The Quest For The Perfect Affordable HTPC

I’m on the quest for an affordable home theatre PC (HTPC) solution to go with my recently-purchased 46″ Samsung HDTV. I already have one, almost. I have an old eMachines box with an AMD Athlon 3000+ 64-bit processor at 1.8GHz and 2GB of RAM that’s connected to my router. Basically, it’s somewhat of a glorified NAS, holding all my movies/tv shows/music/photos and making them accessible from any computer on my network. Unfortunately, this machine does not have either a Blu-Ray drive or an HDMI output, which means its usefulness as an HTPC is rather limited.

However, I have basically two options to remedy this:

Option A: Given that the eMachines has an acceptable processor and RAM for playing back video content, all I really need is a Blu-Ray drive and a video card with an HDMI output on there – seems simple enough, and added in an afternoon for roughly $200, give or take. The benefit here is the low cost – I’m still stuck with a mid-size tower in my livingroom.

Option B: Build a new HTPC. I can salvage the processor, HDDs (I’ve got two drives in there, 160GB and 500GB), and perhaps a stick of RAM. The benefit here is that I could also opt for a smaller, slimmer case and a quieter cooling system, so that it would be really ideally suited for the livingroom. The problem here is the cost and the hassle involved.

I’m tempted to go with Option A, mainly because right now, there are a ton of things we need to spend $5-600 on, aside from a whole new computer. My two questions, for my computer-geeky readers, are:

1. Will the AMD Athlon 3000+ 1.8GHz 64-bit processor and 2GB of RAM be enough to basically run Windows Media Center all the time, stream internet video, and play Blu-Ray discs back? Ideally this computer will boot into Windows Media Center, so that’s really all I need.

2. What video card would you recommend for these tasks? There will not be any gaming done – this is purely video content I’m worried about here. HDMI output is a requirement, for sure.

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