Let’s face it, the era of the HTPC, or Media PC, is just about dead. With support for Windows 7 finally coming to a close, and by extension the renown Windows Media Center (aka WMC), combined with the fact that just about every smart TV on the planet these days comes with built-in apps for streaming Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and YouTube, there just isn’t a compelling need for a massive computer tucked inside your media cabinet anymore. I built my first HTPC over 10 years ago and I’ve become reliant on it as the hub of my family room entertainment system ever since. While external set top boxes like Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire Sticks, and of course smart TVs, have taken over what once was one of the great advantages of the HTPC, namely watching unlimited amounts of streaming TV and movies, there’s some things that old HTPC still does best.
Such as pop in a TV tuner card and you’re watching live over-the-air (OTA) TV in HD. Can’t catch a show when it airs? WMC lets you record all your favorite shows and then watch them anytime on any computer in the house. And it just works, every time. How about that pile of ripped DVDs that play perfectly with VLC Player (and in 5.1 surround sound) that basically are unplayable through almost any other means? The HTPC has you covered. Or log into Google Photos to watch last night’s ballet performance on your big screen (since the first time you watched it, it was through your dinky phone). What about a game of Kahoot!? It’s a party when everyone gathers around the TV for a round of “Name that Disney Movie!”. And those are just a few of the things that an HTPC is awesome at. Or at least I haven’t figured out a better, cheaper, more elegant solution to do any of those things, so why mess with it?
When we recently renovated our family room, we got rid of our massive entertainment center and downsized to a simple media console, I knew I had to figure something out for the ‘ole HTPC. It was basically just a computer, it was huge (and ugly) and would not fit inside the tiny compartment of the new media console. Plus it was old, just about 8 years old now but still going strong with an old AMD A4-3400 APU and Radeon 6410 graphics, it’s worked out well over the years. However, as more and more 1080p content became available, and more and more streaming options online moved to 1080p, this old machine was often be pegged at 100% CPU usage. Doing anything besides watching a DVD or TV show in WMC nearly brought it to its knees. I’m looking at you iTunes.
I bring this up because it would have been easy to buy a smaller HTPC case and swap the old mATX motherboard, HDD and PSU into a new rig that would have fit just fine into the new media console, but I was ready to upgrade that old thing and figured now would be a great time to do it. As it would happen, I purchased a used HP XW4600 workstation PC a few years ago that never really got used for anything and was just sitting out in the garage. It’s got a Core 2 Duo E8500, 3.16 GHz Intel processor with 8 GB of PC2-6400 DDR2-800 RAM and an Nvidia Quadro FX 1800 graphics card. It’s all 9-year-old tech by today’s standards, but still more than enough for an HTPC, even if it wouldn’t be 4k capable. I knew this would still make a great, albeit modest, upgrade to my current setup. Only there was one major problem with this whole plan – the motherboard was a full-size ATX motherboard. So in other words, it’s huge. I searched online for media cases that support full ATX motherboards, they are few and far between, plus they are expensive. More than the combined value of the parts I would be putting inside. SilverStone makes one, it’s not flashy, but it’s still $100. While reasonably priced, I was hoping to convert this old HP XW4600 tower into a usable HTPC for less than $25. So with that, I concocted a plan and I hereby present you with how to create the ultimate DIY computer case for *less than $25.
Before I start, let me just say that I won’t be going into any of the computer building details, and this it not a how-to build a HTPC blog post. I basically took an old HP tower and gutted it and just reassembled it into a custom case. So that will be the focus of this blog. Nothing more and nothing less. Well, I added a couple of extra fans, a TV tuner card, a 5.1 sound card and second HDD, but that’s just standard routine for just about any HTPC. Oh yeah, and I, um, ditched the optical drive completely. Which oddly enough is exactly what makes this entire rig actually possible and super easy to pull off. If you’ve come this far, but are dead set on keeping an optical drive in your setup, take this information for what it’s worth. Most of what I did will need to be modified to allow room for an optical drive, somewhere, I don’t know where, one won’t fit the way I did it, which is why I opted to eliminate it completely. I can’t remember the last time I used an optical drive in my HTPC, let alone an optical drive in any of my computers for that matter. So what good is a Media PC without a, um, media drive? Well ask yourself, when was the last time you used some kind of physical media lately?
Alright so let’s get to the build. First things first, gut the case. Actually before that, find a clean, open place to set up shop for a couple of days, because this build takes at least a solid weekend to complete. With all the old gear out, now’s a good time to vacuum out the 10 years of dust that’s been building up in there. If possible, remove the 5.25 inch bays and the 3.5 inch HDD bays so you’re left with just the bare case. On the XW4600 these pieces come apart from the case with a few discrete little screws. So discrete that I didn’t realize they came out until after I had cut the case in half. Or rather, I cut the case at 11 inches from the back. The original depth of this case was 17 inches and the depth of my media console is only 15 inches. Which means for anything to fit inside it, it really needs to be about 14 inches or less, to allow room for cables and wires to come out the back and not get crammed into the wall behind it.
A standard ATX motherboard is 12 x 9.6 inches so 11 inches is about the smallest you can go before a standard ATX form factor motherboard won’t fit anymore. The width of the case is 17.75 inches (or I guess that’s the height) which is also pretty standard for a midsize tower such as this. My media console is 19 inches wide so this just about maxes out the size that will fit while still leaving some room for airflow for the pair of fans on each side. I used a jigsaw with a metal cutting blade and after marking a line around the entire case at 11 inches, I just took my time and cut along the line. I kept a Shop Vac on with the hose inside the case to suck up the metal shavings as I cut. With the case literally cut in half, I took a piece of sandpaper and sanded down all the edges since the jigsaw leaves a pretty ragged cut. But once sanded down, it’s nice and smooth and the potential for any additional metal shavings getting into the computer is eliminated.
About this time I grabbed the 3/4 inch piece of Poplar I had picked up at The Home Depot the week prior in preparation for the build and set it up in front of the case along the opening I had just cut. The was my first glance at what the new HTPC would look like. And even with the case unpainted and the wood not finished, it looked good, really good! And as far as wood options go, I picked up the Poplar because they sell it in what they call 1 x 8 inch planks, or 0.75 x 7.25 inches cut. My case is 17.75 x 6.75 inches so this board cut at 18 inches long was the perfect size while still allowing 1/4 inch overhang on the top and bottom and 1/8 inch on each the side. I had the guy at Home Depot cut the board for me at exactly 18 inches. It was $4.97 per foot, so total cost at this point – $7.50. Other options of wood are available, but not all of them come a full 8 inches wide. You could do Maple, Birch, Alder, Pine or even just MDF, but the overall width is a constraint, so just take that into consideration when picking our your front panel lumber. The Poplar worked out great and I can easily recommend it, plus it’s one of the cheaper ones, unless you just go with pine. Which would also work just fine.
Next part is to glue a couple of wood cleats along each edge of the front panel (the board) to which a pair of screws can be screwed into from the sides of the case to hold the board in place. I had some 1/2 inch pine lying around from a prior project so I cut two pieces at roughly 5 x 1 inch each and glued them to the back of the board just inside where the sides of the case touch. This takes just a bead of wood glue and a couple of C-clamps to hold in place. I drilled a pair of holes on either side of the case at about 3.5 inches apart making sure that each hole would hit the wood cleat with at least 3/4 inch on either side to prevent the board from splitting. Once the cleats dried (after about 1 hour) I lined up the board to the case and match-drilled two smaller holes through the case holes into each cleat. I used (4) #8 x 1/2 inch pan head sheet metal screws to secure the new front panel to the case. This makes for a quick and easy method of securing the front board to the case that doesn’t require any visible holes in the board and can be removed and reinstalled really easily (which I ended up doing about eight times).
At this point I started trying to figure out where to stick everything. The motherboard and PSU already had a home in their original locations, so there was no altering those pieces. I temporarily set them in place while I held two full-size hard drives, a fan and a speaker, trying to figure out where each piece might go and how I was going to mount them. After playing some real life Tetris action with these parts, I settled on mounting both HDDs on the backside of front board, a fan on each side of the case towards the front, and the speaker went in a little spot on the back of the case next to the original case fan. And that was it, everything was going to fit, and it wasn’t even going to be a tight fit. Even with a HDD sticking off the back of the front board, there was still over 9 inches to the back panel leaving plenty of room for the Quadro 1800 or just about any other graphics card, if I choose to one day to upgrade the PC components in the future.
Okay so the plan for the front panel, or the front board, is to install lonely power switch. A single, large push button momentary (non-latching) switch with an integrated LED. And that’s it. No optical drives, no USB ports (the motherboard has 8 in the rear already), no 1/8 inch headphone/mic jacks, just a power switch. I mean, that’s all you really need right? So I got on Amazon an searched for hours for the perfect switch. They have hundreds to choose from, ranging in multiple sizes, LED color, switch color/material, etc. So whatever suits your fancy, just go for it. I ended up picking up a Ulincos Momentary Push Button Switch (U19C3 1NO1NC) with Silver Stainless Steel Shell and 5-12V Blue LED Ring. It was $9.48. I thought the silver would look cool against the wood and the blue would match some of my other stereo gear (turns out the red would have matched better, but oh well). The key thing to look for here is that the LED can operate on 5V (and that it’s a momentary, NO, non-latching switch), since most of these types of switched are targeted at the auto market, they are meant to run off of 12V. Whether they say so or not, most LEDs will probably run at 5V fine, just less bright. But the Ulincos branded switches all specified that you can run the LED off of 5V which is the exact voltage from a typical motherboard. And the LED is plenty bright in this scenario, it looks absolutely perfect. And I wired mine to the power light, not the HDD activity light, just because in all honesty, what in the world is the purpose of a little light that blinks indicated HDD activity? Like, for what reason is someone suppose to use that type of visual indicator?
Anyway, I marked a couple of locations on the front panel board where the switch could go, making sure to stay clear of the motherboard and the two HDDs. I basically wanted it dead center on the panel horizontally, but towards the bottom vertically. I marked a line that said minimum distance to bottom is 1.5 inches, which corresponded to the total height of the motherboard plus the overhang (or underhang) of the board and left room for the wires to hang off the back of the switch. I marked a center spot at 2.125 inches from the bottom and exactly 9 inches from one side. That looked good right there.
The only tricky thing about drilling the hole for the switch is that the overall length of the switch is too short to allow the nut to screw on to secure it to the board since the board is so thick. So what you have to do first is drill a 1 inch counterbore about an 1/8 to 1/4 inch deep on the backside of the board for the nut, and then go around to frontside of the board and drill the 3/4 (or 19 mm) hole for the switch. Spade type bits work best as they provide a clean cut and are cheap to buy (if you don’t have any). I couldn’t find my 1 inch spade, I looked everywhere for it, and after an hour of searching I just gave up and drilled a 7/8 inch hole and then used a knife to carve out the last 1/8 inch. It was kinda of a pain, so if you have a 1 inch spade bit, just use that. Use the 1 inch bit on the backside first, as with these types of bits, you can’t use the larger bit second, if you’ve already drilled out a smaller hole inside. Ask me how I know this. So use the 1 inch spade to get the backside drilled down about no more than 1/4 inch, and then flip the board over and drill out the 3/4 inch hole all the way through. That’s about it, wow it’s all set to install the switch. But we’ll get there in a minute.
Moving on to how I mounted the two hard drives. I happened to have in my garage these little S-brackets, I must have bought years ago for something, but they worked out great as L-brackets (once I took a hammer to them) to mount each HDD. I drilled out one of the holes in each to accommodate a set of rubber vibration grommets that came from my old HTPC. I mounted each grommet/bracket the HDD then marked on the board where to drill the holes. I drilled a short hole (don’t drill all the way through!) into the board in the (4) locations corresponding to each of the L-brackets and screwed them in with #8 x 1/2 inch pan head sheet metal screws. See the pics below to get an idea of how I did this. There’s probably plenty of other ways to do this, and they probably sell brackets for this kind of thing, but but when you have a garage full of stuff (crap) like this, sometimes you just make do with what you’ve got. But this worked out great and can easily be mimicked with similar little brackets you can pick up from Home Depot, Ace hardware or even Amazon. You just may need to drill out one of the holes a little bigger if you plan to use those little vibration grommets.
Moving onto to the fan installation. I added two new 92mm fans to this case, one on either side towards the front panel. With the old panel, there was a huge slot below the optical drives that allowed cool air to flow in through the front and out through the back. With this new solid wooden front panel however, there was no place for fresh cool air to be drawn into the case to keep everything cool. So I decided to add two fans on the sides right at the front and wired them such that they both draw cool air in from the outside, over the HDDs, motherboard and graphics card. Then the rear case fan is wired as an exhaust fan to draw hot air out towards the rear and effectively into the open area behind the media console. This brings me to my third and final purchase for this HTPC case, and that was an ARCTIC F9-92 mm Standard Low Noise Case Fan for $6.99. I should have bought the silent version, which runs at 1000 rpm, because once I got this thing installed, running at the normal 12V, it was easily the loudest thing in the room. So I swapped the 12V and 5V pins on the Molex 4-pin fan connector adapter I was using (stupid motherboard only had two headers for chassis fans) so I could run the fan at 5V and then it was dead silent. It’s probably running around 750 rpm now, so while it’s not moving a lot of air, so far the computer hasn’t complained about overheating, though time will tell. If things end up getting too hot, my plan is to install a 120mm fan in the top panel, since that is the last viable place to install any more fans in this thing.
So I drilled a bunch of holes in the case where the fans were to be installed to allow airflow as can be seen in the pictures. I didn’t do anything fancy here, just drew two circles and then divided the circles into 12 equal parts (30 degrees) and drilled a small 1/8″ pilot hole before moving onto the largest 3/8 inch around the outside circle and 5/16 inch holes on the inside. I used a 1/2 inch drill bit by hand to clean up the holes and remove any burs. I thought this would be plenty of holes, but as it turns out when you stuff a fan up against these little holes, and then spin it really fast, the air makes a lot of noise as it fights its way through the holes and then through the fan blades and into the case. Part of the reason I had to run the fans so slowly. So my advice is make the holes as big as is reasonable. Or cut out the opening entirely and then buy a fan screen of some sort. This works for now, it looks fine, but once placed in the media console, it sits so close to the sides that you can’t even see them anyway. And I tried so hard to make every hole line up so it wouldn’t look like crap. Oh well.
I stained the Poplar with Minwax Dark Walnut. Before I stained the board I treated it with the Minwax Pre-stain Wood Conditioner. This helps the stain to go on evenly and makes it look less splotchy when complete. I brushed on the pre-treatment and then within 2 hours used a rag to wide on the first coat of the Dark Walnut. Every two hours I added another coat until I had completed 3 coats and was satisfied with the end result. It didn’t turn out super even in terms of depth, but I think it was just due to the grain of the wood. Some of the grain just absorbed the stain deeper and it just ended up darker while other spots were lighter. It evened out as I added coats. The pictures tend to exaggerate the condition as well. The next morning I added two coats of Minwax’s Polycrylic in a semi-gloss with the foam brush and then let it dry for a day. While I was doing the stain I also spray painted the case with a solid black spray paint also in a semi-gloss sheen. This was just paint I had in my garage from previous projects. As was the stain and polycrylic. So yeah, I guess you could say *I cheated a little bit with the overall “$25 cost” of this project. You have to have a bunch of basic stuff at your disposal to make this work. I mean if you had to buy everything from scratch, including jigsaw blades, drill bits, screws, paint stain, sandpaper, etc., then yes, this computer case makeover would cost you a lot more than $25. But if you’re reading this I’m assuming you’re the type of person who has these types of tools already and while the exact cost might vary, it really just goes to show that DIY is often the cheaper and sometimes more elegant solution to solving a problem.
Okay, I think I’ve described in excruciating detail how I converted an old HP tower into a sweet media case that fits a full-size ATX motherboard that I can probably call it good. Without going into much other details about the build, I installed all the parts, the mobo, the PSU, the fans, the two HDDs, the graphics card, TV tuner card and soundcard, I did little to dress up the wires and then buttoned it all up and called it a night. I setup a temporary monitor, keyboard and mouse, plugged everything in and took a deep breath before pushing that big silver button on the fancy new dark walnut wood front panel. If it didn’t work, at least it looked good. The button clicked, the blue light glowed, the six fans started whirring (yes there are six fans in this case, 3 case fans, the CPU fan, the graphics card fan and the PSU fan), the speaker made a beep! and the monitor came to life. Hallelujah I thought. For a week this computer sat in pieces on my kitchen table, no static bags, no static strap, kids running in and out, metal shavings every time I drilled a new hole in the case (I lived with the Shop Vac literally on all the time) and would you believe after all is said and done when I hit the power button it turned on and worked. Of course this wasn’t a new build. The computer worked before I re-built the case, so I can’t take that much credit. The second HDD was new, the two additional case fans, the sound card and TV tuner card were all I added. Everything else was just a bare-bones HP XW4600 PC circa 2009 now converted into an awesome HTPC.
So that’s about it, check out all the build pics below and click on some of the links to go straight to some of the products I used. Hopefully some of what I’ve written will help you take the plunge and build your own HTPC case. It wasn’t a super hard project, but definitely takes some time with all the cutting and drilling and sanding and staining and waiting and staining and painting and waiting, etc., etc. Not to mention the three frustrating hours I spent trying to get video on the TV and sound on the stereo. Overall it was a fun project and if nothing else, the wife is happy that the big ugly computer sitting next to her nice new media console is finally gone. Well, it’s not gone, not gone for good anyway, just not in the family room anymore. That computer now has its own upgrade plan, something along the lines of “Daddy needs a new DAW” and its got Ryzen written all over it. And that my friends is a blog for another day. Thank you for your time you’ve spent reading my ramblings, I hope it has inspired you to build your own media case!