Building a Linux-based HTPC

My old box, an ASUS Pundit P1-AH2,  that I bought from Monolith, died.

It’s my primary server. I use it for a file server, computer server, DVD burner, backup server, and since it’s always up and running, I use it as a HTPC. It running mythbuntu (mythtv on Ubuntu), so I can record TV shows, and stream then back onto any PC in the house.

Frankly, I had a lot of problems with it, in particular, in the stability of the OS, support for video, sound, etc.  I just bought a memory upgrade from Crucial, upgraded the memory, rebooted the machine, and the system failed to boot. At first I was able to get to the BIOS prompt, but while trying to diagnose the problem, the system failed to boot altogether. It was 3 years old, and the chassis was falling apart, so I felt I might as well replace it.

I contacted Crucial, and they accepted my memory back for a refund. Great company!. So, this documents the process I used to replace the system with a new PC.

Requirements

Everyone makes decisions based on what they want. Here is my list which influenced by decision.

  • HTPC style chassis – I want it to be uncluttered and quiet.
  • Custom built – I want the ability to replace parts that fail. The Pundit had to be scraped when it failed. I’d rather just replace the Motherboard, the CPU or whatever.
  • Support for Firewire/IEEE 1394. – I have FireWire disks I use for backup. Perhaps I could have used a PCI card, but this saves a slot.
  • Support for VGA monitors – I have an old monitor I would like to use, as I tend to run the system  headless.  I also want to add HDMI monitors later. This gives me flexibility.
  • Ability to have more than one hard disk. My last box only had space for one disk. Well, disks fail. I’ve had this happen twice. When you are limited to one internal disk, replacing a 1.5TB disk with a 2TB disk is a pain. The equipment is scattered all over the floor. I want to be able to get additional disks, pop them in, and then remotely format, mount, and backup the data. I can set up  disk to be a clone of another.Having more than one internal disk means moving data between SATA disks is easy. I power down the system,plug in a disk, power up, and then I can finish the rest remotely, on the command line. So having space for more than one SATA drive is useful.
  • Ability to be a home-based file server. Since it can support many disks, I wanted to be able to use it to store shared files, media, photos, etc.

Trade-offs

  • My current HTPC captures analog data, not digital. I want to retain this ability, but I wanted the ability to upgrade to digital later.
  • I wanted a system that was inexpensive to start, but I can upgrade to a more powerful system later.
  • I am willing to pay more for price to get good quality components that will be useful 3 years from now.

My shopping list

Based on the above, I did some research, and made up a shopping list:

  • Asus P7H57D-M EVO – 3 year warranty ( first looked at a p7h55-M-EVO)
  • Intel Core i3-550 Processor with 4 MB Cache, 3.20 GHz Clock Speed, LGA1156 Socket BX80616I3550 – 3 year warranty
  • Corsair 4GB Dual Channel Corsair DDR3 Memory for Intel Core i5 Processors (CMX4GX3M2A1600C9) – limited lifetime warranty – i would have preferred to get memory from Crucial, but the vendor didn’t offer it, and I wanted to take advantage of the free shipping if the product was > $300.
  • Silverstone LC17B
  • SeaSonic 650W Power Supply X650 Gold – 5 year warranty (a 350W PSU is the minimum). Maybe this is overkill, but I didn’t want an underpowered PSU.  A review is here.
  • 4-port USB PCI Bracket
  • Motherboard (mobo) speaker to make it easier to debug any boot problems.

The total was Initially  $643 including tax and shipping. I already have a disk, a DVD Burner,  and a Haughpauge TV tuner.There’s a $20 rebate for the Silverstone case.

Because I used a Clarkdale CPU, I don’t need a graphics board. When CPU’s and RAM becomes cheaper, I can upgrade later. The Silverstone is built for silent operation, with 2 built-in standard 80mm fans, and I can add more cooling. The power supply has intelligent cooling as well. Yes, I know I spent a lot on the power supply, but I won’t have to upgrade this for years.

The Intel LGA1156 seems like the right decision for now. The LDA 1155 are pricier.  The ASUS EVO board supports FireWire and eSATA. The Asus document Linux Status Report For ASUS Desktop Motherboard says Ubuntu 9.04 is supported. Asus also provides a power calculator.

Hardware Revolution described a HTPC I can build for $500, but other sites warned that an Atom-based motherboard, while cheaper, have to struggle with graphics. The $500 HTPC used an  all-in-one mother board, with a PSU, but the ability to upgrade was limited. What happens when you run out of CPU power?

Upgradability

As I said, I wanted a system that will be able to grow

  • 6 DATA disks (up to 6Gb/s!) w/RAID support. + 2 Sata3 ports (But note that SATA3 support is limited in Linux.)
  • Intel i5, i7, quad core CPU
  • Graphics card
  • Up to 16 GB of RAM
  • HD TV Tuner

Also supported is

  • 2 IEEE 1394 ports (1 on front, one using extra connector at back)
  • 14 USB ports (2 are USB 3.0, and 12 are USB 2.0)
  • Two simultaneous monitors (VGA, DVI, HDMI).
  • 40-pin PR_EIDE for Ultra DMA 133/100/66
  • PS/2 (COM)
  • SPDIF (Digital Audio) (requires connector/port
  • ALC889/ HD Audio (front) – settable by the BIOS

It looks like a good plan. This is the first time I built a PC from scratch. Let’s see how deep this rabbit hole gets.  See Part 2.

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One Response to Building a Linux-based HTPC

  1. Pingback: Building a Linux-based HTPC Part 2 « The Grymoire Blog

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