I’ve wanted to do this for quite some time now.
I have been custom-building my own desktop computer for a long time now. It pretty much just comes down to picking the right components and placing them in a good ATX case.
Building an ITX/HTPC computer is kind of the same, except everything is smaller and therefore a bit more challenging. Trying to do this in a custom case ramps up the difficulty level even more.
It took a lot of planning and it seems natural to now write up and document the process, for those interested..
So anyway, here were the requirements I had initially set for my setup:
- Small enough computer
- Custom case
- Aimed for HTPC use
and, if it is going to be sitting next the tv 24/7,
it’s probably best if it’s not too ugly.
Anyone who has custom-built computers knows it can be a difficult task picking the right combination of hardware that matches performance, budget and compatibility.
The amount of choice for a desktop gaming setup is rather insane these days. Coming from that background the ITX/HTPC setup is a bit of a double edged sword, the range of hardware is somewhat more limited, but so is the performance. The trick is to find the happy trade-off point.
While doing the hardware research the requirements were also slightly updated to add basic indie gaming and blu-ray playback
- Small enough computer
- Custom case
- Aimed for HTPC use
- Not too ugly.
- Blu-ray playback
- Basic indie gaming (Super meat boy FTW)
One limiting factor imposted by the build size was that there simply would not be room for an expansion card in the case, so advanced GPUs were out.
A second limiting factor was trying to keep the thing quiet. Fan-less onboard CPUs were therefore very tempting..
A third limiting factor was living in Australia. That might sound stupid but we just don’t seem to always have the latest hardware somehow, even though we live in a futuristic timezone..
Thanks to the limiting factors above, and with the requirements in mind, the choice of motherboard was reduced to a subset of a few option.
There are some pretty decent ITX motherboard out there, some really pack some cool features in such a small space.
Here’s a few that made it to the initial shortlist:
ZOTAC D2700-ITX WiFi Supreme (No CPU / GeForce GT 520)
ASUS E45M1-I DELUXE – (AMD E450 / Radeon HD 6320)
Zotac Z68-ITX-B-E 2 (No CPU / GeForce GT 430)
ZOTAC Fusion-ITX WiFi B-series (AMD E350 / AMD Radeon HD 6310)
Asus AT5IONT-I Deluxe (Atom D525 / Ion Graphics / Built-in DC power plug on back panel)
I probably would have ended up getting the Zotac D2700, except – at the time of the research – you couldn’t buy that anywhere.
The ASUS E45M1-I DELUXE pretty much ticked all the boxes (including being actually available) and ended up winning the competition – having the onboard CPU & attached heat sink made it appealing too. Probably not as biffy as some of the other offering but it seems it would meet the requirements.
Power was a tricky one. While most desktop cases have big ac/dc power adapters integrated, those are built to sustain quite a bit of power, way more than I needed – particularly since expansion cards were ruled out. Finally the sheer size of them made them impractical for the setup. There are smaller power supplies that exist (slim ATX i think they’re called) but they still take a lot of place.
Enter the PicoPSU. The PicoPSU is awesome. This is what a PicoPSU looks like:
It’s extremely tiny as you can guess. Does that really do all the power you need? Well, no, not entirely.
Where a desktop power supply is an AC->DC converter that will take your mighty powerful Tesla-approved 210/220/110 Volt AC current and turn it into a basic 3/5/12 Volt DC current that your motherboard needs, the PicoPSU is a DC->DC adapter; it takes some existing DC current and turns it into other – lower – grades of DC current. That original DC power needs to be provided by an external source, an AC adapter, the same way it’s done for a laptop, with one of these:
The PicoPSU is available from their website: PicoPSU computer supply at Mini Box
Since being in Australia and to save potential hassle I ordered one through mini-box.com.au , and despite the clunkiness of the website they have actually been really good, and fast.
Note: Mini-box sells bundled PicoPSU with AC adapters. You’ll need both, get both.
Front Panel Switch
This surprisingly did not actually occur to me before a couple of weeks into the planning.. You take this for granted when using a manufacturer’s case, your case is going to have front panel switches, leds and what-not. All you’ve got to do is plug the right cables on the right motherboard ports.
Since I’m building a custom case, I needed to consider this.
I clearly do not need 5 USB ports, an ESATA-whatever or even a jack for Hamburger Earmuffs on the front of the box, there are plenty available at the back, so ruled those out.
Hard drive LED.. oh yes, yes, yesssss! I definitely need to have a permanent visual reminder that the computer is accessing data on the hard drive.. hmmm, or no, probably not. (Why do they even still have those?)
I don’t think I even need a reset switch when I can just hold down the power button or unplug it, in those last resort situations.
All I really need is an on/off power button and a simple indication that the computer is on.
You can actually get all this in one single component, usually referred to as a momentary illuminated switch. The smallest size I could find for these was 16mm diameter.
If you’re in Australia, GAM Mods has some well priced momentary illuminated 16mm switches, just pick your favorite colour of the rainbow.
I picked white (I know, white isn’t technically a colour of the rainbow, shut up nerds), simply because I thought it would be the most likely to blend with whatever color the case would end up being.
Here’s the little guy:
One component = Less drilling (more on that later)
The smallest reasonable fan size I could find seemed to be 40mm (edge length). That is quite tiny really and would fit nicely in the case.
Mini box, provider of the PicoPSU, sells 40mm case fans on their website, so I ordered one at the same time.
The optical drive was planned to be fitted inside the lead of the box.
When I started the planning for this build, the hardware list included an existing slot-load Superdrive DVD player recovered from an old Macbook Pro. The slot-load system was really appealing because it would limit the amount of visible cutting into the box.
Plans changed a little while planning the hardware. As mentioned above, the requirements were altered to now include a blu-ray drive.
It turns out it is extremely difficult to find a slot-load blu-ray burner at a reasonable price. I think I found one – only one – and it was alone going to pretty much double the cost of the entire build.
Finally settled on a reasonably priced one, the Panasonic UJ-240.
I ordered one from Scorpion Technology along with the Motherboard and RAM: Panasonic Internal Slim SATA Blu Ray Burner UJ-240
That one was easy, I already had a 2.5″ 500GB drive – a Western Digital Scorpio Black – that I had purchased in case I needed to replace one in one of my laptop – turns out I didn’t need to. Hard drive sorted!
Ok, so that’s the basic hardware setup. I’ve omitted a couple of items but I’ll get back to it later.
Continue to Part 2 where I will be detailing further the planning for the box itself.
Building a custom ITX HTPC computer with wooden case mod by Dog In The Hat is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at doginthehat.com.au.