Cheapass HTPC solution -- suggestions?

So I’m a cheap ass. I want to improve my living room TV experience but I don’t want to have to give money to my cable company. NetFlix sufficed, for a while, but now I’d like to be able to do a bit more, download current episodes of TV shows, etc. Also, my old computer is dead. I don’t really feel the need to have a fancy computer (that’s what my work computer is for) but I could really use an email and web client, something to run iTunes for my iPhone, etc.

What I want is basically a really cheap PC that I can hook up to my tv (a 32" 720i Westinghouse) and use to stream video and surf the web. I want it to be as small as possible, with as few wires as possible, and be fairly usable as a general computer. Basically I want a neutered version of the HTPC boxes that a lot of people are talking about – cheap multimedia power but without bothering with a tuner or DVR (I considered a tuner and antenna for digital network TV but I don’t want to have to bother with a big antenna and our reception sucks – or so I hear). The solution needs to have wireless networking, wireless keyboard and a mouse. It needs to be able to display well to my TV. If it was capable of playing some games, that’d be cool, but it’s not a requirement. Most importantly, it should be cheap.

Any suggestions? Build it myself or buy it pre-configured? iMini worth considering? Any other ideas? Sadly, I haven’t kept up with computer hardware since the late 90’s and so I feel pretty out-of-touch. That said, I’m not squeamish about hardware, used to build my own systems, and I don’t really have a problem putting a system myself if that sounds like the best option.

ExtremeTech has a good article on HTPC. Give it a quick google, there are a fair few hits. I think anandtech covered one last month as well.

I am liking the recent offerings by AMD+ATI; on board HD decode, low power consumption, low heat. You might want to give that a look. Also, with HDD prices the way they are, you can grab 1TB of storage for a cheap price.

I have an Acer Aspire L5100, highly recommended! Small, good specs and comes with Vista Premium so you have the media center solution. Cheap as well.

Newegg has a combo deal on Zotac ZBOX HD-ID11-U + 250GB HDD for $210 after rebate. Anybody use the Zbox or a similar Atom-based PC? Basically I just want something cheap for media-streaming to my HDTV, ideally in 1080p. Also, is XBMC still the go-to freeware app for this sort of thing, or should I be looking at something else? Alternatively, is there a way to play MKV files thru my PS3 without converting said files to a different format? Thanks!

Atom just doesn’t have enough oomph for 1080p, from what I understand.

The Atom may or may not be able to handle CPU decoding of 1080p, but the ION graphics card will have no trouble with DXVA 1080p content. There’s a misleading comment in there about how it “Plays 1080p Blu-ray rips with ease (less than 10% CPU) with XBMC 9.11.”

Bullshit. I don’t think he understands the concept of GPU decoding. I have a high-end quad core in my HTPC and it can’t even manage 10% CPU on software decodes of 1080p video. That’s either a total lie or it was hardware decoding.

Would NVIDIA PureVideo HD technology count as hardware decoding? It is listed under the specifications for the Zotac deal.

Yeah, that’s part of the ION’s hardware acceleration (aka GPU decoding). But, it will only accelerate video formats that it lists on that page: H.264, VC-1, and MPEG-2. Luckily just about every HD stream these days is H.264 or MPEG-2, so only a handful of video files won’t be able to decode at the GPU level. (High-def flash video for instance, divx, xvid, etc). You can also forget about upscaling any unsupported formats as well.

My post came off kinda negative, but I was actually trying to say that while the Atom processor in the Zbox most likely cannot handle 1080p video, the ION GPU that comes with it can, and with ease. So it’s actually not that bad a deal at $210 (excellent deal actually, I kinda want one for the bedroom).

My HTPC is a powerhouse. That’s just how I built it. The case alone was $500 and has a 7" touchscreen LCD on the front. I’m a nutty videophile and I’ll admit it, but the HTPC’s purpose wasn’t just media. It was also games. So, it kinda has to be a beast.

The question is HOW cheap ass are you? Whats your budget?
I just went through a similar situation and ended up spending about 300$ for a AMD dual core CPU, mainboard, Ram & a case (still had HDDs, PSU, KB & Mouse) - Its all relative, but I think I made the right choice and now have sweet media PC that can hold its own with everything you mention. I probably could have saved a few bucks here and there. Got a minitower in the end, as the HTPCs cases seemed to be pricier and the cheap ones had bad cooling / or not enough space for more than one HDD.

Reckon if you go for the minimum system, you’ll probably have to spend a bit more than I did…

What kind of case did you end up getting?

A Moneual MonCaso 932B. More pictures here. The B just stands for black. The remote control that came with it sucked ass though, so I run the LCD software in MCE remote mode (the front panel LCD is controlled by a single piece of software, including the IR receiver) and use my universal remote with it (it already had all the MCE remote codes programmed in).

That is pretty cool. I would get something like that, but my av cabinet kind of masks the equipment. It’s funny, ever since I threw an LCD up in the bedroom, we barely watch anything on the TV with surround sound.