The number of Home Theartre Personal Computers (HTPC) in living rooms has grown dramatically over the last five years or so. This is due to the media centre software on offer, the move from physical disks to streaming and the reduction in the size of computer components. Initially people wanted HTPC media centres for streaming movies, watching video content and listening to music but this is now diversifying. HTPC media centres now do far more than this from streaming live TV content to interacting with social media websites. Gaming on your HTPC has always been tough to achieve and it was difficult to get the quality of games that the latest games consoles offered however this is no longer the case.
Gaming On Your HTPC – A Complete Guide
The latest graphics cards required to play the best PC games have gotten smaller and HTPC case manufacturers have recognized the need to put high performance components into cases that don’t look out of place under a TV set rather than a monitor. It is now possible to play the very latest titles on your HTPC media centre in better resolutions than the latest games consoles and with a far better user experience. You can also play a far move diverse range of titles from different platforms and have your game collections appear with full box cover art and game video previews. For your HTPC build you need to decide on three things. The games you want to play, the hardware required and the operating system you will use. This guide will take you through everything you need to know to start gaming on your HTPC and to build the best HTPC for the right price.
The Full Gaming HTPC Build
|Intel||Quad Core, 3.5 GHz, 6 MB Cache, Socket, LGA1150|
|Silverstone Tech||Great looking Mini-ITX HTPC case. Supports full sized gaming graphics cards|
|Kingston||DDR3 1866MHz, 2X 4GB Memory DIMMs|
|Microsoft||30 foot range, Wireless, Best controller for PC gaming|
|Microsoft||Connect multiple wireless XBOX 360 controllers to your PC|
Types Of HTPC Games
If you have not yet built your HTPC media centre or you are looking to upgrade it to accommodate gaming you need to decide what titles you want to play. Is it the very latest PC titles provided by company’s like Steam and Origin or are you more of a retro gamer wanting to play titles from old games consoles from systems like the Sega Megadrive, N64 or Sony PlayStation. This is an important early consideration as different titles have different system requirements. For example if you are a retro gamer then you can run classic rom files using system emulators on pretty much any PC motherboard on the market today with no real graphics card or CPU needs. You can also launch them on many of the smaller purpose built media centre device like the Amazon Fire TV stick or Minix boxes. These are simple games which do not require much in the way of processing power and need less consideration in terms of your HTPC gaming PC hardware.
If you want to play the very latest cutting edge PC tiles on the market today and want impressive screen resolutions then there is a little more to it. You can fully integrate your Steam and Origin game libraries into some of the top media centre software packages like Kodi or Launchbox to appear along side your movie collections but you are going to need a little more under the hood to launch them. You must select a suitable graphics card, processor and memory capable of playing these titles. You also want a HTPC media centre case that isn’t going to look like you have placed your main household PC underneath your living room TV set. Choosing your components is a performance vs price equation meaning that you want to provide just enough performance to run the latest gaming titles but without breaking the bank. PC components are being improved all the time and for that reason you don’t want to buy the top of the range products. These will give you a greater degree of future proofing but the same products will be worth around 40% less in 12 months time. It is far better to build the optimum HTPC media centre system that suites your needs and upgrade it later down the road when the requirement arises. The next few sections will take you through the optimum PC components for gaming on your HTPC.
Gaming HTPC Graphics Card –
For me the graphic card that hits the sweet spot in the price vs performance battle is the GTX 750 range and particularly the EVGA NVIDA GTX 750Ti. This graphics card is available at around the £100 mark and will play any PC game that Steam or Origin has to offer. The EVGA NVIDIA GTX 750Ti is a PCI-E graphics card with a clock rate of 1020MHz (1085 Boost) and loaded with 2GB GDDR5 memory. The card is fully compatible with the latest versions of Direct X and comes with all of the required output ports, most importantly HDMI. With an NVIDIA GTX 750Ti graphics card in your HTPC media centre you can play all of the latest PC titles and retro emulators. You may have minor issues with some of the crazy PC game resolutions but these are designed for monitors and with the majority of TV sets supporting up to 1080P HD then you will not need these resolutions anyway! It will run Dolphin (Nintendo Wii emulator) in the best available resolution (3X Native) and all of the other more demanding system emulators. With the ability to run every available title the EVGA NVIDIA GTX 750Ti is the optimum graphics card for gaming on your HTPC.
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Read the full EVGA NVIDIA GTX 750Ti review
Gaming HTPC CPU –
Choosing the best CPU for gaming on your HTPC is a tough call as it is probably the most expensive component you are going to buy. You have to decide on what level of performance you want to go for and on the brand (Intel vs AMD). I personally tend to go for Intel based CPUs as many of the system emulators are built for this architecture but either brand will do the job. The Intel i3 processor will run pretty much any title out there but is now becoming old news. If you were to buy a new laptop today then the majority of these will come with an Intel i5 CPU. The Intel Core i5 4690K CPU is the best candidate which is a 3.5GHz processor with 6MB cache and is of socket LGA1150. The Intel i5 has an increased number of cores to its i3 cousin (although without hyper threading) and was the first CPU to introduce Intel’s Turbo Boost technology. This allows the CPU to hit 3.9GHz if the conditions are right. With the Intel i5 you will have the gaming experience you desire on your HTPC and a fair degree of future proofing.
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Read the full Intel Core i5 4690K review
Gaming HTPC Case –
Now, the case for gaming on your HTPC media centre is an important choice to make. You need a case that will look good in your living room but big enough to support full size graphics cards that HTPC gaming requires. I give you the Silverstone Milo ML07. Silverstone offer a number of variations of this product but the ML07 is still my preferred HTPC media centre case. It is low profile and has the amp or DVD player look to it. So that it can accommodate full sized graphics cards but still look good is comes with a riser card to plug into your PCI-E slot allowing the graphics card to lie flat on its side. It also supports a slot loading slim optical disk drive so you can also add Blu-ray player for physical PC games or Blu-ray disks. The Silverstone Milo ML07 looks great and more importantly will support all of your performance PC components.
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Read the full Silverstone Milo ML07 review
Gaming HTPC Memory –
When it comes to memory you need to consider both the amount you require and the speed. For the modern games of today DDR3 memory speeds provide the best value for money solution. DDR3 memory is capable of running any PC game on the market today and the DIMMs will not break the bank. If you are really hooked on performance you can go DDR4 but if you are not running crazy resolutions then you you will not see a great deal of benefit. In terms of how much memory you need 8GB is really the sweet spot.
With 8GB of DDR3 memory running on the Windows Operating system your HTPC will be able to take on the gaming marker. A top tip when buying memory for gaming HTPCs is to split the total amount you need over 2 DIMM slots. So, if you need 8GB in total then purchase 2X 4GB DIMMS. The reason for this is that you will pay less for them and granted you are taking away the ability to add more memory later down the line but in reality you never do this. By the time you come to want additional memory you also need to upgrade your motherboard and CPU and the speed of the memory you originally purchased is now out of date. For gaming HTPC media centres I recommend the HyperX Fury DDR3 8GB (2X 4GB Kit).
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Read the full HyperX Fury Series DDR3 8GB review
Gaming HTPC Controllers – with
For gaming on your HTPC there is only one choice when it comes to the controller and that is the XBOX 360 Wireless with the XBOX 360 Wireless Gaming receiver. The problem that PC gamers have is that there is a vast array of game pads on the market and many are cheap and of poor build quality. They get great reviews online but when the device gets to your hands it feels like a cheap piece of plastic with unresponsive buttons. Reception is often poor and unless you are sat within a metre of your TV screen you start to loose connectivity. When Microsoft designed the XBOX 360 Wireless controllers they already had PC gamers in mind. As the controllers were built for a leading games console they look and feel great and work perfectly. They have great range and are extremely responsive. The XBOX 360 controllers use XInput and so are compatible with also Windows games.
Read the full XBOX 360 Wireless Controller review
Read the full XBOX 360 USB Wireless Gaming Receiver review
Gaming HTPC Software
Once your HTPC media centre is built the next step is to choose your HTPC software or operating system and there are many options available to you. You need to decide based on your early decision as to the purpose of your HTPC media centre. If it is solely a gaming platform do you want to include retro games and emulators for other systems or just the latest PC titles. For each of the of these scenarios I have provided the top software package.
Kodi – All Round Media Centre
Kodi is without doubt the top HTPC media centre software package. It is free to download and is installed onto the Windows operating system. We all know what it can do for your movies and music but what can it do for gaming? Well, with the addition of the Advanced Launcher plugin you can add all of your retro games and modern PC titles to your Kodi libraries. You can browse your game collections in the same way as your other content with full box art and game previews. If you know Kodi then Advanced Launcher is extremely easy to use and you can integrate your games into an all round HTPC media centre.
Launchbox / Bigbox – Retro Gaming & Modern PC Titles
Launchbox is an emulator frontend which allows you to set your rom collection locations, configure your emulators and have them all displayed to you in a great looking user interface. It is an application for the Windows operating system. Bigbox is the HTPC version of the application and comes at a small additional cost. Both Launchbox and Bigbox are compatible with all emulators, Dos games and Steam & Origin. Once you have configured your game collections Launchbox will automatically pull down all box art and game movie snippets. The interface looks fantastic and will give your HTPC the look and feel of a modern games console (but with far more functionality). If your HTPC media centre is designed for both Retro gaming and modern PC titles and you are not interested in movies and music then this is for you.
See our full Launchbox / Big Box Review.
Steam OS – Modern PC Titles
Steam OS is a linux based operating system created by the company behind Steam. When they built this, Steam realised that many PC owners use their computers solely for gaming and that the PC gaming experience really lacked the ease of use that comes with modern games consoles. So, they built an operating system that takes away the lengthy Windows boot times and removes all of the features you get with Windows that are not required for gaming. Steam OS will turn your HTPC into the perfect device for playing modern PC titles and any content available on the Steam platform. The user interface looks great and booting your games is simple. It of course has support for all of your PC game controllers that Windows has. If your home theatre PC build is designed simply for playing modern PC titles then Steam OS is for you.
So, if you are interested in gaming on your HTPC and want to turn your media centre into a fully fledged gaming device then there are whole number of options available to you. Decide on what games you want to play, the optimum hardware required and the type of software you are going to need. Gaming HTPCs offer far more opportunities than the modern games consoles of today and with a bit of time and effort you can build the perfect gaming platform.