Sunday, March 17, 2013

Super Slim HTPC Followup

Now that the new HTPC has been "in production" in the bedroom for a couple days, I have a few notes and comments for those considering a similar build.

SilverStone PT12B case

  • This case is functional, minimal and very attractive for HTPC use.
  • Ease of system assembly is the best of any case... ever! That's really a compliment for Mini-ITX.
  • The blue power LED is very bright and blinks when the system is in standby. This is enough to be very distracting in a dark room. I will absolutely end up disconnecting or putting tape over the LED.
  • The case is not overly sturdy, especially in the top center. I wanted to put my display (24" monitor) stand on top of the case, but don't trust it to support the weight. Putting an old standalone DVD player atop the case and the monitor stand on that works fine. The DVD player distributes weight to the corners of the PT12B. Some larger cases include a metal cross-brace and additional center/rear middle leg to accommodate weight. Honestly, I'm happy enough not to deal with an annoying cross-brace.
  • There is no provision for a horizontal expansion card. I don't see this as a big loss for HTPC in a slim chassis. Mini PCIe and USB provide decent enough expansion capabilities.
  • Cooling holes over the CPU are a nice touch for passively cooled (Atom) or very low-profile HSF systems. I could maybe see putting my old 35W Core i3-2120T in this case with a low-profile HSF.
  • It's not clear how efficiently cooled this case really is. That said, it does specifically accommodate the Intel HTS1155LP cooler. I feel like cooling could be optimized to allow better cooling of the motherboard, RAM, and SSD as well as CPU? That said, I'm not having problems at heavy load.

Intel HTS1155LP cooler

  • This is better quality than Intel's cheap OEM HSF units.
  • Thermal paste is separate and not pre-applied. I used Arctic Silver 5 instead. Seems like a plus not to have to scrape pre-applied thermal paste off the heat transfer pad.
  • Plastic under-motherboard support and screw attachment seems like a plus compared to Intel push pins w/ twist release. That said, how to know how hard to torque the screws?
  • Blower is quieter than expected. This system is installed at the foot of my bed and I can't hear it above ambient noise while playing video. It also didn't seem loud while doing games testing. I almost want it to be louder (higher RPM) under significant load?
  • Exhaust air is slightly warm. Compared to my desktop gaming PC I think this is a plus. I definitively know heat is being exhausted from the case.

Intel DQ77KB (Ivy Bridge) motherboard

  • Intel also offers a cheaper and older DH61AG board that would be perfectly fine for most HTPC.
  • DQ77KB provides SATA3, plentiful USB3, dual Ethernet, Mini-TOSLINK (via green audio out port), and DDR3 1600 RAM support.
  • PCIe x4 is wasted in a super slim case. How useful is PCIe x4 on this board? You'd want x16 for video; I guess x4 is useful for more networking or more storage. Honestly, this seems like a leftover; we have 4 PCIe lanes left so here they are!
  • Full and short length Mini PCIe provide good internal expansion for mSATA and Wi-Fi. The screws in the Mini PCIe standoffs can come torqued a bit too much. Is this the new source of badly designed frustration for small PC builders? I'm tempted to buy a separate set of standoffs w/ screws to replace the half faulty included ones!
  • The included mSATA port is only 3GB/s while my mSATA SSD supports 6GB/s. For shame! There are two regular 6GB/s SATA and two 3GB/s SATA ports on this board in addition. My secondary drive gets to be 6GB/s, the mSATA primary only 3GB/s!
  • I'm basically whining about a perfectly good low-profile motherboard. My complaints are either unnecessary optimization or trying to make this board into something is was never meant to be.

Intel Core i3-3225 3.3GHz dual-core CPU

  • Intel HD 4000 graphics are basically a 720p (not 1080p+) solution for gaming.
  • This is a very capable CPU. In retrospect, I should have not tried for gaming and saved myself some money.
  • It would be more tempting to downsize if these Socket 1155 Core i3 processors weren't all similarly rated at 55W TDP. I feel like Sandy/Ivy Bridge T (low-power) processors are priced a bit dear. The thing is, all Intels idle very efficiently these days.

Antec SN90P slim notebook power adapter

  • This power brick works great at full CPU and graphics load and is quite small compared to most power bricks.
  • Highly recommended so far!

Windows 8

  • The initial install went very smoothly.
  • Yeah, it's Windows 8 with all the desktop annoyances one would expect.
  • Surprisingly, I'm actually glad I went with 8 for an HTPC build. The native Windows 8 Netflix app is a nice advantage for my setup.
  • XMBC with cmyth PVR supports works are well as any other platform (Linux) I've tried.
  • As much as I'm a Linux and not Windows guy, Windows 8 makes a very usable HTPC appliance.

Conclusion

Having spent time mucking about with GNU/Linux PCs and Android/Linux devices to get a decent HTPC experience, this is the first time I feel like I've achieved it. This system wasn't cheap, although it could have been much cheaper and still gotten the job done. Someday ARM-based streaming devices will probably provide an equivalent or better experience, but we seem to be a few years away from that still. I'm very happy with this build, but would probably be nearly as happy with a downspecced DH61AG, cheaper Sandy Bridge, and 4GB RAM build. ARM-based Android media devices may be several times cheaper, but they don't get me where I need to go yet.

Supplication

I'd desperately like to know what hardware configurations others are running to meet their media streaming needs. I'm tempted to maintain a guide for currently acceptable HTPC build and configuration. For HTPC, it seems that savvy geeks would prefer to run the cheapest, friendliest (wife acceptance factor, etc.) systems that will do the job. For some this is (hacked) Apple TV, for others TiVo plus a separate (expert mode) HTPC, Android devices, other media boxes, friendly HTPC, and the list goes on. We're in this frustrating interim period between conventional broadcast/cable TV and pure Internet IPTV and many of us want to keep on top of the advancements. Thanks in advance for your help. See you all on my blog, your blogs, the message boards, and Google+!