Justblair's Current HTPC

My Current HTPC

dscn0816Computer based media has traditionally been a compromise over quality versus storage requirements.  However with advancements in Hard drive and other storage mediums providing a glut of storage space, it is no longer a requirement that music, films and images be stored in heavily compressed formats.


Keen to capitalise on the maturity of digital media, several software companies have produced media management systems, the big daddy being Microsoft.  Microsoft have been developing Media Centre (MCE) over several years now and have moved it from a buggy awkward looking system to a very sophisticated Multi Media focused media centre.  It has for a long time been my favourite system, with the release of Vista MCE, I stopped looking elsewhere. 


With my Vista MCE based computer, I can play any movie in my collection, Play any piece of music in my collection, Play and record TV, browse and download online media content (although this has yet to offer the choice of content that I would like) and store quickly and retireve easily my own photographs and video footage. 


beigepcOne problem has always been that PC's have been pretty utilitarian looking devices.  Typically you get a reasonably bulky tower with plastic fascia which quickly discolours.  Optical drives that don't quite match the finish of the rest of the case and a noisy fan whining and whooshing away to keep the contents of the case cool.  Its no surprise that the traditional place to keep these machines has been under a desk, out of sight.


In the household, the last place you really wanted to see a PC was in your living room. 


However with the expansion of the humble Desktop PC's territory from its beginnings in word processing and spreadsheets into an exciting new world of quality multimedia, several companies have begun offering PC cases aimed more at the Media centre enthusiasts. 


{include_content_item 45}I had previously manufactured my own case for my living room PC, but since moving in with my girlfriend I was looking for something a bit more finished looking.  I saw many cases, some which I liked like the Silverstone and Zalman offerings. 


However one day, whilst surfing I saw what looked like the perfect case for me.


The Antec Fusion 


Roll into my living room the Antec Fusion.  A brushed aluminium fronted, multi media PC case which looks like a Hifi amplifier, yet can contain a high spec Media Center PC.


I don't consider the £120 that I paid for the case to be cheap, in fact it is the most expensive PC case that I have ever owned.  However compared to other high end cases available, the Antec case is very competitively priced.  Especially when you take a closer look at the construction.


The big seller for the Antec Fusion for me was the aluminium front panel.  PC cases as a breed tend to fall into either the plain and boring or the over the top, stick some plastic fins on it models.  Antec really have struck a balance between the two, and the 6mm thick Brushed Aluminium adds an air of quality.  Antec have also supplied a 1602 VFD display panel, integrated aluminium DVD ROM cover, Fire-wire, twin USB and headphone and mic inputs to the front.  Control wise there is a rotary encoder driven volume knob and illuminated power switch.


Blue Led is definitely in fashion just now, however Antec has stepped away from the crowd to supply white power indicators which look very good on the machine.


Antec have also been slightly clever on the front.  The aluminium panel in fact does not cover the whole aspect of the front.  Some of the height of the unit has been disguised by using black plastic on the lower section to fool the eye.


dscn0819Looking at the rest of the construction, Antec have put some clear thought into the manufacture of the case.  The Antec Fusion takes a standard mini ATX motherboard.  What Antec have done with the fusion is to split the interior of the case into 3 compartments.  1 for the motherboard, 2 for the hard drives and 3 for the optical drive and power supply.


Why go to this effort?  Well this is the trick to this case.  Antec have designed the case to be very efficient at cooling the PC.  This is not so that you can cram it full of the latest heat generating gaming hardware, but so that standard components can be cooled effectively with the minimum of noise. 


By separating the power supply into its own compartment, Antec have exploited the current trend in ATX power supplies to use pwm control of their cooling fans.  Power supplies will spin their cooling fans faster according to the heat inside the supply unit.  On a standard PC, the ATX power supply sits at the top of the unit.  Its cooling fan will exhaust the hot air from the rest of the case as well as the power supply.  That means all of the heat from the PSU, CPU, North-bridge, South-bridge, Graphics Card and hard drives makes it's way through the power supply.  The fan of the power supply will hardly ever be running at it's slowest.


On the Antec Fusion, by separating the PSU into its own compartment, the power supply is only cooling itself and the optical drive (used infrequently and not a big producer of heat).  Therefore with this design the power supply fan is kept on its minimum setting.  I have been using the case for a good few months now and have yet to hear it spin up. 

The hard drive bay is worth looking at.  Antec again have separated the hard drives.  They also have orientated them on their sides inside vibration reducing brackets.  By turning the hard drives on their sides Antec have taken advantage of convection cooling.  The air makes its way from vents on the floor of the Antec Fusion case and up through the drives.  The compartment does not completely separate the hard drives from the motherboard section of the case, their is a small gap left between them at the top of the case.  Hence as air is removed from the main compartment it is drawn through the hard drive bay..


Finally looking at the main compartment, the motherboard resides here.  The compartment is separated from the power supply area, though where cables must come through, Antec have provided an adjustable aperture to keep things as separate as possible.  Antec have also supplied enough height to the case to allow largish heat sinks.  You can see that I have fitted a Scythe Ninja Mini, a unit that is designed for effective low air speed cooling.  Antec may well have designed their case around this cooler as it fits perfectly into the case, lining up with the exit fans.


The exit fans are another neat design.  Antec have supplied space for two 120mm fans which exit the hot air out of the side of the case.  In a modern AV rack the sides of the Antec Fusion case exits into free air.  This allows you to use low speed fans which dont like impeded air flow.  Antec supplied two reasonable quality 120mm fans which had adjustable fan speeds I opted to use aftermarket 120mm fans to bring the noise down further. 


Antec very thoughtfully also supply blanking plates for the 120mm fan holes, so that like in my setup, you can block off a fan and use just 1 fan if you wish.  They also supply an andjustable wall that blocks airflow going past your CPU heat-sink, forcing in my case the air flow through the wide fins of my ninja cooler.  In my setup I have managed to remove the 92mm fan supplied with the CPU cooler and rely on the case exhaust fans to cool the processor.  Very smart!


The attention to detail doen not end there,  Antec has thoughfully provided a cable managemet system that is thoughfully laid out and reusable.  This allows you to keep the case interiour neat and tidy and the airflow un-impeded by cable looms.


This attention to detail sums up the whole design of the Antec Case.  In my living room, even with the standard fans supplied with the case, the unit was barely audible.  Compared to a standard PC case, this setup is a whole lot easier to live with.  It looks the part and more importantly it does not dominate your relaxation area with noise pollution. 




Having worked now on several machines to make them quieter, I was not going to rest on my laurels in the quest of silence. 


So far I have...


Replaced the Antec 120mm fan with a Noctau 120mm

Adapted the CPU fan header in the machine to PWM the case fan.


I have an 80mm fan ready to replace the PSU fan as well.


So what do you need to run Vista MCE?


The machine that I am using right now is not particularly high spec.  Even so MCE runs very well.  



My Spec:


Processor                            Intel 930 64bit Processor

Memory                              1024mb DDR2 Ram

Hard drive 1                        250Gb

Hard drive 1                        750Gb

TV Card                                                Asus

Graphics                              ATi HD3400 Series, passively cooled Graphics, 1080P HDMI

Sound                                   DDDAC 1543 Mk II USB

Readyboost USB              Super Talent Pico C 4Gb


The hardware for the PC mostly came from a reworked PC bought from EBay by my girlfriend.  It was not of the highest spec and was pretty cheap to buy.  Initially it did not include the 750Gb hard drive or the USB drive.


The hard drive was added after a couple of months of use.  250Gb of hard drive space fills up pretty quickly when you are using the hard drive for both film backups and for TV recording.  The 750Gb drive takes the storage up to 1 terabyte which so far is proving more than we need.  With this amount of storage, we no linger have to think twice about what we record from the TV.  Media Center comes with lots of options to handle how TV is stored.  We tend to record things with the option "keep until space is needed".. So far we have not lost anything that we have been disappointed to lose. 


supertalentpicocReadyboost is a feature of Vista that I can not recommend enough.  I bought the Super Talent Pico C 4GB usb drive specifically for this feature.  Basically what windows does is that it caches the files that it uses the most to the USB stick.  Usb has a number of advantages.  In its fastest speeds (The pico is a 200x drive) the USB drives read very quickly. 


Not as fast as current hard drives, but where they beat even the SATA drives is not their raw read speeds, but the non-sequential read speeds surpass the hard drives. 


This makes the usb stick ideal as a cache.  The Ready-boost software technology basically copies the most frequently accessed files into the USB memory and retrieves it as required. 


On my MCE machine this translates to the album covers in the music collection loading faster on the screen.  Similarly the video previews in my movie collection appear on the screen almost instantly. 


I have seen mixed reviews on how much of a difference Ready-boost makes to the performance of the operating system, but on Vista MCE I would say that it makes a worthwhile improvement.  Of course my experiance is on a 1Gb equiped PC.  Perhaps if you have more memory than that your mileage will differ. 


dscn0833One issue I am having with using the ready-boost is the number of USB drives that I am using,  This weekend I took some time to make an internal USB header for the Super Talent Pico C 4GB Usb memory stick.  The motherboard comes with a fairly standard 4 USB ports to the rear connectors.  These are used with:



KeySonic ACK-540RF Wireless Keyboard with Laptop style mouse-pad

Asus USB WiFi adaptor (I've not had a lot of luck with PCI cards)

Microsoft USB IR controller (for the remote handset and remote control of the satellite box)


This meant that one of the front two USB ports of the Antec Fusion case was being used for the Super Talent Pico C Usb memory stick.  Hence I wanted to place the memory stick inside the PC case to simplify the clutter at the front end of the case.  You can read here, Adding an Internal USB Port, a quick guide on doing this.


Software wise I am still using the 32bit version of Windows Vista MCE.  I have the 64bit version on disk ready to install. 


Thus far I have resisted updating to the 64 bit version as there have been a number of issues with compatibility.  However I feel the day dawning soon where I make the jump to 64bit.