Friday, March 14, 2014

Converting Desktop to Dedicated HTPC

Hello everybody, and good day to you :)

Recently, I converted my Ubuntu 12.04 Desktop/HTPC/DVR to a dedicated media center. It had previously served a dual purpose as both my HTPC and my general use "day to day" computer. This approach had both pros and cons, for one thing, it was easier to configure and work on the HTPC portions, but I also had to run unsightly cables from the machine to the TV. Having moved recently as well, I found there wasn't as much room in the new living room to use the desktop and HTPC simultaneously.

So, I decided it was time to convert the desktop/HTPC into a dedicated media center!

This was a fun project which I thought I'd share my experiences on for anybody interested.


Like any worthwhile project, it's important to set a series of requirements and guidelines. This helps you move towards your goal using milestones and measure your success.

In this case, my requirements were as followed:

  1. Use a horizontal ("desktop") form factor case to house a full size ATX motherboard, power supply and PCI-card while being small enough to fit in my entertainment center with sufficient air-flow.
  2. The case should be aesthetically pleasing and fit match with the other elements in the center.
  3. Fit a 5.25 inch optical drive, media card reader and front-USB.
  4. Integrate in the IR Blaster and Receiver.
  5. Integrate most of the media center/MythTV controls to be run from a remote control.
  6. Find a wireless keyboard with built-in touch pad for more fine-tuned control when necessary.
  7. Set up for remote access from other computers on the home network.

I was able to reuse most of the hardware from my previous tower, so I was able to keep the cost of the project pretty low. The only thing I had to purchase new was the tower, the optical drive, and the keyboard with built-in mouse pad.

I looked carefully at quite a few websites, but in the end, I turned to my old friend NewEgg.

The case I purchased was an APEVIA Black SECC case. It seemed to have the best features overall for a reasonable price. I measured out the spot on my media center to make sure it would fit with a few inches clearance for air flow. It does stick out the back end of the media center slightly, but this isn't noticeable unless you are looking directly from behind (the media center is "kitty-cornered", so it's not noticable).

Overall, I'm very pleased with the APEVIA Case overall. Major Pros are the size, form factor, heat dissipation. Minor cons include difficult to remove front bazel, the memory card reader not being flush with the front case, a bright power LED, and the included power supply only being 20-pin instead of 24-pin (no deal breakers).

I didn't bother with the built-in power supply since my motherboard recommends a 24-bit connector. However, it was extremely easy to remove the old power supply and reuse the one from the existing tower (note that if you do use the internal power supply, it's switched off by default, so you'll want to remove the front bezel to turn it on).

The front bazel requires some muscle to take off (then again, I'm not exactly The Hulk). Use your fingers under the lip (coming from the narrow side) and brace your other hand against the case and pull firmly. It should make a snap and come off.

The power LED is extremely bright. This was easily fixed for me with a piece of electrical tape. A small part of the LED is still visible for functionality purpose.

At first, I was a little worried about heat. My old tower had a funnel directly over the processor for air flow, while the APEVIA does not. You'll notice two fans on the back which plug into the power supply, as well as side vents and a power supply vent. My processor (an AMD) gets a fair amount of load when playing back or encoding media, however I have yet to see the internal temperature sensors get much above 35-40C, which is great.

The case fans (and my power supply) are quiet enough for a HTPC setting. At least for me, but I don't personally notice them. Obviously it's not as quiet as it could be if you were running a full fan-less system.

I use my memory card reader in the external 3.5 inch slot. Strangely, there are these two plastic "lips" on either side of the bay which prevent the reader from coming all the way to the front. But it's only recessed about 1/8 of an inch, so really no big deal and it works overall. You might even be able to file the lips down if you have lots of patience.

It took me about an afternoon to transfer all the internal guts (motherboard, processor, power supply, etc. to the new case). While I've swapped PCI cards, memory and drives many times, this was my first motherboard install from scratch. I found a wonderful guide here that you might like to read if it is your first time as well. A less detailed, but still informative guide, is here. One tip is to install the memory card reader and hard drive before the motherboard.

Sure, I could have gone even smaller (micro-ATX), but since I wanted to keep the project cheap, I'm extremely happy with the result overall.

For the optical drive, I debated rather or not I even needed one. My old tower did not have one, and I used an external USB DVD-optical drive when required. I could simply have kept using that. But that detracted away from the integrated media center affect, and I was also hoping to upgrade to BluRay burner so I could backup many of the home movies and photographs I've acquired over the years onto a larger media format (also working on transferring stacks of home movie VHS tapes I recently acquired from my mom).

I again purchased the BluRay burner from Newegg. So far I've had no problem reading and burning DVD's, but I have yet to try any BD-R or BD-RE discs. I purchased quite a few for a low cost at a local store, so hopefully I'll have a chance to try them soon.

The keyboard with integrated touch pad was quite interesting. I wasn't even sure 100% sure they actually existed. But I happened to come across one while out on a shopping trip for a good deal, and couldn't pass it up. It's a Logitech K400. It works great as a HTPC keyboard. The keys are a little small if you were doing a lot of serious typing, but for a HTPC, it's perfect. The integrated touch pad works great. The receiver is very small, it actually includes an extension USB receiver in case you find it too small! I use one of the front USB ports for it, so I can easily move it to another machine if necessary.

One neat feature of the K400 is that it has an "on/off" switch. So you can conserve the battery life when it's not in use, which is great.

Finally, what media center is complete without a Logitech Harmony? The particular model I chose was the 700 model, which is pretty fantastic. Of course, I already had the Harmony for a while now (ergo I didn't include it in the cost of the project), but wanted to mention it overall. It works great with the HVR1600, if you are wondering. I was able to get it for significantly cheaper than retail price on a "Boxing Day" sale here in Canada, so keep an eye out!


Thankfully, much of the software was already configured and in place from when I used the machine as a tower. I did make a few tweaks though.

The main OS is Ubuntu 12.04 and the "DVR" and Media Center software is MythTV. The IR Blaster works as before. MythTV allows me to play back any recordings, or other media I might have.

People who build MythTV boxes tend to keep them running 24/7. Personally, this isn't my style, since I don't like to waste energy needlessly. But, if the box isn't on, it can't record anything.

If your BIOS supports it, there is a really nifty feature called RTC Wake. Basically, it allows you to write a simple Unix time to a file, usually in the Proc system. You can then start your system at the appropriate time from a completely powered off state.

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