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A nearly perfect HTPC processor

While opinions vary as to what, exactly, an HTPC entails, it's safe to say there are basic requirements nearly every enthusiast has for an HTPC: smaller form factor, as quiet as possible, low power usage, and ability to smoothly and accurately play a variety of video formats. Additional HTPC functions can include encoding prowess and lighter gaming. In my experience, Trinity APUs fulfill all of these roles extremely well.

Ganesh recently posted a thorough, excellent HTPC perspective on the A10-5800K. If you are thinking about building an HTPC, it's a must read. I've been able to spend some time with both the A10-5800K and the A4-5300 in HTPC systems, and have been thoroughly pleased with both in the HTPC usage scenario. The lowly A4-5300 is capable of smooth Blu-ray playback, both locally and via NAS, as well as full 1080p HD streaming playback in both Flash and Silverlight. Ganesh noted that the Trinity APUs lack hardware decoding for 10-bit H.264, an increasingly popular format. While the A10-5800K cuts through these files with no problem via software solutions, the A4-5300 can occasionally bog down with it if you are taxing the system with other tasks (I frequently browse the web on a secondary monitor while watching movies—10-bit H.264 + Flash = not good on an A4). That said, all of the quad-core Trinity APUs can handle this admittedly specific niche usage scenario with aplomb.

Ganesh also noted that Trinity APUs do not support 4K video decode acceleration. While 4K is in its infancy, I agree with Ganesh that it will be adopted faster than say, 3D Blu-ray was. I don't consider this a substantial issue at this point, and I would be surprised if Trinity's successor APU series doesn't fully support it. But it's important to be cognizant of Trinity's few limitations in an HTPC environment. I also agree with Ganesh's summary, "the Trinity platform has everything that a mainstream HTPC user would ever need."

The Trinity HTPC build

Anand reported on his sneak peek of Fractal Design's Node series at Computex back in June, and I was intrigued by the Node 605. It looked like a fantastic HTPC case, so I was happy to see it become available in retail channels recently. The production model is even better than the version Anand saw; namely, the garish logo is gone from the front panel. I really like this case's aesthetics, and it's very functional. It can accommodate full-size ATX motherboards, features an innovative hard drive mounting solution, and it is very quiet thanks to the thick aluminum front panel and sound dampening material. The stock fans can be reconfigured so one is either intaking or exhausting air directly by the APU, which means the stock AMD cooler doesn't have to work as hard and thus makes less noise. The Node 605's niceties include an external three speed fan switch (at 5V the fans are nearly inaudible and still move a lot of air), built-in front panel card reader, and USB 3.0 front ports. The front panel ports are hidden by a drop-down cover, resulting in a clean facade.

The Node 605 case features a large, grilled, and filtered intake port for a side-mounted PSU, so be sure to go with a 120mm+ top fan configured PSU instead of an 80mm front fan model. You should be able to find a higher-quality unit capable of outputting about 400W for $40 or less, such as the SeaSonic listed below.

Assuming you are interested in light gaming and encoding work with your HTPC, we're recommending the top of the line A10-5800K APU. While HTPC purists might balk at putting a 100W TDP processor in a home theater computer, it is important to note that for most HTPC duties, this processor will not be using much power at all. Streaming 1080p HD video from Amazon puts CPU usage of my A10-5800K system at around 20% utilization, and the entire computer draws about 65 watts from the wall as measured with a Killawatt meter (my system is configured identically to the one below, though with one SSD and two 2TB green HDDs).

Note that if you aren't interested in neither gaming nor local encoding, you can save about $60 by going with the A4-5300 APU. If you're hesitant about using the unlocked 100W Black Edition A10 APU, but don't want to drop all the way down to a meager dual-core, the A10-5700 is a lower-clocked 65W TDP quad-core with less capable graphics than the A10-5800K. Again, however, for most HTPC duties like SD and HD media content playback, you won't really save much electricity (and thus heat and noise) compared to the A10-5800K.

I've been a fan of Biostar's T-series motherboards since the days of AMD's Socket 939, and the latest iteration, the TA75MH2 continues in the tradition. It's a less expensive A75 chipset-based board, so it features SATA III ports, USB 3.0, and as necessitated in an HTPC, an HDMI port. I like its layout, especially when placed in a Node 605, as the airflow will be blowing directly over the FCH (Fusion Controller Hub) and CPU VRM heatsinks. Even if you're not overclocking, keeping these core motherboard components cool will be easier with lower RPM fan speeds, even if the system is stuffed into more cramped A/V component shelving.

Again, assuming you are interested in gaming, we're recommending a DDR3-1866 8GB kit to feed the APU's hungry graphics cores. Keep in mind that Trinity chips can use all the memory bandwidth you can give them, so if you don't mind overclocking your RAM, the Biostar board below will support RAM faster than 1866MHz through overclocking. If you're not gaming, you can save some money by using lower-clocked RAM, and perhaps 4GB instead of 8GB.

For storage, you can go with either an HDD or an SSD, depending on your local storage needs. You might also want additional local storage. Western Digital's Green series drives are available in 500GB, 1TB, 2TB, 2.5TB, and 3TB capacities. Compared to Seagate's Green drives, they carry a longer warranty (two years for Western Digital, one year for Seagate), so it's up to you whether any price differences are worth your money.

Finally, the only real drawback of the Node 605 case is that it uses slim optical drives. Thankfully this doesn't substantially increase the total cost of the build like it once would have, but it does limit your choices. We're recommending a standard DVD burner for the sake of cost; slim Blu-ray burners are usually $50-75 more expensive.

Component Product Price
Case Fractal Design Node 605 $143
Power supply SeaSonic SS-300ET 300W $40
CPU AMD A10-5800K APU $120
Motherboard Biostar TA75MH2 $73
RAM G.Skill 8GB DDR3-1866 $45
HDD Seagate 1TB ST31000524AS $50
SSD alternate Samsung 830 Series 64GB $50
Optional storage HDD Western Digital 2TB Green $110
Optical drive Slim Samsung DVD burner $24
Optical drive alternate Slim LG BT20N Blu-ray burner $94
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit $92
  Total cost: $697

Our final, gaming-oriented Trinity desktop PC is outlined on the next page.

Budget General Use Desktop Gaming Desktop
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  • Jovec - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    I understand prices change regularly, but you should check the linked prices. The general use budget build is currently $70 than the chart price. (-$3 for CPU, +$5 for mobo, +$35 for HDD, +$30 for the SSD, +$3 for the DVD). The HTPC build is $68 higher and the DVD burner chosen is listed as discontinued. The gaming build is $59 higher than the chart. Reply
  • randinspace - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    As the author said, it's important to watch out for price changes during the holidays as 16GB of Ram was available at 8GB prices (outside of 4GB quad kits anyway...), and I personally got a 2TB HDD for less than what 1TB internal drives and 500+ GB external ones are going for "on sale" this week....

    That said, these guidelines might have done people more more good had they come out before some of the year's best sales rather than in the middle of some of its worst ones (I'm looking at you, Newegg "Cyber Week"), but such is life.
    Reply
  • Parhel - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    I'm glad I'm not the only one to notice what Newegg's been doing. Most of their "deals" were old tech they're trying to clear out of inventory, even on Black Friday. Reply
  • MrRez - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    I just built a system around the A10 5800k circa $600 all up, and I am really enjoying it! I paired it up with a 6670 1gig DDR5 cost me 80bucks and has given me a huge boost in some games.

    The main reason I went with the Trinity was that I had a small budget and needed something that I could do my work on, encode some video and play the odd game. I did alot of research and couldn't get an Intel system for the same money that would even come close to what the trinity could do.

    Anyway I would recommend this type of system to anyone on a budget.
    Reply
  • StevoLincolnite - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    Conversely, I came from an "old" Phenom 2 x6 1090T @ 4ghz to a Core i7 3930K @ 4.8ghz and in games I noticed zero difference when gaming at 5760x1080 as I'm always going to be GPU limited.

    However, encoding saw *massive* increases, but that's not a task I do very often and I usually do it during the night whilst I am asleep anyway.

    Hardware today is still going to be more than ample for games of tomorrow, heck I know a few gamers still kicking around old Core 2 Quads that are heavily overclocked and game happily without a single issue, which says something about the state of games today not pushing the limits anymore.
    Reply
  • dishayu - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    Heavily overclocked Core 2 Quad user here and i approve of this message. Reply
  • just4U - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    I know "LOTS" of gamers still on Quad 6600s.. C2D 8400s.. and Amd PIIs all happily playing along with decent video cards..

    The thing "today" is we really haven't hit the new big cpu yet. That was the Core2 and before the the Athlon64. Are cpu's better? Absolutely but they've been going in a sideways arc... with power+features rather then noticable brute power. I can go from my 2700K to a Q6600 to a E8400 to a PII920 to a 5800K all with enjoyable experiences provided the gpu power is there with 4Gigs of ram.

    Overclocking adds more umph on top of that but it's not neccessary.
    Reply
  • just4U - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    As a aside.. anyone on a C2D E6400 or under... time to move on. Every last cpu on the market today will give very noticable boosts right straight from the $60 cpu on up to the latest and greatest. Reply
  • JonnyDough - Friday, November 30, 2012 - link

    I finally upgraded from an Opteron 185 system (which I'm using to type this) to an i5 Ivy system. I also found an E8400 in the garbage and it works. It just needed a power supply a video card, and a hard drive. I have all of the above "just laying around" here so my girlfriend is getting a new system for Xmas too. :) Windows 7 is on sale at the Egg for $80. Reply
  • AndrewJacksonZA - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    I agree. I'm gaming, programming and encoding on a Core2Duo E6750 and an AMD 6670 on Windows 8.

    I can run *ALL* my games on their maximum resolution and detail settings seeing as my monitor is a 19" and runs at 1280 x 1024... and that I really dig my old games :-) However, my point is that the equipment I am using right now is "good enough" for my particular needs. Would I consider an upgrade? Definitely - but for something that runs much (much!) cooler and quieter. Is that a high priority in my life? Not right now.
    Reply

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