Sunday, July 3, 2011

Building a fanless linux home theater PC (htpc) from parts in Akihabara

PART 1: The Hardware
  • Part 1: the hardware
  • Part 2: the software choices
Due to Japan's lack of love for earth - as in ground, electrically speaking, my home machine's video card (and the monitor to which it was connected) fried several years ago. I repurposed the machine into a headless sever, and all was fine until several weeks ago. It's not dead yet, but well on it's way (and I suspect it's the logic board). So I set out to build something new.

Because I don't need a regular desktop at home these days, I was free to explore other options and decided to put together a media center PC, but it needed to meet the following requirements
  • Virtually instant on (boot from cold start in a matter of seconds)
  • Virtually silent
  • Small
  • Low power consumption
  • Hardware decoding of 1080p video
  • Fully remote controllable by Android and iOS devices
  • Less than ¥35,000 total price
Sound impossible? Well, It certainly rules out buying a license for Windows. And to achieve the boot times I am looking for, I'd need a solid state drive with some form of stripped down embedded linux installed. Solid state drives have gotten cheaper, but the price for gigabyte is still well above that for traditional spinning disks.


It wasn't impossible, but I did go over budget. Everything cost me ¥36,710. I could have done it for about ¥34,000, but the extra money got me twice the disk size. Here's what I got, all of it purchased in the backstreets of Akihabara (Map).

Item Description P/N and kakaku link Store Price
"Barebones" Case Shuttle fanless case with Intel Atom D525 dual core CPU, NM10 chipset, Nvidia ION2 graphics XS35GT v2 Ark (online) ¥21,470
Solid State Drive 60 GB OCZ Vertex 2 Sata II SSD (285/275/250 Mbps read/write/sustained) OCZSSD2-2VTX60G Tsukumo #12 (online) ¥8,980
Memory Kingston DDR3 204 pin SO-DIMM 4GB 1066 MHz notebook RAM KVR1066D3s7/4G Tusukmo #12 (online) ¥3,480
DVD drive LG Slimline notebook DVD read/write drive GT40N Ark (online) ¥2,780
Total
¥36,710


What really makes this possible is the "barebones" X35GT V2 from Shuttle. This is a fanless case with an Intel Atom D525 (1.8 GHz dual core) processor, onboard Nvidia ION2 graphics with both VGA and HDMI, and up to 4 GB of RAM. It even has a card reader. And comes with a tiny 40W external power supply, which uses less energy than one typical incandescent light bulb. (I understand it uses about 20 W at idle and 30 W under usage.)


Into this case, I installed one of the best and fastest, SATA II solid state drives (no moving parts) for about ¥9,000, the OCZ Vertex 2 60GB SSD drive on sale at Tsukumo via the web or at their number 12 store in the backstreets of Akihabara, two blocks west of Chuo Dori. (Same drive is $140US on New Egg, ¥12,000 according to kakaku.com, and google shopping finds it in the ¥16,000 to ¥17,000 range). Right now, it is sitting, locked in a glass case at Yodobashi Akiba for, incredibally, over ¥30,000!

For an optical drive, I briefly considered going with a blue ray drive, the least expensive of which was about ¥7,000, but that either would have me buying a license to windows or being very frustrated trying to make it work on linux, so I stuck with a DVD read/write slim drive. I ended up getting a LG GT40N for ¥2,780 (the cheapest price listed on kakaku) from the Ark store, a few blocks southwest of the intersection of Chuo and Kuramae Dori. [NOTE: I don't recommend this drive - it is "sticky" and not smooth to open.]


I could have saved about ¥600 yen by buying from other stores, primarily saving on the cost of the memory, but I decided to buy from a place that I am familiar with (and have a point card for). Besides, the XS35GT v2 for at slightly cheaper price at Tsukumo was not in stock.

In the next post, I'll cover the software. For now I'll leave you with one last picture. This is all I need to fully control this computer, from start up to shutdown, including playing music and videos.

30 comments:

  1. Techniker TechnologeJuly 3, 2011 at 1:52 PM

    if you are using an atom + linux (I suppose), what about HD content in Flash? Afaik still no (gpu) hardware accelaration in Flash under Linux?
    And how does the case with passive cooling cope with the japanese summer and, say, a movie in HD or full-HD?

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  2. i have almost an identical setup and havnt had any issues. the ion2does hardware h.264 decoding so hd content is not an issue. so fsr i have not had an cooling issues. but when it is under a load watching video i am on and so is the ac. i havnt had any issues with it running idle while i am gone either. as fsr as flash xbmc isnt using a browser so flash doesnt come into play.

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  3. ht03a→atrix tokyoJuly 3, 2011 at 11:03 PM

    very nice...good to see that "kind of blue" got played right away

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  4. ah my other interest .. I will be interested to see how you manage to get the unit to power up via a remote
    At the moment I have a popcorn C200 Media player but i feel it's too lacking and the gui is very slow

    I'm buildling a new unit using the intel DH67CFB3 and a Silverstone LC19 case .. the intel board was the only one with a CIR header to allow me to use a remote to power up the system from cold

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  5. Do you run anything in the background like a torrent client or sickbeard and couchpotato ?

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  6. I run deluged on the server with the web front end that connects to transdroid on my tablet. I can literally queue up a download from anywhere.

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  7. Very nice .. I have trying for ages to get a HTPC that I like ..
    I even have apple TV with a 720/1080 Crystal decoder but it runs far to warm for my liking.

    Hopefully the i3 and the Lc19 will fill the gap .. but i do like the shuttles design  

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  8. WoL from totally off could indeed be an issue. shutting down shouldn't be though. I'm have it up and running right now, but I might change distros again, depending... 

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  9. Hey guys, I don't mind discussion around region lock outs, such as flashing firmware to a DVD drive, or even the libdvdcss, which is needed to simply watch on linux a DVD you rented or own - er, I mean, sorry, um..., licensed the right to pay money to posses a physical copy of on an optical disc pressed by the distributor and some associated packaging.

    I also don't mind discussion of proxies to obtain a US IP address to watch content that would otherwise be free.Even though my favorite way to DL a new linux distro is  bittorrent, I would prefer not to have detailed discussions of bit torrent here.

    Thanks,
    SBS

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  10. Sorry about that. But on a side note have you checked out the various video add-on's for xbmc? You can stream the majority of the popular Tech vod casts including the TWIT network. Jupiterbroadcasting has some great shows too.

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  11. Haven't spent anytime looking at add ons yet. So far, I've just been seeing if this particular distro that I'm using is going to meet my needs before I spend too much time customizing it only to blow it away, like I did that 10.04 install ;-)

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  12. @SBSdroid:disqus  no problems .. in fact one of things I'm interested in, is the proxy for UK TV - iPlayer  within XMBC mainly radio stations if anyone was any insight into this .. that would be great

    Also do you use a AV amp ?

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  13. Just have a stereo that it is hooked up to, that's all. I can't go crazy with the sound because of thin walls.

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  14. @SBSdroid:disqus I have a AV amp and a bose 5.1 Speaker system .. both in the boxes  !! all I use at the moment is my 7.1 wireless headphones ..

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  15. I have had so many HPTC  machines based on Linux/windows  remote control has always been a issue .. the Apple TV 1 was great but you could fry an egg on the top and has issues with crashes

    My last machine the C-200 was good but no where near XMBC levels  .. the i3 and the LC19 is a interesting project

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  16. @SBSdroid:disqus Proxy services? I am using StrongVPN to watch Netflix and Hulu. I tried BananaVPN before, but sometimes had bandwidth issues. StrongVPN has a good reputation and is reliable. They have several server locations which can be chosen or switched.
    Netflix works very well, but Hulu sometimes needs to refill the buffer. FYI, Netflix accepts foreign credit cards, but requires a US address for registration. However, Hulu Plus does not accept foreign credit cards. You'll either have to stick with the free content or try out www.usunlocked.com. Not sure if it's worth the hassle though.
    Please note that Netflix currently requires Silverlight (Windows), but it seems like a Linux/Chrome/XBMC version might be available soon.
    http://www.ehomeupgrade.com/2011/05/10/netflix-finally-coming-to-linux-and-chrome-os/
    http://www.howtogeek.com/howto/43724/how-to-view-netflix-watch-instantly-in-xbmc/

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  17. Seems there is some overlap between gaijin geeks who want to play around with android phones and APN's in Japan and gaijin geeks who want to watch/hear content via XBMC.

    I know you want to segue nicely by showing XBMC remotes on Android, but honestly -- get a real remote. I recommend just getting the Windows Media Center remote and calling it a day. The smartphone/tablet apps are nice when dealing with music and you don't want your TV turned on -- but when watching videos the convenience of real buttons and not needing to unlock and look at a screen every time you need to pause is HUGE.

    I'm on an original Revo in 2 rooms, HDMI to the TV in the bedroom and HDMI+Toslink for my 5.1 setup on an (old) Sony ES receiver in the living room and everything works GREAT.

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  18. Thanks for the comment and the suggestion.

    I appreciate the ease and benefits of having dedicated hardware with firmware designed to do only one purpose. More often than not it works better than something kludged together. I'm sure a remote would work better than my phone.

    But there is another theme on this blog, which is doing stuff on the cheap with what you have at hand and as little more as possible. Since I don't own a remote, but I do have a few phones...

    And besides, I'd never convince my wife to let me go out and spend more money on a remote with my phone (and hers) already control it ;-)

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  19. Just FYI -- I think I bought mine (HP model) on ebay and had it shipped directly to JP for like $15.

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  20. i bought an acer revo 12+ months ago, installed an ION-specific livecd, spent a month or so configuring everything and it's been a dream ever since. it was way easier than hunting down all the parts individually and actually cost me less than 3man. i basically never turn it off, since it's also my torrent station. never needed to really worry about hardware acceleration since it's played everything i've ever thrown at it. XBMC rules, i haven't watched TV in years.

    the dude above is right about the remote, though. the android app is a neat trick but nowhere near as intuitive as a normal MCE remote. plus if you ever have a tech-illiterate girl over she won't know what to do without a regular remote, chaos ensues, she won't be able to watch notting hill and you won't get any action.

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  21. haha. point taken on the remote. But there is another way of looking at it.

    Being married, there are Rules Regarding Relinquishment of the Remote. The rules are simple; she never relinquishes it. Ever.

    Long story short, that my woman might not be able to understand how to use the android remote app may not be such a bad thing. Regarding, "action" I'll spare you the details, but I can guarantee that if I bought a remote control, it wouldn't change anything ;-)

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  22. Nice article, affordable DIY always wins in my oppinion!
    I was wondering if anyone of you guys ever had a need for a capturing (hard disc recorder) solution in such manner.
    I assume there are plenty of USB and PCI express (don't know if it would fit inside the barebone) solutions available that work with the Japanese ISDB/B-CAS system. But I was wondering if they can be setup with XBMC (or another free media center solution) to record stuff manually as well as automated based on EPG keywords or other scheduling settings.
    The playback of recorded TV shows should also be "wife compatible". The setup of the recordings on the other hand, does not :-) Albeit having an UI would be preferred.
    Thanks in advance for any responses!

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  23. I would have to look into it but it looks like it is possible http://forum.xbmc.org/showthread.php?t=45314 http://forum.xbmc.org/tags.php?tag=dvr
    If you already own a PS3 they do make a add-on in Japan for doing just that. It isn't DIY but works pretty well I am sure.

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  24. The biggest issue is probably going to be reliable scraping of recording schedules. In the US with a mythTV setup, I used schedules direct and zap2it before that. I am not aware of a similarly reliable service in Japan. But I haven't looked into it at all yet. Scraping could work, assuming that information is always presented in a logical and consistent fashion, which might be asking too much from the likes on NHK and Yahoo! Japan :rollseyes:

    With an atom, though, it is going to have to be hardware encoding with an external USB device.

    Not so cheap, but it looks like people are having success with this and linux, though it might be more difficult to get it working in xbmc, depending on what distro you're running.
    http://www.friio.com/

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  25. I have been building up similar system for some time now and found the lack of MCE remotes in Japan the biggest hurdle. And without a remote the system will get No Can Do mark by the Wife.

    I got I-O Data GV-MC7 first and it failed miserably of being MCE compatible, the second try was older I-O Data GV-MC which actually might even work. Have been trying to get Logitech Harmony 900 out of their US webshop but for that you need US address and US credit card.

    So would be happy to hear any recommendations of good remotes from ebay or similar.

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  26. MCE Remotes can be a pain to get here .. I got my older one at Softmap and the new one via Ebay

    http://cgi.ebay.com/HTPC-MCE-Back-Lit-Win-7-IR-Remote-and-External-Receiver-/330562733273?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_0&hash=item4cf71304d9

    Also if you want a Logitech Harmony 900 remote head on over to amazon.com who will ship to JP and the shipping was only 18 USD

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  27. Do you plan to record/view Japanese TV? If so I'm interested in what TV tuner you get.

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  28. Oh nice, thanks for your information!

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