Silent Home Theater PC Guide

building-silent-htpc

Introduction

More and more people are building servers for their home or a HTPC and rightly so. There are so many good reasons and benefits for having your own server or HTPC that a lot of companies are building hardware specifically for these systems. I finally decided to make the move and get the hardware I would need to accomplish this task as well.

This article is mainly going to go over how to build and setup a server and look at some of the software that works well for a server situation. This article will also be good for someone looking to build their own HTPC.

With any HTPC you want it to be silent, be warned though this usually takes some work. Servers typically very noisy on an enterprise level but we’re not building an enterprise server. For a home server that the typical power user would build it is not that difficult to keep it quiet. For this reason I am going to focus on building this computer to be silent, or at least as quiet as possible.

In the future I plan on writing other articles that coat-tail this one and add to the subject. The hardware that I decided to use in this server came from different sources. Some of the hardware was provided from manufacturers for this article, some from past reviews, some that I had laying around, and some that I bought.

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The Server Side of Things
When planning the build for a server or HTPC you should decide what tasks it will be doing right away and in the future. You will want to make sure that the system will be able to handle anything you want it to do now, and down the road without too much upgrading. For my particular build on the server side of things I mainly wanted the system to act as a file server, print server, and game server. I also wanted it to take care of FTP, Terminal Services, and run Distributed.net full time for team OCmodshop. Of course your server could be totally different than this, it all depends on your needs and wants.

Doubling as a HTPC
On the HTPC side of things you will probably want it to handle TV, DVDs, MP3s, VCDs, pictures, and things of that nature. For DVD playback you don’t need top of the line hardware but if you want to spend the money you can. I currently don’t have a big screen TV but eventually would like to buy a large rear projection HDTV, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Because of that I decided that at this point I did not need any TV output from the computer or a great video card. Down the line if I were to get a larger TV or cable/satellite I would probably pick up an ATi All In Wonder to handle the HTPC tasks that I would want. If you want to setup a PVR or have TV out I would suggest picking up a TV tuner card that has TV out or an ATi All In Wonder card.

The Hardware
The guts of a system are really the most important thing for any computer. However that doesn’t mean you want to have a nice computer that everyone will see in a junky case. Since HTPC are typically found in the living room or den and everyone will be seeing it I would suggest a desktop style case that looks nice. I decided to use a SilverStone LC03V that previously reviewed. I really liked this case and it will make a great body for my server/HTPC. The built in VFD will add extra functionality by allowing you to monitor the system and get information. This will be very useful for both server and HTPC functionality.

You will want your system to be as quiet as possible and hopefully silent, with any new processors it would be almost impossible for a silent system. Because I had two Pentium III 866MHz processors sitting around doing nothing I decided that they would be a good choice for this server. Although these processors are not the fastest on the market by any means they are not outdated for a build like this. These Pentium III processors are a good choice because they will run cooler than most processors out there today. A dual processor system will also be useful for the server side of this build allowing software that is multithreaded to use both processors.

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Depending on your processor, memory, and what level of system you want to build you will need to choose a motherboard that fits your needs. When it came to picking a motherboard I went with an ECS D6VAA that I got off of eBay. I chose this motherboard because it was cheap, would take my processors, had a lot of PCI slots, and an AGP slot. It has 3 DIMM slots allowing me to add enough memory for now and for some time down the line if I should ever want to add more. The only thing that is lacking on this motherboard is USB 2.0, but a PCI USB 2.0 card can be added later.

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Your motherboard will dictate what kind of memory you will be using. This ECS D6VAA accepts 168 pin PC100 and PC133 memory with a maximum of 1.5GB. Because this server isn’t going to be doing heavy work right away I decided to start out with 512MB of PC133. If I ever need more memory I can stick a 512MB stick in there to beef it up to 1GB.

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If you are not concerned about graphics processing power I would suggest finding the cheapest card possible and using that. If you need something that has the ability to run new games or things of that nature I would suggest something that will accept a passive GPU cooler to eliminate unnecessary noise. Like I mentioned before at this point I don’t have any need to have this system do anything with TV and won’t be playing games on it right now. So to save money I just grabbed a PCI Matrox Mistique that I had laying around to use for the video card.

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A server isn’t much good without a network so if you have an existing network I would say stick with that. If you currently don’t have a decent network I would suggest going the gigabit route. SMC provided us with a gigabit switch and network card for this system, both of which I previously reviewed. Obviously when it comes to servers you want the fastest network possible for all of the traffic that will be passing through it. This servers main responsibility will be to act as a file server so there will be a lot of data flowing in and out of it. Having gigabit equipment will speed things up and reduce the time waiting for transfers. Gigabit will run fine over cat 5e, however the cost is only about fifty cents more for cat 6 compared to cat 5e. If you currently have cat5e I would say continue using it. If you need some new cables spend the extra few bucks and go with some cat 6.

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One of the major tasks of most servers will be to act as a file server, and when you have a file server you need a lot of storage. Not only do you need a lot of storage but you need fast and reliable hard drives. Seagate was more than generous to send over two of their new 400GB Barracuda 7200.8 SATA NCQ hard drives. One great thing about Seagate hard drives is that they are very quiet which makes it an ideal choice for a setup like this. A full review of these hard drives will be done shortly after this article is posted so watch for that.

Although the thought of an 800GB file server makes me giddy, size isn’t the only thing that matters. Data reliability is also important for a file server because no matter how much capacity you have, if you lose it all capacity means nothing. I have the utmost confidence in Seagate hard drives but that doesn’t mean they are infallible.

To protect my data I would suggest setting up a RAID array or doing tape backups. I decided to set these drives up using RAID 1 so that all the data is mirrored. The motherboard that I chose is pretty old and does not have native support for SATA. Windows is able to do software RAID but this is not as stable as a hardware RAID controller. In the past I have had Windows 2003 break the mirror so that only 1 drive was writing data.

Luckily I did not lose all of my data but I don’t want to go there again. What controller you decide to buy is totally up to you. Just be sure that the card you choose is compatible with the operating system you plan on using. For my system I decided to buy an Adaptec 1210SA SATA RAID controller.

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As I have been saying so far throughout this article one of your main goals is for the server or HTPC is for it to be silent. One of the main sources for computer noise is the power supply, so a passive PSU is a perfect choice. I will be using a 0dB power supply from Thermaltake, which I reviewed as well. Using a passive power supply will remove a lot of unnecessary noise from the system and provide ample power for all the hardware in the system.

If you have a fax modem laying around waiting to be used it might be a good addition to your server. I found a 56K modem that I had in an unused system and figured it would be good for this server. Right now I don’t have a fax machine because I don’t send faxes very often. However it would be nice to setup a fax server so I could send and receive faxes in the future. The modem could also be used as a internet connection backup incase your broadband goes out and you have to get online for some reason.

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Continuing with the silent system theme we come to processor cooling. If your processor(s) will run cool enough with a passive heatsink I would really suggest using one. Along with the processors that I had sitting around I also had a set of matching aluminum heatsinks. These should be able to keep the processors cool enough and silent at the same time. If the processors end up getting too hot using a passive heatsink you could either add a very quiet fan or buy a better heatsink. I figured for now I might as well give these heatsinks a try before spending more money.

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For additional cooling you may want to think about buying some RAMsinks. We recently wrote a guide on Cleaning up power with additional cooling which goes into much detail about added cooling parts in your system. Sharka Corporation sent over some Zalman RAM heatsinks to use and use them I will. These are intended to be used for video card memory however they will work for anything that you want to use them on.