Home Theater PCs (HTPCs) are becoming more and more popular due to a number of reasons. The desire of consumers to watch and enjoy their media, be it Blu-rays/DVDs or broadcast content, in an independent manner (i.e. not limited by DRM restrictions such as with Tivo recordings or even just optical media) has enabled the HTPC industry to gain a lot of relevance, as opposed to getting tied down with non-upgradeable consumer electronics equipment. All three major vendors (Intel, AMD, and NVIDIA) pay quite a bit of attention to the HTPC market in their products, but it is universally agreed that AMD represents some of the most economical HTPC building blocks targeted towards budget system builders, so that's our focus for today.

It has now been almost a year since the Llano lineup was launched; by integrating a CPU and GPU into the same die and bringing along AMD's expertise in the GPU arena for HTPCs, these APUs (Accelerated Processing Units) offer a lot to the budget HTPC builders. In today's piece, we will be taking a look at how to build a HTPC system using the Llano platform. We'll cover options based on various form factors, and performance and cost will be analyzed. Note that the Llano processors might not be the latest and greatest, but when it comes to pricing, it is going to be quite difficult to beat--at least until the desktop variants of Trinity come around. We will also assume that you are aware of the technical merits of the Llano APU lineup, as we will not be covering any benchmarks or doing any comparative studies across products from other companies.

The purpose of a HTPC system is to enable one or more of the following activities:

  • Media playback: The media could be either stored locally (on a hard drive, NAS, Blu-ray, or DVD) or be streamed from the Internet (from sites such as Netflix or Hulu). Media files include pictures and music files in addition to videos.
  • Optical disc backup creation: This involves the archiving of Blu-ray and DVD movies onto a physical disk (such as a hard drive or a NAS) after removing the DRM protection. This enables consumers to enjoy the content on their purchased discs without the annoying trailers and advertisements, or the need for a Blu-ray drive (e.g. on tablets or smaller HTPCs).
  • Recording and/or editing video files: This involves using a TV tuner to capture broadcast content and record it onto a physical drive. The recorded content could then be edited to remove commercials or for any other purpose before being stored away. Sometimes, it might be necessary to transcode the video files as well (say, converting from one H.264 profile to another). This is much more computationally intensive compared to splitting/joining media streams with similar characteristics.

Some users might also want to use their HTPC for activities such as:

  • Gaming: This is, by far, the most common extension of a HTPC outside its original application area. Thanks to the powerful integrated GPU, we have seen that the Llano APUs are quite good with almost all games at mainstream quality settings. If a budget gaming+HTPC build is on your radar, you can't go wrong with the Llanos--provided you understand that high quality settings and 1080p gaming are likely too much for the iGPU.
  • Network DVR/IP Camera recording: This is quite uncommon, but some users might like to have IP camera feeds viewable/recordable through their HTPCs.
  • General PC Tasks: These include basic web browsing, downloading and other similar tasks (which almost all HTPCs are bound to be good with)

Readers using their HTPC for any purpose other than those mentioned above should feel free to let everyone know in the comments section.

AMD's Llano lineup includes a range of processors with TDP ratings from 65W to 100W. Note that simple playback tasks are going to be quite power-efficient, thanks to integrated hardware decoding, so the relatively high TDPs shouldn't put one off. There are also plenty of FM1 socket motherboards based on the A55/A75 FCHs (Fusion Controller Hubs). The choice of the Llano APU, motherboard form factor, and other components should be made depending on the desired usage scenario. In the next few sections, we will take a look at the choices available.

APU, Chipset and Motherboard
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  • JAK620 - Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - link

    "AMD's Llano can't run Netflix HD well "
    Is your Llano system built upon any slower-clocked 2 or 3 core Llano or Zacat?

    I disagree. I have an HTPC w/ A8-3850 w/o a discrete graphic card. I do not have any problem running Netflix full screen w/ 1080P.
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - link

    Agree.. No problems with Netflix HD except on Zacate platforms.. In the Llanos (quad core versions with the higher end iGPU), it works smoothly:

  • JAK620 - Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - link

    Adding the point that without a discrete graphic card ( I do not play many games on the PC but on gaming consoles), the overall fan noise is a lot lower than a regular PC (CPU + discrete graphic).

    I agree that the stock fan is kinda loud but luckily my case has really good airflow so constantly the CPU is <45 celcius and around 52~54 celcius under moderate load (playing NSF Unleashed in 1080P w/ some effects tuned down or Skpye 720P HD).

    With good case air flow, it helps moderate the CPU fan speed and noise
  • jeffkro - Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - link

    yup, its zacate(e350) that can't do netflix HD. People are giving misleading information.
  • jeffkro - Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - link

    you're insane, llano has plenty of cpu grunt to handle netflix HD even without offloading it to the gpu. What you are saying is definitely true of the much lower end zacate setup.
  • plonk420 - Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - link

    it SHOULD be able to do netflix... my saddeningly undercapable E-350 was ALMOST able to do HD netflix, but not quite.
  • UrQuan3 - Wednesday, June 6, 2012 - link

    It is odd that Netflix HD still doesn't work on Zacate. My E-350 runs 1080p h264 and VC-1 fine. Of course, that's 30fps, I still haven't seen a 60fps video in the wild. It also handles crunchyroll 1080p streaming without a problem. It must just be a Silverlight problem like other people are saying.
  • Peroxyde - Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - link

    Heat sink of the G.Skill Snipper RAM module: Is there any functional purpose to the two metal pieces that protrude on the top on both left and right sides? May be that's just me, I find that impractical as this hurts the fingers when installing the modules.
  • TheTechSmith - Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - link

    I researched building an HTPC to play video files off of a NAS a year and a half ago, and wound up buying a Boxee box instead. At $190 it's a lot more expensive than its most popular competitors (Apple TV, Roku, etc), but it is a lot cheaper than building an HTPC, and has played every type of file I have thrown at it off of my NAS, which is something the cheaper competitors cannot do. You get access premium pay services as well including Netflix and Voodoo in the US. There are other products (e.g. WD TV Live) that will do this as well, reviewed on this site. A word of warning however, Adobe has not made version 11 of flash available for Boxee and similar devices yet which breaks streaming of a lot of free web content from TV station web sites, and this is completely out of Boxee's control. I know many would prefer to build their own solution so they can customize their hardware and software, but each to their own.
  • lurker22 - Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - link

    Problem is Boxee is a dead platform. Also, does it support Netflix HD?
    Oh, and Plex is so much more versatile and stable!

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