HTPC: What it is, what it’s for and better tips for setting it up

When choosing a media center for your entertainment room, it’s not enough to buy any brand or rely exclusively on affordable price or high power.

It is necessary to understand the space in which this HTPC is going to be installed, in order for it to carry out its role correctly, otherwise, it will only provide a faulty sound experience inside the room, instead of presenting an impressive sound when playing games or watching movies.

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The first step is to evaluate the environment in which the home theater will be installed. If your home is being renovated, this is a good opportunity to hide the cables and embed the sound boxes.

Thus, the basic task at the beginning is to check which is the most convenient position to install the HTPC and the simplest and neatest way to pass the cables.

To give us an idea, in a reduced room of up to 15 square meters, the most convenient is a home theater of the soundbar type, which offers up to 500 W RMS of power.

A room with an area between 15 and 25 square meters will support a type of system with speakers 5.1 or 5.2, and approximately between 500 W and 1000 W RMS of power.

In rooms larger than 25 square meters, the system recommended to fully enjoy the HTPC is with loudspeakers 7.1. or 7.2, and a power greater than 1,000 W RMS.

What is an HTPC

A Home Theater Personal Computer (HTPC) is a dedicated PC that is used connected to a television or a video projector to offer us all its musical quality playing movies, music and digital television.

In addition, with this technological device it is possible to run some PC games, use the optical drive to play CDs, DVDs, Blurays; and watch videos from streaming services such as YouTube and Netflix, all from the comfort of a sofa.

A home cinema computer (HTPC) is about trying to copy the experience and atmosphere we live in a cinema, but transferred to our own home.

We take the room into the deepest darkness, with the screen off, the beamer on and the speakers displaying the first sounds and dialogues. This is the beginning of a great experience watching a movie, series or music recital.

Being a sound reproduction system oriented to relive movies with a high quality reality, the HTPC comes with surround sound and a volume calibrated to increase the realism of the images emitted by the beamer or television.

In this way, you will receive all the sensations and emotions of your favorite movies.

The concept of home cinema came into being during the 1990s when the Compact Disc Video appeared, providing better digital image and sound qualities than the popular and remembered VHS cassette.

Simultaneously, the first HTPC amplifiers arrived that opened the doors to start enjoying ambient sound on 5 speakers.

This system consists of a central loudspeaker that reproduces the voices of the characters, two main loudspeakers that reproduce all the sounds and two loudspeakers in the back that recreate the atmosphere of the film, as happens in a cinema.

How an HTPC is made up

When we talk about HTPC, we are referring to a series of devices that turn the living room of a home into a home cinema, with their respective visual and sound sensations.

In this way, these devices that constitute the HTPC take care of all the cinematographic effects in order to enjoy to the maximum a medium of video HD or Ultra HD.

Source of contents

In order for an HTPC to give us all its sound and visual quality, it is necessary to have a source that contains the material we will see and listen to, such as music or movies.

Today, the vast majority of people have at least one source of multimedia content.

Sound, being the main feature in all HTPC, requires a digital source with HDMI support in order to exploit to the extreme the latest immersive sound technologies and an image of great definition and realism.

Modern amplifiers allow ample wireless connectivity, thus facilitating the connection of different audio and video sources, such as the following:

  • CD Player
  • DVD or Blu-Ray Player
  • Computer
  • Game console
  • Satellite Decoder
  • Smartphone
  • USB Flash Drive for Internet
  • Table
  • NAS Server
  • External Hard Disk Drive
  • Vinyl record player
  • And many others

Amplifier

Often called “A/V amplifier”, it occupies a crucial place in the installation of an HTPC. Making an analogy with the human body, would be the heart of the HTPC, and whose function is to manage the audio and video signal from a source and distribute it after having powered it.

With the help of HD decoders, it skillfully manages Dolby Surround, Dolby Pro Logic, Dolby Digital and Dolby TrueHD formats, among others.

With multiple channels and adapted power, it easily brings loudspeaker systems to life from the simplest (2.1) to the most advanced (9.2 and more).

Amplifiers have more and more options to process audio and video, and more and more network functions. Another increasingly common feature in amplifiers is that they support 3D and video conversion up to 4K (Ultra HD).

Speakers

They make the screen’s audio reproduction more effective and present all the acoustic splendour of HD media. In this way, the most commonly used audio formats are accessed, which with the help of the amplifier can be reproduced by means of a set of speakers.

The most basic options begin with sound bars (with or without subwoofer) and 2.1 systems, whose greatest attraction is the space they save by being narrow.

The other advantage of soundbars is that they can be used immediately, since they are integrated with an amplification system.

Therefore, once connected to the display and the source, you can start using it. However, if you want to immerse yourself in the sensations of a movie theater, a 5.0 or 5.1 system is recommended.

According to the type of HTPC you want to install, a speaker kit and a subwoofer will be necessary. Generally, speaker packs consist of 2, 5, 7, 9, and 11 speakers.

The 2.1 system may be more appropriate for those who do not want too many cables in the room. These powerful systems sometimes manage to reproduce 3D sound (surround sound), simply with the two loudspeakers in front. However, for a real home cinema immersion, a 5.1 system is recommended.

If you also plan to use an amplifier to listen to stereo sound, choose carefully the two large speakers located on the front. When using Home Cinema mode, these speakers immerse you in the cinematic atmosphere, while the dialogues are transmitted by the center speaker.

In short, peripheral loudspeakers are dedicated to reproducing atmospheres, sensations and environmental sounds, such as the sounds of explosions, cars and airplanes.

The subwoofer, which handles only the bass, provides the sound intensity effect fundamental to getting the adrenaline out of the home theater experience.

Screen or TV

You can choose between two types of screens that rival or complement each other perfectly. In the first group we find televisions that use LCD, LED, QLED or OLED technology. In this case, it is recommended to choose a large TV to benefit from a superb picture.

With a TV of at least 50 inches you get the best details and a high sharpness of UHD images. In addition, you can choose the most appropriate rendering using image processing options and different display profiles.

The second type of screen that we can choose is a solution similar to the cinema, with a projection screen and a beamer.

This is the very essence of a cinema, and can be transferred to a living room with screens that can be installed manually or electrically and that provide an unmatched surface (with screens up to several meters in size).

Also, a projection screen can provide images up to 4K/UHD. Being a configuration restricted to a few high-end devices, this high resolution provides impressive quality in terms of contrast ratio and colorimetry.

A projection screen with a 16:9 format is recommended, whether retractable, manual or motorized. This way you can watch movies with the best quality and without problems when it comes to images that are cut at the edges.

As far as the image is concerned, it is obvious that a cinematographic rendering will be unbeatable if a video projector is chosen together with a projection screen. When choosing a projector, the lumininosity and dimensions of the room, as well as the budget, must be taken into account.

You don’t necessarily have to choose one or the other configuration. If you wish, you can equip your cinema with both options (TV and projection screen), as a projection screen can be rolled up to use the TV, while the video projector includes fairly discreet stands that can easily be hidden in an interior decoration.

Choice of hardware for HTPC

Now let’s look at different hardware components that are integrated into an HTPC and whose functions determine the quality of your home theater and the use it will eventually be put to.

This guide gives you all the information you need to build a brilliant new HTPC that’s powerful enough to efficiently handle your workload and entertainment, all in a compact and quiet way at the same time!

Building your own HTPC instead of buying a pre-built one means you’ll get the exact performance and design you’ve been looking for, with higher quality components and fewer pre-installed software.

Processor

Like most desktops, the CPU is also one of the most important components when it comes to building a home theater.

However, some very important issues need to be considered to ensure that all components work well in a small box. So, we can choose between three types of CPUs.

Low range CPU

In this range, we can find processors that consume a maximum of 35 W of energy. In a user-mounted HTPC, this means that the processor will not emit as much heat as other processors, which will benefit cooling, so you won’t be forced to work hard, which will keep everything quiet.

In addition to this, the low energy consumption makes it possible to choose a power supply with more freedom and variety. Such a processor would be a basic start for mounting an HTPC. But it’s worth noting that if you’re looking for something more powerful to perform multiple tasks, this processor could limit you.

Models currently recommended (article creation):

  • AMD Athlon 200GE
  • AMD Athlon 220GE
  • AMD Athlon 240GE
  • Intel Pentium G5400

Mid-range CPU

If you have a larger budget, your choice should be oriented to a 4-core, 8-thread CPU, which despite being priced higher than the lower-level processor, will offer superior performance for more advanced tasks.

But here a concern already arises: a mid-level processor is only capable of down to 46W, which is why you should take it into consideration when it comes to choosing PSU and cooling. That said, such a CPU is the ideal choice for multitasking and 4K playback. Recommended models:

  • AMD Ryzen 5 2200G and AMD Ryzen 5 2400G

High-end CPU

Finally, leaving aside the concern for cooling and energy consumption, and for an even higher price, at this level you can choose an Intel CPU of the latest generation, for example. This is one of the CPUs indicated in this range if you are most interested in using your HTPC for gaming.

This processor is capable of supporting basically any heavy game currently available on the market, just as it has enough power to manage all the software and functionality you’re looking for with your HTPC configuration built by you.

The disadvantage to highlight here is that because of the noise and power consumption of a processor of this level, special attention must be paid to refrigeration in general. It is also recommended to accompany a dedicated graphics card:

  • Intel Core i5-9600
  • Intel Core i7-9700K
  • AMD Ryzen 2600

These processors are not very common for these purposes. But if you have too much money and want to indulge yourself… go ahead.

Graphics card (GPU)

Choosing a graphics card also means that the entire HTPC system is balanced. As a first point, the use of a discrete GPU translates into higher graphics performance for video and game playback.

However, using a GPU also causes some drawbacks related to heat generation inside the enclosure, high power consumption, and multiple fans running constantly at maximum, making such a structure not as quiet as you were looking for.

In most cases, it may be feasible that a system oriented only to play videos does not require a graphics card, even more so considering that many CPUs come with integrated graphics processors with which you can watch high resolution videos (APU or Athlon behave very well). However, a GPU can provide extra display options, particularly if you plan to use the HTPC to run games.

Low-level GPU

At this level the integrated graphics that come with the CPU are chosen, because it is capable of fulfilling its function well in an HTPC that is thought for the reproduction of music and video. Our recommended models:

  • Nvidia GT 1030
  • AMD Radeon RX 550

Mid-level GPU

For an HTPC that will be used for 1080p games and 4K content, a consistent choice is the combination of a GPU between performance, low power consumption, and low noise levels. To increase the experience we recommend the Nvidia GTX 1050 or GTX 1050 Ti 2 or 4 GB.

High-level GPU

In the third level we find all HTPC systems in a cinema that will need to use 1440p, so the indicated option will be a powerful graphics card.

Although it is worth mentioning that at this level, all care in terms of noise, portability, size and energy consumption will have to be left in the background. Any GTX 1660 or higher is good enough for us.

Refrigeration

As noted above, one of the vital issues to consider when assembling or buying an HTPC is refrigeration. Generally, the boxes are small and compact inside, so there is no option to choose large and robust refrigeration systems.

If you’re not pushing the CPU to the extreme, and you’re only giving it light video playback and web browsing tasks, then the basic cooling alternatives that AMD and Intel can provide may be enough.

Although it should be noted that they will not offer a completely silent operation, even getting to be heard when they are at work.

It’s also worth mentioning that depending on how you’re using the CPU, liquid cooling may not always be the best option, and air cooling may be better.

This is essentially because, while these configurations take up less space around the CPU socket, this advantage fades away when the fan has to operate extremely to cool the smaller radiator.

This generates more noise in the hardware, which is why you have to consider whether you are looking for a small, space-efficient design or an HTPC system that does not produce annoying noise.

In short, optimal cooling will mean that the HTPC system has larger fans and heat sinks, while better space management will usually translate into more cooling system noise, as you will have to work constantly to achieve low temperatures in the system. Manufacturers such as Noctua, Silverstone or Cooler Master have very good low profile heatsinks.

Base plate

The Mini-ITX form factor, while designed to optimize size, will cause multiple RAM and PCIe slots to be lost, resulting in a super small size.

In spite of this, these motherboards will be more than enough even if you plan to play. Although these motherboards are not recommended if you plan to use HTPC for gaming with a 10.1 sound system with additional cards.

Because they are highly space efficient, Mini-ITX motherboards become the best natural choice for small HTPC boxes.

However, what is gained in space is lost on the other hand, since the mini-ITX boards have the disadvantage that they come with only one PCIe slot.

Although if your goal is to use HTPC only for gaming and video playback, you will have no problem with this type of motherboard.

However, if you later want to use HTPC for more tasks or update it, you’ll have to find another solution because they’re often more expensive than other formats.

To achieve this, the way forward will be to choose a Micro ATX motherboard, which are similar to Mini-ITX motherboards, although they are a little longer to accommodate complementary PCIe slots, so it follows that you will have to study very well what type of board you need for this case.

Once you have chosen a form factor that is compatible with your box, the next step with the motherboard is to make sure it is compatible with the CPU.

This compatibility will be determined by the manufacturer, model and generation of the CPU, but it is data that you will easily find among the specifications of the motherboard.

RAM

A positive point is that if you will be using the HTPC for entertainment only, you won’t need to install a lot of RAM. About 8 GB would be more than enough.

However, if you start using games later on, you’ll be able to bring RAM to 16GB. On the other hand, it would be advisable and a good decision to opt for higher speed RAM, because those chips will take better advantage of speed increases.

Although it is generally thought that buying a single 16 GB RAM module saves money, the truth is that many times they have the same price as two 8 GB modules.

Due to the fluctuations of the market, it is advisable to take a look at the RAM of the HTPC to obtain the best options of price and quality between the modules of 8 GB and 16 GB.

Storage

If we refer to the uses that are given to an HTPC, the extreme speed is not transcendental for most of the users. Although this changes when talking about capacity, it will be important the larger it is (video files and games usually need a lot of space).

Hard Disk Drive (HDD)

Related to this is going to be the amount of digital media (USB memory, consoles, smartphone, etc.) that you are going to use along with the HTPC, because about 2 TB could be enough for you. This is the right storage for those looking for a large storage capacity.

When it comes to an HDD, choosing a model of more than 4TB may be off-peak in terms of cost and benefit, as in this terabyte range, the price per GB rises again and the purchase value decreases.

Solid State Drive (SSD)

If you’re planning to use an SSD for your home theater, it’s a good idea to use it as a boot drive to speed up all major HTPC operations. The good news is that you don’t need too many GBs to act as a boot disk, because this is about optimizing software performance.

Power Supply (PSU)

Although few people think about this at first, the fact is that you have to take into account the power consumption when mounting the HTPC.

Higher energy consumption will require a larger power supply for administration, which at the same time needs to be fresh, which could lead to more noise.

However, because there are several CPUs that consume low levels of power, it is easier to achieve low power consumption and quiet performance. In case you are looking for a more powerful configuration to enjoy multimedia and games on the HTPC, you will need a cooler option.

Although if you have chosen to mount a lower level configuration, there are several highly rated and low volume power supplies available on the market.

The most important thing at this point is to understand how much the fountain fan will need to work when required. Using an example, a CPU that is close to 100W will not require much work from the PSU, so a 450W model will be enough so that the fan does not have to run at maximum, causing overheating.

Power supplies without fans

Models that come without fans typically reach 600 W; so if you need more power, you’ll have to choose another active solution. Personally, if the use of the equipment is minimal, a passive source is sufficient. Buy a quality one and avoid buying cheap brands, which will then degrade the health of your components.

Power supply with silent fans

There are also several sources available that do come with fans, but quiet. Even if you lose a little in terms of silence, you gain on the side of price and power. So you can make a good buy if total silence is not your priority.

Box

Several models of boxes for an HTPC are distinguished by their designs and optimized sizes. Occasionally, models can be found that are mostly made of glass or include a touch panel. However, the usual boxes are not these, so we will mention below the most common models.

Mini-ITX Boxes

There are a number of mini-ITX enclosure options, which stand out because of their internal design and sufficient airflow.

If you have a somewhat limited budget, but are looking for a box with good air flow, there are several alternatives for this type of boxes, while on the other side, in the high-end boxes, you can find models with brushed aluminum shine, for example, that will give a greater style to the room.

As you may have noticed, this type of box was designed exclusively for home theater systems.

Thanks to their slim size, these boxes adapt very well to the space of the room and can be placed next to other devices that make up the HTPC, such as game consoles and Blu-ray players.

How to choose the amplifier

The HTPC amplifier is an essential part of the installation, and must be connected to some source of content, such as a USB memory stick, game console or NAS, for example. You should also pay attention to its connectivity, verifying that it is compatible with the devices you want to connect.

Among the various connectors that can include an amplifier, the main ones are: Stereo RCA, USB, DisplayPort, IEEE 1394 cable, Mini Jack, S-Video (5 pins), optical cable, coaxial cable, SCART, DVI, component (RCA red, green and blue), composite (RCA yellow), VGA and HDMI. Of course, it all depends on the amplifier model.

Among the most advanced amplifiers, you can see that they include a function called “upscaling”, which is a process by which the resolution of an image or video is improved.

With upscaling it is possible to process video formats from previous generations, such as a camcorder, to optimise the quality of reproduction, thus obtaining an HD quality of 1080p.

Tips to avoid the classic errors when mounting an HTPC

The whole audio system in an HTPC is not too complex, although it differs from a high fidelity system (Hi-Fi). In fact, an HTPC system consists of at least five speakers and a subwoofer, so this is a 5.1 system, which means you might have some difficulty measuring with a Hi-Fi system that would only need two speakers.

From here come several questions about how to choose the right speakers and speaker box, where to place them in the room, which amplifier to buy, and several more questions.

Having said that, we will mention the most recurrent errors that must be avoided to get off to a good start in the amazing universe of the HTPC.

Neglecting the importance of the center speaker

Almost all of the audio emitted by a movie circulates through the center speaker, indicating that special attention needs to be paid to this speaker, more than to others.

This makes us think about the high quality that this loudspeaker must have, besides not having a smaller size than the rest of the loudspeakers that compose the audio system.

Choosing the wrong subwoofer

The center speaker next to the subwoofer are the linked components that must work together in a 5.1 system. If one of these two components does not offer good quality in its task, it will affect the overall performance of the whole HTPC.

A good-quality subwoofer is considered to be a speaker that will produce a dry, non-exhausting bass.

Otherwise, it will be annoying to listen to the audio of a movie, in which case the box would have to come into play. When a subwoofer is not up to the expected sound level, choosing a cabinet with integrated sound correction may be the solution.

A disproportionate front end

Often we find asymmetrical configurations consisting of a central loudspeaker and at its sides two columns of larger loudspeakers, something that is not entirely recommended. It is best if the three front speakers are the same size, preferably of the same make and model.

So when you’re working on mounting your HTPC, try choosing three similar speakers on the front stage. If you want to keep the column speakers you already have, choose a center speaker proportional to the left and right speakers.

Misplacement of front speakers

Sometimes inexperienced people place the front speakers two or more meters high, which is a very bad idea. It is recommended that tweeters be located near the middle of the screen or at ear level. The front right and left speakers should be placed on both sides of the screen and trying to be centered with respect to the screen.

An improperly placed box

Another bad decision when mounting the HTPC is to place the box in a corner of the room, as this causes serious problems in sound quality and can generate unpleasant resonances. It is advisable to try different positions for the box, trying to watch movies or listen to music to find the perfect location.

Misplaced Surrounds Speakers

Special attention should also be paid to effect loudspeakers, as an incorrect distance from the ears will create a bad listening experience. A prudent distance is to place them one or two meters from the ears, always avoiding that they are too close or too far.

Also, to take advantage of the benefits of these environmental sound speakers, directional loudspeakers should be avoided, as they would only emit sound in one direction, wasting all room space and immersion capacity. Therefore, you must choose bipolar or dipole speakers.

Place the sofa very close to the back wall

Placing the seat at a distance of less than 70 centimeters will be a bad idea. It is recommended that they be centered between the side walls and about 70 to 100 centimeters from the back wall.

As a second step, choose seats that have low backrests, because a high backrest could cause noise interference, disrupting the flow of sound and impairing its quality.

To avoid distractions as much as possible, try to make the seats comfortable, to avoid having to stand up all the time because your back hurts.

Front ceiling loudspeakers

Placing the surround speakers on the ceiling is not a problem, as it can help improve the ambient sound in the room. However, this is not the case with the front speakers.

In fact, all the sound flow coming from the front should be directional, so if you put them on the ceiling and they point to the floor, the sound will not be directional. In this case, the speakers would be too high above the ears and not oriented to the ears.

Not seeking a suitable environment for acoustics

A home theater is usually set up in a living room, which is why inappropriate environments that impair sound quality should be avoided. Large windows, tiles, or a plasterboard ceiling represent elements that do not get along well when looking for good acoustics in the room.

If this is your case, you have the option of using an acoustic technician to guide you in the best configuration of the environment in the room. As a second option, you can choose an amplifier with adequate acoustic correction.

Final words and conclusion about HTPCs

The HTPC is taking more and more prominence in the living rooms, and all the emotions that are lived in a traditional cinema can now be transferred on a smaller scale to a room prepared for this.

The components mentioned are only a part of all the options available on the market. It will depend on each user and their budget the assembly of a custom HTPC.

This guide serves as the basis for making the HTPC you have in mind, taking into account performance, space, sound quality and cooling.

The assembly of an HTPC starts with the choice of the box. With a Mini-ITX motherboard you get a single PCIe slot and little room to add new components or cooling.

On the other hand, if you choose a Micro-ATX motherboard, you will get more space and additional functions, although you will lose in portability.

To achieve a good configuration of the HTPC is enough to take as an example what is done in the cinema, ie, the three speakers located in the front must be equal.

As for the surround speakers, considering that it is complicated to replicate what happens in the cinema, we opt for bipolar or dipolar speakers, which will help to get a good ambient sound in the room.

To finish, with larger budgets, superior results will be achieved in the general performance, being able to choose better elements and guaranteeing that the HTPC can be updated throughout time.

Other Options:

You can also get digital manuals on this subject at Amazon, WalMart, Costco, Sams Club, Carrefour alibaba, eBay, Aliexpress, Zappos, Target, Newegg, Etsy, My American Market, Macy’s, Staples , MyKasa. Each of these manuals can be found in great online offers.

In addition, in the App Store apps you can get these apps for free.

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