January 24th, 2014
I wanted to build an HTPC that would allow us to: 1) Stream movies, TV and music. 2) Play DVDs and blu-rays. 3) Watch and record over-the-air TV. 4) Browse the internet. 5) Store and serve digital content including TV, movies and music. 6) Play light games. The list above is roughly in order of importance.
I wanted an HTPC case that was small, solidly built, cost effective, had a slot for an optical drive, and would look nice and non-obtrusive next to our TV. The Antec ISK 300-150 and Antec ISK 310-150 fit the bill and also include a 150 W power supply for a reasonable price. They are also well reviewed around the web. I went with the 300-150 for the lower cost and slight preference for the all black front. Note: Both cases now come with USB 3.0 ports on the front panel. A lot of the documentation on the web states that they are USB 2.0 ports. Another note: I almost didn't go with an Antec ISK 300-150 due to the custom power supply - if it burns out in a year, what do you do? After searching, I came upon a picoPSU that could replace the included power supply if needed.
Processor and Graphics:
The small form factor and power supply necessitated a low Thermal Design Power (TDP) processor and integrated graphics. I strongly considered an AMD APU for superior gaming, but ultimately Intel won out due to their lower overall TDP and higher everyday performance. I wanted the most recent Intel HD 4600 graphics (for light gaming and improved HD playback), so I decided on the Core i3-4330 or i3-4340. The i3-4330 was cheaper with minimal difference in performance so I went with it.
Note: The Antec case above does include a half-height PCIe card, so a low profile discrete graphics card is an option. But, it would likely required improved cooling, thereby increasing costs.
Update on January 25th, 2014: After I put this part list together in late December 2013, AMD introduced it's new Kaveri lineup. Reviews of the processors are linked here by tomshardware.com and anandtech.com. Of particular interest for small form factor mini-ITX cases like the Antec ISK 300-150 is the AMD A8-7600 which can run at a TDP of 45 W. Tom's Hardware specifically compares the AMD A8-7600 to the Core i3-4330. The A8-7600 clearly has the advantage for gaming. But the Core i3-4330 still appears to have an advantage in terms of performance and average power consumption (and thus heat generation).
So, in my opinion, the two best processors right now for small form factor HTPCs are the Intel Core i3-4330 and the AMD A8-7600. If gaming is important, the AMD A8-7600 has the edge. If you only do light or no gaming, the Core i3-4330 still has a slight advantage in terms of performance, power, and heat.
Note: As of right now, I can not find the A8-7600 for sale online. And, I couldn't find a specific release date after a quick search. But, I saw Q1 of 2014 mentioned, so it should be right around the corner.
Due to the choice of case and processor, I was limited to Intel-based, LGA1150 socket mini-ITX motherboards. Due to the small form factor, I wanted to keep air flow paths clear in the case in order to maximize cooling. So, I wanted a motherboard with a layout that: 1) Would not block any of the vents or fans in the case, and 2) Would provide easy routing of cables and wires. Unfortunately, the DIMM slots in compatible MSI and Gigabyte boards would partially block the main case fan. Also, they did not provide good layouts for routing wires in the Antec case. So, I ruled those out. That left me with the H87 and Z87 options from ASRock and ASUS. Due to cost, I narrowed it down to the ASRock Z87E-ITX or the ASUS H87I-PLUS. Ultimately, I went with the ASUS due to their track-record of reliability. Note: The ASRock Z87E-ITX does have built in 802.11ac wifi and a better audio chip than the ASUS H87I-PLUS.
The motherboard and processor only support up to DDR3-1600, but I found a better price on DDR3-1866. I wanted 8 GB of RAM for performance and longevity - I want the system to still be performing well 5 years from now. The G.Skill Ripjaws fit easily into the case and DIMM slots in the motherboard.
I originally planned on going with a 128GB SSD due to cost, but I grabbed the 240GB Kingston SSDNow V300 when it went on sale. The extra space will allow plenty of music storage and even some recorded TV and movies. I may add a NAS (Networked Attached Storage) in the future for more storage space. Note: The Antec ISK 300-150 case only fits 2.5" hard drives.
The Antec ISK 300-150 case only will fit a slim DVD or blu-ray drive. The choice of slim blu-ray drives is really limited at this point, so when the LG BT30N went on sale, I grabbed it.
Operating System and Software:
I took a while to decide between Windows 7 and Windows 8 and finally went with Windows 8.1, despite the ~$40 higher cost (after adding Windows Media Center to Windows 8). I like the idea of using the new start screen and tiles for an HTPC start page. The tiles should allow easy and fast access to relevant apps and programs. I will use Windows Media Center to watch and record live over-the-air TV. I will use Media Browser in Windows Media Center to organize my digital music and TV content. I will use the VLC Player to play blu-rays.
I didn't add it to the list below, but I will be using the SiliconDust HDHomeRun Dual TV Tuner to watch and record over-the-air TV through Windows Media Center.
Instead of using integrated Wifi, I decided to try using Ethernet over Power for an internet connection. Now that I've used it a bit, I'm glad I did. It's fast, easy to set up, and reliable.
Noise, Fans & Cooling:
The Antec ISK 300-150 comes with a built-in Antec Tricool 80mm. I had planned on upgrading the CPU fan, thermal paste, and case fan(s), but decided to try the included fans and see how the system performed. I have not done a stress test yet, but with the case fan set on medium, the CPU temp idles around 35 C. And, after about an hour of streaming HD video, the CPU temp was 37 C. In addition, on medium the Antec Tricool fan is quiet enough that I can not hear it 10 feet away. I will try to update after I do a stress test.
Overall, after several days of use, I'm very pleased with this ~$700 build. If you already have some of the components, you can save quite a bit of money, but I was starting from scratch. About half way through deciding on parts, I realized I was essentially building a clone of the Puget Systems Echo II. Just for fun, I priced out a comparably-equipped Puget system and it came to around $1300. But, seeing the Puget system gave me confidence in my design choices.
I will try to update this description as I use the system more...
Added information comparing AMD Kaveri (A8-7600 45W) to Intel in the processor section.