Almost exactly one year ago, I seriously started considering the problem of having the digital content I care about, mostly made up of music and pictures, scattered around different computers.
At home I often found myself thinking “I wish I could watch this movie on the TV instead of sitting in front of a tiny monitor”. At a friend’s house I would sometimes say “I can’t show you the pictures of our last trip right now because they are on my other laptop”.
On top of that I started to have the creepy feeling that that not everything was backed up properly and on a regular basis, since it resided on different machines. This had become both annoying and worrying.
That’s how I got interested in Home Theater PC or HTPC for short.
My goal was to be able collect and organize all of my digital content in the form of music, pictures and movies in one central place, more precisely the living room, and to make it available to other PCs in the house as well as enjoying it on the TV’s big screen.
After looking at a couple of commercial products in that category (particularly Apple Mac mini and Apple TV) I realized the most common thing to do for a geek like me was to go off and build my own HTPC. This way I could pick and choose the hardware parts to build a machine that matches my specific needs.
A computer that wishes to rightfully be called an HTPC must have the following basic characteristics:
- Low power consumption
- TV connectivity
- Large storage capacity
On top of that, my personal requirements were:
- Be able to play High Definition (HD) movies at high resolution (1080p)
- Be able to play some occasional 3D game
- Do not look like a computer but rather like some Audio-Video piece of equipment
Based on these requirements and my budget, I came up with the following hardware configuration:
|CPU||AMD Athlon X2 Dual-Core 4850e 2.5GH|
|Cooling||Scythe Ninja Mini CPU Cooler|
|Memory||Kingston DDR2 PC6400 2048MB|
|Storage||Western Digital 500 GB SATA|
|Graphics Card||MSI GeForce 8600GT 256MB DDR3|
|Case||Antec Fusion 430 Silver|
There are some key points here that lead my decisions I should probably explain.
First of all I decided to go with the cheaper AMD Athlon X2 CPU over an Intel Core 2 Duo, since the performance gain I would get from the Intel processor wasn’t really that important to me to justify the higher price.
Moreover the 4850e uses just 45W of electricity, which contributes in keeping the CPU cool and the power consumption low.
My choice of motherboard was based on a couple of factors:
- The Antec Fusion V2 case (really slick by the way), has only room for a Mini-ATX size motherboard
- It has integrated High Definition Audio sound chip with support for 7.1 channels and DTS (Digital Theater Systems), which basically means great audio for music and movies
- It also has a decent ATI Radeon X1250 graphics chip with HDMI and TV-out ports integrated, which is nice to have in case my graphics card fails
I wanted this computer to be silent, and since I’m not a huge fan of water cooling, I figured the best way to keep the volume down would be to keep as few fans as possible.
For this reason I substituted the stock CPU cooler that comes with the AMD processor with a Scythe Ninja Mini heat sink (shown in the picture below). This would allow me to cool the CPU without needing a fan. Moreover its low profile fits well in the Antec Fusion case.
As a matter of personal preference, the graphics card had to be an NVIDIA GeForce. This particular model not only provides a nice price/performance balance, but is also extremely silent thanks to its fan-less passive cooling through a heat pipe.
The downside is that once installed in the case it takes up the equivalent space of two cards, due to the large heat sink on the backside.
The case was the most important (and expensive) piece of the whole configuration. I have to say the Antect Fusion 430 is a great case for an HTPC.
As far as aesthetics go, it makes a computer look like a fancy hi-fi amplifier with a shiny aluminum front panel. Moreover it has some nice features like an LCD screen with support for IR remotes and even a volume nod, contributing to the overall experience.
On the inside, it is designed to keep the hardware cool without being loud. It has two big fans positioned on one side of the case blowing cool air from the outside on the CPU and the graphics card, which are the hottest components in the system.
In this picture you can see the two fans on the left side directing the air flow towards the two giants heat sinks mounted on the CPU and GPU.
After the build was done, I immediately installed Windows Vista Home Premium and the required device drivers on it to see how it performed.
Here is how Vista rates the system:
Playing HD movies encoded with the H.264 codec at 1080p on to a 40’’ flat HDTV is no problem at all. I use Cyberlink PowerDVD 9 which supports the NVIDIA PureVideo® feature to offload part of the rendering off to the GPU.
I have to admit I was a little worried that the two fans mounted in the Antec case weren’t enough to keep the system from overheating, especially when HTPC is inside of a closet under the TV.
So I decided to run the excellent Prime95 tool to stress test the system and watch the CPU and GPU temperature with CPU-Z and GPU-Z respectively. The screenshots below show the temperature measured at the two CPU cores when the system is idle (on top) and when running under load (below):
It seems that the passive cooling is doing a pretty good job at keeping the CPU and GPU at low temperatures, even when the system is put under heavy load.
So far I’ve been pretty satisfied with the HTPC I’ve built. It fits well into the living room thanks to its specially designed case and it’s silent enough that I can’t even tell when it’s turned on or off (OK, I can always look at the power led on the front panel). Also it does everything I need it to without issues.
Having a PC working as media center instead of a proprietary custom device such as the Apple TV, definitely is the most flexible choice in terms of what software you can run. It also allows you to tweak the system to your preference, which is a requirement in itself for anyone with a passion for technology.
The Christmas holidays usually mean taking a break from the usual everyday routine and focus more on the important relationships in our lives, like family and close friends. To me, this also somehow includes having the time to think about things technology-wise that either are new or haven’t crossed my mind in a long time.
During this past Christmas season, I strangely found myself thinking about a Christmas of the past, more precisely December of 1997. Why is this interesting? Because that was the year when I bought my first 3D Accelerator graphics card.
A little bit of history
There was a time in the early 90’s when game developers discovered that they could represent entire worlds using computer graphics and three-dimensional shapes. They also discovered that it was possible to cover those shapes with images instead of just applying some colors, to make them look more realistic. There was also a growing interest in reproducing physical aspects of the real world in 3D graphics, like the effects of lights and shadows, water, fog, reflexes etc.
Unluckily, the processing power of the CPUs available in the market at that time wasn’t quite up to the challenge. In spite of the advanced algorithms that were developed to render 3D graphics in software, the end results were always far from what we would call “realistic”.
Up until 1996, when a company called 3Dfx Interactive based in San Jose, California, published the first piece of computer hardware exclusively dedicated to rendering 3D graphics on a PC screen: a 3D Accelerator. Their product was called Voodoo Graphics, and consisted of a PCI card equipped with a 3D graphics processing unit (today known as GPU) running at 50 MHz and 4 MB of DRAM memory.
The company also provided a dedicated API called Glide, that developers could use to interact with the card and exploit its capabilities. Glide was originally created as a subset of the industry-standard 3D graphics library OpenGL, specifically focused on the functionality required for game development. Another key difference between Glide and other 3D graphics APIs was that the functions exposed in Glide were implemented directly with native processor instructions for the GPU on the Voodoo Graphics.
In other words, while OpenGL, and later on Microsoft’s Direct3D, provided an abstraction layer that exposed a common set of APIs independent of the specific graphics hardware that would actually process the instructions, Glide exposed only the functionality supported by the GPU.
This approach gave all 3Dfx cards superior performance in graphics processing, a key advantage that lasted many years, even when competing cards entered the market, such as the Matrox G200, ATI Rage Pro and Nvidia RIVA 128.
However, this also resulted in some heavy limitations in the image quality, like the maximum resolution of 640×480 (later increased to 800×600 with the second-generation cards called Voodoo 2) and the support for 16-bit color images.
The 3Dfx Voodoo Graphics was designed from the ground up with the sole purpose of running 3D graphics algorithms as fast as possible. Although this may sound as a noble purpose, it meant that in practice the card was missing a regular VGA controller onboard. This resulted in the need of having a separate video adapter just to render 2D graphics. The two cards had to be connected with a bridge cable (shown in the picture) going from the VGA card to the Voodoo, while another one connected the latter to the screen. The 3D Accelerator would usually pass-through the video signal from the VGA card on to the screen, and engaged only when an application using Glide was running on the PC.
Being the first on the consumer market with dedicated 3D graphics hardware, 3Dfx completely revolutionized the computer gaming space on the PC, setting a new standard for how 3D games could and should look like. All new games developed from the mid 90’s up to the year 2000 were optimized for running on Glide, allowing the lucky possessors of a 3Dfx (like me) to enjoy great and fluid 3D graphics.
To give you an idea of how 3Dfx impacted games, here is a screenshot of how a popular first-person shooter game like Quake II looked like when running in Glide-mode compared to traditional software-based rendering.
If the 3Dfx was so great, why isn’t it still around today, you might ask. I asked myself the same question.
After following up the original Voodoo Graphics card with some great successors like the Voodoo2 (1998), Voodoo Banshee, (1998) and Voodoo3 (1999), 3Dfx got overshadowed by two powerful competitors Nvidia’s GeForce and ATI’s Radeon. A series of bad strategic decisions that lead to delayed and overpriced products, caused 3Dx to lose market share, ultimately reaching bankruptcy in late 2000. Apparently 3Dfx, by refusing to incorporate 2D/3D graphics chips and supporting Microsoft’s DirectX, became no longer capable of producing cards that lived up to what was the new market’s standard.
In 2004 3Dfx opted to be bought by Nvidia, who acquired much of the company’s intellectual property, employees, resources and brands.
Even if 3Dfx no longer exist as a company, it effectively placed a landmark in the history of computer games and 3D graphics, opening the way to games we see today on the stores’ shelves. And the memory of its glorious days still warm the hearts of its fans, especially during cold Christmas evenings.