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Building a Home Theater PC

written by: Matt McConnell•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 7/19/2009

Have you always wanted to have the Internet at your fingertips while sitting in bed, or lounging in the living room without dragging a laptop around with you? In this article, I will be showing you what components to buy in order to build a great machine to incorporate into a home theater system.

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    Introduction

    Building up a home theater system can be a difficult task to do, especially if you’re not very computer or home theater savvy. There are a few steps to take in order to make sure you get the best possible results. Building a home theater entertainment center can be very costly if you don't know what you need to start in putting it all together. This process is not very costly if you build it yourself, especially when you know the parts needed and where to get them at an inexpensive price. This will take longer than going to a store and buying one, but it will prove to be less expensive and overall more enjoyable building your own machine. To start building your system, you have to start with the "brain" unit of the system, the home theater PC.

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    The PC

    There are two ways you can go about acquiring the computer you need to run your home theater system.

    1. Buy a pre-built unit from a retail store or online. This route can be very costly because companies overcharge for a lot of their parts because you're paying for the labor to put it all together, and a lot of the time they're parts aren't as reliable as if you handpicked them.

    2. Putting together a PC for a home theater is only possible if you know how to build a computer in the first place, or know someone who does. In today's society, most people know someone who is computer savvy. These people can most likely build a computer from the ground up. If you don't know someone like this, you can still save money by buying the parts from a computer company and having them put it together. The company that does it will usually give you a pretty good deal if you buy all the parts from them and they assemble it. There are many options when it comes to the parts to purchase for your home theater PC. You can get away with getting midlevel parts in the machine, because you’re not usually doing very many labor-intensive applications on the PC like graphic designing and gaming. Here is a list of parts that you need to make the PC.

    1. Motherboard - This is the board that all the components plug into. You need a good motherboard that supports at least PCI-Express cards, and can hold a good amount of memory. Also, you want the board to be able to be able to upgrade the processor higher than the processor you are buying now, for future development of the system according to new standards. Examples of good motherboards are: Gigabit, ASUS, Abit, and MSI.

    2. Processor - The processor is the brain unit that controls the entire computer. Without the processor, nothing inside the computer would function at all. You will need a good processor, at least a Pentium 4 with at least 2 gigahertz of processing power.

    3. RAM - This is the power of your computer. The more RAM you have, the faster your machine will compute the necessary information to process your request. You will need a lot of RAM to process certain kinds of video and images, especially when gaming online. The normal amount of RAM for a home theater PC is around 4, and upwards of 8. This is for maximum performance.

    4. Hard Drive - The hard drive is the storage unit of the computer. There are three things that you need to know about a hard drive: the amount of stuff you can put in it (storage), the seek time (time it takes for the HDD to access the information), and the RPM speed (the speed at which it saves information). You're going to want at least a 7200 RPM hard drive with a seek time under 5 milliseconds.

    There are also other options like RAID setups and SCSI which are 10,000 RPM+, but cost more. SCSI is not used as much anymore, and RAID setups are more common for people who want more peace of mind for backing up information and to lower seek time. RAID is usually configured with two or four hard drives, and all of them run together. The information is split up onto the hard drives, and when accessed, they all work together to access the information as fast as possible. The RAID setup is much faster when saving and accessing information than the standard setup. IDE hard drives were the standard until a few years ago, and were replaced by SATA and SATA II drives. These drives are much faster than the former IDE drives, and are now a middle ground in-between the IDE and the RAID speeds.

    As far as storage is concerned, ideally you want an internal drive of at least 350 gigs and also have an external storage drive of around 500 gigabytes (or half a terabyte). This external unit will allow you to watch movies immediately from one computer to another without having to transfer date through the network. Just save all your movies or any media you want to watch onto both the internal and external hard drives, and then just unplug the external drive and plug it into the USB port of the home theater PC to view the media of your choice. This eliminates network traffic, and transfer time.

    5. Video Card - You're going to want to have at least a 256 megabyte video card. There are many card brands on the web including Nvidia, ATI, and a few others that are top of the line and standard for most gamers and video pros. There are also variables to who manufactures these brands, like MSI, A Open, ASUS, BFG, Creative Labs, Diamond and ATI. These are just a few of the good brands that make quality video cards. Stick to these brands when you buy a video card, because you shouldn't really go cheap when buying one. There are many places to compare video cards, and get their benchmark scores (results of how good a card is). Lastly, you're going to want to make sure your video card is PCI Express, and that your motherboard supports SLI so that if needed, you can buy two video cards and run them together for double the power. This is for mostly gaming though. Most all computer motherboards come with SLI to hold at least two video cards, sometimes you can run 4 in extreme cases.

    6. Power supply - This is the AC power unit that you use to power the system. For the system that you're getting, you're going to want to get at least a 500W power supply. This will give you a good amount of power to run all the parts of your machine. Ideally, you're going to want a 600W or higher unit, but that is up to you. These higher rated supplies also cost more.