How to Build a 4K Home Theater PC (HTPC) – Part One: Goals and Challenges

HTPC

The moment I purchased my Vizio P Series 4K TV, I knew a proper home theater PC (HTPC) was next on the list.

It would need to have a small form factor, it would also need to be quiet and powerful, capable of basically anything a normal PC can do, and, oh yeah, be as 4K compliant as possible.

ETR How to Build a 4K HTPC

  1. PART ONE: GOALS AND CHALLENGES
  2. PART TWO: CASE, POWER SUPPLY, MOTHERBOARD, AND COOLING
  3. PART THREE: PROCESSOR, SSD, RAM, AND OPTICAL DRIVE
  4. PART FOUR: SETUP, TROUBLESHOOTING, AND QUIRKY 4K SHIT
  5. PART FIVE: SOFTWARE
  6. PART SIX: PERIPHERALS AND EVERYTHING ELSE
  7. PART SEVEN: GRAPHICS CARD – THE DEFINITIVE INSTALLATION/UPGRADE/HOW-TO GUIDE
  8. UPDATED PARTS LIST FOR 2016
  9. UPDATED PARTS LIST FOR 2017

Earlier this year, I told you all that I was really looking forward Intel’s Compute Stick, and all of the great things I planned on doing with it. Don’t get me wrong, I still have very high hopes for the micro PC, but when I started thinking about what I really wanted from my HTPC, I knew that a tiny, sub $200 Windows 8.1 PC wasn’t going to cut it. For my needs and wants, it would have been throwing money down the toilet. So ultimately, I decided to throw a shitload of money (kinda) down the toilet instead.

4K makes things a little more complicated. Since the standard is fairly new, it can be difficult to find information on capable components. For 4K, you just need better components, which often means higher cost. There is not a whole lot you can skimp on at the moment. It’s not like building an HTPC for 1080P displays. Any modern day GPU, or APU (Accelerated Processing Unit) a CPU with integrated graphics, can display 1080P with ease. Most APU’s can even play modern day PC games at low resolutions & details. You could easily build a 1080P HTPC, for probably under $300, assuming you wanted it to play Blu-ray discs. Shit, you could purchase a new $50 Raspberry Pi and you could have a sub $100 micro HTPC capable of 1080P (not including an OS). Here is my point, 1080P is easy to build for, 4K is slightly more difficult (mainly research), but definitely more expensive.

4k_Example

The sheer amount of pixels in a 4K display require a fairly decent APU/GPU. It is basically like running 4 1080P screens on one monitor.

So you may be asking yourself this. Why is building for 4K more expensive? Like I stated above, any slightly modern processor (with integrated graphics) and/or GPU is capable of pushing a 1080P display. The biggest and most obvious difference is the 4K resolution itself. A 4K display has 4X the pixel count of traditional FHD screens/monitors. No small task for most processors and GPU’s. There also a bunch of new technical concerns that come along with 4K. Such as HDMI 2.0, HDCP 2.2, and screen refresh rates. These can be big issues depending on your usage, but as of today, there aren’t a whole lot of good solutions when you are dealing with small form factor PC’s.

My Vizio P Series is capable of HDMI 2.0 input, but HDMI 2.0 output sources are quite scarce at the moment. So what the hell is HDMI 2.0 anyway? A new standard for HDMI had to be created for 4K, thus we have HDMI 2.0. 4K is just too much information for a normal HDMI cable to transport effectively at 60 Hz, the cable does not have enough bandwidth to support a signal at that rate. Most modern commercial HDMI cables (HDMI 1.4) WILL support 4K, but only at 30Hz. Which could make your output a bit choppier than some would like, it’s still very usable, just not ideal. For most applications, 60 Hz is the preferred refresh rate. 60 Hz is basically what your normal LCD/LED HDTV produces before you dabble in any smooth motion effects (120 HZ, 240 Hz). HDMI 2.0 is still a very new technology, and thus, has yet to be widely adopted. This is just one of the many growing pains associated with being an early adopter of 4K, and of any new technology for that matter. HDMI output 2.0 is not impossible, though. If your HTPC is a full/mid tower, you are good to go. There are a few full-size Nvidia graphics cards out there (GTX 960, 970, 980) that currently support HDMI 2.0. But for the rest of us, almost all compact, low power GPU’s do not support HDMI 2.0, yet. I expect that to change in the near future, but nothing has been announced yet.

HDCP 2.2 is the next gen of content protection for 4K. It is mainly something you only need to worry about with your particular 4K TV. Here is a good article explaining what HDCP 2.2 is, and why you should care.

Now that we have a good understanding of our technical limitations and challenges associated with building a 4K HTPC, let’s talk about what we need our HTPC to do.

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What do you want?

What the fuck do you want from your HTPC? This is the first question you should ask yourself. If you want an HTPC to simply stream Netflix, you might just want to stick with a Roku, but only for 1080P, a 4K capable Roku box does not exist quite yet. But if you want to do a little more than simple video streaming, you want true 4K resolution, or eventually think you may want more than a simple streaming box, you might be justified in building yourself an HTPC.

Your options for HTPC’s are virtually unlimited. Basically, any PC, Mac, Raspberry Pi, or Chromebox can become an HTPC. You can buy pre-built small form factor PC’s from Best Buy, Amazon, Newegg, etc. You can buy a partially built Intel NUC (Next Unit of Computing), but you are very limited in terms of upgrading your hardware in the future. There are so many directions you can go, it will make your fucking head spin.

NUC

Intel NUC PC

Prior to my build, I researched all of my options and found that once again, building a custom PC made the most sense from a dollar and functionality perspective. But it all depends on your needs and space requirements. So for our purposes, we will focus on building an HTPC from the ground up. During my research, my list of needs and wants was ever increasing, I didn’t feel like settling for mediocre performance or not having an optical drive. Most of the pre/partially-built systems out there just didn’t offer the flexibility I wanted. Here is a list of my HTPC requirements.

  • Play and rip Blu-ray discs.
  • Fast, SSD boot drive, and program storage. Room for extra storage. Until I have a need for an NAS (Network-attached storage).
  • Expandable and modular. Freedom to add/take components out, or replace worn/old components.
  • 4K capable processor with integrated graphics for the time being, until HDMI 2.0 GPU’s are readily available.
  • An HTPC case and mobo with some type of PCI expansion card capabilities. So I can upgrade to HDMI 2.0 when available and allow TV tuner cards.
  • Appropriately sized case based on my size limitations.
  • Multiple USB 3.0 ports
  • Easy for the whole family to use. Small learning curve, but this is mainly software related.
  • Quiet (inaudible from 4 feet)
  • Windows Media Center requires Windows 8.1 Pro (for a possible DVR solution)
  • Ability to accept at least 2 internal HDD and/or SSD’s.
  • Bluetooth

That is a lot of fucking shit to ask for from any pre-built system. Most of the small, pre-built systems lacked any kind of optical disc drive. Even though physical media is slowly dying, it isn’t dead yet. So Blu-ray disc playback was essential. You can easily pickup external USB Blu-ray disc drives, but I wanted a self-contained unit without a whole bunch of extra shit cluttering up space, plus internal disc drives are cheaper most of the time.

So do yourself a favor before building a 4K capable HTPC. Make a checklist of you wants and needs, and do your fucking research. When you buy components that aren’t compatible, or aren’t good enough for your given task, you can only blame yourself.

Stay tuned for Part 2, we will be going over the components I have selected for my build and why. We will also be going over how to build an HTPC from the ground up using parts you purchased yourself. See you then, bitches.

Got a question, comment, or observation? Let me know in the comments section. I’ll do my best to get back with you ASAP.

  • DmitryVedeneev

    I disagree with some of your basic assumptions. For one thing, you start building any computer system with the motherboard. In case of “kicking ass out of 4k” something like this will do just fine:

    pcpartpicker.com/part/asus-motherboard-h97iplus

    It’ll match all 4k resolutions supported by the most powerful discrete GPUs. This means you don’t need any PCI slots at all really. And no wasting electricity or money either.

    When there really is a new TV or – imagine that – a higher resolution, widely available media format, you can just get another hundred dollar motherboard.

    • ETR

      Thanks for the comment.

      When it comes to HTPC’s, size is everything for most people. If you can go larger with your HTPC, you have a larger selection of motherboards to chose from. But your case will dictate which form factor you can use. Why would someone pick a ATX or micro-ATX board if they require something much smaller, like Mini-ITX? Regardless of your size, you are still going to have plenty of options when shopping for mobo’s for your HTPC.

      The Mobo we use in this build easily supports 4K via integrated graphics. But at 30Hz only, which will probably be the case for most motherboards right now. That being said, if you want anything over 30Hz you will need to go with a discrete GPU. I haven’t found a mobo yet that supports HDMI 2.0.

  • mario

    which graphics card would you suggest for a gaming htpc?

    • ETR

      First things first. Do you have any size restrictions and what is your budget? These two factors will heavily influence your GPU selection.

  • Joe

    Thanks for the article. I know some things have come out since you authored it….4k roku etc…. If I plan to stream from the htpc to my plex app on my 4k vizio m series over the network…. my main thing to insure good video quality is the video card correct? Do you have any recommendations on that?

    • ETR

      Your graphics card has little to no bearing on Plex performance. It’s all CPU. I can stream native bit rate (bluray quality) from my HTPC, which currently uses noting but integrated graphics, directly to the Plex app on on Vizio P series 4K TV. Your only limitations might be CPU, and the strength of your home network. The HTPC found in this guide is well suited for the task.

      • Joe

        thanks for the reply! I was having some buffering issues on my current build before i moved. I got to start researching again. Not an expert, researched it, built it and ‘forget it’ mentality. I compared my current processor, phenom ii x6 vs the recommended one above… yours seems to beat it in most cases–and mine is double the power consumption. http://cpuboss.com/cpus/Intel-Core-i5-4460-vs-AMD-Phenom-II-X6-Black-1100T Also the phenom doesn’t have an integrated gpu…is that something i need? (not sure exactly what that does.)

        • ETR

          I actually used to own a AMD Phenom II X6. In real world performance, I can tell you first hand that their is little to no comparison when compared to a fairly recent Core i5. But, I’d be very surprised if that chip couldn’t handle a HD video stream. Even a ripped bluray MKV stream should be no problem.

          You’re right the Phenom II X6 does not feature integrated graphics, but it’s not something to be concerned with when you’re just talking about Plex. The GPU has nothing to do with Plex performance. Your problem probably exists within your home network. But it all depends upon your setup. Router, network type (ethernet, wifi, MoCA), network bandwidth, etc.