How To Build a Compact 3D-Enabled HTPC For Less Than $1000

Cody Cardarelli

We set out to build a Sandy Bridge box that takes up little space in our entertainment center and fulfills all our streaming needs

Back in the August 2010 issue of Maximum PC I built a 3D HTPC that I was pretty damned happy with, but the times have changed. The CableCard quad tuner that was featured prominently in that machine is no longer needed, as I have joined the ranks of the Cable Cutter Movement™. So without the need for a CableCard, I wondered if I could build a rig with all the same capabilities but make it much, much smaller.


Total for PC: $944

Picking the Best Parts for the Job

When Intel released its 2.5GHz Core i3-2100T chip, I thought I had a good place to start. Its integrated graphics processor supports 3D Blu-ray over HDMI 1.4 TV sets. Even better, the H67 chipset supports lossless audio. This let me dispense with both the discrete graphics card and soundcard that our previous 3D HTPC required.

The Core i3-2100T is also the coolest desktop Sandy Bridge CPU out today. With a TDP rating of 35 watts, it’s nearly half as hot as the other dual-core Sandy Bridge desktop chips. I consider AMD’s Fusion to be the natural successor to Atom, but I still find it a wee bit slow for desktop use.

For the case, Silverstone’s Lascala LC12 seemed to fit the bill. It’s not as small as some HTPC boxes, but depth usually isn’t an issue on home theater racks. The stock LC12 comes with a 60W brick that does not include an ATX12V connector (the original Mini-ITX form factor didn’t call for it), so we upgraded to the 120W PSU from Silverstone. The case should accommodate the standard heatsink that comes with the chip, but I thought I’d cut down on noise with the Silverstone NT07 low-profile cooler. Besides sitting lower, it also offers a switch to manually lower fan speed for quieter performance. As for the motherboard, Zotac’s boards have been leading the way in the Mini-ITX revolution, and the H67-ITX WiFi gives me 802.11n, LGA1155 support, and full-size DIMM slots.

I decided against a mechanical hard drive for this build, as I find that components on my theater rack often get jostled while they’re running. An SSD eliminates worries about head crashes, and with the Zotac board the 60GB G.Skill Phoenix drive will boot in less than 20 seconds. There’s also no need for tons of local storage, since I’ll mostly be streaming from a server or the Internet and there’s no TV tuner to record from.

The final piece was a Sony BC-5640H slot-fed Blu-ray combo drive, which helps class up the machine a bit. Tray versions are cheaper and easier to find, but not as slick.

1. Remove the Drive Cage

The LC12 breaks down into two pieces: The top tray holds the ODD and SSD and adds strength to the aluminum frame. To begin the build, you need to remove the top tray by removing two screws at the rear of the cage (below), and two at the front. Set these screws aside in a small cup so you don’t lose them.

2. Install the I/O Shield

Remove the stock I/O shield (that’s the fancy name for the metal plate at the back of the case) and install the I/O shield that came with your motherboard (below).

3. Install the CPU

Set the case aside and grab the Zotac motherboard. To install the CPU, first unlock the load plate on the CPU socket. Once that’s off, remove the plastic cover protecting the delicate pins in the socket (above). Save the cover. If you ever need to return the board, the manufacturer will not accept it without the cover. Use two fingers to hold the CPU parallel to the socket, with the notches on both lined up (below). Gently lower the CPU straight into the socket. Do not drop one half of the chip into the socket and then slide it around. Once the chip is seated, lower the load plate and lock it with the arm.

4. Install the Cooler

Remove the plastic backing from the copper slug on the heatsink. Apply a pea-size amount of thermal paste on the CPU’s heat spreader (above). If you’re anal, you can put your finger inside a plastic bag to spread the thermal paste evenly over the heat spreader.

Now install the heatsink. Each of the locking pins surrounding the heatsink should protrude through the bottom of the motherboard. Using your thumbs, push down on the four locking mechanisms until they lock into place with a click—do opposite pins first (above). When done, check all to ensure they have locked into place. Once the heatsink is in place, plug the fan into the 4-pin header marked CPU Fan (below).

5. Install the RAM

We elected to use 4GB of RAM, which is more than enough for an HTPC. To install the RAM, spread out the locking arms on either side of the slot, line up the notches on the RAM and the slot, and push down on either end of the DIMM until it locks into
place (below).

6. Install the Motherboard

Lower the motherboard into the chassis and use four screws to screw it in place. Use enough torque so the screws do not back out from the vibration of the system.

7. Hook Up Power

Hook up the 24-pin main power connector (below) as well as the ATX12V connector. Both rookies and old salts will occasionally forget to plug in the ATX12V connector, so if your system won’t boot, you should make sure that this commonly overlooked connector is plugged in.

8. Plug in the USB Extensions

The LC12 has a wee problem with the USB header placement on the Zotac mobo: They don’t quite reach. To get around this, we used two USB extension cables, available from Silverstone, or from most stores that cater to modders, for a few bucks apiece. Oddly, the LC12 features old-school individual leads for USB. Match each of these leads to their counterparts on the extension cable, then plug them into the USB headers. The AC97 front-panel audio will also need a short extension if you intend to access the front headphone jacks. Since this PC will be used in the living room, we skipped it. Once you’re done with that, it’s time to hook up the front-panel connectors. The power and reset switches and HDD LED follow the standard Intel-mandated pinout.

9. Install the SSD and ODD

Now attach the SSD to the drive cage that you set aside earlier (below). Once you have it mounted, reinstall the cage on top of the system. When you have the cage mounted, plug the SSD into any of the available SATA ports on the motherboard.

Carefully slide the Sony Blu-ray drive into the front of the system. Use two of the very small screws to lock the optical drive in place (below). When you’re done, use the included slimline SATA adapter to hook up the optical drive’s power and data lines.

10. Install the Antennas

The last step is to install the two 802.11n antennas to the back of the case (below). Congratulations, you’re now done!

The Guts

Low Sink

A single low-profile NT07-1156 cooler is the only moving part in our machine.

Bug-Free Chipset

The Zotac H67-ITX WiFi board uses the “B3” chipset spin, so all of its SATA ports are safe to use.

All Slots Full

We don’t see more than 4GB being needed for an HTPC so we filled both DIMM slots with 2GB modules.

The Petite HTPC in Action

We decided to subject our petite 3D HPTC to the same tests we’ve been running on HTPC-class machines for the past year. The tests aren’t always apples-to-apples comparisons, as the amount of RAM varies and the storage subsystems are different, but they give a good feel for what kind of performance to expect from a given processor/graphics combination. The AMD Phenom X4 quad core in the Mvix Minix 890GX (May 2011) represents well in the multithreaded tests but it isn’t as far in front of the Core i3-2100T as we would have expected. The mobile GeForce GT 425M in Asrock’s Vision 3D (March 2011) roundly thumps the integrated graphics of the rest of the pack. While the Sandy Bridge-powered HTPC flies past the AMD Fusion–powered MSI E350IA (April 2011) in compute-limited tasks, in graphics, the Fusion holds up well for a chip that is 900MHz slower in clock speed. Perhaps I’ve been too hard on Fusion in desktop applications.

After-Action Report

Whenever we finish a project, we wonder if we took the right path. We’re happy with the petite 3D HTPC’s results, but the rig could be improved. I’ve bagged on Atom- and Fusion-based parts for weak performance, but one thing those lighter-weight chips give you is lower temperatures. I thought the 35-watt Core i3 would run cool, and thus I got a bit greedy in my quest to use only one fan. While I didn’t have problems with the Core i3-2100T / LC12 combination, it does run a bit warm. I tuned the fan speeds to balance acoustics and thermals, but in the end I decided to let it run warm. Intel processors throttle if they overheat, and during testing ours never throttled. Still, I’m not totally satisfied with the temps, and I’m thinking that I should have gone with another option I had considered: Antec’s ISK 300-150, which features an 8cm fan but is slightly bulkier and uses a PSU with a fan.


Petite HTPC
Minix 890GX-USB3
MSI E350IA-E45
CPU 2.5GHz Core i3-2100T 2.6GHz Phenom II X4 910e 1.6GHz E350
GPU Integrated Intel Integrated Radeon HD 4290 Integrated Radeon HD 6310
Premiere Pro CS3 (sec)
MainConcept (sec)
3DMark 2003 7,940
Quake III (fps)
223 284
Quake 4 (fps)
37 43


Dell Inspiron Zino
Polywell Giada Ion-100
Asrock Vision 3D
1.5GHz Athlon X2 3250e
1.3GHz Atom 330
2.4GHz Core i3-370M
Integrated Radeon HD 3200
Integrated Nvidia Ion
GeForce GT 425M
Premiere Pro CS3 (sec)
MainConcept (sec)
3DMark 2003 2,540
Quake III (fps)
192 118
Quake 4 (fps)
29 112

All tests were run on Windows 7.

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