Are you building a home theater PC or converting an old desktop computer to HTPC use? Awesome. Adding an HTPC to your home theater is like building a gateway to a huge land full of juicy video content. Hulu, Youtube, and the various websites which are put up by different broadcasters and have TV episodes available are all just a few clicks away.
But if you are thinking of building an HTPC there is one absolutely critical component which you need to have. A video card. This is the component which accelerates video and allows a computer to easily display high resolution video without dropping frames. While the most powerful modern processors might be able to handle this alone, most computers will require a video card to assist.
What should you buy? How much power do you need? I’ll help you figure it out.
Video Card Power Isn’t a Priority
This may seem a strange statement to make. I did, after all, just assert that the most powerful modern processors are required in order to display video smoothly without assistance from a video card.
Here’s the thing – video cards are made just to display video. Even a wimpy video card is many times better at displaying video than the average computer processor. Video cards are specialists built for one purpose, so you can buy a relatively small, low-power video card and still see a big improvement in how well your HTPC is capable of displaying video.
In addition to this, integrated graphics has made great strides recently. This means that some of the newest integrated graphics solutions are entirely adequate for a home theater computer. This includes the new Radeon 5000 and 6000 series graphics found on many AMD motherboard chipsets as well as the Intel HD 2000 and 3000 graphics found on Intel’s newest processors.
Video Card Size and Noise is a Priority
While video card power isn’t a priority, the size and the noise made by the video card is.
First, let’s talk about size. We all know what people say. Bigger is better, period. That’s actually true with video cards because the largest video cards also tend to be the fastest. However, the best video cards are actually so large that they won’t fit in many computer cases. We’re talking cards which are ten or twelve inches long, six inches wide, and three inches thick. These things are monsters, and they simply won’t fit in many cases. Besides, remember what I just said about power? Those huge cards are overkill.
What you want is a small video card which can fit in small case and still leave room for other components. While the biggest video cards are foot-long beasts, the smallest ones are five inches long, a few inches wide, and less than an inch thick. This is the kind of card you’ll want.
Noise is another important consideration, and one that is often forgotten until it is too late. The best video cards are outrageously powerful, capable of displaying life-like 3D graphics on 30 inch monitors without hesitation. But they also produce huge amounts of heat which must be exhausted by fast, noisy fans. Anyone who has tried to watch movies with an Xbox 360 can tell you that having a loud, noisy piece of hardware howling over the sounds of your movie isn’t pleasant.
What you want is a video card with a passive cooler. A passive cooler is simply a heatsink without a fan of any sort. No fan, no noise. Luckily, this fits directly into what I’ve already advised you need to look for. Small, low-end video cards are the only ones with these types of coolers.
HTPC Video Card Features
Now you know what type of HTPC video card you should be looking for in terms of power, size, and cooling. But what about features?
One features you’ll certainly want to look for is an HDMI connection. Not all video cards have HDMI – in fact, many video cards have been slow to introduce this connection because it isn’t as common on computer monitors as it is on HDTVs. For an HTPC, however, an HDMI is a must-have. While many HDTVs do have DVI connections available, they are usually considered a secondary connection and are often not supported as well or placed as conveniently as the HDMI inputs.
Another extremely handy feature which some video cards provide is audio through HDMI. Video cards are not audio cards, but both ATI and Nvidia offer some cards which will output audio along with video and are therefor extremely easy to use with an HTPC. Just route an HDMI cable from the card to your receiver or HDTV and you’re good to go. Using standard PC audio tends to be confusing, so this feature is on that I highly recommend that you look for.
So, you know what to look for now. But I’m going to make it even easier for you buy recommending a couple perfect HTPC video cards which will be excellent for most users.
If you are using a motherboard and/or processor without modern integrated graphics you’ll need at least a small video card to beef up HD video performance. The ASUS Radeon EAH5450 Silent is the perfect solution for a number of reasons. It’s small, so it will fit in almost any case. It’s also fanless, which means it will make no noise to distract from your home theater experience. Finally, it’s just $35 bucks. If you need a basic video card for your HTPC, this is the one to buy.
Games. That is what you could want. HTPCs are generally used for movies and television shows, but once you’re planted on the couch you might want to try playing some games on it as well. If you’re interested in playing World of Warcraft from your couch you’ll need a more powerful card, such as the Sapphire Radeon HD 6570. You have to accept a fan if you want to do this, which means more noise, but there is no avoiding that. The Sapphire Radeon HD 6570 will set you back $80 dollars.