The Ultimate HTPC - Part II

In Part I of my Ultimate HTPC rants I looked at a few HTPC alternatives, including ways of transforming the PS3 into a general purpose solution. The conclusion of all that non-sense was that a custom build seemed to be the only means of achieving my goals. This post describes my efforts over the last few weeks to get all the hardware components installed and working as they should (the software side of things is covered here).

The heart of any HTPC is the motherboard as it dictates the CPU brand and architecture you'll be using, the size of system case and other compoents to fit in the case. After a bit of research I chose to use the J&W MINIX 780G. This is a mini-ITX board sporting an integrated Radeon 3200 HD with hardware H.264 decoders and HDMI + Toslink optical SPDIF output. You can read more about the board features in the linked review, but basically it does a fine job at 1080p playback with a decent dual-core CPU.

Speaking of which, I chose to use an AMD Athlon X2 5050e (Dual Core, 2.6GHz, 45w). The motherboard supports AM2 AMD CPUs up to 65w, but I chose to go for a low-power 45w instead to keep heat and noise down. 2.6GHz should be more than enough for 1080p playback anyhow, especially considering the on-board videocard has hardware H.264 decoders.

The next major choice was the case. I used an AYWUN A1-8989 (yeah, I never heard of it before either) mini-ITX as it supports a full-size 5.25" internal optical drive and a full-size 3.25" internal IDE/SATA HDD. Most other cases I looked at only supported slim-line laptop optical drives which are considerably more expensive and usually slower and less reliable. The case also came with an internal 150w PSU and is somewhat stylish with a nice piano-black coating.

The rest of the parts included a 640GB Samsung Spinpoint F1 HDD (was initially after a Western Digital Caviar Green but was out of stock), a Pioneer BD-R, DVD-R/W internal drive, a Leadtek WinFast Px-DVR3200 H TV tuner (the Px-DVR1300 is a cheaper digital-only solution, but the slightly more expensive Hybrid allows you to also tune FM radio in WMC) and 2GB Kingston SO-DIMM (J&W mobo takes laptop RAM). Putting everything together was easy enough although the case is quite small and connecting some of the wires can be pretty difficult towards the end.

Once I had the system up and running, the first thing I noticed was that it was quite loud. The noise was mostly coming from the power supply fan and the sock AM2 CPU fan. I thus decided to replace the PSU with a more silent alternative, namely the picoPSU. Ripping out the stock PSU was a breeze, as was pluging in the tiny pico (although I had to drill a small hole at the back of the case to attach the internal DC plug). The picoPSU is rated at 120w with a compatible 12V external AC adapter that can output that much power. I've had no issues with power consumption so far (the 45w CPU probably helps here). This eliminated all PSU noise.

Changing the CPU fan was a little more difficult. Being a mini-ITX case and motherboard, there's very little room for aftermarket coolers. While some manufacturers are marketing low-profile coolers (e.g. Scythe Shuriken), most of these have wider dimensions than the stock heatsink & fan (for the shuriken, ~68x107x80mm for stock). The only real solution seemed to be replacing the stock 80x80x15mm fan with a quieter alternative. Finding an 80x80x15 fan is a little challenging though as most are 25mm thick (standard dimension for case fans). While using a 25mm fan is still possible, it would not fit in my case.

The solution was to buy the Thermaltake TR2 M6, which is almost identical to the stock cooler, but has a 39mm tall heatsink and uses a 25mm tall fan. The fan of-course is still a cheapie and was still very loud, but it allowed me to replace it with an Arctic Cooling 8025 PWM. These Arctic Cooling fans have a 4-pin adapter and can be connected in series to each-other. That is, most motherboards (including the J&W) only have 1 4-pin fan port that allows variable speed control. Chaining these fans together allows you to control the RPM speed of all system fans.

I'm using a second 80mm fan as the rear exhaust fan. By default, on the maximum RPM setting, the fans are still loud and only slightly better than the stocks. However, using SpeedFan to turn down the RPM to about 65% makes a huge, huge difference and the fans are now almost inaudiable. The low-power 45w CPU and DC PSU also means internal case temperatures and CPU temperatures stay low even on the slow fan settings.>

The HTPC is now running as silent as it's gonna get. The Samsung Spinpoint F1 is fairly quiet and can only be heard if there's no other noise in the room. The internal Blueray drive is somewhat loud but not much can be done about that.

One last note I'd like to make is that SpeedFan needs to be run to change the RPM speed every time you reset the PC. It would be better to adjust the fan RPM controls in the BIOS but I'm using the Logitech diNovo Mini wireless keyboard which has no F1-F12 function keys (I need to press F1 to get into BIOS). It's infuriating but until I borrow a USB keyboad, I'll need to stick with SpeedFan :(

UPDATE: Finally managed to get a USB keyboard and change the BIOS fan speed (it's under the Power Options, PC Health). I set it to manual, 165, which shows up as about 60% in SpeedFan. Quieter than my PS3 now and CPU temps are staying under 50 it seems (although the AUX temp is a little high at 55).

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