I don't want to watch pay TV. I don't want to use a controller. I just want to watch 3D Blu-rays and frag people with a mouse and keyboard, all on a box that fits on my entertainment centre. Is that too much to ask?
We've built our fair share of home theatre PCs in the past, with all sorts of different use cases in mind. Our August 2010 HTPC was a stunner built for 3D, with passively cooled GPU, CPU and PSU, as well as a four-channel CableCard tuner and Blu-ray 3D support. In June 2011, Gordon tried to make a small-form-factor HTPC that could cut out the previous build's bulk (and CableCard) while still supporting Blu-ray 3D. Both of those rigs handled their respective tasks well, but what if I don't care about cable but do care about gaming? This month's task is to create a kick-ass gaming rig in an HTPC form factor-one that can handle modern games, as well as 3D Blu-ray and Dolby TrueHD audio, without sounding like a jet engine.
The Right Tools for the Job
When building a PC for the living room, the first thing to consider is the chassis. After testing many cases, including Lian Li's PC-P50 and Silverstone's oldie-but-goodie CW02, I settled on the Silverstone GD06, a microATX case with three 12cm cooling fans, front-panel USB 3.0 ports (with internal header!) and two hot-swap SATA bays. The other cases were roomier, but I wanted to keep the footprint as small as possible.
The videocard needs to be able to handle Blu-ray 3D and support HDMI 1.4a for true lossless HD audio. That's the easy part. It also has to have the power to play today's games, and the GTX 560Ti has that. MSI's Twin Frozr II version is speedy, factory-overclocked, quiet, and doesn't draw a lot of power. For Blu-ray playback, we're hitting up an old favourite: Plextor's PX320-SA.
The GD06's front panel latches when not in use to prevent miscreants from waltzing off with your drives.
We're not crippling this rig with an Atom or Fusion board. Asus's Maximus IV Gene-Z combines a powerful Z68 gaming platform with easy overclocking, two PCIe x16 slots, onboard 6Gb/s SATA and X-Fi-branded onboard audio using Realtek codecs. Intel's Core i5-2500K brings four unlocked processors at 3.3GHz.
I picked a speedy 6Gb/s SATA SSD for an OS drive, and a large-capacity drive for media storage. The case's front hot-swap SATA bays make it easy to add more storage later.
Step 1: Prep the Case
Remove the three screws securing the top cover of the GD06, then slide the cover off of the case. Unlock and open the front-panel bezel. Take out the four little screws securing the optical drive bay, and remove the bay. Do the same with the four screws holding the HDD trays. Lift out the bays and set them aside.
Step 2: Install the PSU
Stick the four rubber feet that ship with the case onto the underside of the PSU (the side with the intake fan). Mount the PSU with the fan pointing to the bottom of the case.
Step 3: Install the CPU, Cooler and RAM
Open the CPU gate and remove the plastic socket protector. Align the CPU with the socket and gently lower it into place (image below, left). Lower the gate and secure the CPU. Since we're using the stock cooler, all you have to do is remove the plastic cover, make sure the stock thermal pads are in place, and align the four posts on the heatsink with the mounting holes in the motherboard.
Press down firmly on two opposite pins at a time until you hear a firm click, then repeat for the other two pins (image below, right). Make sure the cooler is firmly attached; it shouldn't wobble. Connect the CPU fan to the CPU_FAN header. Mount the RAM in either the red slots or the black slots.
Step 4: Mount the Motherboard
Install the motherboard I/O shield in the case, then put a motherboard standoff into the rightmost centre hole (when viewed from the rear of the case) -- this is the only standoff you need for microATX that isn't preinstalled in the chassis. Slide the motherboard into the case (image below), aligning the I/O ports with the I/O shield, and screw the motherboard screws into the standoffs.
Step 5: Connect Cables
The trickiest part of this build is the wiring. As you perform each step, keep the next steps in mind. Plan ahead and make sure to coil excess cable and secure it to tiedowns when possible.
Connect one end of a black SATA cable to one of the four grey SATA ports on the motherboard. Connect the PSU's 24-pin ATX power connector to the board. Run the 8-pin ATX power cable along the bottom edge of the motherboard, and then up behind the I/O ports to the AUX input (image above, left). Set aside a SATA power cable, the dual-6-pin PCI Express power cable and a 4-pin Molex power cable, and tie the remaining PCI Express and SATA power cables down in front of the motherboard (image above, right) using the cable ties included with the case.
Coil the front-panel connectors until they're just long enough to reach the pins, then connect them to the motherboard's pinout. Install the pinout onto the board (image above). Tie down the excess cable. Attach the front-panel audio and USB 3.0 headers, pulling excess cable below the optical drive bay. Plug the system fans into fan headers on the motherboard.
Step 6: Install the GPU
Remove the two PCI expansion slot covers closest to the I/O ports and install the GPU, making sure to run the ATX auxiliary power cable beneath it. Plug the two PCI-E 6-pin plugs into the ports on the end of the card.
Step 7: Install the Drives
Attach the SSD to the underside of the hard drive bracket using the four SSD screws (image below, left). Plug a 6Gb/s SATA cable into the SSD. Plug the two SATA cables from the hot-swap bays to two of the mobo's grey SATA ports, and attach the other end of the SATA cable from the SSD into one of the red ports.
Attach the two 4-pin Molex connectors from the hot-swap bays to two of the 4-pin connectors from the PSU (image above, right). Attach the end SATA data connector from the cable you moved over earlier. Replace the hard drive tray and reattach the four screws that hold it in place. Slide your mass storage drive into one of the hot-swap bays and close the door.
Step 8: Install the Blu-ray Drive
Attach the optical drive to the optical drive tray (image below), making sure the mounting holes on the drive are aligned with the front set of mounting holes on the tray. Attach with four optical-drive mounting screws and plug in the SATA power and SATA data cables you previously routed to the area. Reinstall the drive bay using the four screws you removed in Step 1.
Step 9: Wrap it Up
Slot the storage drive into one of the front hot-swap bays, and then replace the case's top cover. Install OS and drivers, and away you go!
It's Got Game!
I worried that an actively cooled gaming rig in an HTPC chassis would be too noisy, especially compared to passively cooled rigs like our August 2011 machine. But all builds involve compromises, and I wasn't willing to give up gaming performance in exchange for a few decibels. Fortunately, the GD06's fans are pretty quiet, and MSI's Twin Frozr II cooler makes the GTX 560 Ti run quietly, as well. The rig only really got loud when I was installing driver updates from the optical drive. The drive runs much more quietly when playing a movie.
And to my relief, the system is pretty speedy. Our zero-point machine is an aging-but-still-powerful overclocked Core i7-920 with a dual-GPU videocard. The Sandy Bridge processor and GTX 560 Ti helped the gaming HTPC hold its own reasonably well in the benchmarks despite a stock-clocked processor sans Hyper-Threading.
The tight quarters of the GD06 don't leave much room for a fancy wiring job, but the positive air pressure generated by its three 12cm intake fans ensures that the components stay cool.
The rig plays 3D Blu-ray and offers a protected Dolby TrueHD audio path via the videocard's 1.4a-compatible Mini HDMI port-essential elements in a home theatre PC. If you must have cable, you can drop in Ceton's InfiniTV tuner and a CableCard. If you must have a dedicated soundcard, you can add in one of those. If you're really crazy, you can add both. I prefer to go without either and save the $US650. I still have access to Netflix, Hulu Plus, and anything I can stream over my home network.
It's also great for games. Some of us like gaming on a giant screen, and we want to use a mouse and keyboard when we do. And now we can, with a box that's far more powerful than any console.
If you're curious about the rest of an HTPC setup-recommended remotes, peripherals, sound systems, TVs and more -- check out our guide to the Ultimate 3D HTPC from last year. The peripheral recommendations still stand, though 3D-compatible TVs have only gotten easier to come by.
Our current desktop test bed consists of a quad-core 2.66GHz Core i7-920 overclocked to 3.5GHz, 6GB of Corsair DDR3/1333 overclocked to 1750MHz, on a Gigabyte X58 motherboard. We are running an ATI Radeon HD 5970 graphics card, a 160GB Intel X25-M SSD and 64-bit Windows 7 Ultimate.
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