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Building a Cheap, Energy-Efficient HTPC & Classic Gaming Emulator Box

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Over the holiday I set out to create a small, energy-efficient home theater PC (HTPC) that would sit diminutively under the TV and play all of my HD movies, music and video game emulators. So how did I do it? Peep game:

The Prerequisites

Affordable if not outright cheap (Sub-$400)
I wasn’t interested in putting too much money into this thing. I’ve been eyeing this mini-HTPC market for about a year on-and-off and felt the machines were at a level capable of handling what I wanted at a price comparable if not below a PS3 or Xbox 360.

Capable of playing HD 1080P MKV’s and Bluray rips, no sweat
This machine’s primary purpose was to play HD movies on my HDTV. It had to do this effortlessly.

HDMI-out
It’s 2010, a space odyssey, mang…If your hardware isn’t sporting HDMI out, you’re still throwing bones at the black monolith, word to Stanley Kubrick.

Cool Running, Energy Efficient
I wanted a box I could potentially leave on all day in case I decided to turn it into a media server down the road. So it had to eat up as few watts as possible but still deliver amazing performance.

Small Form Factor, Quiet
This thing had to look nice and fit nicely under the TV somewhere. I didn’t want a huge megabeast-of-a-machine the size of a 1999 Compaq PC. It also had to be absolutely quiet.

Powerful enough to run at least CPS2/Neo Geo Video Game Emulators
I’m a fighting game fan and I really wanted a machine capable of emulating at least Capcom’s CPS2 arcade hardware (Street Fighter Alpha 1-3, Darkstalkers, etc) and the Neo Geo. I figured if the machine could at least reach these benchmarks, it would have no problem emulating Gameboy, NES, Genesis, and SNES. Secretly, I hoped the machine could also emulate Capcom’s CPS3 hardware (Street Fighter 3) and Playstation 1 games. Anything more would be icing on the cake.

The Contenders

(Prices, where relevant, represent the respective machine’s base starting price.)

Apple Mac Mini – $599

The Mac Mini, in classic Apple fashion, was just way too much money and got the axe right away. It definitely had the form factor I was after but it also felt a bit too powerful for what I needed, and that reflected in its price.

Dell Zino – ($249)

The Dell Zino was…meh…OK looking, I suppose. But it was the internal hardware that put me off moreso than its external appearance: It comes standard with AMD processors across all models which unfortunately I’m just not familiar with. The integrated ATI graphics card on the Zino was another question mark for me and I just wasn’t in the mood for experimentation.

So who were the finalists? Surprisingly, all three finalists shared the same processor/GPU combo family: The Intel Atom processor with Nvidia Ion GPU. What the hell does that mean? Well, Intel’s Atom processor is made for energy efficiency. It sports a 1MB L2 cache, at 1.60GHz with 533MHz FSB. It’s not very powerful in relation to a Core Duo, even though it does come in a dual core flavor. But partnered with Nvidia’s Ion GPU, the combo provides a low-watt, HD-crunching beast of a machine. This is because the GPU handles all of the graphical grunt work like decoding 1080P Bluray rips.

Asrock Ion 330 – $350

This machine was pretty diesel for the price: A dual-core Atom N330 with the aforementioned Nvidia Ion GPU, 320GB HD, 2gigs of RAM, Windows 7 and a DVD drive (upgrades include a Bluray drive).

I didn’t really need the optical drive. In fact, I didn’t even want it since all of my media would be served via Gigabit Ethernet over the home network. So I was a little disappointed they didn’t offer a cheaper version without the drive. Cosmetically, this thing teeters on the edge of “PC Ugly” but I’ve seen worst.

Acer Revo 1600 – $199

$199!….$199!! I mean, here’s a machine with a single core Atom N230, Nvidia Ion, 1 gig ram, 160GB hard drive and Windows XP. Bare bones to say the least. But more than capable of handling HD video and a few emulators. It also comes with wired keyboard and wired mouse. And needless to say, it was the nicest looking of the bunch, and certainly the smallest.

Acer Revo 3610 – $350

The Revo 1600′s big brother adds significant value for about $150 more: You get the dual core Atom N330, 2 gigs of ram standard, 160Gig hard drive, wireless keyboard and mouse, optical out, Windows 7, and Wireless N. This puts the 3610 more in line with the Asrock Ion 330 than its cheaper brother.

The Winner

So who did I go with? It was a tough decision. But at the end of the day, the value provided in the $199 Acer Revo 1600 proved way too good to pass up. 1 Gig of RAM was more than enough to handle my HD movie playing needs and classic video gaming emulation aspirations.

The dual core Atom N330 on the higher-end Revo & Asrock 330 felt a bit like overkill since I knew I wouldn’t be multitasking on this machine. I wasn’t too sure about Windows 7 either on such a low-powered machine; it just seemed too untested an OS for me to invest in, knowing how lean I can get XP to run. And to be honest, I was also considering installing the Linux flavor of XBMC so I wasn’t even sure I truly needed something as potentially robust as Windows 7 (but more on that later). Finally, as I mentioned, my media would be served via Gigabit Ethernet so I had no need for the Wi-Fi capability (although you could optionally install an internal or external Wi-Fi antennae if you so chose in addition to upgrading the RAM easily enough).

(The winner: Acer Aspire Revo AR1600-U910H Intel Atom 230(1.6GHz) 1GB DDR2 160GB NVIDIA ION LE graphics Windows XP Home)

What Went Wrong

The Fat Boys Are Back
I received the Revo and began to hook it up to my Panasonic G10 HDTV via HDMI. The first thing you’ll notice when loading up the machine is the amount of bloatware Acer includes in the Windows XP install. I suppose it’s necessary to get the price this cheap, but be prepared to remove tons of programs for at least 45 minutes.

After removing the bloatware, I created a Windows restore point just in case I wanted to get back to that newly-cleaned bloatware-less state (I highly suggest this as well). As is now common with Netbooks that have no optical drive, Acer has installed your Windows recovery disks in a hidden partition on your hard drive which you can use to restore your entire system in case something goes wrong. This proved both a blessing and a curse. It’s a little annoying in that it eats up hard drive space, but it’s nice to have in case you have to restore your system.

HDMI Audio (See Update below! — May, 2010)
OK, so what went truly wrong? Well, HDMI audio. The Acer came with Windows XP SP3 and I updated all Windows updates and Nvidia drivers fresh out the box. At some point, my audio over HDMI stopped working. This lead to days of trial and error installing-reinstalling-configuring-BBS-reading nightmares.

Apparently, Nvidia’s latest GPU graphics drivers in the 19X.XX family of drivers have a bug and will disable HDMI audio. It drove me absolutely bonkers. When I downgraded the graphics drivers to an older version, such as the 185.99 driver version that came packaged with the Acer, I managed to have audio through HDMI but other things wouldn’t work such as my video game emulators in full screen. It was frustrating. And it wasn’t limited to the Acer Revo: The Asrock Ion 330 and other Nvidia Ion-powered machines also suffer this problem since they all rely on those Nvidia graphics drivers. The problem was/is Nvidia-related, and their message boards are aflame with complaints regarding the HDMI audio issue.

I grew tired of trying to find a working solution, and decided to route my audio through the 1/8th inch-out jack on the front of the Revo rather than through HDMI. I now had the latest graphics drivers and working sound if not a slightly ungainly looking RCA cable wrapping from the front of the Revo to the back of the TV (see picture below). But whatever. It was finally fucking working and I didn’t care anymore. Hopefully Nvidia gets their shit together and patches this huge problem in a future driver.

UPDATE: As of May 2010, the HDMI audio issue is SOLVED for me! I updated to Nvidia 197.45WHQL Graphics Drivers, and “Nvidia HD Audio” codec showed up under my Control Panel > Sounds and Audio Device Properties menu. No more ugly 1/8th-inch cord hanging out the front of the Revo. And FINALLY, HDMI audio!

Hulu & Flash
Flash is surprisingly processor-intensive. On a low-powered Netbook or desktop such as the Acer Revo, you’ll need some GPU assistance to have an enjoyable Flash experience. Luckily, just around the time I purchased the Revo, Adobe released their Flash 10.1 beta with GPU acceleration finally included.

Being in beta, it’s a promising if not fully convincing release. YES — Hulu Desktop does work. In fact, if you keep the videos windowed (ie, not full screen) it runs perfectly. But switching to full screen, the system just can’t quite cope as well. Don’t get me wrong — It’s entirely watchable. The problem is it jumps frames to maintain its pace. It’s not jerky but you can tell something is not quite right.

I have high hopes for Flash playback. I think this is more a software optimization thing on Adobe’s behalf. After all, the Ion can playback Bluray video no problem. Why not fullscreen Flash?

What Went Right

We Have Explosive!
Once the latest graphics drivers were downloaded, the bloatware removed and the Windows updates applied, I finally had a fucking fat, little media machine pumping out 1080P MKV’s straight out the box.

I downloaded the free Windows Media Player Classic: Home Cinema software to play back my movies. This program is coded to leverage your system’s GPU. As I mentioned, the Intel Atom processor is not that powerful: If you were to try and run an HD x264 MKV only on the Atom, the system will buckle (which it does using the non-GPU accelerated VLC program). However, in WMPC HC HD movies fly out the box: 720P, 1080P MKVs with subtitles all work without a hitch. It’s pretty amazing and looks great through the HDMI-out.

Emulators
Emulators are amazing on this machine. Here is what I have tested and can confirm works:

CPS2
CPS3
Neo Geo
Genesis
Playstation 1
SNES
Gameboy Advance
Killer Instinct
MAME
Model 2

Yes, Model 2 WORKS! I was amazed this not only works but is 100% playable. Sega Rally blazes and Daytona drops a few frames under pressure, but still plays gorgeously. I have to hunt down Virtua Fighter 2 but have high hopes that too will play great.

Since I have been well removed from PC gaming for many years, I didn’t have a controller at first to play the games. I recalled my Mad Catz Street Fighter IV gamepad for Xbox 360 had a USB connector and plugged it into the Revo to see what would happen. Low and behold, Windows recognized the gamepad and I was up and playing Street Fighter 3 emulated in full screen instantly.

DVD Rips
I’ve ripped a few DVDs to ISO format over the years using the awesome (and free) DVD Shrink program and them shits work too, no prob.

XBMC

With Windows XP successfully playing back my HD movies and video game emulators, I was now interested in trying out the much vaunted XBMC media center software which is 100% free with a huge open source community. This would provide me with a customizable frontend to play all of my media over the TV.

XBMC offers a version called XBMC Live which you can install onto a USB stick if you’re still not sure you want to install the software directly onto your hard drive or if you simply want to give XBMC a spin. This seemed like a cool way for me to test the software out before investing in setting up a second partition on my hard drive for a dual boot, etc.

With a bit of jury-rigging, I managed to get XBMC Live installed onto a 2 gig USB stick and plugged it directly into the Revo’s frontside USB port. XBMC booted up and I was able to test drive a fully-functioning Linux version of XBMC.

I was quite impressed: XBMC played all of my HD media just as perfectly as WMPC did and had a gorgeous, customizable frontend to boot.

The great thing about the XBMC Live USB stick was it gave you the option to install the program directly onto your hard drive if you liked what you saw. The choice is entirely up to you: Use the USB forever or choose to install to hard disk. I chose to create a second partition on my hard disk and install the Linux flavor of XBMC which the USB completely guides you through. I chose Linux over Windows because the Nvidia GPU acceleration the Ion needs to run HD videos is only available on the Linux version. And in any case, the Linux flavor is the more supported version anyway.

The install went perfectly and I am now able to dual boot into Windows XP or direct into XBMC.

Conclusion

I couldn’t be happier with my $199 Acer Revo. With only 1 gig of RAM, an Intel Atom single core chip and the Nvidia Ion GPU, I can play 1080P x264 MKVs & VC-1 Bluray rips perfectly on my HDTV or play some of my favorite classic video games via emulation. The Revo provides a brilliant form factor and only consumes about 21 watts of power while in use, 16 watts when idle and 2.57 watts when sleeping for an annual operating cost @$0.1135/kWh of $7.77 (Source: cNet).

Tips

Double your GPU Memory with a Few Clicks
This great article from Lifehacker will step you through your initial Revo setup for displaying HD content. I followed the guide’s advice and wanted to be sure to point out one tip in particular: Increasing your system’s video RAM in the bios.

The process entails upping your system’s iGPU Frame Buffer from 128M of RAM to 256 quite easily, in fact. I don’t know if it’s necessary or what cause I did it as soon as I unboxed the system, but I am certainly not complaining.

It’s a great tip. Check it out under the headline, “Set Your System BIOS”

Purchasing Additional Codecs?
Regarding Windows Media Player Classic – Home Cinema: I Googled quite a bit while researching HD video on the Revo and a few people suggested purchasing CoreAVC to play x264 video content on the Revo ($9.95 for the codec). I’m not sure why they suggested this, because all of my videos play perfectly fine with just the default WMPC HC install. Installing XBMC also worked without any need for special codecs, so I’m not sure what’s up with that. CoreAVC is a fine codec and all, but I found my HD video playback to be superior without the need for commercial codecs.

Look Into a Remote
The Revo 1600 comes with a wired keyboard and wired mouse. They’re nice to have, but the chords are extremely short. There’s also the problem of, well, they’re wired!

I’d definitely suggest looking into a remote, especially if you decide to go the XBMC/Boxee route.

There’s this remote which is $20 and said to work lovely with XBMC. There are also guides online to get your PS3 BD Remote to work with XBMC provided you have a Bluetooth USB receiver plugged into the Revo.

But since I am dual booting into XBMC and Windows, I wanted a keyboard and mouse in one device that could also act as a remote.

I just came across the Logitech diNovo Mini. It’s pricey ($119) which sort of flies in the face of the money budgeting we did on the $199 Acer Revo in the first place. But it’s small, has a keyboard and trackpad built in, and won’t look out of place in your living room when guests are over. I haven’t purchased one myself, but I am in fact quite intrigued. It also comes with a nice USB Bluetooth receiver so you can potentially hook up other Bluetooth devices to your Revo down the line.

Update: Just an update on the Logitech diNovo Mini. After reading user reviews on Amazon & Newegg, it appears the hardware can prove to be quite buggy. There are a lot of complaints about the signal dropping out and the mouse trackpad not working well at all. But the beef with the diNovo Mini is only matched by its praise, which makes it all very confusing. Use caution, is all. Check the reviews.

Continue reading:
Part 2 — The Refinement: Building a Cheap HTPC & Gaming Box
Part 3 — Windows 7: Play 1080p HD MKV Movies on Your ION Acer Revo

Helpful Links
Lifehacker – Build a Silent, Standalone XBMC Media Center On the Cheap
Acer Revo with XBMC Thread on AVS Forums
HOW-TO install XBMC Live on Acer Aspire Revo – The Complete Guide for Newbies
Nvidia Ion User Forum
Lifehacker – Customize XBMC with These Five Awesome Skins
XBMC User Forums
Nvidia GeForce Driver Archives at Guru3d.com (XP/32bit) More available.

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20 comments for “Building a Cheap, Energy-Efficient HTPC & Classic Gaming Emulator Box

  1. Larandel
    January 3, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    i’m just gonna have to fly you back to philly and let you set this up for me on my PC. I only need to play a few old school arcade and some of the Neo Geo shit too, but getting the emulators to run right didn’t work for me last time, so i’ll just pay you to fly back and hook me up

  2. January 3, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    A cheap solution for a remote if you own an iphone:
    http://www.mobileairmouse.com/
    Has web, media, keyboard mouse and trackpad support. Just need to add a server to the media center.

  3. Nick
    March 24, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    I am looking for something that will play flac and TV Shows, sounds like this is the way to go? Is the HDD upgradeable I don’t want to do wireless streaming,.

  4. Yameen
    March 25, 2010 at 9:55 am

    Plays FLAC no problem. And yes: It is very easy to open up the Acer Revo and swap out the hard drive. There are in fact a few Youtube videos illustrating how to open up the case. It’s fairly easy.

  5. Nick
    March 25, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    Awesome thanks Yameen. Exactly what I needed to know, now to find someone who can ship to NZ. Thanks for the help this has been the most helpful sight I’ve found as to what to get.

  6. Yameen
    March 25, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    No prob, my pleasure.

    I’m actually working on “Part 2″ of this article right now, as a matter of fact, and hope to have it live on the site over the weekend. It details the refinements I have done to my setup since I got the system three months ago. Thanks again.

  7. Nick
    March 25, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    Awesome look forward to reading it.

    You wouldn’t happen to know any places that ship internationally?

  8. March 25, 2010 at 8:53 pm

    Did you check newegg.com or even amazon.com?

  9. Nick
    March 25, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    newegg dont’t ship international and Amazon don’t on this particular product.

  10. Mark
    May 12, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    Were you able to run a PS1 emulator in Linux? Or did you have to stick with Windows XP for that? I’m on the verge of purchasing the same setup you’ve got, but the PS1 emulation is a big thing for me. Thanks!

  11. May 12, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    With Linux, I only had XBMC installed. So not sure about PS1 emulation. But in Windows XP, PS1 emulation is pretty much flawless. The only game I recall having some weirdness with was Tobal 2; the sound was a little delayed. Which, if memory serves, I had some problems running Tobal 2 on my PSP as well. So perhaps that game doesn’t run well emulated in some cases?

    But otherwise, PS1 emulation is great.

  12. Ryan
    June 8, 2010 at 10:28 am

    Thanks for this post. Does Killer Instinct, MK3, etc run at full speed with your Acer Revo set-up? I am interested in a similar set-up, but want to make sure I can enjoy all that MAME offers. Thanks.

  13. Yameen
    June 8, 2010 at 10:43 am

    I will check and follow-up. I know for certain that MK2 in Mame played sound a little slow. But the actual gameplay was fine. Not sure if that’s a problem with my version of Mame or if the Atom chip was having a hard time keeping up. I suspect it is because the sound is so sample heavy. I tried to play the sound at a low setting (khz) but didn’t really get the performance I was hoping for.

    I’ll give Mk3 and KI a try and post back within a few days. I’ll give MK2 another try as well.

  14. TatoSkinz
    July 28, 2010 at 12:33 am

    Buying this little box of electrical sex and will use this very guide. You have made a difference in my world and now I will repay you by sitting on my ass and playing emulators on my hdtv…. Because hard copy games look like hell with a console via rf or av on a hdtv.

    Full marks well done.

  15. jeff
    November 25, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    Atom is so weak.you shoud have tried the dell amd machine.much more powerfull.”not being familiar!” with amd cpu is just an stupid comment.

  16. March 9, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    Love the article and totally want to do it. The 1600 isn’t available anymore, and I can’t seem to find one for $200. Any other recommendations?

  17. March 12, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    Sorry, I don’t. Not too long ago I wanted to pick up a second unit for another room and came to the same realization you have. I’m hoping there will be a new generation of machines out, but I’ve noticed the only Revos that have come out since are upwards of $300 :(

  18. Markdougie
    November 16, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    Yameen,

    Bro, as we would say in good ol London Town, DIS IS SICK !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Please do me a favor and let me know how to carry this out 2011 style, i’m gonna go all out !!!!

    Hook me up on my e-mail address.

    Thanks

    Dougie aka ‘Luke Skywalker’ :-)

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