For 2017’s 4K HTPC refresh, were going to do things a bit differently. Instead of just one recommended build, we’re going to recommend builds based on budget.
UPDATE: The 2018 4K HTPC update has been posted, take a look here.
There is no “one size fits all” approach. Some of you simply want an HTPC for streaming video and music from the web. While others want an HTPC that can do it all, play games, host a Plex server, rip Blu-ray’s, etc. Some of you have very little room for your HTPC, while others have virtually no size constraints. It’s impossible to make everyone happy with one single HTPC build.
Regardless of your situation, this guide should be of some help to you, maybe help you figure out where you stand. I’ll try and cover as many scenarios as I can think of. Despite the configuration, all HTPC’s featured in this post will be 4K capable.
Before we begin
Just putting this out there. For the purposes of this post, all builds will be Intel based to provide better direct comparisons and component interchangeability. Throwing AMD CPU’s into the mix would just muddy the waters. Until AMD releases Zen, a budget build is the only build in which I would even consider using an AMD CPU.
For each of the following builds, I am going to refrain from recommending a secondary storage drive. Everyone has different storage requirements, you might need 10TB’s to store your massive Bluray collection, while someone else may only need a single 1TB drive for their DVR. So, I’ll put it on you to determine your storage needs. If you’re unsure of how much storage you might need here is a general rule to follow. A perfect (1/1) Bluray rip ranges from 20-30GB per disc, DVD’s average about 4-7GB per disc, and HDTV DVR recordings will probably require about 6GB for every hour recorded, so purchase a drive that can accommodate your collection and/or storage needs.
Most of the components found in each of the builds below are interchangeable/compatible with each other. All of the motherboards are MicroATX LGA-1151, and support DDR4 RAM. This means you could technically swap out, or mix & match the CPU and/or memory found in any of the following builds. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Pairing an inexpensive motherboard with a K series i7 chip doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But it’s your dime.
A quick note about cooling. Cooling and ventilation (fans) requirements are going to vary dramatically from person to person. Some HTPC’s live in tight, enclosed environments. While others live in the open air, behind a home theater system. Regardless of your situation, make sure you provide adequate ventilation for your system. Poor cooling may lead to higher temperatures, which in turn, may cause problems in the future.
What about pre-built PCs?
If you’re on a strict budget, luckily, you have a ton of options. There’s the Intel Compute Stick, Intel NUC, Chromeboxes, and various other pre-built systems that might fill your needs. But most pre-built systems share some common downfalls. Most lack processing/graphical power, expandability, and some lack 4K output. But, on the flip side, some pre-built systems feature extremely low power consumption, very small form factors (footprint), and most come with a modest price tag.
So which one is right for you? It all goes back to your personal preferences. If you want to play PC games from your HTPC, or if you’re ever considering that possibility, most of these options simply will not cut it. Most, if not all, lack virtually any kind of expandability and/or upgradeability. Same goes for video encoding, and Plex server hosting. A budget pre-built PC can do it, but you may not be happy with its performance. That being said, should your needs take you beyond the basics, you would probably benefit from building your own HTPC, even if you’re on a budget. If that sounds like you, then continue reading.
Budget HTPC Breakdown
I know what you are thinking. “$500 isn’t exactly a budget PC, it doesn’t even include a graphics card?”. Am I right? You’re (kinda) right, but let’s take a look at why we did what we did, and where we can create a little wiggle room.
As far as I’m concerned, if you are buying new, the CPU, motherboard, memory, and storage found in the budget build are about as minimal as I am willing to go. If you want 4K output, without a discrete graphics card, then the i3-6100 is gonna be your minimum spec. Unless you buy used or find some “new old stock”, going back a generation won’t help you with cost either. Staying with the current gen (Skylake) is optimal (cost and performance wise) if we’re going to rely on integrated graphics for video output.
You could go lower-end on the processor, something like the Intel G3258 (requires an LGA-1150 motherboard) would work, but you would need a discrete video card to support 4K video output, the G3258 does not support 4K output via integrated graphics. But keep the following in mind. This case will only support low-end, low-profile, low-power, graphics cards. These types of video cards are very limited in their selection and capabilities, and in most cases, won’t be a hell of a lot better than Intel integrated graphics. If you need a graphics card, for gaming or whatever you think you need it for, I suggest you step up to the mid-range build, or grab a bigger case and pick up a more powerful PSU.
I’m usually not a fan of integrated power supplies, but based on reviews and in the interest of saving some money, I think its worth a shot. If this case was from a company I had never heard of before, I probably would have passed on an integrated PSU. But since it’s Rosewill, I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, their PSU’s are usually pretty decent. The case also comes with a one year warranty if that makes you feel any better. Just keep this in mind, 300W isn’t a lot to work with, but should be perfectly adequate for most situations.
If you really want to cut costs, you can do away with Windows 10 (Ubuntu is free, but the OS not for everyone) and the Blu-ray disc drive. These components aren’t required for everyone, but they are nice to have for a well-rounded, fully capable, HTPC. Cutting these components will save you around $170 and bring down the total cost to about $320.
Despite being labeled as a “Budget HTPC”, it should still perform quite admirably. This is a very capable HTPC. Anything you wanna do with your HTPC, you can do with this “budget build”. It can do just about everything the mid and high-end builds can do, it just can’t do it quite as well. For most daily HTPC tasks, this build should treat you well.
It’s not a graphical powerhouse, but you should be able to run a decent selection of PC games at 720P, and some at 1080P. You’ll have to drastically lower settings and resolutions for most modern games (not recommended for newer AAA titles), but you could easily play older titles such as Portal 2, Half Life 2, and TF2 at or near max, even at 1080P.
Mid-range HTPC Breakdown
Now we’re starting to go above and beyond standard 4K HTPC requirements. The additions of a Core-i5 6400 CPU, GTX 1060 graphics card, and upgraded case make this a far more capable HTPC than our budget build. It is essentially a gaming PC, disguised as an HTPC.
This HTPC will allow you to output 4K 60Hz via the GTX 1060’s HDMI 2.0 port. Anything you can do with the budget build, you can do with this build, but this will do most of those things better (obviously).
Along with better 4K output, the GTX 1060 will transform your HTPC into a mid-range gaming PC. You can probably expect to play just about any AAA PC game on the market at or near max settings, at 1920 x 1080 resolution. You could probably up that to 2560 x 1440 for some games, but you’re probably going to need to slightly adjust your settings a bit to get playable frame rates. You’re going to need to upgrade your GPU to game at 4K, the GTX 1060 won’t be able to handle most newer games at 4K.
The additions of a beefier processor and discrete GPU means that this HTPC will produce more noise, more heat, and will draw more power from the wall than our budget build. So it’s not as ideal to use as an always-on PC, media center, or Plex server. But it’s not like it’s going to significantly jack up your power bill, or sound like a jet engine in your living room. But it will be a little less efficient (51W TDP for the i3 vs 65W TDP for the i5) and a little noisier. More power, requires..more power. It’s just the way it is.
This mid-range HTPC also requires a significantly larger chassis than the previous build. You will some need the extra space in order to fit a mainstream (normal sized) graphics card into your build. So make sure you have enough space in your home theater cabinet (or wherever) for your HTPC to live and breathe.
Due to the power requirements of this system, you also need a beefier PSU. The paltry 300W integrated PSU in out previous build wouldn’t be nearly enough. That’s why we have upped it to a 650W 80+ gold PSU. You could get by with the minimum (400W), but I aways like to have a little bit of wiggle room for future upgrades and additions. Upgrading your PSU later is a pain in the ass. I would suggest a minimum of 500W, but please, for the love of god, don’t skimp on a cheap ass, piece of shit power supply. Trust me, pay the extra $10 and go name brand (Corsair, EVGA, Rosewill, Seasonic).
This is major overkill for any HTPC. But if this is your budget, and you want the best (relatively speaking) then you got it. This is going beyond HTPC, it’s a 4K gaming, do it all, beast of a machine.
Very few compromises were made when selecting components for this build. We’re not going with any fancy water cooling, SLI configurations, or anything like that. If you need all that, just build a desktop gaming PC. I gave myself a budget of around $2,000 and selected components that would make a fantastic 4K HTPC/gaming machine.
Once again, this high-end HTPC will do everything the mid-range can do, it will just do it better. It’s a significantly better gaming PC, capable of 4K gameplay in most AAA titles (some with lower settings). If you aren’t gaming with this build, there is really no point in stepping up to the high-end build, none that I can see. Diminishing returns kick in quite heavily. If you’re not gaming, you could significantly downgrade the GPU (GTX 950 or 1050), because it will have little to no impact on the performance of everyday HTPC tasks.
Don’t get me wrong, there are benefits to upgrading to an i7 CPU. HTPC tasks such as encoding, transcoding, and video conversion will all take advantage of the i7’s superior firepower. Remember, the i7-6700K does not come with a CPU cooler, so you will need to buy one separately. I wouldn’t skimp on any of the components listed above. You could go with less RAM, but 16GB is the absolute minimum for this build.
Also, when buying a copy of Windows 10, try not to purchase the OEM version. The OEM version will be permanently tied to your specific configuration and the license cannot be transferred to another machine. Always purchase the full retail version if you ever plan on upgrading your CPU and/or motherboard.
That’s all she wrote. Good luck with your build. Just drop me a message in the comments section below if you have any questions. See you next time!