Cutting the Cord Part 2: HTPC

Posted on Sun 27 November 2011 in General

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.