There are a few key components that go into every solid home theater PC (HTPC) solution. AMD and Intel have low-power processors that help minimize thermal loads, keeping systems cooler and quieter. Several chipset options from AMD, Intel, and Nvidia now offer powerful-enough integrated graphics for HTPC needs, enabling platforms that don't require discrete graphics, yet are still able to accelerate Blu-ray playback and bitstream high-def audio formats.
We already looked at several mainstream HTPC cases in October. Now it’s time to review a handful of high-end enclosures. With the holidays behind us, there's a good chance that you have a little gift money left over to splurge on a deluxe chassis. Don't let the disappointments of previous-generation HTPCs negatively affect your decision; the hardware available now is more capable than ever of displacing dedicated home theater equipment. Truly, there’s never been a better time than now to tackle an HTPC project.
What Makes a HTPC?
Home theater PCs employ hardware (of course) and a bit of specialized software to provide audio and video playback, plus recording for those with their systems hooked up to a cable or satellite connection. The HTPC becomes the hub of the home’s digital data procurement, distribution, and output. Practically any media source is a possibility. Think of cable, satellite, Internet, and other sources for content. At the same time, the HTPC may also your home’s central database for audio, video, and pictures. Lastly, output choices are considerable. Digital and analog audio options are essentially mandatory. HDMI has been merging both video and audio data into one convenient connector, but DisplayPort is creeping into the scene even while legacy connections, such as S-Video, are still supported.
From Bricks to Style
Every user who has followed the PC market for more than a few years will remember how whiteboxes looked a decade ago. Fortunately, those aptly-named beige machines are long gone, and vendors have done an amazing job of crafting purpose-built cases to fit the HTPC niche. Many models won’t look intrusive in your living room, yet they still deliver some outstanding functionality.
Moneual, Thermaltake, Zalman to the Rescue
The three cases we're looking at today are all full-size, ATX-capable, and offer more space for components and add-ons than the entry-level devices we reviewed a couple of months ago. All three come with integrated 7” displays, as well, which serve as status displays but can also control HTPC features. Unfortunately, they are not well-suited to actually controlling your operating system. These cases follow on the products that Don Woligroski compared almost a year ago. Let’s look at our three contenders from Moneual, Thermaltake, and Zalman. We would have included Silverstone’s CW03, as well, but Silverstone was unable to send a replacement after the first shipment was lost. We recommend looking at an earlier review for details on this product.