HTPC Guide 2016

HTPC Guide 2016
HTPC Guide 2016

Are you thinking of building a media PC to connect to your TV? Or maybe you want a pocket sized streaming PC that you can put in your pocket and take with you and connect to the hotel room TV when you’re on your travels. Intel NUC series of mini PCs make a good option. In this article I’ll explain why is that and what you should consider when building your HTPC.

What Makes Intel NUC a Good Media PC?

Of course there are several models in the NUC product line, but most of them share the following good characteristics for a HTPC.

  • They’re small in size and inconspicuous if needed. You can even mount the NUC behind your monitor or TV with the provided VESA mount.
  • The NUCs consume only a little electricity. This is important especially if you plan to keep your HTPC on for 24/7.
  • They’re quiet and with a 3rd party case can even be made totally silent.
  • GPUs include hardware-accelerated video decoding that’s supported under Windows and Linux.
  • There’s an in-built infra red receiver for remote controllers.

Tasks for a Media PC

Before building a HTPC, it’s good to think a bit about the things you want to get done with it. Different tasks put different requirements on the hardware, so it’s important to understand your needs and wants before buying the hardware.

Some tasks for a HTPC could be:

  • Playback of video from local storage and streaming services.
  • Playback of music.
  • Receiving and recording live TV (be it cable, terrestrial or satellite TV).
  • Transcoding video to other formats and streaming it further to other devices such as smartphones or tablets.
  • Possibly gaming or streaming a game from another more powerful PC to your living room.

In this article I’ll mainly consider the more traditional definition of a media PC that does not include gaming. If you’re looking more into gaming with your NUC, I’d suggest reading my reviews of the Core i5 powered NUC6i5SYH and the Core i7 powered NUC6i7KYK. In addition to providing some more muscle for gaming these more capable NUCs will definitely work as a HTPC, even if they might be a bit overkill for some of the use cases.

Streaming Only vs. Media Storage

Like I just said, you will need to think about how you are going to use your media PC. If you want to store your whole movie collection on the device you will need a big disk. As the NUCs typically have only slots for a single 2.5″ disk this means that you are currently limited to a 2-terabyte disk size. Now there are 4 TB disks out there from Samsung and Seagate but they are 15 mm (0.6 inch) thick and the NUCs only have a slot for a max 11.5 mm (0.45 inch) thick drives.

The higher end Core i3 and i5 NUCs also have an M.2 slot for an SSD. There are some really big SSD drives available these days (1-terabyte SSDs) but they tend to be rather expensive. If you only need it for storage of media it’d be mostly waste of money as a conventional hard disk will be more than enough for that purpose. However, it really pays off to put the operating system itself on the SSD drive. This does not only speed up the boot up times considerably but it also makes the system more snappier overall.

Finally, you can store your media outside the NUC. A network attached storage (NAS) is a small device that hosts typically 1-5 hard drives and is attached to your home network. All the computers on your network can access these disks and if you’re using wired gigabit Ethernet, you won’t notice much difference to a locally attached hard drive. If you’re more adventurous you could attach a large USB disk to your NUC but I would really consider the other options first.

Of course, if you just plan to use your HTPC for streaming content out from the Internet, you won’t need a large disk at all! In that case you’ll be fine with a single SSD drive that will host the operating system.

Which Media Center Software to Use?

There are several options available for a HTPC.

Kodi

Kodi Main Menu

Kodi Main Menu

Kodi is the original open-source media center software that was known with the name XBMC before. It’s available for multiple platforms including Linux and Windows and is highly customizable and includes live TV support. If you’re unsure where to start, I’d suggest starting with Kodi. After using Kodi you’re much better off comparing the other media centers to Kodi.

Kodi can run on Windows, Linux or Mac OS X. For lower performance hardware, I strongly recommend taking the Linux approach and using LibreELEC as your Linux distribution. LibreELEC is a recent fork of OpenELEC and has the backing of most former OpenELEC developers. Installing LibreELEC is easy and you don’t need to know basically anything about Linux to use it. Just create a bootable USB stick, plug it in, and install – Full-blown Kodi machine in a matter of minutes.

Plex

Plex Home Theater

Plex is another popular alternative. Plex is actually split into two parts: the Plex Media Server and various clients to watch the media from the server. The client could be running on your tablet, your phone, your PlayStation or on your PC. Plex really works hard to decouple your media from your TV. Note that you could run the Plex Media Server and the Plex Home Theater (their PC client) on the same physical machine, such as your Intel NUC. While you’re watching a movie on your living room, your kids could be streaming cartoons to their tablet in another room.

Basic version of Plex is free to use, but some of the more advanced features require subscription. The server exists for Windows and for Linux, but the Plex Home Theater is only available on Windows.

For watching local content you can get by with a lower performance hardware, but if you want to stream content to your mobile devices, I’d suggest getting at least the Core i3 model.

MediaPortal

MediaPortal 1 Main Menu

To make your choice even more difficult, there are more options! MediaPortal is a Windows-based media center that offers similar functionality as Kodi and some extra twists as well. Unlike Plex, you can also connect your TV tuners to watch satellite, terrestrial or cable TV.

Steam

Steam's Big Picture mode

Valve’s Steam is mainly enabling gaming, but it has something called Big Picture, which can be used to turn your PC into, if not a full-blown HTPC, at least a gaming console with some video player functionality. You can run the Steam client on Windows or Linux, or you could install SteamOS on your NUC. With Steam on your NUC you can turn your TV into a gaming console – furthermore, for those demanding games that only run on your big gaming PC you could use Steam’s In-home Streaming to stream the games from your more beefy gaming PC to your living room. If you plan on doing this, it’s good to have fast, wired connectivity. A gigabit ethernet connection between your gaming PC and the NUC is ideal.

Note that SteamOS does not support Skylake GPUs at the time of writing (June 2016). If you want to use Skylake NUC and Linux for Steam, install an up-to-date Linux distribution such as Ubuntu 16.04 and then install the Steam client using the standard package management.

Recommended Hardware

Here are my current recommendations for HTPC setups. Please read the next page for more detailed description of these setups.

All-around HTPC Budget HTPC Take-anywhere HTPC
NUC NUC6i3SYH
nuc6i3syh_lineup
NUC5CPYH
Braswell NUC
STK1AW32SC
stk1aw32sc_lineup
Chipset Skylake Braswell Cherry Trail
CPU Core i3-6100U Celeron N3050 Atom x5-Z8300
RAM Max. 32 GB Max. 8 GB Fixed 2 GB
2.5″ Slot Yes Yes No
M.2 Slot Yes No No
Card Reader SDXC SDXC microSDXC
Recommended OS Windows, Linux Linux (LibreELEC) Linux (LibreELEC)
Suggested Frontend Kodi, Plex, Mediaportal Kodi Kodi
4K Support Yes, @30 fps
@60 fps with adapter
Yes, @30 fps Yes, @30 fps
Accurate 29.976 Hz Yes Yes Yes
HEVC Decoding 8-bit only 8-bit only 8-bit only, practically 1080p or less only
Deinterlacing Yes, motion compensated Yes, motion compensated Yes, motion compensated
Price of main unit $262.60 $124.99 $119.99

Keep on Reading about NUCs as HTPCs