HTPC Guide 2016 – Recommended Hardware

My Recommendations

If you read the previous part of my HTPC guide you probably are familiar with the 3 NUC models that I highlighted from the line-up. If you came directly on this page, here they are again.

I wanted to make it easy for you to start building a HTPC using an Intel NUC. There are certainly more options and variations of these systems available and the ones listed below are not necessarily the absolute ideals for you, but I hope these help you to understand what you can expect from the various configurations.

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/H.265 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

Basically, all of the models above will make a nice HTPC, but each one of them have some things to keep in mind. Let’s go through the options one by one.

Skylake NUC6i3SYH

Skylake NUC

Skylake NUC

What is it good for?

The Skylake i3 NUC is a good all-rounder. It’s powerful enough to replace some desktop PCs and thus it is powerful enough for most of the things you’d like a media PC to do. It will run Kodi, MediaPortal or Plex Media Server + Plex Hometheater with ease. It decodes pretty much anything you can throw at it at 4k resolutions with the exception of 10-bit HEVC content. There’s not a single Intel GPU at the moment that would offer hardware accelerated decoding of 10-bit HEVC. There is not that much content in 10-bit format available, but it’s bound to increase.

If you’re using Plex, you can stream a video to almost any other device. If the receiving device cannot decode the video format that the video is originally encoded in, Plex will need to transcode the video to another format. This is a rather CPU intensive process. I managed to stream a 1080p video to a tablet and a mobile phone simultaneously and the CPU usage did not reach 100%. However, more than 2 transcoded streams would be pushing this NUC a bit too much. Consider the more powerful alternatives if you need more streaming capacity.

I also installed Steam on the NUC6i3SYH and tested the In-home Streaming functionality from my large office PC to this small NUC in the living room. This streams the video and sound from the main computer to the living room PC and makes it possible to play games that you normally couldn’t with the NUC. It was the first time I tried the feature and I was quite surprised to see that there was basically no difference in the experience.

Basically, if you’re not quite sure what you want to do with your HTPC or want to keep your options open in the future, the Skylake NUC is a good choice. Of course, if you end up just running Kodi on the thing you’ve got (and paid for) much more horse power than you actually need.

Are there similar alternatives?

NUC6i3SYH is a fine unit and it’ll take a 2.5″ SATA drive. However, if you don’t need a SATA drive you could just populate the M.2 slot with an SSD and get the NUC6i3SYK. The even-smaller case of that NUC looks more cool to my eyes at least! Otherwise there’s is no difference between these two models.

Sleeker NUC6i3SYK

Skylake NUC without a 2.5″ slot

Alternatively, if you need more grunt in the CPU department, you can move one step above to the NUC6i5SYH model with Core i5 CPU. Ultimately, there’s also the i7 model in the lineup, but it’ll likely be an overkill for most HTPC use cases.

Which parts should I buy?

Well, whatever you decide to do, the following is a good starting point:

Product US UK DE FR
Intel NUC NUC6i3SYH $262.60 £276.99 EUR 315,18 EUR 320,03
Kingston HyperX 2x4GB DDR4-2133 Memory (total 8GB) $63.85 £54.38 EUR 76,62 EUR 80,89
Samsung 850 EVO 250GB SSD drive $92.99 £86.99 EUR 94,99 EUR 99,00
Check out the total price of the whole setup on Amazon.com!

 
If you want to store your media on the NUC itself, add a good-sized 2TB hard drive to the setup:

Braswell NUC5CPYH

Braswell NUC

Braswell NUC

The Celeron-powered NUC5CPYH is the least powerful but also the most affordable ($124.99 / - / -) NUC on the market today. The CPU won’t take you to the moon, but if you’re looking for an inexpensive, tiny, yet capable Kodi box you’re looking at the right unit! While you can run Windows on the Celeron NUC I would recommend installing LibreELEC instead. LibreELEC is a Linux distribution that’s highly optimized for one task only: running Kodi as well as possible. Pair the NUC with an SSD drive and it will boot up to Kodi in seconds. And there it will do almost everything as well as any NUC will: even 4k HEVC decoding at 30fps is fine! If you’re into watching live TV that is typically broadcasted using interlaced video formats you’ll be happy to find that the motion-compensated deinterlacing algorithm is built into the GPU.

Are there similar alternatives?

Certainly. You might want to upgrade to the slightly more expensive NUC5PPYH model that features a quad-core CPU. If you’re planning to just run Kodi you won’t gain much but if you have other use in mind for the NUC, this might be a good upgrade – and not too costly one. If it’s quietness that you desire – ASRock makes a totally fanless option, N3000-powered Beebox (the other Beeboxes have a fan, so pay attention when shopping).

Which parts should I buy?

The NUC5CPYH only has a single storage slot, so you’ll basically have 3 options:

  • install a moderate-size (128 GB) SSD drive and not store any media on the NUC
  • install a large (2 TB), but slower hard drive
  • install a large (1 TB) and very expensive SSD drive

If you choose the last option the cost of your build will rise so much that it would be better to buy the above core i3 model and equip it with a hard drive. If you choose to install a large conventional hard drive your boot up times and general performance will get slower. If you choose a moderate-size SSD you won’t have much space to store your media on the NUC.

I would highly recommend equipping the NUC with a smaller size SSD and using a NAS to store your media. NAS will bring many other advantages as well, but that’s a topic for a whole other article. You can basically think your NAS as a big personal cloud storage that just works much faster than the services available over the internet. Of course it makes sense to have 1-gigabit Ethernet network at home, if you want to achieve the maximum performance using the NAS.

Here’s an example setup that keeps the cost down, but performance up.

Compute Stick STK1AW32SC

stk1aw32sc

The last suggestion is actually not a NUC at all! The Compute Stick however belongs to the same family of Intel products and shares many of the positive characteristics that a NUC has. If you want something that really fits in the back pocket of your jeans, the Compute Stick might be the answer. Forget about the first generation Compute Stick, the second generation has much improved WiFi throughput and a better CPU. There’s even hardware accelerated 8-bit HEVC decoding in the Cherry Trail chip!

The stick comes delivered with Windows 10 installed, but 2 gigabytes of RAM and the 32 GB internal flash memory does not really make it an ideal setup for Windows. It manages very basic tasks, but as soon as you end up on a website with a bit more ads and scripts you’ll start to get frustrated with the performance. Install LibreELEC on the stick (remember to change the operating system setting in the BIOS to 64-bit before doing that) and you’ll be positively surprised. The performance is snappy and the unit is able to stream almost any video from the home network over WiFi. Unfortunately the SD card reader does not work under Linux, but that will likely change within the next months. And don’t worry about your Windows 10: the license is tied to the hardware, so you can install it back to the stick any time.

I’m currently using it as a media center on the go. It’s easy to throw into the laptop bag when travelling for business. Most of the hotel room TVs these days have a HDMI input where to plug the Compute Stick to. The power adapter of the Compute Stick doubles as a charger for your smart phone. The only thing to keep in mind is the need to have a keyboard with you. Looking forward to a clever smartphone-based solution. Note that only the latest LibreELEC version has full support for the HDMI audio on this Compute Stick. You will need a version 7.90.002 or newer.

Which parts should I buy?

Well, there aren’t much choices here. You get all you need when you buy the stick as it includes RAM and flash memory. You could add a microSDXC card (not if you plan to use Linux) or USB/Bluetooth peripherals.

NAS, Do I really need it?

I got myself a Synology 2-bay NAS some five years ago and never looked back. I’ve got 5-6 computers in the house and I found it difficult to share data between these before. The files were always on the wrong computer. With a NAS I can have a network drive attached to all of my computers and store the documents there. I can also store all my movies on the NAS and thus there’s no need to keep a local copy on the HTPC. A fast home network brings additional benefits here. I’ve got wired gigabit Ethernet as much as possible and then 802.11ac WiFi for the rest.

In addition to safety (my NAS has mirrored disks and weekly backup to an external disk) it brings convenience. I can any time reinstall any PC and not worry about moving my video collection and other data.

You can’t go badly wrong with a Synology DS216j NAS. It’s one of the more affordable systems but still puts out a good performance. Synology’s DSM operating system is really nice and intuitive. There are cheaper 1-bay models but price difference is so small, that I recommend getting a 2-bay model. You can always leave the other slot empty if you don’t want to start with 2 disks. I’ve heard lots of good about QNAP NAS systems as well, but never really used one.

I recommend pairing the NAS with one or two NAS level disks as they tend to last better in the long run. WD Red or Seagate NAS are good choices.