Ideally, I'd like our base setup to be entirely replicable by anyone willing to spend around $500. That seems to be the average cost of about 6 to 9 months of cable, depending on your provider and selected options. While I've picked up many of my parts while they were on sale, if someone wanted to do this today, they wouldn't necessarily have that same advantage.
So where do I stand on that goal now? Let's find out.
Case: $69 This is easily the part that is the most debatable for many people. This one actually manages to fit in with our black furniture pretty well, but it's also not exactly mistakable for any other home theater equipment. It's clearly a PC, and that will turn some people off. I like it due to having so many large fan mounts, which means more cooling with less noise. Easy drive access and cable routing make it easy to work on when you need to.
Motherboard: $77 I still think this motherboard is one of the best values around given its features and relative future-proofing. HD-capable onboard video means you can hit the ground running without having to invest in a video card. PCI-Express x16 2.0, being able to take up to 16GB of DDR3, and 6 core AM3 processors gives plenty of room for future upgrades. My only desire is that this motherboard have more than one PCI-Express x1 slot, but so far it hasn't been a problem.
Processor: $50 More than enough power to get you started, as well as take on some of the extra features without having you standing around waiting too long.
Processor Cooling: $30 Considering the processor I linked to is OEM, a purchase here is required. Not the cheapest option, but it's hard to justify skimping in something that can ultimately make or break (literally) your HTPC.
Ram: $45 Similar to the processor, more than enough to get you started, and you can easily add more later.
Power Supply: $33 I am currently reusing an older 650 watt power supply, but according to a few online calculators, this one is powerful enough to get the job done, and is the cheapest one Newegg offers that comes from a brand I feel I can trust.
Hard Drives: $55 Another area were personal preference will trump anything I say, but for those of you looking to get started, anything less than 500GB is a mistake.
DVD Drive: $18 It's hard to not just say "go with a BluRay drive" since they are merely $40, but we're about replicating our current set up, so DVD is it.
TV Capture Card: $77 Up until a week ago I would say you can live without one, but I'm absolutely shocked at how much a week has changed my mind. HD versions of shows look so much better than 480p streamed versions, and thanks to a few plug-ins, there's still little commercial interruption. This card is a dual tuner, so you can record two shows at once (or watch one while another is recording, etc). This card was only $50 when I purchased it. It's possible the price may come down again soon. If you watch a lot of shows, you may consider a four channel tuner.
Digital Antenna: $50 You'll need one of these (or something similar) to make full use of your TV capture card. This is one the we use, and while it kind of dominates the living room, it works great.
Windows 7 Home Premium: $100 Home Premium is the "lowest" version of Windows 7 that contains Windows Media Center, which is the heart of our system. A free option is to run XBMC on top of Linux, but personally I don't think XBMC has all the features I want.
How am I doing so far? $602. Not bad, but not quite on the mark yet, either.
Many of you can find savings where I myself did by re-using older computer parts. There are also a myriad of case/power supply combinations available for less money, but you'll likely wind up with a very 'computer' look, and a less reputable power supply. There's also a healthy used market of PC parts if you know where to look.
Looking over these parts, I'm honestly not sure it's possible to hit the $500 mark with a fresh set up without giving up features. The TV tuner, antenna or OS are the only things that can really be eliminated without leaving you with an incomplete system. It's possible to go with a single tuner (meaning watch OR record), but considering that's still $45, the savings isn't enough to justify it for me, personally.
Well, at least I'm under a year of cable service...