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Eco-friendly Windows 7 Media Centre HTPC : A Primer

Choosing a HTPC can be a daunting task, one which will determine the quality of a significant portion of your leisure time if you're an avid consumer of video content.

Get it wrong and you could experience abnormal levels of stuttering, wrong audio levels, excessive power consumption, ridiculous amounts of fan whining and a dreadful journey while watching your movies.

In this article, we will be look at two ways of sourcing your perfect Windows 7-based HTPC which will run older games correctly at low resolutions and will be as energy-efficient as possible. You can either build it or buy it from a reputable seller.

A media PC serves one or all of the following functions : Downloading & Share Torrents & Files, Play audio and video content from stream, optical discs, downloaded files, FTA (Free To Air) satellite or from Freeview HD.

Building your media PC is not as easy as it sounds since you need to make sure you've got the parts right to start with. You can go down two different ways; one which uses Nvidia's popular ION platform coupled with Intel's Atom processor or the other which takes a normal desktop processor and downclocks it significantly.

Motherboards used in HTPC tend to be as integrated as possible for a number of reasons with heat dissipation (and the obligatory use of fans) being one.

Integrated motherboards take us less space which makes cooling and ventilation a less arduous task. It also allows the use of a smaller than usual case.

The rest of the configuration should be fairly straight-forward. As much memory as possible, using either a solid state hard disk with a NAS (network attached storage) stuck elsewhere or a slow running, gargantuan hard disk drive (at least 2TB), HDMI and/or Optical ports, plenty of USB ports, TV Tuner(s), a card reader, a Bluray player, a quasi silent power supply, WiFi, a keyboard & touchpad combo and a fairly attractive case with a VF display if possible.

Software wise, we'd go for Windows 7 Home Premium in any case and you can always add optional applications - like XMBC - rather than rely on the built in free MCE feature.

We shall stick to the Antec Fusion Remote Veris (£112.86 at Ebuyer (opens in new tab)), which is a tried and trusted black multimedia enclosure that will sit comfortably next to any AV devices.

In fact, it looks just like any modern AV receivers. It comes with a remote control and has been especially designed with HTPC fans in mind.

This means for example having two 120mm triple fans onboard, silicone grommets for the hard disk drive and a LCD display plus a functional rotary knob.

To complement this case, we've chosen the Seasonic S12II which is a 330W power supply that was released three years ago but is still considered as one of the better silent PSUs out there (£39.71 at Ebuyer (opens in new tab)).

For that price, you get parts that can withstand 105 degrees, a three year warranty, rubber cushions, a 12cm ball bearing fan and a 330W PSI rated at 85 percent.

The LG BH10LS30.AUAU10B is the most affordable Bluray rewriter drive currently available on the market. It will read Bluray movies without any hitch in most cases, comes with PowerDVD and can write BD-R discs at 10x speeds. With the price of blank Blu-ray discs falling fast, it might prove to be a smart purchase should you want to backup your data (£135.24 @Ebuyer (opens in new tab)).

For hard disk drives, why not get a pair of the biggest hard drives currently on the market. The Samsung Spinpoint F3 spins only at 5400rpm which should be fast enough for most tasks and make the drive less noisier than its rivals. At 2TB, it is the largest drive money can buy and at £99.99 at Ebuyer (opens in new tab), the cheapest GB in the country as well.

The Asus HD4350 is the ideal entry level HTPC video card. It comes with the ATI HD4350, 256MB memory, DVI, HDMI and Dsub support and has only a heatsink rather than a noisy fan. It is significantly more powerful than any integrated graphics solution already on the market and at £21.05 at Ebuyer (opens in new tab) will not break your bank.

For some reason, wireless keyboards with touchpads never really became popular, which is rather unfortunate. The Keysonic 540RF is such a model (£30.61 at Ebuyer (opens in new tab)) that uses a 2.4GHz RF technology and looks like a notebook without a screen. The new updated version currently on sale has a much better wireless receiver dongle.

Corsair has a long story of making quality memory at an affordable price. So grabbing a pair of 2GB memory modules, known as the TW3X4G1333C9, (£84.99 at Ebuyer (opens in new tab)) still feels like a bargain even with the rising price of memory. As tech experts would say, you never have enough memory.

Should you want to go down the solid state route, Kingston Technology's SSDNow V-Series is a good partner; with 64GB and a SATAII interface, it will provide enough space and performance as a system drive (£121.62 at Ebuyer (opens in new tab)). SSDs will consume less power, generate less noise and heat and deliver exceptional performance compared to their hard disk counterparts.

It is a little known truth but you can get HD satellite TV on your PC using a slot in card like the Hauppauge WinTV NOVA-HD-S2 (£82.81 at Ebuyer (opens in new tab)). You can obviously record from it and there's a remote control that comes handy as well. Unfortunately, at this price, you won't get a double tuner model.

The motherboard/CPU pair is likely to influence dramatically on the performance of your computer which is why you shouldn't skimp on quality. Which is why we're opting for the Asus AT3IONT-I deluxe. It is one of the most expensive Atom boards on the market (£156.06 at Ebuyer (opens in new tab)) but one which is crammed with features. Apart from the dual core Atom 330 processor, it comes with Nvidia's ION chipset, GbLan, WIFi, 10 USB ports, 8-channel audio, one PCIe x16 slot, four SATA ports, Bluetooth and even a remote control to control Asus' own version of MCE.

Should you want to go down AMD's route, our preferred option would be pairing the MSI GF615M-P33 motherboard with an AMD Athlon II X2 240 energy efficient processor, both available for £103.75 from (opens in new tab) Ebuyer (opens in new tab). The processor has a TDP of only 45W and is a dual core model running at 2.8GHz which means that you should be able to downclock it significantly to reduce power consumption. The MSI motherboard has a 7.1 audio channel with a GbE port plus a few more connectors.

Going AMD's way will cost you at least £811, a system that can play games AND record satellite content. Alternatively the price of an Atom-based system will hover around £850. If your budget doesn't stretch that much, you can get an Acer Revo desktop client which is not only cheaper but also much smaller than the above options. However, you won't be able to upgrade it (e.g. adding a Bluray player) or make it significantly more polyvalent (e.g to record HD satellite streams). We did a thorough review of the R3610 back in March 2010 and Lifehacker wrote a magnificent article on how to convert the latter into a XBMC powerhouse (opens in new tab).

Désiré Athow

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website building and web hosting when DHTML and frames were en vogue and started writing about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium. Following an eight-year stint at where he discovered the joys of global tech-fests, Désiré now heads up TechRadar Pro. Previously he was a freelance technology journalist at Incisive Media, Breakthrough Publishing and Vnunet, and Business Magazine. He also launched and hosted the first Tech Radio Show on Radio Plus.