Building the Perfect Home Theater PC

We all know Intel NUCs are the ideal platform for a home theater PC (shut up, yes they are!). That’s a given.  I currently use a couple of older NUCs as HTPCs in my house, and as great as they are, it’s time for an upgrade. Not one to let an opportunity go to waste, I decided to go for broke and create exactly what I wanted, with all the bells and whistles.  I had a good idea of where I wanted to end up, but I wanted to flesh out the specs before jumping in.

The Plan

The first step in any journey is knowing  where you’re headed.  For my new HTPC, I had some specific requirements:

What I Want

Why I Want It

How I’ll Get It

Small Form Factor I like small PCs (I know, shocker, right?). They look great in a living room environment. Gotta be a NUC, obviously. But which one?
Quiet I don’t want something loud that’s going to distract from my viewing experience. Still a NUC. The most powerful ones tend to be the loudest, but they’re all quiet.
Horsepower (CPU and GPU) There are tons of super-cheap boxes that will play and stream. I’ve tried some, and the lag is irritating. They’re cheap for a reason. I don’t want something that “barely” works. Looking like an i5 NUC is the way to go. An i3 might be enough, but I want to be sure. An i7 will be overkill.
4k capability For that eventual day when I finally get a 4k TV. 4th, 5th, and 6th generation NUCs all support 4k, but the newer the better.
Built-in TV tuner I want to be able to pull in local stations and record for later playback. Experience tells me Hauppauge is the way to go, and I happen to have a GoRite NUC lid with one in it!
Built-in CEC capability I had my first experience with CEC recently and LOVED it.  Going single remote with my Smart TV and HTPC is awesome. I have a GoRite lid with the Pulse-Eight CEC module built-in. The module is for 6th gen NUCs, so I guess I’ll be going that way.

Set-top look and feel

It has to work without the need of a keyboard or mouse, and needs to be plug & play .

Kodi is my personal favorite for this. I’ll be using Libreelec for the first time.

Storage

Needs to be fast, and big enough to handle a dozen or so movie files. My movies are on my NAS, but I might want to copy some to the HTPC, in case I can’t connect to the network.

I’m going to opt for an SSD to make things super fast. I’m settling on 240GB. That’s plenty of room for storing the movies I want (maybe even some music).

Networking

802.11 AC WiFi AND gigabit ethernet. I want some flexibility on where I can use it. My router is in my living room, so I may not be able to plug in.

Given my other requirements, I’ll need to go with a 6th gen NUC, and they include AC WiFi and gigabit ethernet on-board, so I’m covered there.

The Specs

  • NUC6i5SYH: It’s got enough CPU and GPU to make viewing smooth, it’s tiny, it’s quiet, supports 4k and allows for a replaceable lid.  Plus it’s got on-board WiFi and ethernet.
  • 16GB RAM: I know this much RAM in an HTPC is probably overkill, but it was cheap and I may as well get it now.
  • 240GB PNY SSD: Nice & fast, and big enough to store some movies.
  • GoRite TV Tuner Lid: I still have the pre-prod lid with the built-in Hauppauge tuner…works great!
  • GoRite CEC Lid: I’ve opted to cannibalize the CEC lid by removing the CEC module and mounting it inside the NUC, then using the TV Tuner lid on the NUC.
  • Libreelec/Kodi: I’m going to go with my gut here and try Libreelec on this build. I’m assuming Openelec and Libreelec will be about the same, but I like to try new things.

The Build

Installing memory and an HDD or SSD in a NUC is about as simple as it gets.

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“Making” the Lid

The next step was taking the two GoRite lids I had and combining them into one.  What I should have done is just get the Pulse-Eight CEC module by itself , but I already had the lid, so I decided to go a little crazy and pull the module out of it.  I’m weird like that…danger is my middle name.

The progress photos go through everything step-by-step, but in general here’s what I did:

  1. Remove the CEC lid from the NUC6i5SYH
  2. Disassemble the lid
  3. Remove the CEC module
  4. Remove the TV Tuner lid from the NUC5i3
  5. Install the CEC module next to the TV tuner
  6. Replace the 5th gen TV tuner cable with the 6th gen cable

Here we go!

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Assembly

Rather than take photos of the assembly, I recorded a video. It was much easier than stopping at every step to take a photo. Don’t worry, it’s short.

 

Software

I’ve been a fan of Kodi for years. It’s got the perfect set-top look and feel for a home theater PC, and through add-ons it’s infinitely configurable.  Up to now I’ve preferred running it on Openelec. But someone recently told me about Libreelec, which is a “fork” of Openelec. I’m told it’s a bit faster and gets more frequent updates, so I’m giving that a try here.

Installation of Libreelec is more or less identical to Openelec: download the current version, unzip the image from the download, use an imaging tool to write the image to a flash drive, boot the system from it.  When you select “Quick Install” it will ask you which drive to write to, then confirm multiple times that you’re absolutely sure you want to wipe out whatever might exist on the drive.  That’s it. Simple.

CEC

I’ve learned a lot about CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) recently. For a solid description, check out Kodi’s wiki on it. One important thing is that each manufacturer can have a different name for it.  Another is that it doesn’t offer the same functionality on all TVs. For example, I have an older Vizio TV, and it has CEC on the menu. But it doesn’t offer the complete control my Vizio smart TV does. On the older TV, all I get is the basic playback buttons; play, FF, RW, skip, etc.  So your mileage may vary. CEC on my smart TV is…well, smart. It takes over the NUC entirely.

Also, with Kodi, there is no configuration required.  On first boot, a message pops up that Kodi is connecting to the CEC adapter…no drivers or add-ons to install. Just enable it on your TV and you’re off to the races.

One of the other awesome features of CEC is that since the remote is managed through HDMI I no longer need to worry about line of sight for an IR remote. That means I can put the NUC literally anywhere…behind the TV, in a cabinet, on the floor…wherever. As long as the TV has CEC, I’m good.

Setting up the TV Tuner

Unfortunately setting up Live TV in Kodi isn’t as “idiot-proof” as CEC.  There are multiple steps, and a few complicated configurations to get through.

You need two things to make a tuner work: A back-end service and a front-end PVR client. I’ve chosen TVHeadend for both.  It’s well integrated with Kodi, I’m familiar with it, and compared to some of the other options is fairly easy to set up.

The progress photos in the slide deck will walk you through how I got things working. They are not intended to be an all-inclusive step-by-step manual, just the steps I followed. for a more thorough how-to, I recommend this excellent write-up created by Team Kodi Member Zag. There is also good information in the guide on the tvheadend.org site.

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*The process of creating your network in TVHeadend is going to depend a lot on where you’re located. It involves selecting the type of signal you have in your area, the correct channels to scan for, and a few other items. For specifics on that part of the process, please refer back to the tvheadend.org guide.  Once your network is created, you’ll initiate a scan, which  (if everything is working) will configure the muxes. What are muxes?  Beats me, but I can’t watch TV without them.

I also showed how I connected to my NAS for movies.  A similar process does the same for music files and pictures, but I plan to primarily use this for movies and TV. And yes that’s Eight is Enough…don’t judge me, it’s for my wife.

So, now that everything’s set up and running, here’s a quick video to show you the performance. In the video, the NUC is wireless, but only a few feet away from my router.

As you can see, it’s zippy fast. I can play from my NAS, stream, and watch TV with no lag or hesitation. I’m able to switch between add-ons quickly, and all menus are very responsive. I’m extremely pleased with the performance.

Update: some have commented on the overscan and the fact that the menu is in 720p. That’s due to my TV.  I have an older Proscan, and while it does go to 1080p, it defaults to 720p, and the default aspect ratio has the overscan. I just didn’t bother adjusting everything to make the video.  This will primarily be connected to my Vizio smart TV, which defaults to 1080p and no overscan, but it’s harder for me to record where that one is set up.

Final Thoughts

I did notice a slightly faster boot with Libreelec, but beyond that the performance between the two was not noticeably different. I do like Libreelec’s add-on update feature, and the fact that TVheadend is included as a standard add-0n (in Openelec you have to get it from their “unofficial” repository).  I don’t see a burning need to replace my existing Openelec setups with Libreelec, but I’ll most likely look to Libreelec the next time I need to build an HTPC. both run Kodi well, and with Kodi I get the set-top feel I was after.  When I turn this on, it doesn’t feel like a computer, it feels like something designed for home theater.

I can’t say enough good things about the tuner lid.  The Hauppauge tuner does an awesome job of pulling in my channels, and I don’t have an extra USB stick hanging off the back of my NUC.  The lid looks great, and means I have one less thing to carry when I take it with me.  Plus the addition of the CEC module means I don’t need to worry about an extra remote.

The NUC6i5SYH is rock solid and super-fast. Not much to say beyond that. It’s powerful enough that I don’t have to wait for anything. The fast WiFi means I can stream from the Internet or my NAS with no lag. It’s dead quiet in my living room.  I can’t hear the fan at all unless I get up and stand next to it.

Is an i5 with 16GB of RAM overkill for a home theater PC?  Probably. But I’m very happy with how this turned out. It has everything I want, and even a little bit more.  All-in-all, I’d call this one a solid success!

Now if only I could convince my wife we need a 4k TV…

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12 comments

      • I like this build I have a 4k tv and have had it with my cable provider and would like to build this I am a little concerned about the 4k 30fps also wanted to know if you have updated your nuc build?

        Like

    • Sadly I STILL haven’t made the jump to 4k. I’m thinking the prices are low enough that it’s time to get one though. As soon as I do, I’ll post a review and test it with some of the NUCs. The NUC6i5 should support 60hz, but I’ve never been able to test it myself.

      Like

    • Well that sucks. Right now I watch Netflix through my Sony bluray players and Roku. Since I run Libreelec on the HTPC NUCs, Netflix isn’t a real option anyway. But still good to know. Thanks for the head’s up!

      Like

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