Recommendations for a minimal Home Theater PC system
March 14, 2011 5:32 AM   Subscribe

I want to build a budget low power and quiet home theater PC to replace my XBox with XBMC. I'm not looking for HD or Bluray (I don't have the TV for the HD or the interest for the Bluray). I'm pretty out of touch with hardware these days so I don't really know what I need for a minimally viable HTPC. What do I need?

I am comfortable building a PC (thanks to a childhood with lego) so a custom building is possible.
posted by srboisvert to Computers & Internet (21 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Would you mind a cheap out of the box solution such as the boxee box:

You can probably find it for under $200 at this point. It is very reliable only thing is it relies on an HDMI cable for video...what kind of connectivity to your tv are you looking to have?
posted by The1andonly at 5:35 AM on March 14, 2011

Most important question: what DO you want to do with it? Netflix? Downloading from Amazon Video or iTunes? Downloading... less legitimately? Streaming video files downloaded elsewhere? DVR? And if you want DVR, what kind of cable setup do you currently have?

Hardware, and even what type of machine you need, depend on those factors.
posted by supercres at 5:41 AM on March 14, 2011

If you don't need Free Hulu, you don't really need it to be a PC.
I'd recommend a Roku, unless you absolutely positively need your front end to be XBMC.
posted by jozxyqk at 5:46 AM on March 14, 2011

XBMC has come a long way since the XBox days. If you're looking for a media player, i'm not sure you can find much to beat it at the moment. I'd suggest you find a "net top" pc which is basically a netbook but without the monitor. The Acer Aspire 3610 was a good choice, but it may be discontinued now. It's quiet, doesnt suck too much power, and has an HDMI port for linking to your TV with ease. Make sure you choose a PC setup that can cope with HD video (an Ion chip will take care of that).
posted by Fezzer at 5:52 AM on March 14, 2011

I don't want a DVR and I don't have much of an interest in streaming either though iPlayer streaming would probably be useful.

I've looked at the Boxee and I am also considering a Acer Aspire Revo but am also interested in what would be the rock bottom processor, video card and RAM requirements for playing the readily available video formats. I currently have to re-encode some things for playing on my xbox and I would rather avoid that.
posted by srboisvert at 5:53 AM on March 14, 2011

I've just recently gone the route of buying a Revo to build my own little HTPC. Granted, I'm wanting it be a replacement DVR when we cut our cable cord soon, and may be using it for a few more things than what you're intending.

Regardless though, even though it's been only a few days, I will say that I've been pretty pleased with the Revo. Out of the box, with very few tweaks (sure, you gotta remove some bloatware), it can make for a nice little media player. Plus, you can install Boxee on it to handle those other formats that Windows Media Center (if you wanna use that) won't play. You could also just always install VLC to play nearly anything.

I can't speak to the what the rock bottom bare-minimum specs/requirements would be, but, I mean, it's not like the Revo is state-of-the-art either: it's got a 1 GHz processor, 2 GB of RAM, and an integrated nVidia video card, all for about $350.

FWIW, this site was more or less my guide throughout the whole process.
posted by mrhaydel at 6:01 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

You could get a used Intel Mac mini for a few hundred, and run Windows on that. It is fan-less and therefore much, much quieter than any DIY project most are likely to set up.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:05 AM on March 14, 2011

Just went through this evaluation myself, replacing an older home-built linux box. My conclusion was that I couldn't build better than the boxee for $200. Heck, I'd probably spend $400 on hardware alone. Ubuntu linux is ok as a media platform, but some of the hardware acceleration isn't always optimized. In particular, Flash on Linux can be a challenge, particularly on low end-hardware. If you spec out the hardware, I'd use a 1080p flv file as your test case.

The boxee box very good at its core job: playing and streaming video. I've thrown wild and weird formats at it without trouble. Assuming no network issues, it does not stutter, drag or go out of sync. It does not struggle with Flash. It's easy to setup. Boxee seems to be much slicker and much, much more stable on the dedicated hardware than as a program on a generic linux install.

It's less good at media management, but still serviceable. The music jukebox is fairly primitive and the app collection is a bit thin. I give it a 7 or 8 on a scale of 10. I'd buy one again.
posted by bonehead at 6:15 AM on March 14, 2011

One possibility: a nettop with an AMD E-350.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 6:18 AM on March 14, 2011

One significant limitation of the Boxee box is no local storage. We stream off a local NAS network drive. It chose the smb version of the share, and found the share on it's own. The networking on the bbox is very slick. You can plug in a usb (ver2) hard/flash drive too. It's flexible, but if you need local storage for movies, you'll need to add the cost of an external drive as well.
posted by bonehead at 6:24 AM on March 14, 2011

Why aren't you looking for HD? If you have a non-HD set then Boxee won't work. It only outputs HD via HDMI. There is no other video/audio option.
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:39 AM on March 14, 2011

You should check out They should have tons of information on good cases and other components and tons of other resources to help you with your build. The forums community is pretty good too and they can probably give you some good advice if you ask this same question there assuming you can't find the in the articles.
posted by VTX at 6:56 AM on March 14, 2011

After a couple years of converting videos on my Mac into iTunes format to play on my Apple TV, I finally put XBMC on it. It took me about five minutes and it completely changed the way I use it. My only regret is that I hadn't done it sooner.

So, for about $100.00 you can get an Apple TV, throw XBMC on it and have a device that will play just about anything off any shared folder in your house.
posted by bondcliff at 7:12 AM on March 14, 2011

Without concern for HD playback, you really do not need much machine to just play video.

I would consider one of these WD Live devices. It will do all the basic playback you want.

Personally, I run a custom HTPC setup. I built it 4 or 5 years ago for about $1300 (I probably over spent...) and it can still play any HD video I throw at it (via hardware acceleration though, not just off the CPU). This is a 2.2 GHZ dual core (Athlon x2, so fairly old) with an Nvidia 8600 gts vidya card. Really not much machine by today's standards. Building your own box gives you many additional capabilities such as never being restricted by format, being able to play games (emulators! MAME!) and the ability to customize and upgrade.

I've installed Boxee software on it, it is free btw. It is simple software that you can run on basically whatever OS. You don't need to buy the hardware box to enjoy the benefit. If you already have a library of media on your LAN, Boxee is amazing. However, I am in Canada, so much of the internet streaming capability is unavailable to me, and it doesn't yet work for my NetFlix. The Boxee software project came out of the XBMC software BTW, so if you liked XBMC, you'll likely love Boxee.

If I were to do it again today, I would likely go for a simple net-top or one of the set top boxes like wd live or boxee.
posted by utsutsu at 7:49 AM on March 14, 2011

Seconding XBMC for AppleTV2.

For my XBMC setup I went for a new Mac mini because my TV supports 1080p, but with an older TV the more limited AppleTV will work just fine. I believe it supports 720p.
posted by Ridge at 8:12 AM on March 14, 2011

The Revo is based on Nvidia's Ion platform which has built-in graphics and hardware-based video decoding/post-processing along with an Atom CPU.
Zotac do a bunch of Ion motherboards in mini-itx form-factor, even a low-spec dual-core N330 motherboard should be more than enough for your needs. Intel say that the TDP of the processor is 8W so it should fit your low-power requirement.

Have a look at, they've got a few articles on setting up media boxes and a guide on XBMC (they also sell small form-factor compenents.)
posted by SyntacticSugar at 8:14 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've looked at WD devices and they lack a feature that really matters to me - a great music management system with persistent music ratings and customization.

Ideally, I want to run XBMC or some other similar program. I don't want to be stuck with an interface like a DVD player's file manager

SyntacticSugar: That link to mini-itx is very helpful for showing me the specs i should aim for with regards to MB and processor
posted by srboisvert at 10:11 AM on March 14, 2011

I've used the Revo since it came out and I've been very satisfied. I use it most to watch HD video and it never skips, whether it's playing it from a file on the HD or via a flashplayer. So that level processor does well.
posted by pollex at 12:19 PM on March 14, 2011

I bought a refurb Dell laptop with a 40GB drive, installed XP, VLC, utorrent, pytivo, and a browser, put it on my network via ethernet cable, and connected to my LCD via S-video, with audio going to my A/V receiver. Everything in "My Videos" shows up under the Tivo "Now Playing" menu. Very quiet and takes up no space, (always closed). Picture is awesome and I control it via a VNC connection from any other computer.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 1:41 PM on March 14, 2011

Oh, the 40GB drive is pretty cramped but I delete stuff after I watch it. Add a 500GB usb drive for an additional $60 or so. (laptop cost $200)
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 1:42 PM on March 14, 2011

I have an old Dell Optiplex GX520 running XP for my XBMC machine. It's very quiet.

Very occasionally this box will stutter when it's playing large HD movies but most of the time it's fine playing 720p videos which is native for our projector. Connected using the built-in VGA.

It pull videos off an external drive shared from a Mac Mini in the next room (the Mini runs sabnzbd and sickbeard).
posted by deanj at 3:41 PM on March 14, 2011

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