Mainstream HTPCs/SFF Gaming PCs v3.0

| September 23, 2011 | (23)

HTPC: Home-Theater Personal Computer | SFF Gaming PC: Small Form Factor Gaming Personal Computer

This article is the result of a collaboration between Brian, our contributor for The Best CPU Coolers For Your Money and Mathieu, the founder/editor of Hardware Revolution. We hope that you enjoy the results!

Is this the right type of PC for me?

If you’re looking for a small-factor PC, to watch TV or DVD/Blu-Ray disks, play video games, listen to music, etc., you’re at the right place. If this is not what you’re looking for, check out our other Computer Systems instead.

The main case recommendation for Tier 3, 4 and 5: The LIAN LI PC-Q08 Mini-ITX cases line-up, available in Black (PC-Q08B), Red (PC-Q08R) and Silver (PC-Q08A). Rest assured, if you don't like these cases, there are also eight other alternatives, for a total of eleven (11) cases to pick from.

About Hardware Revolution’s Mainstream HTPCs/Small Form Factor Gaming PCs:

Imagine a relatively silent, reliable and powerful HTPC/Gaming PC in a compact and attractive case. This is what you’re getting here.

These builds are designed to playback or convert audio/video content, as well as play video games when it comes to Tier 4 and 5.

Choose from Three Tiers:
Tier 3
is stricly a HTPC. It’s a low cost option that’s perfect if what you want is a fairly powerful HTPC that boots fast, that can decode or encode the common content and browse the web while not consuming much power and being pretty quiet.

Tier 4 is designed as an HTPC first, being capable of decoding/handling pretty much any video/audio content (more than Tier 3, more about this in Video Playback section located at the end of the video section) and it is also a very capable SFF Gaming PC, that can handle 1080p Gaming without any problem.

Tier 5 is designed to be as powerful as a Mini-ITX HTPC/SFF Gaming PC gets, with a 65W TDP Quad-Core CPU and a Geforce GTX 560 Ti.

Upgrades and Alternatives
All three Tiers can be upgraded in order to be more powerful, to offer more storage capacity, to be less noisy and more.

Hardware Parts Recommendations

  1. Recommended Components are in Bold, with a or several symbols for the Tier(s).
  2. Suggested Alternatives and Upgrades are in Italic.
  3. All Parts are interchangeable/compatible with each other, except for the Micro-ATX motherboard, which will only fit in a Micro-ATX or larger case and not in the Mini-ITX cases. Also, some cases require a slim optical drive, so be sure to double-check that, as well as the required SATA cable.
Components
(Click to jump to the component’s detailed section.)
Mainstream HTPC/SFF Gaming PCs Tiers:
Tier 3: Mainstream HTPC – Represented by the ♥ symbol
Tier 4: Mainstream HTPC/SFF Gaming PC – ▲ symbol
Tier 5: As powerful as a Mini-ITX HTPC/SFF Gaming PC gets – █
Price
$583
$857
$1069
Motherboard ♥▲ BIOSTAR TH61 DVI/VGA/HDMI USB 3.0 Mini ITX
BIOSTAR TH61ITX+RCH Remote+USB 3.0 Mini ITX
ASRock Z68 PRO3-M E-SATA SATA6Gb/s USB3.0 Micro ATX
ASRock Z68M-ITX/HT SATA6Gbps USB3.0 Remote Mini-ITX
$80
$90
$110
$120
CPU Intel LGA1155 Pentium G840 65W Dual-Core 2.8GHz
Intel LGA1155 Core i3-2120 65W Dual-Core + HT 3.3GHz
Intel Core i5-2400S 65W Quad-Core 2.5GHz-3.3GHz
$85
$140
$193
Video Card
-
Video Playback
♥ Integrated Intel HD
Better video decoding/low resolution gaming: Radeon 6570
▲ Great 1080p Gaming: XFX Radeon HD 6870 1 GB
█ Outstanding 1080p Gaming: EVGA Geforce GTX 560 Ti 1GB
Free
$70
$180
$234
RAM Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3 1333MHz
▲█ G.Skill 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3 1333MHz
$28
$45
Storage ♥▲█SAMSUNG Spinpoint F4EG 1.5TBSATA II 3.5″
♥▲ Kingston SSDNow V+100 96 GB 2.5″ SSD
SAMSUNG EcoGreen F4 HD204UI 2TB SATA II 3.5″
Hitachi Deskstar 3.5″ 3 TB SATA III
Crucial M4 128GB SATA III 2.5″ SSD
Intel X25-M 2.5″ 120GB SSD
$60
$120
$80
$120
$185 $240
Optical Drive ♥▲ Required for standard optical drives: 12″ SATA Cable
♥▲█ ASUS 24X SATA DVD Burner
SAMSUNG 12X Blu-ray Reader 16X DVD/48X CD Burner SATA
LG Black 12X SATA Blu-ray Burner
SATA Power/DATA cable required for Slim Optical Drives
Samsung 8X Slim DVD-Burner
Panasonic UJ240 6x Slim Blu-ray Burner
$3
$21
$55
$80
$5
$23
$110
Case ♥▲ LIAN LI PC-Q08B Mini-ITX Black
LIAN LI PC-Q08A Mini-ITX Silver
LIAN LI PC-Q08R Mini-ITX Red
LIAN LI PC-Q11B Black Aluminum Mini-ITX
LIAN LI PC-Q11A Silver Aluminum Mini-ITX
Silverstone GD05B Mini-ITX/Micro-ATX – 4 expansion slots
LIAN LI PC-A04A Silver Aluminum Mini-ATX, MicroATX
Thermaltake Armor A30 Micro-ATX, Mini-ITX
Silverstone SG05-B Mini-ITX 300W PSU – Slim Optical Drive
Silverstone SG06-B Mini-ITX 300W PSU – Slim Optical Drive
Silverstone SG05BB-450 Mini-ITX 450WPSU Slim Optical Drive
Silverstone SG06BB-450 Mini-ITX 450WPSU Slim Optical Drive
$110
$120
$130
$80
$100
$84
$110
$99
$105
$120
$120
$150
Power Supply SeaSonic SS-350SFE 350W SFX 80 PLUS
Required Molex to Dual-SATA power cable adapter
SILVERSTONE ST45SF 450W SFX 80 PLUS Bronze
PSU is included with a Silverstone SG case
$49
$4
$75
Free
Cooling ♥▲█ Cooler Master Vortex Plus CPU Cooler $23
Sound Card ♥▲ 7.1 Analog Onboard Audio + Optical S/PDIF +
HDMI: 2Ch PCM/DD/DTS Multi Ch LPCM TDD/DD+/DTS-HD
ASUS Sonar DX
Creative Labs Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium
ASUS Sonar D2X
Free
Free
$70
$85
$200
Networking ♥▲ 10/100/1000 Mbps LAN
Rosewill 802.11b/g/n 300Mbps Wireless USB2.0 5dBi Antenna
AZiO BTD-V201 Bluetooth Adapter
Free
$20
$13

Suggested Accessories

Suggested Accessories
Company, Model and Main Specifications
Price
Keyboard and/or mouse:
Logitech M515 Couch Mouse
Logitech K750 Solar Keyboard
ADESSO WKB-3200UB Wireless Keyboard w/ Optical Trackball
VisionTek Candyboard Wireless Mini Keyboard & Trackpad
nMEDIAPC HTPCKB-B Wireless Keyboard with Track Ball & Remote
Logitech diNovo Mini
Logitech diNovo Edge
TV Tuner:
AVerMedia AVerTV Hybrid Volar Max USB 2.0

$47
$80
$56
$75
$80
$121
$130

$65

Computer Builds FAQs:

I often get questions such as:

  • Who are you to tell me which parts to choose?
  • Can you suggest me a step by step guide to build a computer?
  • Why should I build a PC instead of buying one in a store?
  • And many more…
  1. You will find the answers to all of these questions and more in this article: FAQ: How to Build Your Own Computer
  2. Is this your first build? Here are 10 Quick Tips for 1st Time Builders to get you started.
  3. Newly built computer won’t start? I invite you to read Help me: Why won’t my newly assembled PC start or boot?
  4. Visit our forums here, where you can join our helpful community and ask questions.

Hardware Parts Recommendations, Detailed Version

Motherboard:

Tier 3 and 4:

Biostar USB 3.0 Intel H61 Mini ITX DDR3 1333 Intel - LGA 1155 Motherboards TH61 ITX$80 – BIOSTAR TH61 LGA1155 H61 HDMI USB 3.0 Mini ITX

This motherboard offers LGA1155 compatibility, in the small Mini-ITX form-factor, at a great price ($80), with video outputs via HDMI, DVI and/or VGA making it an excellent choice for the Mainstream HTPCs.

Ports, expansion slots, features, what’s included in the box, etc.

Ports on the back: Four USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, one PS/2, VGA, DVI and HDMI outputs, Gigabit LAN, 8 Channels audio and Optical S/PDIF output on the back.

Expansion slots: On the board itself, you have one PCI-Express 2.0 16X slot, for a dedicated video card or dedicated sound card.

Other connectors/features on the motherboard: Two fan connectors (One for the CPU Cooler, one for a case fan), four SATA 3.0Gb/s, one USB 3.0 header and one USB 2.0 header.
Included in the box: Motherboard, two SATA cables, manual, CD with drivers/utilities and I/O backplate.

Alternatives:

  • $90 – BIOSTAR TH61ITX+RCH USB 3.0 Mini ITX + Remote – This is pretty much the same motherboard, but with an additional remote.
  • $110 – ASRock Z68 PRO3-M E-SATA SATA6Gb/s USB3.0 Micro ATXThis larger Micro-ATX motherboard is only compatible with larger Micro-ATX cases. Recommended if you want a dedicated video card AND a dedicated sound card, which is impossible on smaller Mini-ITX motherboards, which are equipped with only one PCI-Express 16x slot. This motherboard is equipped with a PCI-Express 16x slot (for the video card), one PCI slot and two PCI Express 1x slots. It also comes with video outputs, allowing you to use it as an alternative for Tier 3 with the integrated Intel HD video card. Of course, you can also use it with a dedicated video card or sound card if you wish to.

Tier 5:

ASRock Z68M-ITX/HT LGA 1155 Intel Z68 HDMI SATA 6Gb/s USB 3.0 Mini ITX Intel Motherboard$120 – ASRock Z68M-ITX/HT SATA 6.0Gbps USB3.0 Remote Mini-ITX

This motherboard offers LGA1155 compatibility, in the small Mini-ITX form-factor, with SATA III 6.0Gbps ports, necessary to fully take advantage of the high-end SSD recommended for Tier 5.

Ports, expansion slots, features, what’s included in the box, etc.

Ports on the back: Four USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, one PS/2, VGA, DVI and HDMI outputs, E-SATA, Gigabit LAN, 8 Channels audio and Optical S/PDIF output.

Expansion slots: On the board itself, you have one PCI-Express 2.0 16X slot, for a dedicated video card or dedicated sound card.

Other connectors/features on the motherboard: Two fan connectors (One for the CPU Cooler, one for a case fan), four SATA 3.0Gb/s, one USB 3.0 header and one USB 2.0 header.
Included in the box:
Motherboard, two SATA cables, Remote Controller, Remote receiver, 3.5mm, audio cable, manual, CD with drivers/utilities and I/O backplate.
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CPU:

Tier 3:

Intel Pentium G840  Dual Core 2.8 GHz Intel HD Graphics Retail 2.8 2 LGA 1155 Processor - BX80623G840$85 – Intel LGA1155 Pentium G840 65W Dual-Core 2.8GHz

Compared to the 1.6GHz Dual-Core AMD E-350 found in the Budget HTPC builds, this vastly superior 2.8GHz Dual-Core Intel Pentium G840:

  1. Allows you to consider video editing/converting at a decent speed.
  2. Improves web browsing speed
  3. Improves the general system responsiveness.

Anandtech’s Bench tool offers a comparaison between the AMD E-350 vs the Intel G840 and as you can see, it clearly outperforms the AMD E-350.

Why not go with an Intel Pentium G620T 35W CPU?
While from a TDP perspective point of view, you’d think that the Pentium G620T, with its 35W TDP, compared to its 65W TDP brothers would consume a lot less power, this is not the case. Despite running at lower frequencies than its 65W TSP counter-parts, it only consumes 4 to 6W less than the G620/840/850, which is negligible, so you’re better off with a 65W TDP CPUs running at full throttle.

Tier 4:

Intel Core i3-2120 Processor 3.3 GHz 3MB Cache Socket LGA1155$140 – Intel LGA1155 Core i3-2120 65W Dual-Core + HT 3.3GHz

This is a good step from the G840 and it’s a great CPU for a Mainstream Hybrid Small-Factor Gaming PC/HTPC for four reasons:

  1. When it comes to Gaming performance, it has no problem either being on par or outperforming the similarly priced AMD Phenom II X4 965.
  2. It is significantly faster than the Intel Pentium G840 for all tasks, including gaming and converting video.
  3. Its low power consumption keeps it reasonably cool and not too noisy, despite the small form-factor case.
  4. It’s powerful enough to playback content via the madVR.

Tier 5:

Intel Core i5-2400S Processor 2.50 GHz 6 MB Cache Socket LGA1155$201 – Intel LGA1155 Core i5-2400S 65W Quad-Core 2.5GHz-3.3GHz

For Tier 5, where you get the most powerful components that can function in a Mini-ITX case, I recommend this 65W TDP quad-core CPU.

While its base frequency of 2.5Ghz may seem low to you, rest assured that it can speed up quite a bit with Turbo.

Turbo frequencies:

  • 1 active core: 3.3GHz
  • 2 active cores: 3.2GHz
  • 3 active cores: 2.8GHz
  • 4 active cores: 2.6GHz

Upgrade to consider for Tier 3 or 4:
If you intend to convert a lot of videos and/or do other CPU-intensive tasks, upgrading to this low-power quad-core CPU would be a wise choice.

While its base frequency of 2.5GHz is nothing to call home about, it will turbo up to 3.2Ghz on two cores or 3.3Ghz on a single core, meaning that it will have no problem keeping up or most likely outperfoming the Core i3-2100 in applications that aren’t very well threaded, such as games.

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Video Card:

Tier 3:

Free: Integrated Intel HD (integrated into the CPU)

The Intel HD integrated video is capable of handling most type of content playback (see the video playback below for details) and consumes very little power, making it a great choice for a basic HTPC.

The video card is integrated into the CPU, so you don’t need to buy it separately.

Alternative

  • $70 – For video decoding/light gaming: Sapphire Radeon HD 6570 1GB – While the Intel HD can handle most types of content, there are some that it can’t handle, such as proper 23.976Hz playback. For that reason, I alternatively recommend the Radeon HD 6570, which will handle pretty much any type of content, as well as some light gaming (older games or newer games at a lower resolution/lower details). Note that the Radeon HD 6570 doesn’t consume much power, so you won’t need to upgrade the PSU if you get it.

Tier 4:

XFX AMD Radeon HD 6870 900M 1 GB DDR5 DUAL MINIDP HDMI DUAL DVI PCI-E Video Card (HD687AZHFC)$180 – XFX Radeon HD 6870 1 GB

Tthe XFX Radeon HD 6870 offers enough power to run most modern games maxed out at 1080p and at 9.0″ in length, it will fit in any of our recommended cases, including the Silverstone Sugo cases.

Do note that you need this specific XFX card, model “HD687AZHFC” and not another XFX model, nor any other Radeon HD 6870, which are longer and may not fit in the recommended cases.

It also offers a nice balance when it comes to performance (1080p maxed out in most games is not a problem), noise (relatively quiet a idle, can be somewhat noisy at load) and power consumption.

Tier 5:

EVGA GeForce GTX 560 Ti FPB Graphics Card (1024 MB, GDDR5, PCI-E 2.0 16x, DVI-I x 2, Mini-HDMI, SLI-Capable)$234 – EVGA Geforce GTX 560 Ti 1GB

For Tier 5, we go with nothing short of the most powerful video card that we can fit in a Mini-ITX case: The EVGA Geforce GTX 560 Ti.

Also measuring 9.0″ in length, it offers a nice performance boost compared to the Radeon HD 6870.

Although it consumes about 40W more at load, it is slightly less noisy, thanks to a superior cooling system.

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Video Playback/Decoding:

Glossary:

3D Video:

  • MVC: Hardware acceleration decoding MPEG-4 MVC (Blu-ray 3D video codec)
  • MVC (CPU): Same as above, but with decoding done by the CPU.
  • 2D to 3D (CPU): Converting 2D SD isn’t very demanding, but converting 2D HD content is much more demanding on the CPU.
  • Frame Packing: One of the main 3D video format by HDMI 1.4a, for full-quality 3D movie playback.
  • SBS(H)/TAB/CB: Side-by-Side (Half), Top-and-Bottom and Checkerboard 3D formats, in order. The two first are main 3D video formats by HDMI 1.4a, used for broadcast contents. SBS(H) is also used by some Blu-ray 3D. CB is used by DLP 3D HDTVs from Mitsubishi and Samsung.
  • 720p 120Hz AFS: 720p 120Hz Alternate-Frame Sequencing 3D video format, used by several 720p DLP 3D projectors.

2D Video: 2D Video playback by the video card/driver.

  • AVC/VC-1/MPEG-2: Hardware acceleration of decoding AVC/VC-1/MPEG-2.
  • 1080i60: Vector adaptive (AMD) or equivalent deinterlacing for 1080 30fps interlaced content.
  • 1080p60: Hardware acceleration decoding 1080 60fps progressive content.
  • 23.976Hz: Proper 23.976Hz refresh rate support for movies.

2D video madVR: 2D video playback by software decoder – madVR (Worth a look!)

  • 1080p24: 1080 24fps progressive content.
  • 1080i60: 1080 30fps interlaced content
  • 1080p60: 1080 60fps progressive content
  • SD: Standard Definition content.

Feature comparison:

√ means that this feature is supported and/or that playback will be smooth.
√ High CPU % means that playback is relatively smooth, but that it may skip a bit due to high CPU usage %.
X means that this feature is not supported and/or that playback won’t be smooth.

Type of Video Type of Decoding Tier 3
G840/Intel HD
Tier 4
i3-2120/6870
Tier 5
i5-2400s/560Ti
3D Video MVC
MVC (CPU)
2D to 3D (CPU)
Frame Packing
SBS(H)/TAB/CB
720p 120HZ AFS

√ High CPU %
√ High CPU %
X

X










2D Video AVC/VC-1/MPEG-2
1080i60
1080p60
23.976Hz



X






2D Video madVR 1080p24
1080i60
1080p60
SD
X
X
X
X






As you can see above, Tier 4 and 5 support every feature and will smoothly playback pretty much any content.

Tier 3 is slightly more limited due to its slower CPU and lack of dedicated video card. For MVC (CPU) and 2D to 3D (CPU), you can fix this by upgrading the CPU to the Core i3-2120 or Core i5-2400S.

For 23.976Hz and 2D Video madVR, you can gain support by getting a dedicated video card, such as the recommended alternative Radeon 6570. Thanks to its low power consumption, upgrading to this video card does not require upgrading the power supply. This video card will also let you play older/less demanding video games or more recent video games at lower settings/resolution.

You could also upgrade the video card to the recommended Radeon HD 6870 (Tier 4) or the recommended Geforce GTX 560 Ti (Tier 5) to gain video decoding and higher resolution/details gaming, however the Tier 3 CPU will prove to be a bit of a bottleneck in some games. Do note that upgrading to the Radeon HD 6870 or Geforce GTX 560 Ti will require you to upgrade the PSU to the recommended 450W PSU.

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RAM:

Tier 3:

Crucial Ballistix sport 4GB (2 x 2GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1333 Desktop Memory Model BL2KIT25664BA1339$28 – Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3 1333MHz

4GB is really inexpensive and will ensure smooth video playback, especially with Blu-ray disks, where 2GB could cause shutters.

4GB is preferable to ensure smooth video playback along with Windows and background applications  such as your anti-virus, web browser, backups, etc.

Tier 4 and 5:

G.SKILL Value Series 8GB (2 x 4GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1333 (PC3 10600) Desktop Memory Model F3-10600CL9D-8GBNT$45 – G.SKILL 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3 1333MHz

Games are starting to take advantage of more than 4GB and this trend will only continue in the future, which is why Tiers 4 and 5 come with 8GB of RAM.

Besides, considering the small price difference between 4GB and 8GB, it’s an inexpensive way to ensure that your PC will be future-proof.

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Storage:

Tier 3, 4 and 5

SAMSUNG Spinpoint F4EG HD155UI 1.5TB 5400 RPM 32MB Cache SATA 3.0Gb/s 3.5" Internal Hard Drive -Bare Drive$60 – SAMSUNG Spinpoint F4EG HD155UI 1.5TB 5400 RPM SATA II 3.5″

Seeing as this is an HTPC, I went for “green” hard drives that spins slower at 5400 rpm.

That allows for lower noise, lower power consumption and lower heat dissipation.

No worries though, 5400 rpm is still plenty fast enough for video playback, even at 1080p.

As for the OS boot time and program/game loading times, don’t worry: I recommend a SSD for all three Tiers.

Alternatives

Regarding RAID:

The recommend motherboard for Tier 3 and 4 unfortunately does not feature hardware RAID.

To get RAID hardware support, you’ll have to upgrade to either the ASRock Z68 PRO3-M Micro-ATX or the ASRock Z68M-ITX/HT Mini-ITX, depending on which form factor you’re going with.

Alternatively, you can use software RAID within an operating system such as Windows 7. I’d recommend RAID 1 to protect your data in case of hard drive failure.

I’d also recommend that you read the Have a Backup System that you can rely on! article and that you implement a solid backup solution, especially if you have a lot of content that you wouldn’t want to lose ;)

Tier 3 and 4:

Kingston Digital SSDNow V+100 96 GB Solid-State Drive SVP100S2/96G$120 – Kingston SSDNow V+100 96 GB 2.5″ SSD

At a cost of only $1.25 per GB, this is one of the most affordable SSD that is reliable and not awfully slow.

At 96GB, this SSD offers plenty of space for Windows, important apps and a few games.

All cases are compatible with 2.5″ drives, so you won’t need any adapter.

Tier 5:

Crucial 128 GB m4 2.5-Inch Solid State Drive SATA 6Gb/s CT128M4SSD2$185 – Crucial M4 128GB SATA III 2.5″ SSD

Note for Tier 3 and 4: If you want to to upgrade your SSD to this model, I highly recommend upgrading your motherboard to either the ASRock Z68 PRO3-M Micro-ATX or the ASRock Z68M-ITX/HT Mini-ITX, in order to gain SATA 6.0Gbps support, otherwise you’ll be bottlenecking this SSD.

Once again, with Tier 5, we’re cramming as much performance as we can into a Mini-ITX and we’re going with one of the, if not THE fastest SSD for booting times and for gaming.

It’s also highly reliable, as opposed to certain OCZ SSDs.

Alternatives:

  • $240 – Intel X25-M 2.5″ 120GB SSD – However, if you want the best of the best when it comes to reliability, this is the SSD to get. This SSD has a solid track record, excellent customer reviews and I can vouch for it: I’ve been using one for the last six months or so in my personnal laptop and more recently, in my workstation and I’ve yet to have any problem with it.

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Optical Drive:

Tier 3, 4 and 5:

Asus 24x DVD�RW Drive DVD-RAM/�R/�RW 24x 8x 16x (DVD) 48x 32x 48x (CD) Serial ATA Internal OEM DRW-24B1ST (Black)$21 – ASUS 24X SATA DVD Burner

This drive is able to read and burn CDs and DVDs. Silent, compatible with all major formats including DVD-RAM.

The recommended motherboards and parts include enough SATA cables for all your devices, so no need to worry about that.

Required SATA Data Cable

Seeing as the motherboards include two SATA data cables and that you’ll have three SATA devices (Hard Drive, SSD and Optical Drive), you’ll need a $3- 12″ SATA Data Cable

Note that if you go with a Slim Optical Drive, you’ll need a Slim SATA Power/Data cable. See the alternatives section below for my recommendation.

Also, seeing as DVD Burners often go out of stock, here are a two alternatives that you can use to replace the standard DVD Burner. All are SATA based.

  1. $22- LITE-ON Black 24X SATA Black CD/DVD Writer
  2. $25- HP Black 24X SATA 24X CD/DVD Writer – Retail

Upgrades:

If you’d like to watch BluRay movies or TV shows, this $55 – SAMSUNG 12X Blu-ray Reader 16X DVD/48X CD Burner SATA will do the job. However, note that it can only read Bluray disks, not burn them. On the flip-side, it can burn DVDs and CDs without any problem.

If you want the ability to burn Blu-Ray disks as well, then the $80 – LG Black 12X BD-R 2X BD-RE SATA is what you want.

Regarding Blu-Ray playback:

As far as I know, you still require a specific software to playback Blu-Ray disks on a PC.

Based on various reviews and feedback on various forums, PowerDVD 11 3D Ultra is the software that I recommend to you.

It is fully compatible with Windows 7 and shouldn’t give you any problems.

Slim Optical Drive Alternatives, required for Silverstone Sugo cases:

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Case:

Tier 3, 4 and 5:

LIAN LI PC-Q08B Black Aluminum Mini-ITX Tower Computer Case$110 – LIAN LI PC-Q08B Mini-ITX Black

Also available in Silver or Red.

Building upon the PC-Q07, LIAN-LI brought out an improved version, the PC-Q08, which in my opinion is the perfect case for this HTPC or hybrid HTPC / Gaming PC build.

Why? Because as it allows you to install a fairly long video card, a full size ATX power supply, a full size optical drive, a 2.5″ hard drive/SSD and up to four 3.5″ hard drives.

Finally, it also has reasonable CPU clearance, allowing for some after-market CPU coolers to be installed.

Built with the usual quality that you can expect from LIAN-LI, this case is available in three different colors, anodized on vertically brushed aluminum, giving it a very nice finish.

Loaded with two large fans, a 120mm and a 140mm, it will keep your PC cool, without making too much noise.

Here’s a Youtube video of someone building a gaming PC with the red version of it.:
(If you get a blank spot, refresh the page.)

Remember, it’s also available in Silver or Red.

Case alternatives:

Like the LIAN-LI PC-Q08 but not the LED fans?

LIAN LI PC-Q11B

LIAN LI PC-Q11A

Consider either the $80 – LIAN LI PC-Q11B Black Aluminum Mini-ITXor the $100 – LIAN LI PC-Q11A Silver Aluminum Mini-ITX

The Silverstone Sugo Mini-ITX cases line-up:

Important notes regarding compatibility:
1- The Silverstone Sugo series are not compatible with standard height optical drive, they require a slim optical drive, along with a slim SATA power/data cable. See the Optical Drive section for my recommendations.
2- The Silverstone Sugo series include quality reliable power supplies, so you won’t need to buy a separate power supply. Pick the 300W model for Tier 3 or the 450W for Tier 4 and 5.

SILVERSTONE Sugo SG05

SILVERSTONE Sugo SG06

Even smaller than the LIAN-LI PC-Q08!
One of the, if not THE smallest Mini-ITX case that supports dual slot video cards, you have two (technically four) options here:

1- There’s the Silverstone Sugo SG05, pictured on your left, available either with a 300W PSU (Tier 3) or with a 450W PSU (Tier 4 or 5).

2- Your other option is the Silverstone Sugo SG06, available either with a 300W PSU (Tier 3) or with a 450W PSU (Tier 4 or 5).

Larger Micro-ATX cases

If you want both a dedicated video card and sound card, here are four Micro-ATX cases that support Micro-ATX motherboards, which are equipped with four expansion slots. You can simply click on the image to go to NewEgg or Amazon (whichever had the lowest price) for more details. As always, you can pick any case, knowing that it will be compatible with the rest of my recommendations and other alternatives.

Silverstone Grandia GD05B

LIAN LI PC-A04A

Thermaltake Armor A30

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Power Supply:

Tier 3:

SeaSonic SS-350SFE 350W SFX12V V3.1   80 PLUS Certified  Active PFC Power Supply - Power Supplies$49 – SeaSonic SS-350SFE 350W SFX 80 PLUS

Tier 3 features a 65W TDP CPU and onboard graphics, so needless to say, it draws very little power and you don’t need a large power supply. Note that you can still use this PSU with Tier 3 with the Radeon HD 6570 too.

Here, I focused on giving you a high-quality, reliable, affordable and efficient (80 PLUS Certified) power supply from SeaSonic.

One great thing about it is that it’s based on the SFX standard, meaning that it’s physically smaller than ATX power supplies, improving airflow in the case and making your life easier when it comes down to assembling your HTPC.

Seeing as this power supply only comes with two SATA connectors and that you’ll need three (Hard Drive, SSD and Optical Drive), you’ll need this $4 – Required Molex to Dual-SATA power cable adapter

Tier 4 and 5:

SILVERSTONE ST45SF 450W SFX12V 80 PLUS BRONZE Certified Active PFC Power Supply$75 – SILVERSTONE ST45SF 450W SFX 80 PLUS Bronze

Tier 4 features a 65W CPU and a Radeon HD 6870, which together should consume about 250W at load.
Tier 5 features a 65W CPU and a Geforce GTX 560 Ti, which together should consume about 290W at load.

Hence why a 450W PSU is perfectly fine when you consider overhead.

This is a 80 PLUS Bronze power supply, which is even more efficient than the 80 PLUS power supply recommended above for Tier 3.

One great thing about it is that it’s based on the SFX standard, meaning that it’s physically smaller than ATX power supplies, improving airflow in the case and making your life easier when it comes down to assembling your HTPC.

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Cooling:

Tier 3, 4 and 5:

Cooler Master Vortex Plus CPU Cooler RR-VTPS-28PK-R1$23 – Cooler Master Vortex Plus CPU Cooler

While you could use this included stock cooler that comes with your CPU, I don’t recommend doing that for a HTPC, considering that the stock cooler can get quite noisy under load. Hence why I recommend an after-market CPU Cooler for all Tiers.

Boy did I have fun finding an after-market that can fit in all these small cases and that wouldn’t interfere with a dedicated video card on a Mini-ITX motherboard.

The Cooler Master Vortex Plus is my recommendation and based on my research, should fit with any of my recommendations/alternatives as well.

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TV Tuner:

$65 – AVerMedia AVerTV Hybrid Volar Max USB 2.0

The motherboard has a single PCI-Express 16x slot, which I left open if you choose to add a dedicated PCI-Express video or sound card.

However, nothing stops you from using this USB TV Tuner if you wish to watch or record TV. Note that it is optional and that its price is not included in the build because not everyone wants or needs a TV Tuner.

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Sound Card:

Free: 7.1 Analog Onboard Audio + Optical S/PDIF +
HDMI: 2Ch PCM/DD/DTS Multi Ch LPCM TDD/DD+/DTS-HD

This motherboard does include integrated onboard sound, which is good enough for most people.

If you’re an audiophile or just enjoy high quality sound, then onboard sound, no matter how good it is, won’t cut it for you, here are three excellent PCI-Express 1x sound card that I recommend to you.

Pick the one that suits your needs.

Compatibility note:

If you go with Tier 3 and aren’t getting a dedicated video card, you can simply put the sound card in the PCI-Express 16x slot. Yes, a PCI-Express 1x card will fit and function in a 16x slot.

If on the flip side, you’re getting a dedicated video card with any Tier and also want a dedicated sound, you’ll need to upgrade to a Micro-ATX motherboard and case, which feature enough expansion slots to support both a dedicated video card and a dedicated sound card.

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Networking:

Tier 3, 4 and 5:

Free: Integrated 10/100/1000 Mbps LAN

Onboard standard Mbit LAN connection

Upgrades:
Wifi:

$20 – Rosewill 802.11b/g/n 300Mbps Wireless USB2.0 5dBi Antenna

This is a capable WiFi antenna if you want WiFi.

Bluetooth:

$13 – AZiO BTD-V201 Bluetooth Adapter

This is a Bluetooth adapter if you want Bluetooth.

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Accessories:

$51 – ADESSO WKB-3200UB Wireless Keyboard w/ Optical Trackball

This is the least expensive input option at $51. For that price, you get a keyboard that features a numpad, an optical trackball, a scroll-wheel, two buttons for left and right mouse buttons “clicks” as well as many multimedia buttons.

$80 – nMEDIAPC HTPCKB-B Wireless Keyboard with Track Ball & Remote

If you want everything the ADESSO has, plus a remote, get this.

$40 – Logitech M705 Marathon Mouse

With a rated battery life of up to three years, this is a good input device if you want to use a basic mouse without worrying about too much about battery life. Works great with the Solar Keyboard.

$60 – Logitech K750 Solar Keyboard

With a good ThinkPad like key feel, and potentially infinite battery life, this is a good input device if you want a basic keyboard without worrying at all about battery life. Works great with the Marathon Mouse.

$121 – Logitech diNovo Mini

This is a high end, small form factor input device for your HTPC. It connects via Bluetooth(included dongle), has a mini keyboard, and a touchpad.

$155 – Logitech diNovo Edge

This is a high end, full size input device for your HTPC. It connects via Bluetooth, has a full size keyboard, and a fancy touchpad.

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Recommended operating systems:

The operating system cost, if there’s one, is not included in the total cost. The two reason for this are:

  1. The budget only considers hardware.
  2. You may be able re-use a previous license, go with an open-source OS such as Linux or , if you’re so inclined and are aware of what you’re doing, use torrents.

If you decide that you need a need OS, here are some recommendations:

Windows 7

Despite Linux gaining more and more support, Windows still is the platform of choice for compatibility at the moment. Considering that you’ll have 4GB of RAM or more, along with a dedicated video that also has memory (512MB or 1GB), you’ll need a 64-bit version, as 32-bit is limited to 4GB of memory for the entire system, which is not enough now, nor in the future if you decide to upgrade.

Windows 7 is by far better than Windows Vista, looks better, more functional, less annoying, consumes less resources and brings DirectX 11 to the table.

Three Available Versions:

  1. Windows 7 Home Premium: The basic edition, with all the looks, most of the functionality and DirectX 11.
  2. Windows 7 Professional: If you want the virtual XP mode, you’ll need at least the Professional edition. Also required if you want to backup to a network, using the built-in backup mode in Windows.
  3. Windows 7 Ultimate: To help protect data on your PC and portable storage devices against loss or theft with BitLocker and to work and switch between 35 languages.

OEM vs Retail:

The OEM version allows you to only install it once on a computer. You cannot transfer the license to another computer in the future and you do not receive support from Microsoft. It’s the same type of license you get when you get Windows on a desktop or laptop that you buy from Dell, HP and such. It’s less expensive, but gives less flexibility. Ideal if you intend on keeping your computer for many years.

The Retail version is the full version, which allows you to transfer the license to another computer in the future and you can call Microsoft if you need any form of support. Ideal if you intend on upgrading/changing your computer down the road.

Other than that, you get the same features on both, only the license differs. The price between the two differs obviously.

OEM Versions:

  1. Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit OEM – $105
  2. Microsoft Windows 7 Professional 64-bit OEM – $140
  3. Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit OEM – $175

Retail Versions:

  1. Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium Retail – $184
  2. Microsoft Windows 7 Professional Retail – $275
  3. Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate Retail – $292

Linux

A lot of people these days boots more than one OS. Linux is a wonderful choice: powerful, cool, and cheap. Take your pick of distributions and have fun! For Fedora, Ubuntu, Debian, Slackware, and Mandrake, try Distrowatch.com, Cheapbytes.com, LinuxQuestions.org or one of the many others.

While Linux does not offer the wide compatibility of Windows with video games, gaming on Linux is still possible, through projects such as Wine, Cedega and Crossover. For more on the topic of Linux Gaming, I invite you to read this excellent article from AnandTech: Linux Gaming: Are we there yet?

Cost: Free

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Conclusion

Your feedback matters!

Remember, we design these builds to be helpful to you! The best way for us to be helpful to you is for you to let us know how to improve these articles, by offering your feedback (Comments, suggestions, reactions, opinions, etc.) below in the comment section.

What do you think of the Mainstream HTPCs v3.0? I think that they strike a nice balance between performance, looks, noise, power consumption, size and value. What’s your opinion? Would you recommend or would you want to try a different part? Let me know by leaving a comment below.

What about the new Tier System? I’ve heard some good and some bad feedbacks about it. Rather than just saying whether you like it or not, I invite you to tell me in the comments section what you’d do to improve the Tier system.

Next update to the Mainstream HTPCs:
I will not be updating the Mainstream HTPCs for a while, as I have several articles (laptops, tablets, Gaming PCs, Workstations, etc.) in the pipelines that I want to invest my time on.

Mind you, if there some major product launch (e.g. new video cards line-up, new CPU line-up), I’ll update this post if necessary.

If you have any questions/suggestions/ideas regarding what should be updated, make a thread over at our forums here.

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Computer Builds FAQs:

I often get questions such as:

  • Who are you to tell me which parts to choose?
  • Can you suggest me a step by step guide to build a computer?
  • Why should I build a PC instead of buying one in a store?
  • And many more…
  1. You will find the answers to all of these questions and more in this article: FAQ: How to Build Your Own Computer
  2. Is this your first build? Here are 10 Quick Tips for 1st Time Builders to get you started.
  3. Visit our forums here, where you can join our helpful community and ask questions.

Budget vs. Mainstream vs. High-End HTPCs:

Here are the pros and cons of each system, to help you figure out which one is best adapted to your needs:

Budget HTPC
The Silverstone ML03B, the main case recommendation for the Budget HTPCs.

Budget HTPCs: $300 – $500

Perfect for an inexpensive, low-power, silent machine dedicated to media playback, based on the AMD Bobcat processor.

Pros:

  • Very low power consumption
  • Flexible: can browse the web, play flash games, view photos, and do any other basic task
  • Cool: with low power parts, an efficient power supply, and good ventilation, this HTPC stays cool
  • Silent: quiet fans, power supplies, and motherboards were picked
  • Small size: either a slim tower or a shoebox size
  • Capable of 1080p content playback
  • Low cost: Starts at $310

Cons:

  • Limited CPU power: Although faster than netbooks, this features a dual-core AMD E-350 and is not recommended for a workstation, audio and video encoding or conversion or an hybrid gaming machine.
  • Limited upgrades: The CPU is embedded, so you can’t upgrade it. You only have a single PCI-Express 16x slot, running at 4x, limiting your options.

Mainstream HTPCs/Small Factor Gaming PCs v3.0 (This article)

The main recommendation for Tier 3, 4 and 4b: The LIAN LI PC-Q08 line-up of cases, available in Black (PC-Q08B), Red (PC-Q08R) and Silver (PC-Q08A).

Pros:

  • Strikes a good balance between performance and power consumption
    As much performance as possible in a Mini-ITX case
  • Can be used for gaming with Tier 4 or 5
  • Good mainstream computing power

Cons:

  • CPU and GPU are both adequate but not exceptionally powerful, as they are limited by space and power constraints

High End HTPC/Small Factor Gaming PCs: Intel Sandy Bridge + Discrete GPU

To be updated at the end of September or early October.

Pros:

  • Maximum performance when it comes to gaming, audio/video encoding or conversion
  • Most performance in the least amount of space

Cons:

  • The highest cost of the three HTPC builds
  • The highest power consumption of the three HTPC builds

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Don’t miss the High End HTPC/Small Factor Gaming PCs updateby receiving our future articles for free via RSS or Email:

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That way, you never have to check the site for updates again because you get the latest and greatest articles delivered automatically in your RSS reader or Email inbox around 1PM EST, every day that I publish an article.

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Category: Home Theater PC

About Brian: Hi. My name is Brian, and I am currently a high school student from Long Island, New York. I've always had an interest in computers, so when I heard that Mathieu was asking for guest writers, I jumped at the opportunity. .

  • jangelelcangry

    is this an official post or post by mistake because some parts of the text are missed and is not announced in the forum Example
    tier 4b
    g
    g
    g
    g
    g

    • http://www.hardware-revolution.com/ MathieuB

      @fb5f4c12970faed82ac44cf6ff511720:disqus

      It was posted early by mistake, my apologies. The completed version is now online.

  • Marq

    upgrading to this video card does not require upgrading the video card. ;)

    • http://www.hardware-revolution.com/ MathieuB

      @53c0b9221ad11a0941d4dcd6baf975fb:disqus

      Fixed, thank you.

  • Not2Pleased

    Vortex Plus Cooler doesn’t fit with SilverStone GD05B case and ASRock Z68 Pro3-M Micro ATX board.  With this setup there is not enough depth to mount optical drive.  Unfortunatley I found this out be experience.

    • http://www.hardware-revolution.com/ MathieuB

      I’m truly sorry to hear that. As much as I try to cover compatibility for every single part, sometimes something will slip by.

      Out of curiosity, which optical drive were you trying to install?

      You should still be able to use the Intel CPU Cooler, while being able to return the Vortex Plus Cooler for a refund.

      Take care,
      Mathieu

      • Greg

        ASUS Black Blu-ray Drive SATA Model BC-12B1ST/BLK/B/AS – OEM (my assumption was that these optical drives are a standard depth).
        So far the stock CPU cooler is quieter than the case fans.  I will monitor CPU temps to see whether I need to find an alternate CPU cooler.

        Thanks for the response.

      • JC

        Hum.. I wanted to use the same case but with the Biostar TH61ITX motherboard, any chance that it wont fit as well?

        Also, since HDD are now harder to get, will most 3.5” drive from your “best drive for you money” section be compatible? I mean apart from size is there anything else I should look about for compatibility? 
        Thanks

        • http://www.hardware-revolution.com/ MathieuB

          I recommend that motherboard, so it will definitely fit.

          Any 3.5″ hard drive will do, although you may want to consider a 5,400rpm or “Green” model, that are less noisy and cause less vibrations.

          • JC

            Thanks. 
            Almost done on the build, still unsure on HDD. 

            Any major improvement between F2-F3 and F4 (they are so expensive right now!)? I’m hesitating between: 

            - SAMSUNG EcoGreen F2 HD103SI
            - SAMSUNG Spinpoint F3EG HD503HI
            - SAMSUNG EcoGreen F4 HD204UI ($$$)
            - WD Caviar Green WD10EARS

            Any input?

            Thanks

          • JC

            Thanks. 
            Almost done on the build, still unsure on HDD. 

            Any major improvement between F2-F3 and F4 (they are so expensive right now!)? I’m hesitating between: 

            - SAMSUNG EcoGreen F2 HD103SI
            - SAMSUNG Spinpoint F3EG HD503HI
            - SAMSUNG EcoGreen F4 HD204UI ($$$)
            - WD Caviar Green WD10EARS

            Any input?

            Thanks

          • http://www.hardware-revolution.com/ MathieuB

            I’d go with one of the Samsung HDDs, Western drives fail more often, especially certain model of their Caviar Green line-up.

            Between the Samsung HDDs, just pick whichever one suits you best, you won’t see any perceivable difference in performance or noise between them.

  • Pat1974

    The proposed cooling doesn’t seem to support lga1155, on newegg:
    Intel: Socket LGA1366 / 1156 / 775

    • http://www.hardware-revolution.com/ MathieuB

      Actually, all LGA1156 CPU Coolers are compatible with the LGA1155 socket, since they use the same physical dimensions, including the holes for the CPU Cooler.

  • Villada8

    Hello, i am trying to build tier 3 setup, i have a question regarding RAM, can i pick the the gskill 8gb for this setup? Is it compatible with biostor th61 motherboard?

    • http://www.hardware-revolution.com/ MathieuB

      Yes you can.

  • Villada8

    Hi, i have SeaSonic SS-350SFE 350W SFX12V PSU, im trying to put it on my LIAN LI PC-Q11B Black Aluminum Mini-ITX, but it is too small for the psu basket that comes with the case, not sure how to secure my psu on, or if it will work

    • http://www.hardware-revolution.com/ MathieuB

      The case comes with a removable PSU bracket. Remove it from the case, secure the PSU using four screws, one per corner then re-secure the PSU bracket + the PSU to the case.

      See the user manual here for more instructions: http://www.lian-li.com/v2/tw/product/upload/manual/PC-Q11.rar

  • aman mazleigh

    hello there, is there any other cases that you can recommend other than the ones listed above if i would like to follow your tier 5 set up?

    • aman mazleigh

      do you think ThermalTake Element Q is suitable for the Tier 5 set up?

  • Phil The Fish

    Was just wondering how you feel about the AMD APU’s , are they a viable enough option towards a decent budged HTPC w/o having to buy a dedicated GPU for the HTPC. Was looking towards getting as A8 or A6 with no GPU. I the case it would be i viable option would a AMD A8-3870K be overkill or AMD A6-3670K underpowered. Looking to do 1080p playback, slight gamming, media streamming.

  • Andri

    I want to use the tier 4 build but it is still a bit too expensive I will mostly be using my computer to play games such as Skyrim or WoW and record it what parts could I downgrade? Any help is greatly appreciated Thank you.

  • guest

    is an update in the works…may be geared more toward NAS ?