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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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  • lwatcdr - Wednesday, June 06, 2012 - link

    Even if you are going to use your HTPC to record video why have a local harddrive? You just need an SSD to boot from and then you can stream the rest. Now some of those boards would aslo make a good NAS as well.
    For a mini ITX case might I suggest this one that you just reviewed. http://www.anandtech.com/show/5867/bitfenix-prodig...
    And for the CPU sound issue maybe a Corsair Hydro Series HD40 water cooling setup? Just some other options for people to look at. Frankly the new Pogoplug looks like it would do very nicely as a NAS box for not much money as well.
    Reply
  • djfourmoney - Thursday, June 07, 2012 - link

    I don't watch anything on Netflix.... Anyway my system never sees more than 20c and usually around 17c. I just built it so I haven't pushed it really, but I don't expect any problems.

    My external drives are louder than the stock HSF so I don't know what people are talking about. I also have full control over all the fan speeds inside the case, not just the HSF. Internal fans are running around 2000rpm.

    Paired with a SATA III SSD it screams, from pushed on to up and running in 45 second. Most of the delay comes from the start up screen.

    When I first put it together, I went to Can I Run This and found many games I would be interested to play will run on this no problems. Yes you can get a cheap Celeron Sandy Bridge and a $50-$70 video card to do the same thing, but I already has a HD4670. I put that in my mom's machine as I don't need it and it won't Hybrid Crossfire with it anyway. I may for sh*ts and giggles get a HD6670 but I will wait until the 7000 series cards come out so the price will drop.

    Once the HDD prices drop more and closer to 2011 pre-flood levels, I will get rid or at least re-assign my externals to the server and move all its data to another 2 or 3TB drive on my WHS 2011 build.

    I'm pleased with this and its an update of my v1.0 HTPC which was Athlon 64x2 5000+ BE which has some thermal issues now, can't even do video encoding on it without it going thermal and shutting down. Not sure what power draw is but I'm sure its less than that plus the video card with ran off bus power.

    Reply
  • BPB - Thursday, June 07, 2012 - link

    What is your build? Reply
  • Tujan - Friday, June 08, 2012 - link

    Both AMD and INTEL have their own implementation of utilizing the codecs involved with running content for a HTPC. If you look at some of the Anandtech.com benchmarks you'll notice that Intel systems typically render quicker in ''rendering-transcoding'' tests. However cross referencing a 'typical pc system',in that "good enough" scenario is difficult to access.
    Basically you want both "rendering AND transcoding" performance characteristics for your system. Intels system which utilizes the 'hyperthreading',typically in the benchmarks outperforms those in an AMD system.
    In the same situation over time based tests. Perhaps someone at Anandtech.com can elaborate on just how,and what is used between the two different proprietors.
    Believe that however 'good enough',is probably 'any 4 core cpu for either AMD,or Intel. Look at the benchmarks,and choose carefully,since a system will want more that 'doing videos'. The codecs,are for the most part- cpu intensive. While having 'good /fast graphics',is where the Intel juggernaut,differs from the AMD juggernaut.
    Use a fast SSD,4 core processor,with adaquete and implementable graphics - as well as adaquate and implementable 'rendering-transcoding'. Fast DDR3 1600 or better,64 bit operating system that can run the apps you want.

    'Good enough'' is actually a fairly thin range of equipment when your a DIY,and buying your own. As the benchmarks will show.

    Like that wooden case.
    Reply
  • didis - Monday, June 11, 2012 - link

    Trinity is better in every way Reply
  • drizzo4shizzo - Friday, June 15, 2012 - link

    This is kinda off topic but... maybe someone will chime in anyway and save me a bunch of time or money or both.

    Recently replaced my main desktop and looking to re-use the old one as an HTPC.

    What problems do you fore-see using an old dual core socket 939 Athlon2 3500+ with an NVidia 7600 GT, and a Pinnacle HD PCI capture card receiving over the air HDTV?

    All the components were high end at the time, should last a long time, so it's a shame if it sits idle (ie, Seasonic s12 power supply, asus a8n32 mobo, etc. I am not real worried about power consumption more about performance.

    Plan is to use Myth tv / Ubuntu. Hoping I don't need to shell out for an actual HTPC. This box would record the live TV streams and also sit next to my TV for viewing, and possibly serve the content to other myth boxes.
    Reply

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