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Help me build a great HTPC / NAS Setup!

CJohnson

Active Member
Hi All,

First of all, let me say that I've been a casual member of these forums for a while and I find it to be a great resource. So a big thumbs up from me! :thumbsup:

I'd like to get the community's advice in building a new HTPC / NAS setup to be the hub of my media.

I have a strong IT background, and work in technology so I'm fairly well versed in computing in general, but having been mac based for the past 8 years or so, and with my work dealing mainly in proprietary hardware, I am not at all familiar with the recent developments in PC components or media center software solutions.

My current setup is:
- Samsung 51" 8000 Plasma
- Xbox 360
- Apple TV (v3)
- Sky+ HD
- Old not 3D samsung blu ray
- G4 Mac Mini
- Some USB hard drives
- Couple of airport express units
- Harmony One remote
- HDMI Switcher
- 2.1 Hifi providing audio

I love my TV, and my Xbox is great. The blu ray player is fine, but doesn't do 3D. The Apple TV is crap. Airplay streaming works, but is occasionally temperamental, and the picture is unusually dark. Of course the Apple TV can't yet be jailbroken, so I can't use it to play my own media. Itunes store isn't great either. The sky store gives me a better movie selection for less money.

Additionally, I'd like a proper NAS solution for time machine backups, printer sharing, media, etc...

I've looked at a range of players (WDTV, etc...) and NAS devices (ReadyNAS, Synology, QNAP, etc..) but all of these seem limited in various ways, Not to mention they get expensive quickly if you want lots of drives, etc...

So, it got me thinking:

Why not build a mini PC that could consolidate the following?
- Media Playback via XBMC/Plex/Etc..
- NAS duties including hosting Time Machine backups
- Photo Library hosting
- Printer sharing
- Blu Ray / DVD playback (only occasional)

So this is where I need your help. From the research I've done, it seems that:
1) A MiniITX system would probably be the way to go
2) good onboard graphics should be able to handle my playback needs
3) A few motherboards (such as: Stuff-UK - Z77E-ITX - ASRock Z77E-ITX Motherboard Core i7/i5/i3 1155 Z77 mITX RAID Gigabit LAN (Intergrated Intel HD Graphics)) could offer me most of the functionality I need onboard, including a hardware RAID controller.
4) Alternatively, there are plenty of good PCI-E hardware raid controllers that I could use

So AVForum-ers:

Does the above sound sensible?
Have any of you done a similar thing?
Any suggestions for MiniITX directions?
I'm leaning toward Plex. Thoughts?


Thanks!
 

thebiznes

Active Member
For a nice tidy quiet set-up for a media centre not so much storage although you could hang an esata set of drives on the rear of the unit. This is fairly high end and the case restricts storage options, but the main thing here is completely silent, and low power. It uses it's own PSU like a pico on board the motherboard.

Maybe a

Intel BOXDQ77KB Intel Q77 Socket 1155 Mini ITX Motherboard - Scan.co.uk

Cost £110.12

Passive Mini-ITX Case Euler for Sandy/Ivy Bridge - AK-ITX-05BKAL from Akasa - Scan.co.uk

Cost £74.31

Intel Core i3 3220T Ivy Bridge Dual Core Processor - Retail - BX80637I33220T - Scan.co.uk

£102.38 but not vt-d capable only vt-x.

Or Perhaps this CPU for better graphics but not vt-d capable only vt-x.

Intel Core i3 3225 Ivy Bridge Dual Core Processor - Retail - BX80637I33225 - Scan.co.uk

£106.96

Any 2 * DDR3 SODIMM

If wanting to go larger board size wise look at Intel DQ77MK, but you would need a different case etc. This would allow Hardware Raid although the ITX board above would also in a different case.

Perhaps this case.

Fractal Design Define Mini mATX Case No PSU - FD-DEFINE-MINI - Scan.co.uk

Cost £71.98

You could choose a lot cheaper CPU. I would research exactly what you will be doing with the CPU or want to do in the future. If going down a server route look for extensions like V-td for ESXI and other VMware. Processor is the hardest thing to research to get the best options for now and future and economy.

This is compatibility list for the ITX Intel Board. Look at ark for the processor specs

Intel® Processors and Boards Compatibility Tool - Search Results Page

With this you could build a server with various virtual machines. For software like pfsense, untangle router or freenas anything really you have more options available to you in one box. You could run win2008 and do what I do run DVBViewer and use it as a PVR machine also.

Other than this route look at the Gigabyte which is cheaper and build around this. For this you will need to find a different case and power supply.

Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI Mini-ITX Socket 1155 Motherboard - Scan.co.uk

Cost £94.52

Silverstone SG05B USB 3.0 Sugo Black Mini ITX Case with 300W PSU - SST-SG05B USB 3.0 - Scan.co.uk

Cost £83.96

Good case but there are a lot more to choose from like the trendy Bitfenix Prodigy (different colours available)

BitFenix Prodigy Mini-ITX Cube Case - Midnight Black [BFC-PRO-300-KKXSK-RP]

Cost £69.95

Or look for a used or discounted (not on offer at the minute) Microserver N36L or N40L

(Not suitable for Plex media server CPU limited)
 
Last edited:

CJohnson

Active Member
Hi thebiznes.

Thanks for your quick response!

So since I posted originally, I have read some of the Assassins HTPC blog, which has some informative hardware guides. Much of what you have said matches up with that.

A little bit more clarity on what I'll actually be using this machine for:

1) Watching downloaded/ripped media on my TV. I'm thinking about using plex for this, although I'm open to suggestions. I find plex attractive because I can watch something on TV, or stream it to my iPad/Laptop in another room. This will just be movies and TV. No music. I have all my music in iTunes and airplay throughout my house already.

2) Backing up my main laptop (personal/work machine - MBP), my windows tablet (work), My wife's laptop (MBA). So i'll create some time machine network shares for this. This is where the NAS element comes in.

3) NAS duties. 4 drive capacity (i'll start with 2). I plan to set this up for RAID 5 eventually. I'll also configure an FTP server for remote access (I travel a lot for work, and like to be able to access backups remotely if need be).

4) Perhaps Blu-Ray/DVD playback. I feel like I can't have a HTPC setup without this, although I rarely watch Blu-Rays.

In terms of cases, I've found a bunch from the likes of Fractal, LinITX, Silverstone and Lian Li that would fit my size constraints and get good reviews, so I'm confident I can get that sorted. I do love the BitFenix, but alas its too big for me really.

I suspect I'll end up running WHS 2011, for simplicities sake - and easy compatibility with whatever I may want to do with it in the future. I'll spoof a second monitor (with the HDMI to the TV being the first) to access via VNC and use as the method of controlling the machine aside from running media fullscreen on the HDMI.

I'm not averted going mATX instead of mITX. having a quick search suggests I might get a wider range of onboard features for the money on mATX. A decent 4+ head PCI-E raid card is going to be £50-£100 so if I can get that onboard, then that is by far preferable.

A couple of questions:

1) Software-wise, is Plex a good call? I've read that it doesn't really do playback from optical media...

2) How much RAM should I go for? I figure 8gb should suffice?

3) Is there much to choose from between blu ray drives?

4) I've read that pretty much any Ivy Bridge or Sandy Bridge i3's onboard graphics should happily suffice for 3D 1080p playback. Is this accurate?

5) Lastly, I need Audio over the HDMI, will all ivy or sandy bridge chipsets provide this?

Thanks for your help so far!
 

DavidT

Well-known Member
A couple of questions:

1) Software-wise, is Plex a good call? I've read that it doesn't really do playback from optical media...

2) How much RAM should I go for? I figure 8gb should suffice?

3) Is there much to choose from between blu ray drives?

4) I've read that pretty much any Ivy Bridge or Sandy Bridge i3's onboard graphics should happily suffice for 3D 1080p playback. Is this accurate?

5) Lastly, I need Audio over the HDMI, will all ivy or sandy bridge chipsets provide this?

Thanks for your help so far!

1. I have no experience of Plex but from what I have read is should meet your needs, download a copy when you are ready and have a play.

2. 8gb is fine, 4gb would also be OK but RAM is cheap.

3. Most builds seem to be either LG or Samsung drives, I have a Samsung which works for me.

4. i3's will do all you want, have a look at AMD Trinity as well, an A6 CPU with an FM2 motherboard will be cheaper than Intel and will do 3D however the processor is not as fast or energy efficient.

5. No issues with audio over HDMI with either Intel or AMD.

David
 

richardb70

Distinguished Member
If you search the threads, this kind of "consolidation" post comes up regularly.

I've got a separate NAS as I picked up an HP ProLiant N40L for £100 or so after cashback. If this interests you then keep an eye on HUKD as these come up cheap all the time. Stuck an SSD in for fast recovery from hibernate, and WHS2011. With one of these, you're not limited to what you can do with them (unlike the Synologies etc). I have mine doing all sorts of stuff.

My HTPC wakes up the NAS when it starts up, and only has an SSD and a tiny HDD for TV timeshifting in (plus the odd recording). I preferred to keep them separate for a variety of reasons.
 

CJohnson

Active Member
Thanks DavidT, richardb70,

I have indeed seen that I'm not the only one after a solution like this.

The proliant servers seem great. The case seems particularly good, as it supports an optical drive and a bunch of accessible 3.5" drives. I'll look into one of those.

I have thought long and hard about seperating these devices. Clearly having multiple boxes gives you more flexbility. However, one of my reasons for consolidating is reducing the number of devices, and therefore freeing up some space. Seeing as I use Sky+HD for TV (so I have no need for PVR capability), I'm confident I can come up with a one box solution.

At the moment, my biggest hurdle seems to be finding a case that will fit my needs. Its got to fit into my shallow under-TV cabinet. This cabinet has 400mm clearance from the door to the back. The back is open, and there is about 20mm clearance to the wall from there. The front is closed.
Other than depth though, size of case is not really an issue. my wishlist is:
1) 4 * 3.5" HDD bays.
2) Because of the cabinet, side-side airflow would be better than front-back
3) Not super tiny inside, this will just adversely affect cooling, and, as i said, I have no particular requirement for it to be super small.
4) Should fit a regular/slim optical drive. I'm gonna go for a slot-loading one

I have found some Lian Li options which look nice, and I like their build quality. So I might try and make one of them work.

I will definitely check out the trinity options. I would like this to be 3D capable, but provided it can do 3D 1080p playback, I'm happy.

Thanks
 

richardb70

Distinguished Member
Enjoy! And good luck.

BTW, the server takes up no space at all, because it's under a table in the hall. Incredibly easy to add/remove HDDs too (the same can't be said about my HTPC) and I've set it up to do pretty much what my main PC was doing (sickbeard etc) but with much less power consumption. It wakes up periodically to do tasks and kicks into life when WOL packets are flying around from various sources.

My HTPC has a small case and is generally switched off at the mains unless we're watching telly. Because it mainly uses an SSD for pretty much everything, the only noise is from the CPU fan (if I didn't have kids I'd have got round to changing this!). Blu-ray/HD-DVD drive, MediaPortal with Online Videos, magic.
 

robbo100

Well-known Member
If you are trying to miniaturise things, you could also consolidate the function of your Sky box into your HTPC too. You would need a DVB-S2 tuner card (I suggest you get a dual or quad card, depending upon the number of LNB feeds you have). You will also need a chip and pin card reader (available from eBay for about £15). The setup is a bit more involved, but the results will blow you away. You will be able to get far more out of your system than you currently do, such as the number of channels you can simultaneously record, and the fact that you will have unlimited storage space (well, limited only by your server space).
 

CJohnson

Active Member
Hey robbo.

Thanks for the reply. You know, that thought had crossed my mind. I figured it couldn't be too hard to decode a Sky signal.

The only thing that puts me off a bit (which incidentally the same reason I haven't built a HTPC sooner) is because I like simplicity, and low-maintenance technology. I'm sure, as you say, the results are far superior, but I feel that might be phase 2 of the project :)

Having looked extensively at the kit and cases on offer, I think I'll probably end up going mATX instead of mini ITX for a few reasons:

1) The range of cases built for mini itx & 4+ HDDs is limited
2) miniITX motherboards are more expensive for the same spec, and offer limited flexibility.
3) All the cases that I like, that can take 4+ HDDs, are larger anyway, so I may as well just get a bigger, cheaper motherboard with more options for adding PCI cards etc in the future.

I was almost sold on the AFX Nas case. Its fanless, built well, and is Tiny, but It may be a bit too limiting. I'm also concerned that going fanless with a computer thats going to live in a cupboard isn't perhaps the greatest ever idea...

I'm leaning toward a Lian Li offering thats ~350mm deep.
 

robbo100

Well-known Member
The main thing with HTPCs is future proofing. So if there js a possibility that you might add a DVB tuner in the future, then get a case and motherboard that will allow it. Then when you have got your system sorted, you can upgrade. Generally, people who want an HTPC are the sort who want to fiddle and upgrade, so give yourself the option.

The beauty is, that giving yourself an upgrade path won't usually cost you any more money, you just have to consider it at the initial purchase stage.
 

CJohnson

Active Member
Yes, agreed. In fact, looking at mATX vs miniITX prices, It looks like it actually might cost less to futureproof with a mATX system...
 

CJohnson

Active Member
OK.

Next Question: Windows 7 or Windows 8?

I'm ordering some parts to do a test fit. I'm going to go with a Lian-Li Q11 (nice and tiny!) and fit it with 2 * 3TB RAID 1 drives for 'NAS' duty, a 60GB or so SSD for OS, and a 320GB 2.5" drive (that I already have) for 'Scratch' - content that I'm not bothered about backing up.

Couple that with an Optical drive (undecided on Regular or Slim yet. If I go slim slot load, I can fit a multi card reader in the front as well which would be nice) and I'll be good to go.

I think, factoring in the current marketplace and my requirements, I'm going to go for an AMD A8 or A10 (as yet undecided). My thinking is that the graphics are very good, and should easily support 3D 1080P. A8/A10 over A4/A6 so that I have a bit more processor grunt for background server duties while also using plex.

4Gb of Ram should be plenty here.

I've found a nice, modular, Gold rated SFX size PSU. Although the case takes full size ATX, its a tight fit, so this way I have some room for airflow.

Cooling wise, I'm going to attempt to go with just the front case fan (super quiet 140mm jobbie) and PSU fan for airflow, and either passively cool the CPU with a suitably large heatsink (with the front fan blowing accross it) or see if I can fit one of the sealed watercoolers in there.

I shall report back with progress
 

thebiznes

Active Member
Windows 7 all media features included. I wouldn't go that 8 rubbish with metro do my head in.

Although if running as a server only I would get 2008.
 

WheresMyArtisan

Active Member
Agree with the above - Windows 8 looks like a kid's toy to me, no useful features that 7 doesn't have.

Unless you have a touchscreen TV and a big stick so you can prod it from the sofa.
 

delta_42

Active Member

If you put that CPU in that case you'll also save the need for a radiator in the room, and could cook your morning eggs on top of the PC!! :eek:

The Euler case states a limit of 35W TDP for the CPU. I've tried one with a 45W CPU and it got pretty toasty! I dread to think what it would be like with a 55W CPU in there.

The Euler/i3-3220T combo is great as a small HTPC or even a tidy little desktop. I've got one sat on my desk, and coupled with a Samsung SSD it makes for a fantastically snappy general purpose desktop PC.
 

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