Cutting the Cord Part 2: HTPC

As I talked about in Cutting the (space) cord, I’m currently pretty motivated to get rid of our satellite TV subscription and replace it with an over-the-air solution with little or no ongoing cost.

I’ve sorted out picking up the signals, but to be a true replacement for what we currently have I need to be able to record programs when they’re on and play them back at a more convenient time. We watch nearly all of our TV this way and going back to caring about the actual schedule just won’t work.

I searched around for stand-alone PVR appliances designed for OTA reception, and while a few exist (like the Tivo Premier or ChannelMaster 7000PAL but their support for Canadian stations’ guide information is limited or non-existent and, in the case of the ChannelMaster, their software seems pretty poorly maintained and buggy with complaints galore to be found online.

This left me with a couple of options. I could abandon the whole endeavour, or build my own PVR/Home Theatre PC to do my bidding. I priced out components, and it seemed pretty clear I could comfortably build a pretty good one for around $500, even with skyrocketing hard drive prices caused by floods in Thailand. This meant a 5-6 month payback period after I cancel the Bell subscription, which is totally fine. If we decide a few months down the road that this was a bad idea, I’ll have a decent PC I can use for something else for basically free. And honestly, it’s been several years since I put together a PC and I kind of missed it.

I was pleased to see that the scrappy Mini-ITX form factor is still alive and well. Not only that, you can build a pretty capable Intel Sandy Bridge based system on it as a lot of vendors offer Mini-ITX sized motherboards with one of the Socket 1155 chipsets. I planned to stuff the finished product into the living room entertainment center, so the smaller I could make it, the better

If you’re thinking really fancy, you can even get a chassis that makes the thing look like a typical home theatre component. Silverstone make, IMHO, the most convincingly home theatre-esque cases in this category, but they can be a bit spendy. I went with a cheaper InWin case for mine, because it seemed like it would blend in fine and didn’t look obviously like a computer shoved under the TV.

For the internals, I went with an Intel Pentium G840 CPU, which is basically a Core i3 without hyperthreading and with the AES and virtualization extensions disabled. I figured I’d start there and in the unlikely event that it turned out to be too much of a weakling, I’d could pop in an i5 or something more beefy later. It also has the benefit of an on-die GPU, meaning I can use the single PCI-Express slot on the Gigabyte motherboard for the Dual Tuner TV capture card that will make all the magic happen. Add in a couple of hard drives, 8 GB of RAM, a cheap wireless keyboard and a Couch Mouse (who knew that was a thing?) and you’ve got yourself a PC. (I didn’t bother with an optical drive. We already have a Blu-Ray player we rarely use). Hook it to your TV and stereo system using the motherboard’s HDMI and optical SPDIF connectors, and you can (almost) call it a Home Theatre PC.

Of course, it still needs an operating system and some software to make it do stuff, so I’ll write about that next.

This entry was posted on Sunday, November 27th, 2011 at 4:43 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses to “Cutting the Cord Part 2: HTPC”

  1. Jason Diller’s Blog » Blog Archive » Cutting the (space) cord. Says:

    […] The next phase of being able to really cut the cord (which actually comes from space) is the ability to record the stuff when it’s on and play it back later. For me that means a home-theatre PC project, which is in progress. Update: More on that here. […]

  2. Jason Diller’s Blog » Blog Archive » Cutting the Cord Part 3: MythTV (Two Hairy Yaks) Says:

    […] already talked about my motivations and the home theatre PC I put together, but I haven’t talked about the software that makes it […]