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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  • TheTechSmith - Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - link

    The free computer software is dead but the Boxee Box is still under active development. And yes, it streams Netflix HD if your connection is fast enough.
  • lurker22 - Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - link

    Its hardware isn't selling well. For example, Dlink's other boxee was canceled, and reviews continue to be lackluster on stability etc. Boxee won't be around for much longer...but it does work for your use so that's great.

    Boxee abandoned its biggest fans by dropping software development for the HTPC. I was a big fan of Boxee until they did this, however it forced me to try Plex and it's SOOOOO much better than Boxee ever was!
  • TheTechSmith - Wednesday, June 6, 2012 - link

    Good to know. I will probably try Plex when it comes time to buy a second TV, but at the moment Boxee does everything that I need. I have encountered crashes, but it's pretty rare in my case. I wasn't aware that D-Link was working on a second box that got cancelled. I hope they can survive...
  • T2k - Thursday, June 7, 2012 - link

    Plex is a typical free pile of SHIT, they couldn't even write a proper documentation, forget built-in setup wizard.
    Plex is the typical fucked-up end product of a bunch of stupid, el cheapo nerds, released for free - it works if you spend enough time with it, otherwise it's a pile of shit especially if you are not so poor and usually are able to pay for something that works and comes with proper UI and support.
  • johnsmith9875 - Wednesday, June 13, 2012 - link

    I ended up buying a Sony SMP-N200. I gave up on an HTPC because of complexity, boot time, etc. It has enough interfaces and will do DLNA so I can stream from a PC over wireless and has fairly good support for video formats. I was not impressed with Roku's selective feature removal to fit price points, and I won't touch Apple.
  • soapisclean - Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - link

    Why so big with the power supplies?

    I built an A6-3500 system (the 3-core version) with an 80W Pico PSU.. no extra fans spinning and adding to the noise.. and it works beautifully with Ubuntu.
  • treecats - Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - link

    I build a HTPC for my parents with Intel Core i3-2120T/HD2000 + Foxconn SFF R40-H1 Intel Core i7 / i5 / i3 (LGA1155) Intel Socket H2(LGA1155) Intel H67 none 1 x HDMI Barebone

    The machine played 1080p H.264 video files no problem at all. What do you mean by "not powerful enough for 1080p60 H.264 decoding"? I thought HD2000/3000 are specifically designed to handle high def video playback.

    Any comments would be helpful! Thanks!
  • StevoLincolnite - Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - link

    I WANT it. Unfortunately, I cannot find any in Australia.
  • Spivonious - Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - link

    WIth the prices of Ivy Bridge Celerons so low these days, why would anyone consider the hotter-running and less featured AMD LLano?
  • Spivonious - Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - link

    Sorry, meant Sandy Bridge Celerons.

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