games, and you have to keep constantly cooling the laptop or it will shut down from overheating.
Having a full PC streaming games to a tablet feels like a much better solution.
$050 pico PSU
$100 120GB SSD (much more reasonable choice)
$100 windows 8 non-pro
Compare to a mac mini at $599, with a FAR superior form factor and noise level, sitting at 11w idle. You do lose the SSD, which is significant for desktop interactive use, but doesn't make any difference for playing movies in XBMC or Plex.
You could knock off $100 using Linux, but then you lose a lot of games as well as netflix from the couch. That may change soon; netflix works on linux in WINE now, but doesn't work with a remote control in plex or XBMC.
Current mac minis are still ivy bridge, so you're stuck with HD4000 video, which sucks even more than the anemic HD4400 for gaming, but haswell versions will be out soon enough, and apple will use either the HD4600 or the HD5000.
Also regarding the steambox, I would certainly wait until Valve's announcement next week before building one.
Also while it's not quite as slick, you can pick up a cheapo i3 laptop for $350 or so with an i3 and just stick it below your TV closed. Makes a great HTPC and comes with a built-in UPS.
William Furr asked: What about the Bay Trail Atoms or an ARM system?
Two issues with an ARM:
1) Many of them are too cpu-lacking to handle things that you can't fget/don't have a hardware CODEC for. e.g. a Raspberry Pi can do a lot of things, but the xmbc guys say it struggles with DTS audio because it's CPU-bound.
2) For people who don't think "setting up Linux is FUN!" the OS options for ARM systems are limiting.
(And of course anything like real gaming flies out the window entirely...)
Idle power is something you shouldn't worry about too much for a Single Device You Use Regularly; the difference between 14 watts and 2 watts idle is, yeah, 12 watts.
And over a year that's 105 kwh. Or, at the US average of 12.5 cents/kwh, about $13.12 per year.
Not worth expending money to "fix"; it'd take ages to "pay for itself", at the cost of greatly reduced utility.
Tonido (http://www.tonido.com) is awesome for any home media server. One can access the music and videos stored on the Home Media Server from anywhere.
Neat, what're the WEI scores for these machines?
I am just finishing a build now with these specs:
Just over $600 for everything. It's running Win 7 and scores 5.8 WEI. Not sure about idle wattage though...
That's an enormous full-sized power-hungry desktop computer. Really not the same animal. Also it's an ivy bridge CPU, so only HD4000 graphics.
I would certainly choose a mac mini over that, at $100 lower cost (you forgot to pay for Windows).
@Rodalpho I didn't have to pay for Windows (or rather, it was paid for long ago in a TechNet subscription), I also wanted it to be my primary Blu-ray player (ruling out a Mac Mini). I tried to look for smaller cases and power supplies, but the build quality was terrible in most of the smaller ones I was looking at. The larger case is nice in that I could easily add a tuner or discrete graphics in the future if needed.
+1 to the software question for Jeff. I assume this is probably running some flavor of Windows, since you are running Steam on it? Is Windows Media Center being used as the DVR software?
Also, Jeff, what are you using for a remote control?
You could play even more games with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse and dongle.
Still happy with my AMD E350-based HTPC built in 2011. It doesn't have the grunt of an i3 but as I don't game on it I can't say I've ever* needed any more power.
With a modest 60GB SSD and 5TB of network storage it's all the HTPC I reckon I'll ever need. Completely silent and it only draws something like 18W at idle.
I may look into that picoPSU you've used though, a bit smaller than the one I have and I'd wager more efficient too.
*Only fly in the ointment is the fact that Netflix' Silverlight player uses codecs that cannot be accelerated by the AMD Fusion platform, meaning some videos lag horribly in HD. All this will hopefully be solved when Silverlight eventually dies a horrible, painful death and Netflix migrates to something more becoming.
Color me intrigued. What specifically do you use your HTPC for?
The obvious (perfectly reasonable) cases are BitTorrent, web version of Hulu, Pandora, Spotify, YouTube, and home video. Along with the usual things supported by lesser boxen (Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Prime). Are there others? Sorry if you covered this in a prior post, I checked the first one and you didn't mention the impetus.
[Plug] If you really want to get that last juice drops out of idle power, you can consider running RemoteWaker. This is not yet out, but it does kind of polling and pattern learning to optimize the idle power.
Dmitry Pashkevich: I agree about the desired footprint. I use a Roku for most of my home media, including watching video off of a Plex server.
For my gaming computer (which also handles video I can't see on the Roku, like HBO Go), I've set up a 6-core, 2-GPU powerhouse in a server rack in my basement, so there's no noise when using it in the living room. It turns on using Wake on Lan and peripherals are connected via wall-mounted USB ports on either side of the couch. There's a wireless keyboard/airmouse combo for navigating menus and for point-and-click games, and I can put in a mouse and keyboard for everything else.
It is always nice to read about your HTPC hardware setup. I would love to read about you HTPC software setup. What Media Center are you using on HTPC? Do you have multiple clients? How do you distribute the audio/video content across your clients? What do you use on your mobile devices to access your content? What media formats works best across your devices (MKV, MP4, AVI)? Do you manage to have Live TV embedded in your HTPC?
Do you achieve a simple setup so that babysitter and mother-in-law can use it?
@Nrichardson, the difference between the 4130 and the T model is a 500 MHz speed reduction (and a 150Mhz GPU speed reduction) offset by a TDP drop from 54 to 35W.
Add to my build above another $50 for some quieter fans. The ones in the Lian Li case aren't Xbox loud, but not quiet enough. Also, blu-ray software since the drive didn't come w/any...
You reminded me it's time to upgrade my Mini-ITX box too...
All I use my HTPC for is playing recorded over the air recordings from my basement server. Things that can be done well enough with a 1W Raspberry Pi. Total price around $50 if you have peripherals already sitting around.
What do you guys think a the intel NUC as an HTPC?
Thanks, Travis. Would the PicoPSU work here? I guess I need to gauge how much power the system will draw :)
I am wondering how 90W picoPSu can handle this system with 3 drives ?
I am planning to build similiar configuration, I have choosen Antec ISK case as well, because of its dimmensions and the available space in my room. I was however considering to use the included PSU (150W), after I calculated the power consumption with some online calc.
Hi, looks great... Can't wait to use your input for my next htpc build.
Upgrading from core2Qaud to the new 4th gen i3 + passive water cooling with something like this:
How confident do you feel about HD 4k support once that format becomes readily available?
Do you expect your build to be "future proof" enough to support that?
Nice article, thank you for writing.
Do you have suggestions about wi-fi connectivity for this box?
I'm really curious about the software side of things too. I went back and forth with a few 'media center' software, but I still find that at the end of the day, I still end up going back to MPH-HC just like I would on a desktop. Media center software usually doesn't let me change subs or languages as easily, or have lots of overhead with their fancy indexing and trying to
One can't help but wonder, why bother. When Apple TV is $100 and movie rentals are $5, why would one want to put a giant ugly box under their TV and upgrade it every two years (and install software updates every two weeks, too). Don't you have anything better to do with your time, Jeff?
I'd like desktop more. Because I like play 3D games. And it cheaper than laptop and tablet. I also like car,communicate with me at http://www.obd2life.com
I'm looking at building a similar project to this one, however, I'm looking to cut some costs. Would 4GB of RAM be enough instead of 8GB? I don't plan on running games.
Does your HTPC support 3D Blue Ray (running from an ISO file)? Is the Pico-PSU powerful enough for this?
Do you run Windows on Linux on this box?
It turns on using Wake on Lan and peripherals are connected via wall-mounted USB ports on either side of the couch.Antique Brass Lamps
NAS for media storage.
RaspberryPi for streaming off the NAS.
Plug the Pi in the back of the NAS and it boots whenever the NAS powers on.
Add the Yatse Android app for remote control, call notifications, texts on screen and play pausing during calls, and you have a slick media center that is minimal on hardware and noise, but maxed on storage and functionality.
(And if you're reading CodingHorror, you're likely not one of the "I can't set my stuff up!" peeps.)