Face it, most of us like the idea of having an HTPC (Home Theater PC) hooked up to our TV. The flexibility we get with an HTPC over just a DVD player or a gaming console is enough alone to justify the cost. I have built a bunch of these for people and until recently, I have never used pre-built systems. There are many advantages to building a custom machine for your theater, but the biggest disadvantage is the cost. Lately, I have been using Small Form Factor (SFF) HP’s and believe it or not… they make great HTPC’s.
If you shop around enough, you can find some good deals on refurbished or off lease computers. I found some HP DC7800’s on eBay for under two hundred dollars sporting Core 2 Duo’s, 4GB of RAM, and the OS already installed. Some of the nice features of systems like this are that they use little electricity compared to custom builds and they are small in size, measuring only 13.3 inches wide x 14.9 inches deep, and 3.95 inches tall. If you want to compare this to something you may recognize quickly, lets use an Xbox 360 @ 12.15 inches wide, 10.15 inches deep, and 3.27 inches tall. That means that these don’t take up a lot of space. They even have an additional 3.5 inch bay for another internal hard drive.
We all know that there is much more to an HTPC than just having a basic computer hooked up to your TV. There are some basic needs that can be addressed very quickly and cheaply. First of all, I absolutely love having a bluetooth keyboard and mouse and nothing fits the bill better than the Rocketfish RF-BTCMBO2. There have been a number of devices I have tried, and they just never add up to the value I get with the Rocketfish Combo. I tried saving money by going with 2.4ghz wireless devices, but they just don’t play as nice as bluetooth. On the high side though, I have yet to find a bluetooth keyboard and mouse combo for even less than double the cost of the Rocketfish combo.
Next, an HTPC absolutely must play blu-ray movies for me. This means that I need a decent video card. Luckily for us, there are some nice low-profile video cards out there that are HDMI and also provide 7.1 surround sound. If you shop around on Newegg or wherever (I prefer Microcenter because they have a local store), you can find a wide assortment of video cards that will work great. I have used everything from 4350’s to 5570’s and have had no complaints from my customers, friends, or family.
Third, and this is not a must but it should be, is being able to control your HTPC with a remote control. To do this, you will need something like the Antec Multimedia Station Elite. The Multimedia Station Elite is a 5.25 inch bay accessory that gives an LCD display and the incredible SoundGraph iMon capabilities. If you have seen some of the more expensive HTPC cases out there, you will notice that they feature the iMon VFD.
Now here is the gotcha. If you get a system like the HP DC7800, you have only one 5.25 inch bay. This is where your decision may get a little difficult. You must decide whether or not you want the ability to put an optical drive in your system or have the SoundGraph VFD. I personally backup all of my movies to my home sever so I can stream them to all the PC’s in my house. This means that having an optical drive in my HTPC is not necessary. Let’s face it, part of the allure of having an HTPC is the ability to stream movies and play music without ever having to put in a disc.
So let’s say you go this route (which I recommend) and you decide that you can live without the optical drive and want to use the Antec’s Multimedia Station Elite for the ability to control your HTCP with the included remote or your Logitech Harmony (like me). The Multimedia Station Elite, AMSE from now on, comes with everything you need to install this in a normal computer. It includes a 24 pin power adapter that acts as a passthrough and has a 3 pin standby connector so you can power on your PC using the remote control.
WAIT! This is not a normal computer, this is a small form factor PC from HP with custom crap… er… stuff! Yes, it still uses a 24 pin connector for the PSU, but it is considerably smaller than that of a normal power supply. Fret not my friend, wiring this thing isn’t as hard as you may think, or as hard as my pictures make it look for that matter.