Home Theater PCs (HTPCs) are becoming more and more popular due to a number of reasons. The desire of consumers to watch and enjoy their media, be it Blu-rays/DVDs or broadcast content, in an independent manner (i.e. not limited by DRM restrictions such as with Tivo recordings or even just optical media) has enabled the HTPC industry to gain a lot of relevance, as opposed to getting tied down with non-upgradeable consumer electronics equipment. All three major vendors (Intel, AMD, and NVIDIA) pay quite a bit of attention to the HTPC market in their products, but it is universally agreed that AMD represents some of the most economical HTPC building blocks targeted towards budget system builders, so that's our focus for today.

It has now been almost a year since the Llano lineup was launched; by integrating a CPU and GPU into the same die and bringing along AMD's expertise in the GPU arena for HTPCs, these APUs (Accelerated Processing Units) offer a lot to the budget HTPC builders. In today's piece, we will be taking a look at how to build a HTPC system using the Llano platform. We'll cover options based on various form factors, and performance and cost will be analyzed. Note that the Llano processors might not be the latest and greatest, but when it comes to pricing, it is going to be quite difficult to beat--at least until the desktop variants of Trinity come around. We will also assume that you are aware of the technical merits of the Llano APU lineup, as we will not be covering any benchmarks or doing any comparative studies across products from other companies.

The purpose of a HTPC system is to enable one or more of the following activities:

  • Media playback: The media could be either stored locally (on a hard drive, NAS, Blu-ray, or DVD) or be streamed from the Internet (from sites such as Netflix or Hulu). Media files include pictures and music files in addition to videos.
  • Optical disc backup creation: This involves the archiving of Blu-ray and DVD movies onto a physical disk (such as a hard drive or a NAS) after removing the DRM protection. This enables consumers to enjoy the content on their purchased discs without the annoying trailers and advertisements, or the need for a Blu-ray drive (e.g. on tablets or smaller HTPCs).
  • Recording and/or editing video files: This involves using a TV tuner to capture broadcast content and record it onto a physical drive. The recorded content could then be edited to remove commercials or for any other purpose before being stored away. Sometimes, it might be necessary to transcode the video files as well (say, converting from one H.264 profile to another). This is much more computationally intensive compared to splitting/joining media streams with similar characteristics.

Some users might also want to use their HTPC for activities such as:

  • Gaming: This is, by far, the most common extension of a HTPC outside its original application area. Thanks to the powerful integrated GPU, we have seen that the Llano APUs are quite good with almost all games at mainstream quality settings. If a budget gaming+HTPC build is on your radar, you can't go wrong with the Llanos--provided you understand that high quality settings and 1080p gaming are likely too much for the iGPU.
  • Network DVR/IP Camera recording: This is quite uncommon, but some users might like to have IP camera feeds viewable/recordable through their HTPCs.
  • General PC Tasks: These include basic web browsing, downloading and other similar tasks (which almost all HTPCs are bound to be good with)

Readers using their HTPC for any purpose other than those mentioned above should feel free to let everyone know in the comments section.

AMD's Llano lineup includes a range of processors with TDP ratings from 65W to 100W. Note that simple playback tasks are going to be quite power-efficient, thanks to integrated hardware decoding, so the relatively high TDPs shouldn't put one off. There are also plenty of FM1 socket motherboards based on the A55/A75 FCHs (Fusion Controller Hubs). The choice of the Llano APU, motherboard form factor, and other components should be made depending on the desired usage scenario. In the next few sections, we will take a look at the choices available.

APU, Chipset and Motherboard
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  • BPB - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    I was hoping to see mention of the newer AMD APU's. As for me I am going to mount the Foxconn unit below to my TV and use it for my HTPC. It's $175 and for not much more I can plop memory, HDD, and OS in it.

    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...
    Reply
  • geniekid - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    I built a Llano-based HTPC about 8 months ago using many of the parts listed in this guide. One thing I will point out is I ended up buying a third party CPU cooler since the retail fan was a bit loud for me. Other than that, the Seasonic SS-400FL is fanless so the only other source of noise for me was the case fans that came with the Grandia 05, which were good enough for me. Reply
  • lurker22 - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    The problem is AMD's Llano can't run Netflix HD well because Silverlight doesn't have GPU acceleration enabled for the chip. It's a shame, as otherwise it's a GREAT CPU for HTPCs and cheap! Until MS either gets GPU acceleration working, or Netflix moves from Silverlight one still needs a more powerful CPU to be able to do everything with their HTPC Reply
  • BPB - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    This is a good point. As a matter of fact, it has me reconsidering getting the little system I mentioned above. Of course I can do Netflix HD via my TV's app, but still, do I want to get an APU that can't even run Netflix? Hmmm.... Reply
  • lurker22 - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    I was about to purchase an e-350 based system, until I saw the lack of Netflix HD acceleration. No point buying something new which doesn't cover all the usage needs when my old HTPC can... Reply
  • burntham77 - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    I have the exact same hardware, and Netflix in WMC stutters with HD video. If I set my Netflix account quality settings to the middle or low setting, it works fine, but obviously things don't look as nice.

    Luckily I have a PS3 and 360 hooked up to the same TV, but it is a shame that Microsoft dropped the ball on Silverlight in this regard.
    Reply
  • duploxxx - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    THe problem isn't the LIano, any other pentium, celeron i3 ULV or wathever (even latest macs) will have an issue, it's just the Silverlight piece of crap. BTW it's only HD streaming that provides issues.

    many have already reported that it run's better in different browsers (chrome-safari)
    Reply
  • lurker22 - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    Yes, and those CPUs have the power to run Netflix HD without the GPU acceleration :) Reply
  • duploxxx - Wednesday, June 06, 2012 - link

    nope, on forums they report the same issues with that type of cpu i mentioned. Reply
  • knutjb - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    I have an A8-3850 w/hardware acceleration set. I have not experienced any issues with Netflix. Does someone have a current list of gpu support in Silverlight 5? I couldn't find any list in a quick search.

    I have had no problems. Sits next to my reveiver behind pictures with audio through toslink, 1080 video through HDMI. All fans connected to MB, cannot hear from couch when set to 100% with sound off. Plays music too set @ 24bit 96k. Surprisingly good sound from older Denon receiver. Can hear the difference between 16 & 24 bit with better recordings.

    Caught sales for everything.

    Lian Li PC-351 with side vent holes taped off to force air through power supply.
    G.SKILL Sniper Series 8GB 1866 oc'd in bios.
    GIGABYTE GA-A75M-UD2H
    SAMSUNG 830 Series MZ-7PC064D
    Seasonic SS-460FL
    Seagate 1TB HD
    Reply

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