Today's PCs come in various designs and sizes. But as living rooms become more theatrelike, with multichannel speaker systems and high-definition TVs, the thought of plugging a boxy PC into an entertainment centre seems unappealing.
Enter the home-theatre PC, which is specially built and designed to look like it belongs in the same rack as a multichannel receiver, a satellite or cable set-top box, and other devices. It can be the repository for your entire digital media library; you can view your home video and photos on the big screen and hear digital music on high-quality speakers, or share everything with other computers over your home network. A home-theatre PC also lets you play 3D Blu-ray movies (as well as standard Blu-ray and DVD movies).
Intel’s Sandy Bridge
If you want to build such a system, make one of Intel’s Sandy Bridge CPUs the key ingredient. When Intel designed Sandy Bridge, the company built a graphics engine right onto the CPU chip itself. Although it isn’t a great graphics processor for games, the video engine is vastly improved over previous Intel efforts.
The processor in our home-theatre PC project is an Intel Core i3-2100S, a 3.1GHz dual-core CPU (with 3MB of L3 cache) that supports Intel Hyper-Threading technology, so it can run four threads at once. This is the lowest-end 65W Sandy Bridge CPU. Intel also offers the 2100T, which is rated at 35W but runs at a somewhat slower 2.5GHz. However, you should use a fairly roomy chassis for this project, so the faster, slightly hotter CPU will work fine.
Intel has beefed up the video engine to permit full hardware acceleration of decoding and encoding high-def video, covering all commercially used codecs (such as Microsoft VC-1, MPEG-2, and H.264). As a result, the video engine fully handles Blu-ray playback while the CPU idles. The graphics processor’s dual video engines enable picture-in-picture and other features without getting the CPU involved. Intel’s HD Graphics supports HDMI 1.4 and dual video blocks, as well, so it can manage stereoscopic 3D Blu-ray playback.
A CPU alone does not make a system, however. Consider several factors when you create the parts list for your home-theatre PC.
• Your system’s case must blend into your AV component rack
• The motherboard should be compact and support HDMI-out.
• Memory needs to be reliable (and low-voltage memory is preferable, to minimize heat and power).
• The power supply has to deliver robust power without generating a lot of noise.
• If you plan to play Blu-ray discs, you’ll need a Blu-ray drive.
• In order to use the PC as a media repository, you’ll have to include an extremely large hard drive to store everything on.
Tips for building your home-theatre PC
Every computer build is slightly different, but here are a few tricks that helped me as I built this machine.
• Install the power supply into the case before you install the motherboard.
• Plan before you start so that you connect things in the right order: some motherboard SATA ports, for example, point toward the back of the motherboard, rather than up from the motherboard. That means connecting the SATA cables to the motherboard before you hook up the SATA drives.
• Make sure that your optical drive has a standard bezel, with buttons in the usual places. Some Blu-ray drives have oddly shaped bezels that look cool but may not work with your case.
• Socket 1155 motherboards are simple to configure: they now use EFI (extensible firmware interface) instead of the old BIOS setup routines, which means that you can use your mouse during the setup.
• You’ll want to download the latest Intel HD Graphics driver to ensure stereoscopic 3D Blu-ray playback. The driver on the motherboard installation CD often isn’t the latest version, and may not support stereoscopic 3D.
• After installing Windows 7, you may need to install the network driver before you can run Windows Update or activate Windows. The motherboard CD usually has all necessary drivers for the motherboard itself (also known as the “chipset INF driver”), the on-board audio, and the network driver.
• The HDMI 1.4 port fully supports audio, so you don’t need audio cables if you’re routing HDMI to your HDTV or through an AV receiver with HDMI inputs.
One purpose of this PC is to play stereoscopic 3D Blu-ray movies. Intel reps told me that 3D Blu-ray would work fine with 3D HDTV sets, using whatever glasses and built-in HDTV technology are available. But it won’t work with existing shutter glasses for 120Hz PC displays. Intel will enable stereoscopic 3D for PC monitors when 120Hz DisplayPort panels ship later this year.
The system should handle 3D Blu-ray beautifully, but you could add plenty more tricks and features. First, if you plan to use your PC in your entertainment center, you’ll want to add IR-remote support. The easiest option is USB; various IR dongles support Windows Media Center. If you use one of those, setting up a programmable remote is relatively straightforward. For example, you can easily configure Logitech Harmony remotes to support Media Center IR receivers.
What about gaming?
Intel’s HD Graphics technology is fine for very light-duty gaming. To play anything serious, you’ll need to add a discrete graphics card – which could lead to other problems. For one thing, that spiffy Intel video processor simply won’t work with another graphics card installed, so you’ll have to rely on the graphics card’s own video-decoding capabilities. Although current Nvidia and AMD GPUs have fairly robust video blocks of their own, any card capable of high-end gaming adds heat and noise. And if you still want support for stereoscopic 3D on your HDTV, you’ll need cards using the latest Nvidia 500 series or AMD 5000 or 6000 series graphics processors.
When you set up the PC, you used a keyboard and a mouse to install Windows; for ongoing use, you may want to add a wireless keyboard and mouse combo to the system. Almost any current wireless keyboard and mouse will work, and you’ll want something fairly standard if you plan on gaming or doing a lot of typing. However, something like Logitech’s DiNovo Mini is very handy if you need only occasional character entry.
Once you’ve built your home-theatre PC, you have a platform for exploring digital media on the big screen. Since you’ve set up Blu-ray playback on a computer, updates to the playback software can add new features. For instance, you can add HDTV tuner capability, turning your PC into a high-def DVR. You can also create a robust digital media server with tools such as the free VLC Media Player. Or you can just kick back and relax, put on your 3D glasses, and enjoy the show.