Project HTPC

Motivation

Not long ago I became quite frustrated with the gaming capabilities of my iMac. It’s not that I didn’t know about the expected performance of the hardware since I bought the cheapest version by design. At that time I did not use the PC I had for what it was built for, which finally led to me selling it. However, recently I felt the urge to play some games other than Diablo 3. For one the iMac just couldn’t deliver the performance to enjoy the visuals of modern games as they were designed to be. Secondly what really frustrated me and this is also the main reason why I never really played anything other than Diablo 3 on the iMac, was the poor cooling management of that machine. I have to crank up the coolers manually (using iStat Menus 3) in order to prevent overheating. Otherwise it’ll just get very hot and reboot eventually. As one can imagine this technique only works reliably on OS X.

But building just another gaming PC was not an option. One thing that was missing in my living room wasn’t a computer but a TV (aside from some decorative plants). So my first thought was to get a TV and attach a console for gaming. What this also provides is a Blu-Ray player in case of a Playstation 3 for example. This is a nice benefit and over time while I was planning this project it more and more became a must-have. Another must-have was support for my favorite online video on demand service.

Now here comes the big But. Most games I like are PC games (and I definitely like the Steam platform). The current console hardware is more than just outdated and I like the flexibility a computer brings with it. These few points made it clear that I have to put in some serious thoughts in order to get it right. So here’s a list of things that have to be covered:

  • Center media experience around TV
  • Make use of the existing 5.1 audio system
  • Support my favorite video on demand service
  • Play DVD and Blu-Ray
  • Gaming on the TV (preferrably PC games)
  • Only use cables if really, really necessary
  • It better be quiet! (no pun intended; continue reading to understand why)

In order to fulfill all those needs there’s only one solution: TV + PC. But as I already said, just another PC won’t suffice so I spent a lot of time selecting the hardware.

Hardware

TV

To meet my demands the television must at least have support for the old analogue TV signal and a HDMI port. Lucky me, this is not a too obscure requirement and I can select from a variety of devices (like 90%). Since I know that there are TVs out there that have support for my precious VOD service I set out to add this as an additional requirement. Turns out that probably all the Samsung TVs with their „Smart TV“ feature support this. Since Samsung makes good products and they are affordable as well this became the manufacturer of choice.

My wall unit has room to accomodate a television with a diagonal up to around 120 cm. Looking at the prices and what I was willing to pay I ended up selecting a Samsung Series 5 TV with 40“ (101 cm) for around 480 €. In addition to the must-have features it can also play a lot of video formats from USB stick, which is very nice. This allows me to put my old TV recordings on a stick and watch them without further equipment needed.

And in case I don’t like sitting on the couch to play games I can still use the PC as a traditional PC instead of as a console. The TV will then just be a TV with VOD capabilities.

Here’s a teaser image:

Computer

Case

It took me some time to find the right home for all that speedy hardware I wanted to buy. From a previous PC I still have a midi tower which I could use. It’d provide enough room for all the components but the one caveat it has is its size. A big tower is good for easy installation and air circulation (thus cooling) but it just won’t fit into a living room. I could hide it behind the TV which would be feasible but for one thing: inserting a DVD or Blu-Ray disc. The way my wall unit is built the case would be hidden alright but also inaccessbile without moving the TV around. Bad!

Next thought: mini PC. That’s quite intriguing so I did some research. There are nice cases available. Not only would it allow to put the computer in the wall unit without the need to hide it, but I could also easily take it with me to play at someone’s place. However, the one advantage of these small cases is also their biggest weakness: size. Cooling is difficult. There’s not a lot of room to move air around and big coolers don’t fit which in turn means small fans at high speeds. That ain’t gonna be quiet. I found a nice review of some mini cases which impressively showed this situation (which I am unable to find right now or otherwise I’d link to it). Additionally I know from first hand experience how loud such a computer can get (with even less powerful hardware than I am planning to buy). Bad!

So, is the PC idea dead? Well, I searched the web and came across a hardware magazine (in short PCGH) I used to subscribe to as a teenage boy and, what a coincidence, one of the main topics for the latest release was PC gaming on a TV. This helped a lot to inspire me selecting suitable components for the whole thing, not only the case. They suggested a case that blends in as part of hi-fi equipment. Of course! Why haven’t I thought of this sooner? I’ve already had such an idea several years ago, not for gaming but only as a true HTPC for media consumption. This case is actually big enough to provide enough space for all components including a solid and quiet cooling and also fit into a living room. I like!

Here’s another teaser image. The case and the hi-fi amplifier:

Silver Stone Product page

Components

As already mentioned in the previous paragraph about the case, many inspirations about the hardware came from the PCGH magazine.

Here’s a list of all the components from the first order (there’s a second to improve on some traits but more on that later):

  • SilverStone Grandia GD08
  • Intel Core i5 3570
  • ASRock B75 Pro3
  • Scythe Katana 4 CPU Cooler
  • Corsair XMS K2 8GB PC–1600 RAM
  • Gigabyte Radeon HD 7870 OC
  • Samsung SSD 840 Basic 250 GB
  • LG CH10LS28 Blu-Ray Player
  • TP-Link TL-WN851ND PCI Wireless Adapter
  • Enermax ETA450AWT (450 W)
  • Logitech M510 Wireless Mouse
  • Logitech K400 Wireless Keyboard
  • Microsoft XBox Wireless Controller for Windows

I thought a lot about how fast the computer needs to be (and in turn how expensive). I compared several configurations but finally ended up selecting faster hardware over cheaper price. There are only three components that would have allowed to really save some money. That’s the CPU, the graphics cards and the hard drive. Everything else is already selected to get as many bangs for the buck as possible.

Since I wanted a quiet machine and the increase in speed is very much noticable, I decided to go with an SSD no matter what. Around 150 € for 250 GB of damn fast storage is definetly worth it. That leaves the processor and the pixel painter. The only way to lighten the burden on the credit card is sacrificing a good deal of performance. Since I’m in no mood to buy upgrades in a year or so I chose the faster components.

The processor is the fastest Core i5 available without the extended overclocking capabilities (labed with the letter „K“). This provides a lot of horse power for the games to come without costing a fortune. Aside from that it still is very power efficient as it is based on Intel’s latest 22 nm lithography process. As its throne I chose the ASRock B75 Pro3 mainbord over the Z77 based products simply because of price and the optical out. The B75 chipset is fine for me since I do not plan on overclocking. The CPU cooler is a recommendation from PCGH and barely fits in the case. This is the part I’m most uncertain about, but no risk no fun!

Regarding the graphics card I chose AMD over nVidia solely because of the price. But that doesn’t mean it is a bad choice. The performance is still top-notch and the card I ordered comes with vouchers to the latest Tomb Raider and Bioshock: Infinite games. The Gigabyte model also sports a huge cooler which is said to be very effective, even at low fan speeds with then little noise.

For main memory 8 GB of RAM are still enough to play games. If more is needed the mainboard provides two more banks for upgrades. The LG Blu-Ray drive comes bundled with Cyberlink Power DVD for DVD and Blu-Ray playback and also supports 3D. Nothing I need right now but certainly nice to have once I change my mind.

Energy is provided by a german power supply specialist, one of the recommendation of the hardware magazine. The 450 W are enough to drive the hardware. More isn’t needed. It is 80 Plus Bronze certified which means an efficiency of 82 % − 88 %. Not the best but not the worst either. And since this computer is running only for specific purposes instead of always when I’m home, that’s ok with me.

Input is completely wireless. I trust Logitech on this one from previous experience. The keyboard has a nice feature in that it comes with a built-in touchpad. This is nice for using the PC without a dedicated mouse while not gaming. Very much like an oversized remote control. Last but not least, there is no better game controller than the one from Microsoft.

All in all there’s only three cables needed: one to connect the PSU to the power outlet, an HDMI cable to connect the computer to the TV and an optical audio cable to get the sound into the hi-fi amp. Pretty effective I’d say. If I wanted I could even pass on the audio cable and use the speakers the TV provides. But where’s the fun in that, right?

Scatterbrain me I missed taking pictures of the PC hardware.

Audio

There’s not much to say on the hi-fi amplifier. The manufacturer, Universum, probably doesn’t exist any more as it likely dissolved into nothingness once the Quelle stores shut down. It is at least ten years old and in its prime had more to offer than just being an amp. It provided a 3-DVD changer and many input and ouput ports for audio and video. Unfortunately from all those options I can only make use of the optical audio in. Given the age of that machine there’s no HDMI and the DVD changer does not work anymore. I’m pretty sure there’s still a disc in that thing that I can’t get out.

Thanks to the optical port surround sound is not a problem. The amp also came with five speakers and a passive subwoofer. The latter I replaced with an active one from Magnat. All in all I remember to have around 200 W of actual output power. More than I can make use of in my apartment – unless I want to go to war with my neighbors.

As with the PC components there’s no image of the individual parts of the hi-fi system.

Installation

This section has a lot of images and only short text to explain the process. I hope you enjoy my incredible skills as a photographer…

A few words on image quality: All photos are hastily taken with an iPhone under sometimes difficult light conditions. I was so excited assembling all that stuff that I did not bother to review the images I took. They’ll be good enough to get the idea, though.

The Living Room

The first thing I had to do is rearrange the wall unit to center the TV in front of the couch. Here’s how it looked before with all decoration removed:

Next is the rearranged version with the TV, the empty PC case and the hi-fi amp installed. Also in the picture you can see the subwoofer, center speaker and the front right speaker. The left speaker is on top of the cupboard on the left (where else?). No cables are connecting the individual parts yet. This is only to get a feeling for how it looks.

In order to have proper placing of the surround speaker I had to move a CD board from one side of the couch to the other. Being lazy I thought to „walk“ it there with all discs still in it. Bad idea, the back wall couldn’t contain the weight of all the discs an thus loosed itself from its fixation.

Next up is the first test of the TV.

That’s all for the first evening. I did this on the same day the mailman delivered the packages, right after work. Fortunately it was a friday so I had a lot of time the next day to complete the audio and TV setup and clean up the chaos.

Speaking of chaos…

This image also showed the moved CD board at its final location.

 

In order to get the TV to connect to the Internet I had two choices, either use a cable (since the TV had no wireless adapter built-in; and to be honest, this was not an option) or get some sort of access point or repeater with a LAN outlet. Fortunately I found a better solution. Netgear provides an external wireless adapter (WNCE2001) that connects via LAN to the designated device and gets its power either through USB or a small power adapter. Lucky me the TV has multiple USB ports so I could use one for power and let the wireless device simply hang from the LAN cable on the back of the TV. No cable visible at all from the front!

Here’s how I fixed the cable of the center speaker to the back of the wall unit. The wood is actually thick enough to hide several cables.

 

Only on the bottom the grommet wasn’t enough to keep the cable behind the wood. It just had to much twist to it. In this case I used one grommit, removed the part where the cable goes through, opened it up and nailed it to the board. That was strong enough to contain the cable.

This is the result. As you can see you see nothing! The cable’s gone. All other cables are hidden on the floor behind the wall unit or other furniture. The chaos is still prevalent.

For the right surround speaker I had to connect two cables with a cable clamp. By replacing the passive subwoofer I had one cable to spare which I used here.

There’s only one location in the apartment where the cables are slightly visible. That is coming from behind the wall unit to get to the surround speakers. That’s the best I can do to hide them. I can live with the result.

With all the audio equipment assembled and in place this is the back of the amp:

Finally, the result of all the work. The wall unit at its final position and all decoration at its place:
I’m quite happy with the result. I really like it.

 

The Computer

I started taking pictures quite late in the process so the first one already shows the mainboard with the CPU and the cooler and the PSU mounted in the case.

On this picture you can see how the cooler is slightly higher than the case allows. Once everything is installed the weight of the hardware eventually bends the bottom of the case enough to make it fit.

The case came with three 120 mm fans already mounted. Two of them were at the bottom pulling air in and one on the right side of the case pulling air in. SilverStone claims this creates so much pressure inside the case that it prevents from dust depositing. I moved one fan from the bottom to the side of the case to pull air from the CPU and blow it out of the case. Look at the first picture again and you’ll see that the CPU cooler blows air to the fans on the side. This should help to get the hot air out of the computer as fast as possible.

The now vacant spot on the bottom of the case was then used to fixate the SSD drive. Unfortunately I completely forgot to order a frame to mount 2.5“ into 3.5“ slots. As the drive doesn’t have any mechanical parts it doesn’t matter whether it is safely mounted or just somewhere so it is not loose. The drive has screw holes on the bottom as well so I could use the fan grill as mounting holes. Here’s the result.

Next is the setup with the graphics monster installed. That thing is just huge!

Unfortunately that’s all the pictures I have. I really thought I had taken more but I can’t find them. The process of integrating the Blu-Ray player must then be a narrative. The only special thing about that is that the case completely hides the optical drive from the outside by a lid. This means that the button of the drive is not reachable from outside the case. For this to work there’s some sort of slide that carries a knob which must be adjusted to be in front of the drive’s button. It took some time to get the right position but eventually works pretty nice. While you fixate the whole drive bay (it spans the complete length of the case) it moves into its final spot and that made it difficult to find the right position of the knob and the drive itself. It has to have the correct distance in order for the knob not to perpetually pushing the button or don’t touch it at all.

Noise and Cooling

Inititial Setup

After adjusting the fan speeds in UEFI the computer ran at a noticeable noise but not too loud to be disturbing – at first glance. After a few days of fine tuning, including graphics card, case fans and CPU cooler, I found that the CPU cooler has some annoying undertone to it. Some noticeable clicking sound that just drove me nuts and a high pitch to the fan itself. It was very quiet but the first few days the system just ran for downloading games on Steam. That means a quiet living room but the computer. In addition to that, once the processor really heats up the fan control increases the speed of the fans and that definitely made the system loud! I have to admit, running Prime95 is not an everyday task. However, playing Borderlands for some hours was enough to make the system get warm enough for the fan control to kick in. It was not loud, just a few more hundred rounds per minute but enough for me to say „That’s too much“. I don’t want that, especially since I’m not playing with headphones that shield me from that noise.

Don’t get me wrong. The system was barely audible in idle mode except that tiny little clicking noise from the CPU fan – which might only make me crazy but not other persons. The fan was ok so it probably was the way the PWM signal was processed. Once you watch a movie you wouldn’t be able to hear it any more. Diablo 3 did not bother the cooling system. In fact, even running Borderlands with the raised noise level was light air compared to the fans in the iMac once I (manually) put them to work. However, my previous computer was only hearable because of its hard drive (at 7200 rpm this is no astonishing fact). Otherwise it was silent, all the time! That was my goal with this one, too.

Revamped Setup

So here are the parts of the second order to remedy this problem.

You now get the unintended pun „It better be quiet!“? My previous PC was cooled by their products and I was very, very happy with the result, so why not trust them again? You might think: „Why didn’t you do that in the first place?“. I don’t know. I was so deadlocked on the recommendations of the PCGH magazine that I did not research any further. Especially the CPU cooler was a not so good decision in hindsight. While researching the components I never came across the top-blowing concept. Only by accident when I was comparing case fans I stumbled across a review of those kind of products and eventually the one from be quiet.

Now, before any more words are being written, here are two images of the new cooling system.

 

 

First Installation

„First?“ you might think. Yeah… I screwed up on this one. More on that after the images. First is the mainboard out of the case with that monster attached to it.

See how big it actuall is? It sports a 135 mm fan (compared to only 90 mm of the Scythe cooler) that blows right on the mainboard an therefore also cools the area around the processor. Big advantage! It even is a few centimeter smaller than the Scythe. It fits within the specifications of the case.

This image shows the whole system assembled. As you can see there’s much less room in the CPU area than before. Compare this to the last image of the Hardware section. Even though there’s the drive bay missing you can see the difference.

With this redone installation I also changed the way the case fans blow. With the SSD gone from the fan grill, I mounted the 800 rpm Shadow Wing in its place and also replaced the existing SilverStone next to it with an old Papst fan I still had flying around. They are known for quiet cooling as well. The Papst is running at 7 V with one of the adapters from the Silent Wings fans. Those two fans are now pushing air out of the case. The two fans on the right side of the case, on top of the mainboard, now push fresh air from the outside onto the CPU cooler and the graphics card beneath it. That air is then pulled by the bottom fans and removed from the case. One is connected to the mainboards cooling management in order to increase speed once it gets hot. The second one is connected to the same adapter as the Papst fan, only at 5 V. Sounds like a good plan, right?

Unfortunately the temperature results did not turn out as expected. But let’s start at the beginning. Once I turned on the computer and it finished booting into Windows (to load the GPU driver and reduce the graphics card fan speed) there was a beautiful silence. The case was still open so I could carefully listen to every noise with my ear as close as possible. There was a light clicking as with the Scythe fan but barely noticeable once you take the ear away from the computer. Goal achieved!

Next up was Prime95 to generate as much heat as possible. Temperature was measured with Core Temp and fan speeds watched with a tool from ASRock. Idle temps were definetly down. Before (with Scythe) they were at around 32° C. The Shadow Rock kept the CPU at 28° C. Nice! After seeing this I had hopes that load temps might also be down. My hopes have been brutally crushed. Starting the Prime95 tests immediately pushed the temperature of all four cores close to 55° C. The Scythe handled that initial surge better. But no problem yet, let’s see how it continues. And it continued badly. It just kept getting hotter and hotter. Eventually the fan control started increasing the fan speeds until they reached their max at around 1500 rpm (CPU fan and the one case fan connected to the mainboard). Still the CPU reached about 72° C. That’s around 7° more than the previous cooling solution. One positive thing though: even at full speed the system as a whole was still not as loud as before. Goal achieved! Somehow…

Second Installation

I lived with the result for a few days but I couldn’t get it out of my head. There was no problem whatsoever playing games. The cooling system kept quiet. Still, that bothered me. How could that beast of a cooler be worse than that baby that was mounted before? So I started searching the internet for reviews and forums for fellows with the same problem. Well, there weren’t any. All reviews attested the cooler excellent cooling performance, even for extremely overclocked CPUs.

Finally I decided to rip the computer apart once again (the 2nd time) and reassemble it from scratch (which makes this the 3rd time). After removing the cooler from the CPU I couldn’t believe what I was seeing (no pics, sorry). The thermal compound hasn’t spread evenly. Only the edges of the CPU seem to have had correct contact with the cooler’s surface. WTF? No wonder it performed badly.

There are two things I did differently. First, I didn’t use the shims to get more pressure on the CPU. The manual says they improve pressure which in turn is supposed to improve the ability to dissipate the heat from the CPU. The manual also mentions that on LGA 1155 sockets they are not recommended as they may put too much pressure on the mainboard and eventually damage it. Allright, no shims then. Second, I applied the thermal compound on the cooler’s surface instead of the CPU. The cooler itself is not 100% plain so I thought it is best to apply as much thermal compound until the surface is „plain“ with grease. Not „thick plain“ which would drown the CPU in thermal grease but only enough to fill the gaps and have a very thin layer above it.

After reassmbling it all (and meanwhile improve the cable management again – something that has to be done by iterating it over and over a few times) I was anxious to see the results. In Idle mode nothing has changed. This is probably due to the low power consumption of the CPU and all the air that is being blown onto it. The Prime95 numbers are the interesting ones and boy did that make my day. Even on the lowest fan speed that cooler is able to keep the processor at around 62° C. That’s 10° less than the first try at full speed and 3° less than the Scythe at full speed! Finally, goal achieved!

One thing I also changed is the placement of the Blu-Ray drive. I moved it down one slot so the power plug would not collide with the left-most heatpipe of the CPU cooler.

Now I am happy! In a few weeks I might write about the experiences with the whole setup. Watching movies and playing games from the couch and how this compares to playing on a monitor.

3 thoughts on “Project HTPC

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