Thursday, February 18, 2010

Inexpensive Ion HTPC

As I want to improve my free MythTV remote, and I needed to "eat my own dog food", I decided to build a HTPC box for the TV room to run the MythTV frontend. I'd been interested for a while in a small, low power PC based around the Nvidia Ion chipset. A little research indicated the board to get was the Zotac IONITX-A-U as it:
  • Came in a compact, mini-ITX form.
  • Has the 64-bit capable dual core Atom 330N processor
  • Has multiple output ports including VGA, HDMI for video and SPDIF coax and TOSLink optical for audio, amongst others.
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • External power supply to keep the heat out of the case.

The most important feature was quiet, with the related property of energy efficiency. There are many cheap PCs out there, but few can play 1080i MPEG2 videos while draining 31 Watts.

I put in 2GB of RAM which allowed me to configure the BIOS to set aside half a gig for video memory. I removed the included wireless card, as I have Gigabit ethernet in my TV cabinet, and there's no reason to waste whatever minimal energy would be used by the card. Threw in a 60 GB laptop drive I had from a few MacBooks ago, and put it in a small case. The hardest part of installing MythBuntu 9.1 64-bit, was scrounging up an external optical drive. So, all in all a very easy thing to put together.

It works fairly well. I've put my children's DVD collection on a network share and use MythVideo to watch that and recorded TV shows. Since this was my first real standalone MythTV frontend, I had to rejigger my video setup such that both the backend and frontend used both the same relative paths to videos and movie posters (both Linux boxes have paths of the form /mnt/MyNAS/MyVideos and /mnt/MyNAS/MyPosters). Once this was all setup, it's extremely convenient having a kid's movie a few touches away. I had read complaints about the fan needing to be run at a lower speed, but I really can't hear it from the couch.

    Energy usage measured via Kill-A-Watt
  • Idle Running MythTV Frontend: 25W
  • Playing DVD Image: 26W
  • Playing 720p MPEG2 (recording of 24 on Fox): 28W
  • Playing 1080i MPEG2 (Big Bang Theory on CBS): 31W
I have got to figure out how to get the box to put itself to sleep when I'm not using it.

My old LCD TV is impossible to get the VGA just right (no surprise that) so I have a two inch black bar on the right of the display, but I'll be moving to use the DVI port as soon as Monoprice gets me an HDMI switch.

It's interesting as a Mac guy seeing this little DIY assembly. On the one hand, it's pretty inexpensive and I wouldn't want to waste a Mac on single purpose computing. On the other hand, it's pretty darn cheap. Here's a photo comparing a older generation Mac Mini with my system.

The Mini is definitely a superior computer in terms of build quality. The M350 case is nice enough, but it is still ill fitting sheet metal, and the ports still wiggle and flex when you try to push a connector in. In comparison, the Mini is just rock solid, and smaller while still having a faster processor and an optical drive. And it's a darn sight more attractive. On the other hand, the Zotac has a ton of extra ports, including a variety of internal SATA and USB connectors. Different needs.

  • Motherboard: $185
  • RAM: $45
  • Case (with Shipping): $50
  • Hard Drive: Free
  • --------------
  • Total: $280