Home Theater PC Project

Updated: November 21, 2003

This project started in the thinking about it phase in late 2002. As it was, I had some of my DVD's converted down to AVI's on recordable DVD-R and also had begun to phase out using my VCR to archive my favorite shows, but use a digital recorder to create AVI's and MPG's insted. I wanted a way to play all of those back form recorded CD's and DVD-R's as well as play back my MP3 conversions from my CD's without having to plug the laptop into my home entertainement system. A PC was the natural choice.

In early 2003 I came accross the thread about the upcomming ATech Fabrication case. I had thought about a PC in the entertainment system on several occasions prior but the stumbling point was always may asthetic criteria of having it blend in like professional equipment and being quiet, and not looking and sounding like a typical computer. The ATech case fit the bill. At the time, other makers had much less expensive case options available that were aimed at the home theater PC builder, but I was not satisfied with those solutions as they all had doors that concealed the optical drives rather than an a natural access to the optical drive like a good CD or DVD player. Even with the price as high as it is, I understood the nature of this fine case and decided to bite the bullet and place the order.

Being in batch 2 or 3 of the cases, I knew it would be a while until the case shipped from placing the order in the spring of 2003. As it was, the case arrived in the fall of 2003 - so during the interim I purchase those components to which the case was designed, just in case they might be discontinued (you never know) such as the IRMan and PowerMate knobs. The VFD - I held off on, waiting for a USB solution and was rewarded with the VK204-24-USB being releases shortly after my case arrived. CPU, memory and motherboard were purchased after the case arrived - thus I got the most bang for my buck. I was also able to get the motheboard design I wanted after some initial problems were worked out by the manufacturer (P4C800-Deluxe developed into the P4C800-E Deluxe, which addressed shortcommings of its predecessor). The motherboard has a serial port header inside - which is a key component for me - as it allows the IRMan to be connected entirely internal to the case, just as the PowerMate and VFD are also connected internally to USB headers. No cables need leave the case only to plug into back-panel connectors. Its an asthetic thing.

For the hard drive, I selected a Seagate Barracuda V - the last line that still had the quiet-seek technology on it that I could activate with a 3rd party utility as the newer lines (7200.7 did not allow quiet-seek). The optical drive became the Pioneer DVR-106BK - as my happy experience with the DVR-105 gave me confidence in its performance. The flat tray face also made easy work of attaching the aluminum faceplate.

Now that the hardware is all assembled, the more hair-raising part begins: getting the software assembled to make it all work like an appliance and not like a computer. The OS is currently Windows XP Professional - the power button on the front turns it on and shuts it down without user intervention (so far). Other than that, I'm still experimenting in the early stages of software. My main required functions for the system are:

  1. Play back avi,mpg,digital video files from optical media (DVD-R, CD-R) and filesystem, even networked files.
  2. Play back MP3 and other audio files without the need of the video screen.
  3. Browse the internet
  4. Display static images from a photo-album stored on network computer.
  5. Allow personal video recorder functionality - TIVO without a program guide (so far) - to autorecord the daily stuff like nightly world news and other programs that will not be archived, as well as allow for the occasional recording of programs for archiving.
Eventual tasks that will be addresses down the road:
  1. Scaling of DVD, avi, and other media to large screen, high-res video display or projector
  2. Processing DVD media (deinterlacing, etc).
  3. High Definition or Digital TV tuner and processor
  4. HD Recording
  5. Playing games on HDTV display

Hardware Components

Case: ATech Fabrication - options: VFD window, power button, blue led, powermate opening, 5 controll buttons with LED's above, trayload drive opening, IRMan opening, flat black.
Motherboard: ASUS P4C800-E Deluxe : 4 internal USB headers, 1 internal serial header, gigbit Intel ethernet
Processor: Intel Pentium 4 - 2.6GHz - rev. 6 - 800MHz FSB
CPU Heatsink: Swiftech MCX4000 - massive copper and pin riser based heatsink
CPU Fan: Sanyo Denki - Petit Ace 15 - lowspeed fan, controlled by ATech supplied thermal fan controller
Memory: Kingston - PC3200 184pin DIMM 2x 256MB - KHX3200A/256
Infrared Input: Evation.com IRMan serial IR input appliance
Front Display: Matrix Orbital 24x4 Vacuum Display ( VK204-24-USB ), USB version, with blue filter
Knob: Griffin Technologies Powermate Knob - brushed silver, anodized black by ATech with case
Optical Drive: Pioneer DVR-106BK, black trayload drive- 4x DVD-R/W, DVD+R/W, CD-R/W
Hard Drive: Seagate: Barracuda V - 120GB PATA - with quiet-seek turned on via 3rd party tool
Graphics Card: Saphire made ATI Radeon 9500 PRO, fan removed, cooled by ATech mass-air GPU passive system
Framegrabber/Tuner: PixelView PlayTV PVR (X-Capture + Tuner)

Software Components

Still in the designing phase and not finalized

Images of the Hardware

The complete and closed HTPC Case: Trayload, Powermate, IRMan, VFD, Powerbutton, 5 control buttons and and LED above each button.
The Trayload DVD drive - black with black aluminum bezel attached with black double-sided tape (as supplied to attache the IRMan to its shelf inside)
Inside View - the Radeon 9500 Pro, the Pixelview PVR and the bundle of USB adn Serial cables and power cables (USB= Powermate, VFD, Serial=IRMan)

The USB cables connect to the internal USB headers, the serial cable connects to the serial header. Love that P4C800-E Deluxe ASUS motherboard. No component cables leave the case.

Labeled image of of the interesting bits. Note the Mass-Air Graphics Processor cooler and its intake vent (the MP1 version, which skips a slot, the standard MassAir duct would not skip a slot).

SPDIF out card from ASUS supplies coax and optical out of audio - the motherboard has a direct coax out connection - I wanted an optical option available. NOTE - this SPDIF out board does NOT come with the P4C800-E motheraboard but must be obtained form ASUS seperately.

Grey ribbon cable near top - serial cable from motherboard header to black 9-pin serial connector to which IRMan is connected.

Closeup of the Pentium 4 2.6GHz C CPU with Swiftech MCX4000 Heatsink and Sanyo Denki Petit Ace 15 Fan

Note: electrical tape on top of the caps to seperate/protect the bottom of the cpu fan controller PCB

Note: brown heatshrink on blue wire - one of the RPM feedback wires removed from the fan's plug to ensure only one RPM feedback gets to the motherboard via the Y-Splitter to not confuse the reading.

Note: the fixed resistor on the 12v power to the case fans is 2 1/2W 150Ohm resistors connected in parrallel to give a 75 Ohm, 1 W load. It heats up, but mounted up off the motherboard and at the back of the CPU, that heat is drawn right out of the case by the rear fan.

Images of the case in the stack of traditional components: Sony ES aluminum faceplate gear and Aiwa plastic faced DVD player (of grey color). The top image is taken without a flash, the bottom with a flash. Both have the normal incandescant room lighting on. As you can see, without the flash to drown the incandescent lighting effects - that is - JUST with the incandescent lighting, the ATech case looks a little purple in comparision to the other, traditional components.

This is most probably due to the color of the incandesceant lighting. Use of flourescent or a more daylight near light bulb would likely eliminate this purple tint.

Performance Characteristics

One of the key goals was to get the sytem to be quiet. Idealy that means no moving parts. The optical drive must spin. For the time there must be a hard drive, lest I go to booting from a file server over the network. The Seagate drive does a good job at being quiet. The case has a power supply designed to be quiet via some modifications done by ATech. Additionally, the CPU fan is controlled by a thermal regulator and the case fans are slowed to a low rate - the fans are almost non-detectible.

Here some operational data for those who are currious.

Ambient temperature = 22.5 C, at sea level.
Operational ModeCPU Fan (rpm)CPU Temp (C)Case Fan (rpm) Motherboard Temp (C)
Cold Boot970rpm42C1231rpm27C
After 45min WinXP Pro1290rpm43C1268rpm32C
After 10min HotCPU1704rpm53C1298rpm32C
After 30min HotCPU1795rpm54C1300rpm33C
10min After stopping HotCPU (idle)1622rpm42C1318rpm33C

Note: HotCPU is a free system burn-in and test utility available from www.7byte.com that runs the CPU at 100% utilization to simulate the maximum load and thus the warmest things should get in that ambient test conditions.

The case fans stay right around 1300rpm on the fixed resistor - they vary only due to manufacturing and thermal changes in the motors and the resistor that is slowing them. The CPU seems to top off at 54 degrees C using the controller. The only part not yet wired into the test is the graphics processor with the mass-air GPU attached, now that the factory ATI Radeon heatsink-fan is removed. The performance of that unit depends on the airflow in the intake and thus on the case fans ability to create that negative pressure. Clutter inside the case could affect that performance, as well as the case fan speed. Once I get my Matrix Orbital temperature probes connected, so that I can get temperature readings form the heatsink of the Radeon 9500 Pro, I will add those to the data here and may adjust the speed of the case fans up. Additionally, I might monitor the temperature of the optical drive and/or hard-drive.

Using the COM2 Port on an ASUS P4c800E-Deluxe Motherboard

The 2 DB9-Header cables I had lying around did not work. WHy? The ASUS motherboard header uses a different pin sequence than those with which the cable was constructed. As the ribbon cable cannot be modified at the headder end - the change was made at the DB9 end. The changes are seen in the image. The ribbon cable wires, rather than being connected top-bot-top-bot... as you go accross the DB9, need to be connected 1st five on top, last four on bottom as shown.

The modifications are easy to make, but a cable can also be purchased in this configuration. I had the two header-db9 cables laying around from older PC's, hence I wanted to just reuse them. Thanks to Tom Horsley's Website for the info on what the connections need to be.

© 2003 - All rights reserved on images and descriptions - Thomas Smailus
Products and product names remain the property of the manufacturers of the products.