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They said it couldn't be done!

OK, that's not strictly correct. What "they"* said was "It** shouldn't be done!"

* "They" being assorted expert forums on the internet.
** "It" being a PC that was both a small home theatre PC AND a gaming PC with a modern graphics card.

But I've done it. I'll admit though that it wasn't easy...

You may remember my earlier post on this subject asking for advice. Here is that post: http://philmophlegm.livejournal.com/218894.html
...and many thanks to pelago_uk for his sage advice. What I intended to do was take most of the innards from the gaming PC that I replaced just before Christmas and use them to make a PC that would a) sit in front of the telly as a home theatre PC and b) be a capable gaming PC that I could lug on a passenger ferry to the Isle of Wight every so often.

In the end, things turned out slightly differently from the original plan.

First of all, I was able to find a very (actually very, very) cheap home theatre PC case from overclockers.co.uk for just £40.

Here's the case from the outside, looking (I think) a lot classier than its price tag might suggest:

Even better, this case could accommodate a full-size ATX motherboard, which meant that I could keep my existing Asus mobo. This is good, because although it's three or four years old, it is a very good board. I had thought I would have to buy a micro-ATX motherboard. I kept the Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 processor and the 4gb of RAM, and also the two 750gb hard disks I had in the old machine. (When I wrote the original post, I said that hard disks were now astonishingly cheap. Unfortunately since then, someone forgot to turn the taps off in Thailand and hard disk prices have rocketed. So I recycled the two 750gb HDDs rather than going for new drives.

One thing that I did need to replace was my old Geforce 9800 GX2 graphics card - simply too big to physically fit in the case. Some research (actually a lot of research) later and I settled on Gainward's 'Phantom' version of the Geforce 560ti card. Now the Geforce 560ti is an excellent gaming graphics card and is excellent value at £200 or so. The Phantom has the distinct advantage of being a few centimetres shorter than the reference design, meaning that it fits quite comfortably in the case.

The case did come with a PSU, but not one remotely capable of powering a high end graphics card. I bought a middle-of-the-road 600w PSU from CoolerMaster to replace it.

I had to replace my old CPU heatsink / fan with a much shorter model because again the old one (a very large one by BeQuiet) wouldn't physically fit in the case. In fact it was several centimetres too tall. Still, that BeQuiet DarkRock is overkill for a computer that won't be overclocked. The replacement was a much smaller top down cooler (with a bright yellow fan) by Akasa. I also needed to buy an optical drive (and decided to save some money by not buying a BluRay drive). Then a wireless network card (due to an oversight when we last had carpet fitted, we don't have a network cable running to the TV from the router which is all of 5m away) and a bunch of quiet fans. Oh and a new OEM copy of Windows 7 Home Premium. The build was completed by a cheap wireless keyboard and mouse combination from Logitech. The mouse is not good enough for gaming, so I'll have to get a better (wired) one at some point.

Anyway, here's what it looks like from the inside:

I'd be lying if I said the build was easy. First of all, it's been a while since I built a PC in anything other that a big, spacious high end case. Small, cheap cases are extremely awkward to work in for humans. I assume they are designed to be worked on by aliens with long thin tentacles instead of hands. Secondly, there aren't many spaces in the case once you put all the components inside. That means that there are few places to put big thick cables so they are held out of the way of air flow etc. What you can see in the photo is the best that I could manage.

Thirdly, and most seriously, I had major overheating problems. The PC was stable when not doing anything taxing, but as soon as the graphics card had to do any work, the temperature climbed to the point where the PC shut itself off. Investigation revealed that the component getting dangerously hot wasn't in fact the graphics card but the northbridge. (The northbridge is the chip on the motherboard that controls communication between the CPU, the graphics card, memory and the southbridge. Modern SandyBridge processors like on my main gaming PC actually do that themselves and don't need the separate northbridge chip on the motherboard.)

While it wasn't the graphics card that was overheating, it was the graphics card that was causing the northbridge to overheat. In my original build, I put the graphics card in the blue PCI Express 16x slot nearest the CPU, but that put it right next to the heatsink for the northbridge. Also since the graphics card pretty much blocked the airflow from one side of the case to the other, I had to rethink my air cooling. I had intended for the brown 120mm fan you can just see the top of in the bottom of photo above to pull cold air in and for the identical fan on the top of the photo to push that air (warmed by the CPU cooler and the graphics card) out. Unfortunately, that wasn't happening because of the graphics card taking up the space. So what I did was use the two red 80mm fans on the right of the photo to expel the air from the case after the CPU cooler and turned the top brown fan around so that it also sucked air in. Then I moved the graphics card to the other blue PCI Express 16x slot to give the northbridge more breathing room.

And that worked. With the fans powered up to higher speeds, the PC was now stable when constantly looping the Heaven 3D benchmark. The addition of three two-pin temperature probes (from Maplin) enabled me to take advantage of my motherboard's ability to vary the speed of several different fans according to the temperature of different parts of the case. Now the PC is stable with quiet fans when not doing anything 3Dish and stable with noisier fans when it has to be.

Here's the PC in place playing Left 4 Dead 2:

...and here it is streaming HD video from BBC iPlayer:

Incidentally, one thing I decided against was putting a freeview TV tuner in it. In the two or three years that we've had our current telly, we have never, ever used its built-in freeview. And Sky+HD works far better as a PVR than anything that an HTPC could do. So it didn't seem necessary. We will watch television on this machine - but online TV rather than broadcast TV.

The GHTPC (that's Gaming Home Theatre PC obviously...) is connected via HDMI to my Denon AV receiver (that's the big black box in the bottom right of the photos above). With everything else being wireless, the PC only has two cables going into it - HDMI and the kettle lead. The beauty of modern graphics cards is that they have sound built in so that they can output sound over the HDMI cable. I have a soundcard in there as well so that when hooked up to a normal monitor over DVI I can still connect to headphones or speakers via 3.5mm jack. The Denon connects to the speakers (floorstanding front speakers, bipolar rears on stands, large centre speaker (visible above) and large subwoofer, all by Gale, from Richer Sounds) and to the screen, again by HDMI.

The most impressive piece of the whole setup is the screen. It is a 50" Pioneer Kuro LX5090 plasma screen from 2008. It is the best television ever made, and they don't make them any more. This makes televisions pretty rare among consumer electronics in that the quality and capabilities of 2012 equipment are not as good as something that came out in 2008 and is no longer manufactured.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 4th, 2012 07:41 pm (UTC)
That's a very nice looking case, particularly for that cost.
Feb. 4th, 2012 07:47 pm (UTC)
And I'm envious of your TV!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )