Just a bit of a heads up: This post is not meant as a guide. It’s more my personal experiences trying to put together an HTPC, and this account will be somewhat jumbled and messy. It’s more for my own reference than anything else. I might clean it up later, but for now it is what it is.
I had been thinking of getting a PC for video playback and emulators for a while, but I’ve put it off mostly due to cost and space issues. As a sort of temporary solution I bought a WDTV, but although it mostly did what it was supposed to do, it was very slow and had no network access; everything had to be stored on USB disks. That’s fine for smaller collections, but at the moment I have around 500 GB worth of films and a little less than that of TV shows, and on top of that I still have a fairly large collection of DVDs yet to be ripped and encoded. Adding to these issues were obviously the lack of emulators, no option to skip chapters in MKVs, and also slightly dubiuos subtitle support.
Due to the advent of the Intel Atom processor and NVidia’s Ion GPU, the issues I mentioned above have mostly disappeared, so I decided to try to put together a proper HTPC. I initially looked a tiny little thing from Sapphire, as well as the Eee Box and the Asrock, before I decided to go for the ASUS S1-AT5NM10E (awful name, henceforth referred to as the S1). Slightly bigger than the alternatives, but it came with a DVD drive and a very low price, so it seemed like the most sensible option. Also, room for a 3,5″ would allow me to store files locally, rather than having to set up a separate file server.
It’s not the most beautiful thing in the world, nor the smallest, but it is fairly inconspicuous, and shouldn’t look too out of place in most TV tables. One disadvantage with this box you might need to be aware of is that it lacks any kind of SPDIF out; if you want digital you’ll have to go with HDMI. Unfortantely, my receiver (an Arcam AVR-200) is a few years old, and doesn’t have any digital inputs beside (a precious few) optical and coaxial ones. Luckily, an eBay search for “ASUS SPDIF” and $8 were enough to get me the necessary connector. Not the prettiest of solutions, as right now I’ve pulled the thing through a file-expanded Kensington-port, but at least it works.
As for software, I’ve installed Ubuntu 10.10 and XBMC on it, as well as several emulators. Not all of them work perfectly (I imagine it is partly because they were originally designed for Windows, and later ported), but especially ZSNES and Mupen64 are highly recommended. I will try to find emulators for NES and PS that I can live with later; right now I should probably concentrate on getting hold of a decent controller. The keyboard is definitely not suited for Super Mario 64.
So far, despite a few initial hurdles, everything works beautifully. I will put up (or link to) a few guides later, it might be useful to keep around for when I change something and have to reinstall everything.