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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  • zilexa - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    Anand, I have done some research via Dutch gadget sites. 90% of the people that have had a HTPC and are now looking for a new HTPC, are actually looking for a:

    1. smaller
    2. silent
    3. system with complete focus on playback
    4. very gf/family friendly

    A Llano system is therefore simply overkill. I have not found a single video yet that my old 780G-based HTPC cannot playback. 1080p60 videos are not commercially availabe. If you mean the vids you shoot with your cameras, most people choose 1 setting lower since you can record longer videos. In the next 5 yrs, a Brazos E-450 will be enough. It doesn't need a fan, is therefore completely silent and small solution.

    Actually, since most people don't care about 3D with glasses, a E-350 is fully sufficient.
    In the future, you would want to have a Brazos-like mobo that supports 4K or higher. Even Llano won't do that.

    And if you want TV record support, simply go for a DVB tv card, recording the mpeg2/4 stream without encoding it. Or go for a Intel 2150 based system (has Quick Sync).

    I am talking about people who bought a fast system a few years ago, now have experience with HTPC and realize it was a bit overkill and they simply want a small mediaplayer.. they dont even care about optical/bluray support anymore.. last time I burned a dvd or whatever is a loong time ago. Unless you have a big collection of blurays, buying a bluray reader/writer is a waste..

    People new to HTPC will think they need a faster system ''just to be safe''.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Wednesday, June 06, 2012 - link

    zilexa,

    I don't disagree with you over the market research aspect. Please take a look at Anand's personal mini-ITX HTPC build. That is a very good HTPC, and quite budget friendly too.

    The purpose of this piece was to use the Llano for a HTPC, and check out the components which could be chosen around it. (There was even a thread on AVSForum about the Llano being the ideal HTPC processor).

    1080p60 : Unfortunately, I disagree with you over this. If this is not supported in a platform, then there is not much future proofing. Also, with advent of sports cameras (most of which are used at 720p60 instead of 1080p30 because frame rate really matters here), 1080p60 is bound to become popular very soon.

    Brazos E-450 is quite disappointing. Please check out our Zotac ZBox NanoXS review. Failure to deinterlace even SD content is a definite no-no for any HTPC which is not entry level or fixed function.

    3D - Agree with you here. We are not big fans of that tech here at AnandTech. (Note that we didn't talk about 3D at all even in our Ivy Bridge HTPC a month or so back or the Llano HTPC review last year)

    TV record support : Different people like different solutions, and as I stated earlier, suggesting an Intel system was out of scope for this piece, since the basic premise was that the end user had already decided upon using a Llano APU.

    Optical disk drives : Agree with you here. Not a big fan of playing DVDs or Blu-rays right off the disc. Still strongly suggest at least 1 PC in the house with a Blu-ray drive for ripping your discs and enjoying it on your own terms by streaming a copy off a NAS or storage server.

    faster system "just to be safe" : Unfortunately, don't agree with you here. I will never ever recommend an Atom based system (or Brazos / Zacate, for that matter) because sometimes even things like Flash start crawling. At the minimum, your configuration should be able to do software decode of all types of media files you are interested in without dropping frames. That said, no point going in for a i7-3770K when a SNB i3 would do..
    Reply
  • zilexa - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    And also, what I am missing here: recommendations to choose your (low voltage) RAM modules carefully. Some have high heatsinks, won't fit in smaller cases. Also, if CPU is maxed (for instance when you boot up or do live tv recordings with on the fly encoding), CPU will get hot and with 100w TDP you will definitely hear the cooler (I believe even with 45w). rather go for Brazos with no or passive cooling, mount a 6 or 8db 80mm fan in your case for airflow and buy a usb/seperate encoder in that case.

    Also missing: advice people to buy low RPM storage, absolutely no need to have a 500GB or 3TB 7200rpm harddisk if you use it for storage. It takes longer to spin up (will be idle a lot, at least in my case I dont want a spinning harddrive all the time) uses more power and makes a little bit more noise. And for what? You have no need for 7200rpm drive for HTPC. Should be 5400rpm.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Wednesday, June 06, 2012 - link

    Good advice on the separate encoder, but again, I won't recommend Zacate / Brazos / Atom, because I have personally seen almost all who go in without understanding the limitations end up getting very disappointed.

    As for low RPM vs. high RPM storage, at densities of 1TB platters in 3.5" drives, it looks like not much difference in power (more like 40 cents a year apparently) :

    http://storageeffect.media.seagate.com/2011/11/sto...
    Reply
  • unmesh - Wednesday, June 06, 2012 - link

    Maybe I missed this but which of these solutions if any offer the ability to wake the HTPC from sleep with an infrared MCE remote control?

    Thanks.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Wednesday, June 06, 2012 - link

    I am not sure about other vendors, but the first motherboard mentioned (from ASRock) supports what you want:

    A75M-ITX : This has a CIR header.

    http://www.asrock.com/mb/spec/card.asp?Model=Smart...

    With the SmartRemote, it can wake up even from S5 state (So, S3 shouldn't be an issue).

    I haven't taken the trouble to investigate this aspect for the rest of the motherboards.
    Reply
  • somedude1234 - Thursday, June 07, 2012 - link

    I can't say enough good things about CIR. I'm using it with the Intel Media Series motherboards (DH67CF in my case) and it works perfectly.

    With a fast SSD for the OS (Win7 ultimate) I can press the power button on the remote from S5 and be navigating the XBMC UI within 10 seconds (faster than my PS3, faster than my DTV receiver).

    CIR rocks and I hope it gains additional traction.
    Reply
  • cjs150 - Wednesday, June 06, 2012 - link

    Particularly as I am just about to build an HTPC for myself

    You missed one critical part of the case - it also has to look in keeping with the rest of your AV kit. I have gone high end with an Hdplex case which is fanless, Streacom do a nice selection of cases as well.

    As for a PSU, Pico-PSU is fine as long as you do not mind an external power brick.

    In terms of what to use the HTPC for like Ganesh I store my media on a NAS but the HTPC does need to be pretty good at ripping blu rays down to the NAS. There is no point if that takes all night.

    For playback the crucial thing is that the IGP must support the correct FPS. If I remember correctly AMD have been capable of that for a while but Intel could not until HD4000.

    For my HTPC I will be going for a i7-3770T: overkill I know but not all motherboards fit in a Hdplex 3.
    Reply
  • Kaggy - Wednesday, June 06, 2012 - link

    I'm more towards an ARM based HTPC nowadays.
    Since it is smaller, lower power consumption and cheaper.

    The only problem i have now is sharing my drobo which i couldn't confirm if i can access with ARM processors.

    Still waiting for A10(the arm one) processors to get fedora or some proper linux build so i can test it out.
    Reply
  • UrQuan3 - Wednesday, June 06, 2012 - link

    Every time HTPC comes up, I wish I could see a review of audio quality. I have had varying luck with digital outputs since drivers often mess with the sound before sending it out. The analog output of motherboards have been a wide range of quality as well. Some are fine, some are really bad. No one seems to check anymore. A quick listen for cross-talk would have saved me a bunch of grief in the Nehalem/Phenom II time period.

    Of course, I am in an odd situation compared to most readers. I found a few years back that the DA converter in a $100 sound card was better than the DA converter in my $250 receiver.

    There hasn't been a on-board or soundcard review in years, but the last time Anandtech tried to do one, the readers were furious. I never understood why.
    Reply

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