Building The Ultimate Home Media Computer – The Hardware
I’m very fortunate in that when we moved into our current house three years ago, we converted the small single garage into a TV room (the “Red Room” as it’s affectionately known). Since that time I’ve had a pretty decent digital media system setup. I converted the old larder (which is in our dining room, adjacent to but outside of the Red Room) into a gizmo cupboard to house all the gadgets needed. It contains a decent AV receiver which is connected (via underground tubing) to the 46″ plasma TV and 5.1 KEF surround sound speakers. Connected to the receiver was a Sony Blu-ray player, a Humax Freeview HD box and a Mac Mini running the Plex. Recently I moved the Mac Mini upstairs to the study so we could have a desktop system and tried to replace it with a Raspberry Pi running Raspbmc. I also have Sonos and the Mac Mini supplied the music via iTunes.
If I’m honest, things worked well but there were flaws that always annoyed me that I’m not going to go into here. Therefore, I’ve decided that I’m going to rip the guts out of the cupboard and start from scratch to build the ultimate home media system. This is a long process and so this first post will describe the hardware that I’ve purchased.
When trying to decide what components to purchase, I first had to sit down and figure out exactly what I wanted to be able to do and how easily did I want to be able to do it. I literally sat down and wrote down the aims of the project:
- A high-capacity central storage location for all of our movies, TV shows, photos and music. This must be expandable and redundant (i.e. protected against hard disk failure)
- The storage should be accessible from our Mac desktop and laptop as well as our iPhones and iPads
- The ability to watch encoded movies / TV shows in any format up to and including 1080p Blu-ray rips on the TV and, possibly, our iOS devices
- Integration with Sonos
- Quickly rip Blu-rays and DVDs without having to resort to a keyboard or complex SSH / remote desktop access
- Playback Blu-rays and DVDs
- Watch and record live TV. Pausing live TV would be a bonus but is not essential
- All of this must be easy to control. I want my wife to be able to watch what she wants, when she wants with ease
- As few cables as possible. The HTPC should output video and audio over a single HDMI cable
One thing that quickly became apparent to me was that you can end up spending a lot of money on a project like this. I set myself an absolute maximum of £1000 (£750 would be ideal).
Recycling old hardware
Rather than buy everything new, I thought I would try to reuse components where possible. To that end, I have decided to move away from my trusty 2nd generation Drobo, sell it and cannibalise the four hard drives within it and use them in the new HTPC. There’s three 1.5TB drives and a 500GB drive. I will also be keeping the Onkyo amp, the TV and the KEF speakers.
What I’ve purchased
Here’s the complete breakdown of the components that I’ve gone for:
After a lot of shopping around for a functional HTPC case, I plumped for the SilverStone GD08. Not only is it gorgeous but it can fit the seven hard disks and optical drive that I need. I’ll still have a spare front 5.25″ bay left over (and some smaller bays) which I may use to house a LCD display. I also like the fact that it has USB 3.0 ports on the front – good for quickly copying some files over.
I’ll be upfront, I spent more on the CPU than I had intended to. This is in part because I want to future-proof the server for as long as possible but also because I initially underestimated how much processing muscle I would need. I decided to go for the Intel i5 3750K purely based on its quad-core Ivy Bridge architecture and the integrated HD4000 graphics which should mean I don’t need a dedicated graphics card.
I’m pretty happy with the specifications of my motherboard (Gigabyte UD5H). Time will tell if it’s up to scratch. The key selling points for me were the vast number of SATA (2 and 3) ports as well as high definition audio and HDMI out.
I decided on 16 GB DDR3 RAM (two 8GB sticks) which should mean I have ample memory available for intensive tasks like ripping Blu-rays as well as being able to run multiple processes simultaneously. This will be powered by a decent modular power supply (Corsair TXM 650W PSU)
Storage / drives
As mentioned earlier, I have harvested the four mechanical hard disks that were in my second generation Drobo (three 1.5TB and a 500GB). These will be the main data storage drives. I treated myself to an Intel 330 series 60GB SSD to use as the boot disk. This should mean that apps are super snappy. Hopefully it will play nicely with Ubuntu. I’ve also bought a 7200rpm 500GB hard disk to use as a scratch disk. This is where ripped / encoded disks will go before they are moved to permanent storage on the four data drives. Finally, I bought a 2TB disk which will be used as a parity drive for SnapRAID (more on this in a later post).
I decided on an internal writable Blu-ray drive for playback and ripping of both DVDs and Blu-rays.
Since I want to be able to watch and record live TV, I needed a TV tuner card. I don’t have a satellite dish but I do want to be able to access FreeView HD channels. I’ve gone for the TBS 6280 DVB-T2 TV tuner card since it seems to be well supported on Linux and (hopefully) will play nicely with Ubuntu.
That just about covers the hardware for the new HTPC. The next post will document the building. I’m a little nervous but really excited!