DIY media PC 2016

Building a TV PC sounds like it should be easy — after all, you already have the screen figured out! But it can be anything but.

Having a PC in your loungeroom adds two complicating factors — first, it has to be quiet and, second, it has to be as unobtrusive as possible.

And that’s before you even consider whether you’re after a gaming system, something to stream Netflix or Stan, your next movie library server or all three, let alone how much cash is in the kitty, or thinking of movies or gaming at 4K resolution.

Silence is golden

Going for ‘quiet’ really does introduce a whole new range of parameters for you to consider.

PSU noise, graphics card fan noise, CPU cooler noise, case airflow and noise-dampening, even your choice of PSU fan bearing all impact on just how loud your PC will be.

It also impacts on the hip-pocket nerve and, in turn, on how much performance bang you’ll get for your buck.

All about percentages

Having reviewed one or two computers in my time, I’ve found that simple percentage rules-of-thumb can help get your budget and your component choices in something approaching alignment.

For example, with at least $1,000 to play with, I aim to roughly split my budget:

  • 25–30% max. on graphics card;
  • 20% on storage;
  • 15% on CPU;
  • 10% each on motherboard, PSU and case
  • 5% on RAM.

As I said, it’s a rough guide and doesn’t include the cost of a Windows OS, but it at least helps get your head and your spending pointing in the same direction.

It’s always a mistake to think one stellar component will turn a Fiat into a Ferrari — it rarely happens, if ever.

Down to cases

Once you’ve decided the main function of the build, the key component choice really is the case, given it dictates everything that will go inside.

The key to good case design for TV PCs is clean minimalist looks with good airflow and enough room to make life easy. Super-tiny Micro-ITX cases look cute — until you have to work on them.

A case jam-packed with goodies will also likely have poor airflow, raising the temp and fan RPMs. And avoid windowed cases with bright LEDs — unless you love the distraction.

Does it fit?

The other key thing to watch for is ensuring everything you buy actually fits.

For example, is the CPU cooler too tall to fit inside the case? Is the PSU too long? Is the graphics card too long? Will the motherboard fit?

It’s hard to go wrong fitting gear into a tower case, but mini-ITX cases require research, so watch component dimensions like a hawk — particularly PSU and graphics card length and CPU cooler height.

Check those case dimensions carefully for component size limitations.

System builds for any budget

With all that in mind, we’ve pieced together five different TV PC builds covering budgets from $500 to $2,500.

We’ve explained why we’ve chosen the more controversial components to each build where applicable, but as there’s no way we can make everyone happy, use these builds as a jump-off point to your own design.

And look out for our option alternatives!

Suggested TV PC Builds

Suggested TV PC Builds 2


TV PCs for $500

nucLet’s call a spade a shovel — at this price, you’re best off looking at an entry-level Intel NUC system.

Mwave has Intel’s previous-gen BOXNUC5I3RYK Core i3-5010U dual-core NUC kit, bundled with 4GB of DDR3-1600 RAM and 120GB Intel 535 M.2 SSD for $499.

With integrated Intel 802.11ac Wi-Fi networking, it’ll make the 120GB SSD seem less small — just drag out that old PC system in the cupboard, turn it into a basic file server, leave it in the study and stream to the NUC box connected to your telly.

Or if you’re wired, use the NUC’s Gigabit Ethernet port instead.

Even so, gaming here will likely be (cough), although the integrated HD Graphics 5500 GPU does have accelerated support for H.264 playback at least to 1080p.

As for 4K playback? Unlikely. For starters, the HD 5500 GPU only offers ‘hybrid’ H.265 acceleration (via software) and with HDMI 1.4a, 30Hz playback is the end-stop.

The DisplayPort connector is rated for 4K@60Hz but we doubt the Core i3-5010U CPU will keep up.

Still, for $500, the options are limited — and that’s without costing an OS!


TV PC for $1,000

qbxAfter $500, building a $1,000 TV PC should be dead-easy, but try dragging in 4K support and things get tricky real quick!

Watch out for motherboards claiming ‘4K Ultra HD’ capability — most are 24Hz refresh rate only. The problem is genuine 4K@60Hz video for gaming and movies requires either HDMI 2.0 or DisplayPort 1.2, and hope your 4K TV has a matching port.

The cheapest HDMI 2.0-ready graphics card available at the moment is Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 950, starting at around $230. Unfortunately, there are no low-profile GTX 950 cards, so slim-line HTPC cases like SilverStone’s ML04 are out.

In the end, we opted for two different system specs for this price-point — one based on the SilverStone ML04 case and another for the stylish Cougar QBX.

The QBX build runs ASUS’s GTX 950 STRIX card, which includes HDMI 2.0 for 4K@60Hz playback and has a great rep for low-noise, as does Seasonic’s 360-watt G-360 PSU, which meets Nvidia’s 350-watt minimum requirement for the GeForce GTX 950 GPU.

ml04By contrast, the ML04 build is a 1080p-only TV PC, but delivers more storage via Intel’s 240GB 535 SSD and a 2.5-inch 1TB WD Blue HDD. It can handle a standard (small) ATX PSU, such as the Seasonic G-360, but word is it’s a very tight squeeze, so we’ve gone for Silverstone’s own smaller SFX PSU instead.

Both systems run Intel’s new dual-core Core i3 6100, which runs cool and quiet, thanks to its low 51-watt thermal design power (TDP) rating.

Still, gaming will be limited, although the QBX build will be the pick of the two in that endeavour.


TV PC for $1,500

With $1,500 in the kitty, this Mini-ITX 4K@60Hz build covers all the bases, but leans towards gaming and low-noise over storage. Here’s how:

CPU cooler

Noctua NH-C14S

nhcThis one isn’t cheap and or easy to find, but it’s one of the quietest and most versatile coolers on the market.

The NH-C14S combines very low-noise levels with excellent cooling and vertical airflow.

Most motherboards pack in VRMs (voltage regulator modules) around the CPU socket and there’s a decent argument that east-west airflow from most common tower coolers doesn’t help VRM cooling.

With the NH-C14S’ north-south airflow, excess air is more likely to reach the VRMs and keep the board happy. You can also choose to have the fan above or below the heatsink fins, changing the cooling dynamics and dropping vertical height from 142mm to 115mm.

Noctua green-lights this cooler for use with the ASRock H170M-ITX/ac motherboard and in either fan configuration, it’ll fit the 170mm maximum cooler height of the Fractal Design case.

Graphics card

ASUS GeForce GTX 960 STRIX 4GB OC

gtx960Of that $1,500, we’ve put roughly 25% into the graphics card here, which is about as much as you should go if you don’t want deep compromises elsewhere.

ASUS’s STRIX series is known for its quiet running and the GTX 960 is only 220mm long and 120mm high, so it should have no trouble fitting in the Core 500 case.

It’ll deliver what you might call ‘mainstream’ 1080p gaming speed, but more important is the HDMI 2.0 and 4K@60Hz video output for your telly.

PSU

Seasonic S12II-520 520-watt

Seasonic PSUs are as tough as nails, but also have a great rep for being surprisingly quiet.

The S12II-520 is ‘80 Plus Bronze’-rated for efficiency and well exceeds Nvidia’s 400-watt minimum rating for the GTX 960 GPU. The fluid dynamic fan bearing should also help reduce noise.

A good quality PSU always repays and this one includes a five-year warranty. Seasonic’s G-450 is better again, but a very tight fit with the GTX 960.

Motherboard

ASRock H170M-ITX/ac

This is a new release from ASRock combining Intel’s H170 chipset, with 802.11b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 in a Mini-ITX form factor.

Right now, it’s the cheapest H170 Mini-ITX board you’ll find in Australia.

There’s no overclocking here, so it matches the Core i5 6400 quad-core CPU, but unlike the B150 or H110 alternatives, the H170 still gives you RAID0, 1, 5, 10 options should you expand the storage.

Case

Fractal Design Core 500 Mini-ITX

fdCases are such a personal thing, but we think Fractal Design’s Core 500 is a decent option.

Pretty much right on $100 on the street, it’s mostly roomy with good airflow to help with passive cooling and keeping the system quiet.

The GTX 960 card and S12II-520 PSU should have no trouble fitting together and the case handles up to six 2.5-inch drives.

Storage

250GB Samsung 850 EVO SSD

By going for the Noctua NH-C14S and GTX 960, we’ve had to cut back storage and Samsung’s 250GB 850 EVO is about as affordable as it gets.

It uses triple-level cell (TLC) NAND flash, which isn’t everyone’s cuppa, in which case, Crucial’s 250GB MX200 or Intel’s 240GB 535, both with 16-nanometre MLC NAND flash at around $170, are budget-happy alternatives.


TV PC for $2,500

Even at $2,500, there’s a premium to pay for combining ‘quiet’ and ‘performance’ in the same box, but this TV PC should give plenty of room to grow.

Motherboard

ASUS Z170-AR

z170At this price, we’re aiming for as much of everything as we can get — performance, storage, gaming, low-noise — plus a little redundancy for good measure.

ASUS’s Z170-AR is one of the cheapest Z170-chipset boards at around $240, but also has Nvidia SLI support. Plus, it’ll overclock the unlocked Core i5 6600K CPU, has six SATA3 ports and will RAID0, 1, 5 or 10 your storage.

NOTE: The Noctua NH-C14S cooler is rated for up to 140 watts TDP, enough to support ‘medium’-level overclocking on the 91W TDP’d Core i5 6600K CPU (noctua.at/en/tdp-guide).

Storage

480GB SanDisk Extreme Pro SSD, 3TB Western Digital WD30EZRZ Blue HDD

An SSD/HDD storage combo is a common option, giving you a cache of high-speed system storage, plus low-cost bulk storage for your movie/game library.

We’ve gone for the top drawer on the SSD with SanDisk’s 480GB Extreme Pro. This thing is nice and quick and comes with a market-leading 10-year warranty.

Western Digital’s 3TB Blue drive isn’t super-quick, but it’s bulk-storage at an easy price.

Graphics card

ASUS GeForce GTX 980 STRIX 4GB OC

gtx980You have lots of choices here — go for a GTX 970 now for $500, add a second one later; or go a GTX 980 now for $750 and add a second later.

ASUS’s STRIX series is reportedly as quiet as they come, so it’s our choice.

One GTX 970 GPU will struggle on 4K gaming; one GTX 980 will be adequate rather than brilliant. Two GTX 970s in SLI do nicely at 4K but go over budget by $250. Two GTX 980s in SLI rock but flog the budget by $500, plus the cost of an 850-watt PSU to be safe.

On the flip-side, two of anything will be noisier than one.

On the basis of noise level and budget, we’ve gone for the GTX 980. The choice is yours.

Another alternative? Replace both drives with Samsung’s 250GB 850 EVO SSD and WD’s 1TB WD10EZEX Blue drive, drop the GTX 980 and go for two GTX 970 cards.

Not especially quiet, but it’ll give decent 4K gaming for $2,500.

PSU

Seasonic G-750 750-watt

Seasonic’s ‘80 Plus Gold’-rated G-750 delivers excellent performance with low-noise and comes with a five-year warranty.

For a single GTX 980 card build, the $30-cheaper 550-watt G-550 would also work, but the G-750 includes six PCI-E 6/8-pin power connectors and enough grunt to handle two reference GTX 980 cards or two GTX 970 STRIX OC cards in SLI mode (two GTX 980 STRIX OC cards would likely near the G-750’s limits).

The 850-watt M12 II EVO is almost as good and only costs $20 more.

Case

Fractal Design Define R5

defWe’re not worrying about ‘small’ with this build, but Fractal Design’s minimalist Define R5 case will ensure it doesn’t draw attention to itself.

It’s packed with room for up to eight drives, still appears to manage good airflow, yet features solid noise-dampening mats on major panels, even removable dust filters.

  • Glyn

    As Windows 10 does not come with Media Centre what do you recommend replacing it with? I find this is now the hardest decision and will not upgrade to Win10 until I can find something as good; preferably better.

  • Hey Glyn,
    Yep, agreed – it’s a tough decision. I use a mixture of Kodi and VLC – that covers everything I’ve ever needed. Both are free, but neither needs Windows 10…
    Cheers,
    Darren.

    • Glyn

      Thanks Darren,

      Maybe you could do a comparison of 10 metre replacements for Windows Media Center that can do a good job of scheduling recorded TV, presenting recorded TV for selection to play (sort by date recorded or name), storing movies (allow adding of meta data – classification, genres, etc), presenting movies for playing (preview picture, sort by classification (G, PG, etc), sort by genres, store music (allow adding of meta data – genres, artist, etc), play music (select by meta data), store (allow adding of meta data) and show pictures (by meta data, slide show, etc). And, of course, we need a remote control. You get the idea and I am sure you can come up with more requirements for the perfect media centre.

      Kind regards,

      Glyn

    • sosofresh

      hi i post a comment on the “Arduino Masterclass Part 4: Build a mini robot” project can you answer my question please!!!! i need your help thank you