In this post, I'll show you a few select options for putting together an affordable media server computer for under $300 that can store all of your media in one central location and is small enough to fit just about anywhere in your house. This build guide is for a server that will probably be running headless (without a monitor) and not for an HTPC, although you can probably turn it into one by simply dropping in a discrete video card. Here are the goals I wanted to hit with this particular computer build:
- Budget of $300 not including peripherals or OS (before tax, shipping, etc)
- Enough storage capacity for average household (ie. not a serious heavy-duty server load and not optimal for office use)
- Relatively small so it can be crammed in a corner of your house
- Must have room for upgrades (more storage!)
- Quality components, no no-name junk
In order to have a fully functional home server rig, we're going to need a case, a power supply, processor, motherboard, memory, hard drive, gigabit ethernet and a video card or integrated graphics at a minimum. Actually, we'll want as much of all that to be integrated as possible to save money. An operating system will also be needed but that is out of the scope of this quick build guide since there are so many options available for a media server, many of which are completely free to download. A server like this shouldn't need a optical drive or a monitor except during the initial installation process. If your operating system of choice is Linux-based, you might not need an optical drive at all since you can install using a USB stick. Most operating systems designed for media server use should have remote administration tools so a monitor will not be necessary after everything is set up.
Let's look at some hardware options. For each component I'll offer a specific recommendation and an explanation of my choice. In some cases I have also included an (often cheaper) alternative to the primary pick. All prices were taken from the Hot Hardware price engine on the day of posting.
Case / Power Supply
For the case, I was looking for something cheap and small with as much hard drive capacity as I could find. For a personal media server like this, it doesn't make much sense to use a decked out full-tower server chassis that will run you a solid $200+. The server will also be running headless without a dedicated monitor since most media server oriented operating systems like Windows Home Server will have built-in remote administration features. This means you can tuck your server into a corner somewhere out of the way and it doesn't need to be near a desk. Since the server will be hidden away in a corner, aesthetics wasn't a factor in my choice. While the server needed to be small, ITX was out of the question since the majority of ITX cases have less than 2 hard drive bays, which severely restricts future upgradeability (stay tuned for an upcoming ITX media server build guide).
After some searching around, I ultimately settled on the Athenatech A3603BB.400. To be honest this sort of breaks our rule of only using name-brand components, but this little chassis gets decent customer reviews and Athenatec has been cranking out budget chassis for some time. This is a surprisingly well laid out budget MicroATX mini-tower that should suit the purposes of this build perfectly. This little mini-tower manages to pack in 6x3.5" bays and 3x5.25" bays which should be plenty for our purposes. While it isn't exactly a looker, its subdued styling won't draw attention to it when it's installed in its little corner. The chassis is also well ventilated with 92mm fan cutouts in the front and back as well as a 80mm side panel fan cutout, although only the rear 92mm fan is actually included. Heat won't be a huge issue in a small personal server like this so the single rear 92mm fan should be adequate until you start to fill up the case with hard drives at which point you may want to add a second fan. The case also comes with a 400W power supply which is plenty for what we want to do with it. At around $45, it fits the bill nicely. Unfortunately it does have its share of issues. The most important of which is the relatively cheap construction. This isn't a particularly durable case and if you treat it roughly, it won't fare too well. However, once again, I want to emphasize that a media server isn't something you will be messing around with too much and you'll likely leave it alone to sit in a corner so this shouldn't be a problem.
However if you'd rather go with something a bit bigger and more durable, check out the alternate pick, the Cooler Master Elite RC-330. The RC-330 is a larger case than the Athenatech so it'll require more room, but it also has slightly more space for drives with 7x3.5" bays and 4x5.25" bays. It comes with a 350W power supply which is a bit less than the Athenatech, but it should still be enough for this build.
Primary: Athenatech A3603BB.400 w/ 400W ($45)
Alternative: Cooler Master Elite RC-330 w/ 350W ($50)
The amount of processing power needed for a personal file server is often misunderstood. Frankly, you don't need very much under the hood. The processor will spend nearly all of its time idling and there is not much point in using even a mid-range chip. Even at full load while serving multiple files simultaneously, there will be very little processor activity. If you plan on only using the server for file storage, you can easily get by with as little as a single-core 1.6GHz Intel Atom chip. However if you want your server to handle richer media tasks like video streaming and content encoding, you might want something a bit more powerful, although only slightly.
For this build, I have picked the AMD Athlon X2 4850e processor. This is a very affordable little dual-core processor with a low power profile at a TDP of only 45W. At just $59, this is perfect for our needs. While this budget 2.5Ghz chip with only 512KB of L2 cache per core isn't much of a speed demon in the grand scheme of things, it packs more than enough power for media server duties. Its low power envelope will also come in handy since it will keep the heat in the chassis down and the server will likely be running 24/7 so we'll want to use as little power as possible.
As an alternative to the AMD, we picked the Intel Pentium E2200. The E2200 is a dual-core chip using the Allendale core with a frequency of 2.2Ghz. It should perform similarly to the AMD and it'll be plenty of power for our purposes.
Primary: AMD Athlon X2 4850e 2.5GHz 45W ($59)
Alternative: Intel Pentium E2200 2.2GHz 65W ($60)
For the motherboard, I was looking for something with plenty of integrated features to keep the overall cost of the system down. Of primary importance is support for gigabit ethernet and plenty of onboard SATA ports. Built-in RAID was also a requirement.
My first choice is the ASUS M3A78-CM motherboard built on AMD's excellent low-power 780V platform. The 780V northbridge only draws about 11W at full load and less then 1W while idle. Compare that to Intel's G35 northbridge which consumes nearly 30W at load. This board is just loaded with features including the ones most important to this build; gigabit ethernet, 6xSATA, RAID 0/1/10. With six SATA ports, this little mATX has all the storage capacity we need, not to mention an additional two more potential hard drives that can be connected to the onboard PATA. This board also features a great layout, full-copper heatsinks and quality solid capacitors for the critical power phase circuits that feed the CPU. In terms of expansion, the board offers two standard PCI slots, a PCI-E x1 slot and a PCI-E x16 slot. All this for only $73 is a bargain. The AMD 780V northbridge packs the ATI Radeon HD 3100 with VGA, DVI and HDMI connectors, which is more than enough graphics for our purposes, bordering on overkill. However the 3100 isn't quite enough for a gaming-capable HTPC experience, so if that is what you're looking for you may want to consider filling the board's PCI-E x16 slot with a dedicated video card.
For our Intel alternative processor pick, we chose the Zotac GF9300-A-E based on NVIDIA's GeForce 9300 chipset. This is a much more expensive board than the ASUS M3A78-CM at $110. Fully featured Intel boards with 6 SATA slots, RAID and gigabit ethernet just aren't as cheap as available AMD offerings.
Primary: ASUS M3A78-CM AMD 780V mATX ($73)
Alternative: Zotac GF9300-A-E NVIDIA GeForce 9300 ($110)
Unlike in some builds, a media server won't need much in terms of memory, especially if you're judicious in your OS selection. You can easily get away with 1GB of budget RAM or some left-overs from your other builds. Memory performance is largely unimportant for this build. Just about anything will do, but if you must have a specific recommendation, I choose a single 1GB stick of Corsair PC2-6400. At $13, it's as much as you need and nothing more. If you insist on having more memory, which is understandable given the current rock-bottom DDR2 pricing, check out the alternative pick; 2x1GB Corsair XMS2 PC2-6400 dual-channel kit.
Primary: Corsair 1GB PC2-6400 DDR2 ($13)
Alternative: Corsair XMS2 2GB PC2-6400 DDR2 ($25)
The heart of any media server is the storage system. There are a ton of hard drives to choose from these days in a wide variety of storage capacities and spindle speeds. It is certainly acceptable to use hard drives you already own for this build, but if you are buying new, I recommend going for high storage density. Not only is it more cost efficient, but it's also space efficient which will leave you extra room for future upgrades. For a storage server like the one we're building, transfer speed of the drives shouldn't be a huge issue. Consider that the vast majority of data transfer to and from the server will be bottlenecked by the ethernet connection, it isn't especially important to have the fastest drives so there is no point in blowing our budget on a bunch of top-speed 10,000 RPM enterprise drives, or even top-speed 7,200 RPM drives. Another factor to consider is the system will be on constantly which means power draw is an important consideration.
For our first pick, we chose Western Digital's heavily praised Caviar Green series drive. There has been a lot of talk about this family of hard drives recently and for good reason. These are excellent high capacity drives with low power drain, perfect for our purposes. This drive comes in several capacities but the 1TB version is the best deal currently at just $100. That is a solid 10GB/$. Another good option is the Samsung HD103UI 1TB drive, which is very similar in performance to the Caviar Green. You might scoff at the Samsung's 5400RPM spindle speed but that would be a mistake. Like I said earlier, the speed of the drive really isn't important since data transfer will be bottlenecked by ethernet anyway. A lower spindle speed of 5400RPM also means less power drain and better reliability. It's also worth noting that the Caviar Green isn't a 7200RPM drive yet it still achieves good performance. Western Digital doesn't specify its true spindle speed, but it is somewhere between 4200 and 7200. In all likelihood its closer to 5400 than 7200 on common access patterns.
Alternative: Samsung HD103UI 1TB ($95)
Optical Drive (optional)
As I mentioned earlier, an optical drive is not strictly necessary for a media server except during the initial installation process. Simply 'borrowing' an optical drive from one of your other rigs for the installation will be a good option for a lot of people. However you may want your server to perform extra functions like ripping and burning optical media, in which case your server will need its own private optical drive.
DVD-RW drives have been flat-lined at around $20 for some time now. The LG GH22NP20 is a dual-layer capable DVD-RW that writes DVD-/+Rs at 22x and 16x for dual-layer discs. It can also write CDs at 48x. Overall a decent drive in return for just one Jackson.
Primary: LG Electronics GH22NP20 DVD-RW ($20)
Overall this build should provide a solid basis for a budget media server that will handle all of your personal files in a single central location. Depending on your operating system of choice, you can use the server in a wide variety of ways to stream files and media to and from the rest of the computers in your house to the server for safe keeping. The key tenants of this build are high capacity, low cost and low power. This obviously isn't a particularly high performance machine simply because it doesn't need to be. The money you saved is better spent on your gaming rig or HTPC anyway. While our build only has a single 1TB drive to start with, there is space in the case and on the motherboard for 5 more drives. Using 1TB drives, that allows for a total capacity of 6TB, more than enough for most households. Higher capacity 2TB drives are also right around the corner and if you used six of those, you'd have a whopping 12TB of storage crammed inside a little budget box.
This rig can also be transformed into a hybrid server+HTPC in a pinch by throwing in a dedicated video card and swapping the case with something a bit more pleasing on the eyes. The processor choices we have here should be enough for basic HTPC duties but more advanced users who plan on doing a significant amount of encoding may want to consider upgrading the processor too. Both of our motherboards offer onboard surround sound which is adaquate for use with HTIBs, but you might want to consider a dedicated audio card if you have a decent sound setup.
|Primary Build||Alternative Build|
Athenatech A3603BB.400 w/ 400W
AMD Athlon X2 4850e 2.5GHz 45W
ASUS M3A78-CM AMD 780V mATX
Corsair 1GB PC2-6400 DDR2
Western Digital Caviar Green 1TB
Cooler Master Elite RC-330 w/ 350W
Intel Pentium E2200 2.2GHz 65W
Zotac GF9300-A-E NVIDIA GeForce 9300
Corsair XMS2 2GB PC2-6400 DDR2
Samsung HD103UI 1TB
LG Electronics GH22NP2
Don't agree with my recommendations? Want to share your ideas? Leave a comment!