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Five Best Linux HTPC Motherboards

build your very own Linux home theater PC with any of these boards

first published: 03-Aug-2009

Are you planning to build a Linux HTPC front-end or a stand-alone Linux HTPC, but are you unsure which motherboards would be best suited?
Well look no further, we have put together a list of five great motherboards that in our opinion (based on experience, feedback from other users on forums and many hours of comparing specs and reviews of current motherboards) would all make a solid basis for a great Linux HTPC running XBMC, MythTV (Mythbuntu, LinuxMCE), Freevo or SageTV.
Tip
Are you confused by some of the technical terms in this article?
Check out the glossary in the right hand side column further down below the ads!

Our selection criteria were the following:

  • micro-ATX or mini-ITX form factor
    Size usually matters with a HTPC, few people would want a big tower case in their living room, not to mention the WAF (wife acceptance factor). Also most HTPC specific cases are designed for these form factors.

  • Nvidia GeForce 8200/8300 or 9300/9400 series on-board GPU
    Nvidia's closed-source Linux drivers are currently the best choice for video play-back in the Linux world, as they support hardware assisted video play-back, which is at it's best with the 8x (for AMD) or 9x (for Intel) series cards, using the VDPAU API.

  • an on-board HDMI and/or DVI video out port
    The best choice for connecting to your HD-TV, projector or AV receiver.

  • an on-board coax or optical S/PDIF audio out port
    Unless you have a very modern AV receiver with HDMI inputs, you will need S/PDIF to route the audio to your AV receiver.

  • silent, fan-less (no chipset fan)
    In a HTPC we want as few fans as possible to avoid noise, so a small (generally noisy) chipset fan is unacceptable.
We have excluded Atom+ION based boards from this selection. Although they are great for a Linux based HTPC too, they currently still have one drawback: Adobe Flashplayer doesn't support hardware accelerated HD-video playback yet, therefore they are unsuitable for playing Flash based Internet HD video streams (Hulu, BBC IPlayer, etc).
If you don't care about Flash based HD-video streams on your HTPC, then please have a look at our overview of all available Nvidia ION based products, too.

After careful evaluation we selected 3 boards for Intel CPUs and 2 boards for AMD CPUs. The choice to go with either an Intel or an AMD CPU is up to you, both are well suited for a Linux HTPC. Boards for AMD CPUs usually cost less than boards for Intel CPUs, but Intel CPUs are currently somewhat more powerful and energy efficient when comparing them to similar priced AMD CPUs.

Best Intel CPU HTPC Motherboards

Zotac GF9300-G-E ITX
Zotac GF9300-G-E miniITX - click to enlarge
Zotac GF9300-G-E ITX - [Zotac product page]

Highlights:
  • very small, mini-ITX format (17cm x 17cm)
  • Intel LGA775 socket, supports a wide range of Intel CPUs from Celeron to Core2Quad
  • NVIDIA GeForce 9300 chipset, up to 512MB shared video memory
  • supports up to a total of 8GB DDR2 RAM in 2 slots
  • all-solid capacitor design
  • VGA (D-Sub), DVI, HDMI video ports
  • eSata port, Gigabit LAN (Realtek 8211CL chip)
  • one PCIe x16 2.0 slot
  • 7.1 channel sound, coax and optical S/PDIF port
  • integrated 802.11b/g WiFi (connected via on-board USB header)

Check price at: Newegg (US) | TigerDirect (US) | Amazon (US) | Newegg (CA) | Amazon (UK) | Dabs.com (UK) | Play.com (UK) | Amazon (DE) | Jacob Computer (DE)

Note: the GF9300-G-E is the new rev.3 PCB of the GF9300-D-E with an added 3rd Sata port and working S3 wake-on-USB. In some countries the G-E is not available yet, so we have provided links to the D-E instead.



Asus P5N7A-VM
Asus P5N7A-VM mATX - click to enlarge
Asus P5N7A-VM - [Asus product page]

Highlights:
  • Intel LGA775 socket, supports a wide range of Intel CPUs from Celeron to Core2Quad
  • NVIDIA GeForce 9300 chipset, up to 512MB shared video memory
  • supports up to a total of 16GB DDR2 RAM in 4 slots
  • all-solid capacitor design
  • full range of video ports including VGA (D-Sub), DVI, HDMI and DisplayPort
  • eSata port, Gigabit LAN
  • optical S/PDIF-out port
  • 7.1 channel sound, Realtek ALC1200 chip
  • one PCIe x16 2.0, one PCIe x1 and two PCI slots

Check price at: Newegg (US) | Amazon (US) | MicroDirect (UK) | Dabs.com (UK) | Amazon (UK) | Amazon (DE) | Jacob Computer (DE)



Gigabyte GA-E7AUM-DS2H
Gigabyte GA-E7AUM-DS2H mATX - click to enlarge
Gigabyte GA-E7AUM-DS2H - [Gigabyte product page]

Highlights:
  • Intel LGA775 socket, supports a wide range of Intel CPUs from Celeron to Core2Quad
  • NVIDIA GeForce 9400 chipset, up to 512MB shared video memory
  • supports up to a total of 16GB DDR2 RAM in 4 slots
  • all-solid capacitor design, dual Bios
  • VGA (D-Sub), DVI, HDMI video ports
  • eSata port, Gigabit LAN (Realtek 8211CL chip)
  • optical S/PDIF-out port, S/PDIF-in board header
  • 7.1 channel sound, Realtek ALC889A chip
  • one PCIe x16 2.0, one PCIe x1 and two PCI slots
  • two IEEE 1394a Firewire ports (1 on the back panel, 1 on board)

Check price at: Newegg (US) | Amazon (US) | Newegg (CA) | Amazon (UK) | Dabs.com (UK) | Amazon (DE) | Jacob Computer (DE)

Best AMD CPU HTPC Motherboards

Asus M3N78-EM
Asus M3N78-EM mATX - click to enlarge
Asus M3N78-EM - [Asus product page]

Highlights:
  • AMD AM2/AM2+ socket, supports a wide range of AMD CPUs from Sempron to Quad-Core Phenom II up to 140W
  • NVIDIA GeForce 8300 chipset, up to 512MB shared video memory (needs update to latest BIOS)
  • supports up to a total of 8GB DDR2 RAM (also ECC) in 4 slots
  • all-solid capacitor design
  • VGA (D-Sub), DVI, HDMI video ports
  • eSata port, Gigabit LAN (Realtek chip)
  • one PCIe x16 2.0, one PCIe x1 and two PCI slots
  • 7.1 channel sound, Realtek ALC1200 chip, optical S/PDIF port
  • two IEEE 1394a Firewire ports (1 on the back panel, 1 on board)

Check price at: Newegg (US) | Amazon (US) | Amazon (UK) | Jacob Computer (DE) | Amazon (DE)



Gigabyte GA-M85M-US2H
Gigabyte GA-M85M-US2H mATX - click to enlarge
Gigabyte GA-M85M-US2H - [Gigabyte product page]

Highlights:
  • AMD AM2/AM2+/AM3 socket, supports a wide range of AMD CPUs from Sempron to Quad-Core Phenom II
  • NVIDIA GeForce 8200 chipset, up to 512MB shared video memory
  • supports up to a total of 8GB DDR2 RAM in 2 slots
  • solid capacitor design for CPU VRM only
  • dual BIOS
  • VGA (D-Sub), DVI, HDMI video ports
  • Gigabit LAN (Realtek 8211CL chip)
  • one PCIe x16 2.0, one PCIe x1 and two PCI slots
  • 7.1 channel sound, Realtek ALC888 chip, coax S/PDIF port

Check price at: Amazon (UK) | Dabs.com (UK) | Amazon (DE) | Jacob Computer (DE)

Motherboard Features Comparison Table

To simplify the choice of the right board for your requirements, we have also made a comparison table that contains details about all features of each of the five motherboards.

Best Linux HTPC boards feature comparison table
click table to see larger version

Conclusions

While all five motherboards listed above are well suited for a Linux HTPC, our personal picks would be the Gigabyte GA-E7AUM-DS2H as the best Intel board (due to the GeForce 9400 chipset, Firewire ports, very good board layout and dual Bios), the Asus M3N78-EM as the best AMD board (due to the GeForce 8300 chipset, Firewire ports and ECC RAM support) and the Zotac GF9300-G-E ITX because of it's mini-ITX form factor.

Example HTPC Build

Building a HTPC (or any PC) means having to select several components that have to be all compatible with each other. For anyone not used to it, the wide choice of available components and sometimes complicated compatibility considerations can be daunting.

Therefore we have put together an example build for an affordable (under 450 US$) mid-range HTPC that is well suited for all but the most extreme uses (multiple Tuner cards with multiple recordings and transcodings going on at the same time). The listed parts are all compatible with each other and with all of the above motherboards. Please keep in mind that, as prices change all the time, these specific parts might not be always best value for money.


We cannot make any recommendations for TV-tuner cards, as the choice depends on the type of TV source you use (cable, terrestrial, satellite, digital/analog) and where you live.

That's it, we wish you lots of fun building and using your new Linux HTPC!



You might also be interested in the following articles:
 


Hauppauge HD-PVR 1212
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Take advantage of the analog loophole!

The HD-PVR records directly from cable TV and satellite settop boxes (using the component video outputs and S/PDIF digital AC3 5.1 audio) onto your HTPC with video quality up to 720p / 1080i.

It works with Myth-TV and VDR on Linux.

Check it out now at:
Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.de


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Linux HTPC Glossary

technical terms de-mystified
  • HTPC - home theater personal computer. A computer running some kind of media player software, connected to a display device (TV, projector) and to an audio system to play back photos, music, videos, movies and live broadcast TV.

  • front-end - a HTPC that relies on one or more back-end servers for the media files.

  • back-end - a media (files or streams) server PC or NAS device that contains media files to be played back by the front-end. Could also contain TV tuner cards to act as a digital video recorder using MythTV server software.

  • XBMC - a popular media center software geared towards play-back of media files.

  • MythTV - a media center software that consists of a server part and a front-end part. As the name implies it's primarily geared towards recording and viewing of TV broadcasts, but also suitable to play-back DVDs, movie files, music and photos.

  • Mythbuntu - a customized version of the popular Ubuntu Linux distribution, bundled with MythTV software.

  • LinuxMCE - a customized version of Kubuntu Linux bundled with MythTV, Asterix and other software to provide a seamlessly integrated solution for media play-back, games, home automation, phone and a security system.

  • Freevo - a personal video recorder application for Linux similar to MythTV. Can be used to play-back videos, DVDs, pictures, music, and watching live TV.

  • SageTV - a proprietary, commercial media center, digital video recorder software, also available for Linux.

  • WAF - wife acceptance factor. A tongue-in-cheek expression that estimates how likely the wife or partner will tollerate and accept the acquisition, placement and use of a new gadget or device meant for common use in a shared part of the house.

  • VDPAU - Video Decode and Presentation API for Unix, an application programming interface (API) of the Nvidia Linux drivers for the GeForce 8 and later graphic chips, that allows video programs to offload significant portions of the video decoding process and video post-processing to the video-hardware, therefore reducing the workload on the CPU.

  • Hulu - a website that offers commercial supported Flash based streaming video of TV shows and movies from major US TV networks. Currently only accessible from within the US.

  • BBC IPlayer - a Flash based streaming media player from the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) that offers BBC content for up to 7 days after broadcast.

  • S/PDIF - Sony/Philips Digital Interconnect Format, a standard for carrying digital audio signals between devices over either optical or electrical (coax.) cable. Commonly used to stream audio from a HTPC to a AV-receiver/amplifier.

  • HDMI - High-Definition Multimedia Interface, a compact audio/video interface for transmitting uncompressed digital video and audio data. Used to connect a HTPC either directly to a flat screen TV or projector, or via an AV-receiver.

  • DVI - Digital Visual Interface, a video interface standard designed to transfer a video signal from a PC to a display device. DVI and HDMI video signals compatible and inexpensive plug adapters are readily available.

  • DisplayPort - a brand new digital video interface standard competing with HDMI. Still not very commonly used.

  • IEEE 1394a / Firewire - a serial bus interface standard for high-speed data transfer, primarily used to connect external hard disks, video camcorders and some cable TV boxes to PCs.