HT's HTPC, Part III
It was way back in the June 2005 issue that I built an HTPC from scratch—I mean really from scratch, as in out of wood. For those of you who may have missed it, you can find it at www.hometheatermag.com under the GearWorks section. It was a great experiment, and it basically worked. I haven't felt any effects of the RF radiation of 3.6 gigahertz (there was no shielding), and the minimal amount of innards-securing hasn't been an issue. (At 54 pounds, it does not get moved much.)
I considered the project done, but many of you have been looking for more. So, at long last, I'll revisit building a quiet HTPC—sort of.
Instead of rehashing that old article, I decided to start fresh. Whereas the WoodPC's goal was to be as quiet as possible, this time, I'm going the opposite route—to try to make the fastest PC possible, and then make it quiet.
NVIDIA e-Geforce 8800 GTX Video Card
The reasons for this are manifold. In 2005, nearly all displays were 720p, which wasn't taxing for most video cards to produce. As such, I could get away with a passively cooled, slower model. Now, most new displays are 1,920 by 1,080. That's twice the number of pixels. Sure, video cards have gotten faster to compensate, but games have gotten a lot more complex, as well. This brings me to my next point. This is the year of Vista, and more importantly, DirectX 10. This new video language is significantly more complex than the aging DX9, and it requires all-new video cards. (More on DX10 next month.) Then there's Blu-ray and HD DVD. To run either of these formats, you either need a beefy processor, certain graphics cards, or both.
So, in addition to being a gaming powerhouse, the new PC would also have to be able to play BD or HD DVD (or, even better, both). For some choices, I sacrificed a bit of performance for the sake of heat/sound. For others, I could have gone with a quieter solution but chose the beefier version instead. Check out the sidebars discussing other options throughout this article. This month, I'll look at all the parts; next month, I'll put them all together.
First, a Recap
The loudest components in most computers are the fans. Unfortunately, without numerous fans, your computer would literally melt. The trick is picking products that need less cooling or products that are designed to be quiet. There has been an explosion of products recently that fit into the latter category, and I picked a bunch of them. The rule of thumb is, bigger fans are better, as they can move the same amount of air while rotating slower, and therefore, they're usually quieter.
Western Digital Caviar SE16 Hard Drive
I received several e-mails about "water cooling." This is really a misnomer. "Water transport" would be more apt. The water isn't really cooling anything; it just transports the heat to a radiator. For the models where the entire cooling system is in one case, that still means fans. For those with an outboard cooling tower, there are two interconnected components with thin liquid-filled tubes between them. This is certainly an option, and perhaps a quieter one, but its complexity, cost, and hassle make it more of a niche product. If you're up to it, or want to overclock your CPU or GPU, then go for it. Personally, I don't like the idea of that much water inches away from expensive computer bits and a 600-watt power supply.
Boxy, but Good
The first step is a case. As cool as your friends and neighbors may think you are after you build a PC out of wood (I know mine think differently of me now), it's not very practical. If you're better at woodworking than I am, then this could be fun. (Not hard; I know just enough about a saw to not cut myself—usually.) But I wrote that article already. There are even more companies out there that make cases for HTPCs than there were two years ago.
For most people, buying a decent and attractive case is the best option. I went with a Zalman HD160XT. Not only is this case exceedingly good looking, it has a built-in 7-inch LCD touchscreen, and its design allows for lots of airflow. It didn't reduce the sound on its own, so I had to take care in planning the guts. The computer looks like a high-end pre/pro, with a volume knob and everything. It only has one disc-drive bay, which isn't a huge deal if you pick the right drive to start with.
Before you can complete several of the next steps, you have to decide on a processor. There is a new fastest chip every week, so there is no way I can tell you which one is fastest as you're reading this. I went with AMD. At the moment, their fastest chip is a lot cheaper than the comparable Intel part, and it runs cooler. I'm not going to dive into the Intel-versus-AMD fight, so, if you like Intel, go for it. The higher-end chips from either company will power all of today's games and probably HD DVD/BD. I went with an Athlon 64 X2 5600+ (Windsor). The faster 6000+ was available, but the 5600+ is a little cheaper, and, more importantly, it's only 89 watts instead of 125 watts. Fewer watts mean less heat. Less heat means less cooling. Another bonus to the AMD route is future compatibility. Even though AMD will be using a new socket in their next-generation chips, those chips will still fit the current-generation motherboards (but minus a few features). It's a lot easier to upgrade just a processor than to replace an entire motherboard. Speaking of which. . .
AMD Athlon 64 X2 CPU
The motherboard is a PC's central nervous system. Everything plugs into it, and it runs everything. Most motherboards come with onboard audio and video. Fortunately, these can be disabled. While they have gotten better, and some even have HDMI, they are not as good as a separate graphics card. Pick a motherboard that has enough slots for you to plug in what you want and that will fit in your case. Different chipsets (the circuitry that runs the board) offer different features. Make sure you pick one that works with the CPU you chose, obviously. Some boards have no fans, which is a plus. I picked eVGA's 590 SLI, which has NVIDIA's 590 chipset. It also supports SLI, or dual video cards, although I won't be doing that. (I'll explain why in the video-card section.) Oddly, even though there are two PCI-E slots and SLI support, the slots are so close together that most new video cards won't fit. This board also allows you to adjust every feature in the BIOS in Windows.
Creative Fatal1ty Sound Card
The video card is probably the most important component in your PC. You can't really skimp on any one part, but the video card is where you'll want to splurge. The better the video card, the better games will look, and you'll be able to run games at higher resolutions and at better frame rates. Like processors, this is a quickly changing market. I got in an NVIDIA 8800 GTX by eVGA, which was the fastest video card available at the time. But, even as I write this, NVIDIA just announced a newer 8800 Ultra, which is even faster. These are extremely expensive parts—the video card will probably be the single most expensive part in your PC—but they're worth it. If you don't or can't go for the top of the line, or you aren't as much of a gamer, NVIDIA's 8500 and 8600 are a little cheaper, and they actually run HD DVD and BD better, thanks to a different chip design. Also, if you go slower, some companies like eVGA make passively cooled models.
eVGA 590 SLI Motherboard
All of these are DirectX 10 parts. At this point, you shouldn't buy a video card that's not 100-percent DX10 compliant. Another concern is HDCP compliance. Without it, you won't be able to view HD DVD/BD on any digital connection (like DVI or HDMI). Most new cards have this, but it's worth double-checking before you buy.
Dual video cards seem cool, but they're over the top, even for me. A fast single video card will push plenty of frames per second on even the most difficult games, especially at 1,920 by 1,080. Also, two video cards will be more noisy than one.
Sure, you could get away with the integrated sound from the motherboard, but why? The sound quality from a card is bound to be a lot better. The X-Fi series from Sound Blaster offers up to 7.1 channels of surround, and it's THX certified. The one I got was even branded as a Fatal1ty Pro Series, after the professional gamer Fatal1ty. (Don't laugh. He makes more money than you, and all he does is play video games.)
Buy name-brand RAM. It's as simple as that. Crappy RAM can cause all sorts of problems that are often hard to diagnose. Also, buy a lot of it. Vista supports oodles of RAM, so bulk up. The more RAM, the smoother everything runs. I got 4 gigabytes of DDR2 from Corsair. Different processors and motherboards prefer different types of RAM, so check the compatibility before you buy. I got their Dominator series, which is beautiful overkill. Each stick of RAM has big, double-sided, spiky aluminum heat sinks.
I went with a 500-GB Western Digital SE16 series hard drive. It is known for being exceptionally quiet. I like quiet. Unless you plan on storing a lot of video, 500 GB is overkill. Even with lots of music, pictures, games, and everything else, there is no way you'd fill up 500 GB. But, hey, why not?
LG's GGW-H10N will burn Blu-ray, DVD, and CD and play back HD DVD. It's not cheap, but it's ideal for our single-drive case. Other options include an HD DVD drive from Toshiba and/or a Blu-ray drive from half a dozen companies.
People often neglect or forget about the power supplies. Like the power ratings on amplifiers, most wattage ratings on power supplies can best be described as "optimistic." Stick with name brands. I picked Corsair's HX series for its nearly silent operation and real power. I've also had good luck with Thermaltake and Antec.
The item that creates the most heat in a computer is the CPU. The heat sinks that come with processors are generally designed to get the job done as cheaply as possible. Zalman's heat sinks are designed to do the job better and quieter. There's a design for every wallet. The early copper-flower designs work extremely well, and they're only about $50. They have big, quiet fans. I have one on my Intel Prescott P4 at home (one of the hottest home processors ever made), and it works wonders. I got the newer CNPS9500AT, which works well with the case, moving air out of the back. Zalman also makes quiet heat sinks for Northbridge chipsets (on the motherboard) and for graphics cards.
Corsair Dominator XMS2 RAM
Get real Arctic Silver thermal compound to mate your heat sink to your processor. At just a few dollars a tube, it's not worth going cheap on this. This is what conducts the heat from the processor to the heat sink. You want it to be as good as it can be.
If you don't have some decent tools, get some. They're worth the money. Many computer stores sell kits that have small screwdrivers and other handy computer-building tools—the right hex wrench for the job and all.
A Word on Pricing
You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned many prices. This is because, in this category, prices change on a daily basis. What I would quote now would be completely off by the time you read it. The best resource I've found for pricing is www.pricewatch.com. This gives you the latest prices from dozens of Websites. A bare-bones system will probably cost you $1,000 to build if you have no donor parts. You can spend more than $2,000, but, above that, you're getting into really tweaky, overkill parts. In other words, go for it.
Cases: Other Options
There are numerous manufacturers that make cases for PCs these days. I went with a horizontal design, but towers are more prevalent. Look for big 120-millimeter fans; smaller than 90 mm may be louder than you want. Check out:
Motherboards, Another Option
There is some discussion about whether it is better to get a chipset that matches your video card (like this board) or one that matches your processor (like AMD's 690 chipset). It's up to you, but any differences in performance are likely to be minimal. Look for features that you like, or passive cooling if you're trying to be as quiet as possible.
What About ATI?
ATI got absorbed into AMD a little while ago, but their name continues on. They just released their latest cards, the Radeon HD 2400, 2600, and 2900, after months of delays. Like AMD versus Intel, I'm not picking sides here, either. I'm sure ATI's new cards are fast, and they're worth a look.