Yet Another HTPC Rebuild

4 May, 2015 | FeaturesTechVfd

I've had my HTPC for a while, without doing much apart from the occasional upgrade to add a disk or what-not. The original was built back in 2010. It was still doing the job perfectly fine, but it was always a little heavy on power, too much so to leave on permanently. LAst year, the new Celeron systems caught my eye (the J1800 and J1900), offering low power and silent running.

I did some digging and compared them against their AMD equivalent: the AM1 platform. The latter had some advantages, notably in graphics. It also had a socket, so the CPU could be upgraded. Power consumption, although worse on paper, looked to be on a par. The price was right for a punt, so I placed an order.

(This was mostly done back in July 2014, but I only bought the case recently to complete the build.)

The Decisions

The problem with both of the platforms I was looking at was SATA ports. My media centre machine houses the hard drive storage locally, so it needed six ports. I did (briefly) consider splitting it into two machines, but I was never going to get low power consumption that way.

Thankfully, the AM1 platform offered a Micro-ATX board that gave me more PCI-e slots (I needed one for the TV tuner), so I could add a SATA expansion card (I already used one of these on my HTPC, but only a two-port card, I needed four).

I also dragged my heels on the case. The previous machine had been housed in a Fractal Design Define R2, which is awesome, but massive. I wanted something a bit smaller, but kept struggling to find the right combination of dimensions with sufficient 3.5" disk space.

With those out of the way, I got on with ordering.

Parts List

This is what I opted for:

Total: £154.97

This was combined with existing hardware:

The Build

I originally installed and ran everything in my Fractal case, which was easy. I was concerned over noise, as the previous machine had run with a passive Scythe Mini Ninja and just two case fans. The AM1 platform was so new there were no aftermarket coolers, so that wasn't an option.

The provided cooler is very quiet, but not silent. In the R2 that wasn't a problem, it has plenty of sound proofing. The TJ08E has far more openings and I can hear the low whir of the fans in a silent room, but as soon as anything is playing you don't hear it.

Having read reviews about the noise of the large 180mm fan the case comes with, I didn't connect it up. Instead, I added a Fractal Design 120mm fan to the back of the case. I could, possibly, disable the CPU fan but haven't yet tried this.

One PITA with the fan was that all the sockets on the motherboard are four pin (PWM) connectors, whereas most fans are three. Mine wouldn't work with the onboard connectors and, while the R2 came with a separate fan controller, the TJ08E doesn't, so I had to buy a Molex adapter to provide power.

I also encountered issues with the PicoPSU. I had the 90W version teamed up with an 84W brick, it should have been plenty, but it wouldn't boot the machine. It wouldn't boot my old hardware (another Gigabyte mobo) either, but worked fine on my desktop (an Asus Mini-ITX board). A 150W unit I ran my desktop machine on worked fine, even with the 84W brick. I ran the whole thing off the 65W PSU from an Antec ISK 300-65 case until I put my mind to sorting it.

I found an article on a Jetway board that had minimum load issues with several power supplies, the 90W Pico among them, and another about the 120W version having a switched 12V rail, again suggesting minimum load issues. Interestingly, on their site, Mini-Box state the 160W unit has no minimum loading requirement, while none of the other units state that.

So, I picked up a 160W version, teamed it with the 84W power adapter and it's been working fine. Bearing in mind this is running six SATA drives (five HDDs plus a Blu-ray drive), plus two PCI-e boards. It doesn't struggle at boot (start-up draw was a concern).

The PicoPSU left me with a gaping hole designed for an ATX PSU, which I needed to fill (I felt). You can buy blanking plates, but they seemed overpriced, so I decided to knock up my own. I started out trying to re-purpose an old biscuit tin, but that proved hard work. So I turned to the internet and found some perspex.

No one would quite supply the size I wanted (the ATX spec is 150mm x 86mm), but I found some close to that so I could cut it down. I went for a 1mm thick sheet and a 3mm thick one, not knowing how strong they would be. Total cost was under £7 for both, including postage. It took a lot more work than I thought, not least because it was prone to cracking, but I got something in there eventually.

Build Photos

Some photos from the finished build.

[gallery columns="4" ids="625,624,622,623"]

Power Consumption

The aim was to get the power down so I could leave it on and it has certainly helped in that respect. The old system idled at around 50W (usually higher), with everything spun down. The new machine idles around 28W. Watching TV it reaches 35W. During boot it tops out at about 90W. These figures are all from the wall.

Final Thoughts

Well, I managed what I set out to do, which was get a lower power machine. In my mind, the goal was 30W and I have hit that. I'd like lower, but it's going to be hard with so many disks. Maybe if SSDs ever get into multi-terabyte range.

In terms of use, the machine handles everything perfectly well. I'm running Windows 8.1 currently and it's snappy as a desktop, plays all my media without any complaint and has worked flawlessly for the last six months or so. It would be a perfectly capable machine for everyday use.

The only complaint is that I had to go with a Micro-ATX form factor and not Mini-ITX, which limited my case options a little, and that none of the motherboard manufacturers could see there would be a desire for more SATA devices.

Other than that, I'm pleased with the build.