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Building an Inexpensive Windows 7 HTPC – Part 1

After a quick check-in with the wife, I had the green light to build a cheap HTPC for our family room as a “proof of concept”. Prior to this, I had tested a couple different scenarios with varying results, which included:

  • Installing Plex Server on my main PC and streaming video through a Roku XDS:  I thought this was going to be my ultra cheap intro into HTPC heaven, but the ROKU interface was slow (nothing new there) and it became unusable after I encountered re-buffering every few minutes.  Unfortunately, this was experienced with the wife present, which dampened her excitement about the possibility of our own home-based “Netflix”.  The thing Plex had going for it is that it does perform consistently well on my iPhone and iPad devices.
  • Used a Windows XP Laptop to connect to Plex:  This actually worked very well, once I was connected through a physical network link.  I was able to skip forward almost instantaneously and there were no issues with rebuffering.  This did reassure me on the decision a couple weeks earlier to run Cat5E to all of our rooms with TV’s.  I’ve historically has poor results getting wireless to work well in our house, and so I wanted the consistency of a wired connection if I was going to really take on this project.

There were a couple other options that I couldn’t test without making some sort of investment. As a result, I spent a little time researching each, hoping to make a wise choice:

  1. Windows Media Center 7 with Xbox 360 as an extender: We don’t have an Xbox 360, but the prospect of using Kinect to control my media extender via myvoice or gestures was certainly appealing. There were two problems with this option though.  First, choosing the Xbox 360 would essentially lock me into a Windows Media Center configuration.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I wanted options. The second was that even though the price of an Xbox 360 is about the same (or maybe even less) than a small computer, or a dedicated media extender, I couldn’t wrap my brain around the idea of having one in every room.
  2. Windows Media Center (or Plex) with a PC based extender: This option involved building or buying a Windows7 based PC to act as a client to either Plex or Windows Media Center.  Technically, it’s not a client to WMC7, but rather they share a common library. This scenario was tested out to some degree with my laptop experiment and seemed to give me the best options (such as including web browsing and other PC based options) along with the greatest flexibility.  The only downsides seemed to be that I wouldn’t be able to use this client PC to watch recorded protected content if I ever installed a cablecard/tuner and it would probably cost a little more than I had originally hoped, but I’d rather spend a few extra dollars if it delivers in terms of flexibility and performance.

Ultimately, I decided to build a small mini-ITX based Windows 7 HTPC for the family room.  It was an easy hardware build consisting of:

  • Apex MI-100 Mini ITX Case w/ 250W power supply ($49.99)
  • ASRock E350M1/USB3 CPU/Motherboard Combo w/ AMD E-350 APU ($99.99)
  • SAMSUNG Black Blu-ray Combo SATA Model SH-B123L LightScribe Support ($57.99)
  • Crucial 4096MB PC8500 DDR3 1066MHz Memory 2 x 2GB – ($28.99)
  • Western Digital Caviar Green Hard Drive SATA-3G 500GB – ($107.99)
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit ($99.99)

Total Price: $444.94

Total Build Time: ~30 minutes (link to build coming soon!)

Originally, I was going to put a 250GB drive in, but TigerDirect was backordered (even though their website still said “In Stock”) so they substituted the 500GB drive. I included the actual cost of the 500GB drive so that the price was accurate for the an equivalent build.  The motherboard and Blue-ray drive came from NewEgg and shipped the same day I ordered them and were delivered 2 days later. The Tiger Direct items came in 4 different boxes a couple days later.  I’m a fairly impatient person, so that night after putting the kids to bed, I put it all together.  It wasn’t a painless setup, but I’ll provide details on the actual build in Part 2 of this series.



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I am a christian, husband and father who desires to be good at all three. If I'm not investing directly into the lives of my wife, children, or church, I'm probably illuminated by the glow of a monitor, tv, ipad or smartphone. In either case, I hope that the phrase "plugged in" describes me appropriately.


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