Saturday, February 16, 2013

Akiba Adventure

We had been trying to decide the best way to access U.S. television and movies in Japan. We had first considered getting a specific media streaming box like an Apple TV or a Roku Box. I was having trouble deciding on a specific box because different boxes are able to access different content.

Eventually, I began considering just using a computer connected to the TV because then I wouldn't be locked into a specific manufactures device and would have access to almost any content.

At first I was looking at a Mac Mini because they're very small and would look nice sitting under a TV. After considering the price, however, I started thinking about building my on Home Theater PC (HTPC). While a Mac Mini would have cost around $600, I thought I could build my own HTPC for about $325. In building my HTPC, I would also be able to reuse some spare hard drives which significantly lowered the cost. 


Once I had decided on an HTPC I had to decide which parts to use in my system build. The first big choice was the processor. Was I going to use AMD or Intel? Normally this would have been an easy choice since Intel processors outperform AMD processors across the board except in some very specific instances, but in this case I would be relying on onboard graphics. 

AMD Trinty APUs are a very attractive option when a discrete graphics card is not going to be used. The build-in graphics capability in Trinity processors outperforms Intel's HD graphics that are included with Intel chips. Intel chips, however, use much less power under load (both chips use very little power when idle) and so I was left with a tough choice. 

Ultimately, the decision came down to whether I intended to use this computer for graphic intensive applications (e.g. gaming). While I wasn't sure exactly for what I would use this system, I decided to optimize the system for the specific uses for which I was sure it would be used  (streaming video and listening to music) and not pay for extra features. Therefore, I went with the Intel chip (i3-3225) which has a 55W TDP that is significantly less than the AMD alternative. I chose the i3-3225 because it's an Ivy Bridge chip and has Intel HD4000 graphics.

The next choice was the motherboard. This was an easier choice than the CPU because I only had three requirements for the motherboard: (i) H77 Chipset, (ii) Micro-ATX, and (iii) HDMI. While I had never before purchased an ASRock motherboard, I had heard good things. ASRock began as a subsidiary of ASUS that specialized in low cost hardware (viz. cheap), but has since been spun-off. My choice was the ASRock H77M which checked all the boxes and was cheap (even better).

For RAM, I decided to stick with two 2GB DIMMs (2x2GB) of  DDR3 RAM running at 1600mhz that should be more than sufficient for watching video. I could have gotten away with 2GB, but I decided splurge in this one instance. I hadn't picked a specific brand but was going to see what was cheapest when it came time to place my order.

Similarly, I decided on the specifications of the Power Supply (PSU) but didn't decide in advance on a specific brand. I probably needed less than 100W, but there are few low wattage ATX power supplies. Instead, I decided to purchase a PSU with an output of between 320W and 380W. PSU's in this range generally have the best price/performance ratio for lower power builds. In addition, I decided that the PSU would have to be at least 80% efficient at normal loads. High efficiency is generally a sign of high quality parts and a PSU can take down a whole system if it fails.

Finally, I decided on was the Silverstone Milo ML03B as the case. This is a low profile micro-ATX case that looks very similar to a cable box. In this case, looking similar to a cable box is a good thing because my goal was for my HTPC to blend into the background. At first, I considered getting a full height micro-ATX case just in case I wanted to add a full height card later, but again I managed to resist this basic human instinct to keep my options open and decided on the low profile case I listed above.

My build had shaped up as follows:

Motherboard: ASRock H77M
RAM: 4GB DDR3 1600mhz
PSU: 320W-380W 80+ Efficiency
HD: Kingston 64GB SSD, 2.5" WD Black 500GB, 2.5" Samsung Spinpoint 1TB

The next step of course was actually buying all the parts.


At first I was considering purchasing everything on just for the sake of convenience. Recently, however, I had discovered a website that compares prices across different Japanese websites called I first discovered this website when researching credit cards, but Kakaku is also very good for comparing the prices of computer parts and other products. Using Kakaku does require being able to read Japanese, but most words relating to computer parts are really easy because they're either in English (e.g. i3-3224, H77M, etc.) or are katakana cognates. 

Kakaku lets you browse as well as search so it's possible to select a specific item and have it compare prices across different stores. Kakaku even factors shipping into the price and lists from where the item will be shipped.

From browsing Kakaku it became clear that was not a good choice. Unlike in the U.S., Amazon's prices were higher than lots of other Japanese retailers. From my research, the most cost competitive Japanese retailers were Tsukumo, Two-Top, and Faith. Two-Top's prices were the lowest overall and so I decided to check it out. Of course buying computer parts means a trip to Akihabara (Akiba) the electronics district in Tokyo. 

We went to Akiba one night after I got of work to pick up all the parts. We wanted to look at some other items in Yodobashi before heading to Two Top, so I browsed their PC parts selection while we were there just for comparison. On the whole, Yodobashi's prices are much higher than other stores. Yodobashi's prices might be competetive if points are factors in, but I didn't want to bother factoring potential futures savings  into to my decision.

Two Top was a little hard to find in Akiba. After wondering around for about 15 minutes we did find Two-Top. It has bright yellow signs in the windows that say 'Buy More' in red text. Once inside I started to look around but there was one problem; there weren't any computer parts to browse.

Two Top was set up similar to an auto parts store in the U.S. All of the parts were behind a counter and customers had to ask a sales person for a specific part. Part of my strategy had been to browse and see what was available, but it appeared this wasn't going to happen at Two Top. There were signs hanging from the ceiling that list all the parts behind the counter, but I still wanted to be able to browse the parts before deciding. If, however, you know the exact part your looking for, Two Top is a pretty good place to go. 

Next I tried Tsukumo eX, another large computer parts retailer. Tsukumo is near the Akiba Don Quijote (the same one where AKB performs) and is a narrow 6 or 7 story building. I first paused outside to consult the floor guide to determine my plan of attack.

I first headed to the Intel CPU floor which also housed Intel motherboards, PSUs, and RAM. I browsed the motherboards and easily found the ASRock H77M. It turned out that Tsukumo was having a sale where the price of the CPU and Motherboard would be reduced by 4% off (unbelievable savings!) if purchased together. This sale actually made Tsukumo's prices almost equal to Two Top and so I'm glad I ended up at Tsukumo. 

Next I looked at the PSUs. At first I was completely lost. I hadn't really done any research and few brands common in the U.S. were represented. Nevertheless, there was one 350W 80+ Gold unit (about 90% efficient) by Kuroutoshikou (玄人志向). This PSU one of Tsukumo's recommended power supplies and, though I'm not in the habit of blinding following a sales clerk's recommendations, I decided on this one. Later I discovered that this PSU was actually made by Seasonic (one of the premier manufacture's of PSUs) and was a relatively new unit not yet available in the U.S. 

The final item on this floor was RAM and in this case as well I wasn't familiar with a lot of the brands. In the end, I relied again the store clerk's advice and ended up with two sticks of Patriot RAM that met my specifications. 

I then took these items up to the counter and selected my CPU. All CPUs are kept behind the counter, but all are in plain sight. After selecting the i3-3225, I asked the store clerk if I could leave this items on this floor and return after I had chose my case. He agreed and I left to go look at PC cases. 

I had already decided on my case, so the rest was relatively easy. I found the case I wanted, took a card from the pouch hanging underneath the price listing for the case, and took the card up to the cashier. It turned out that this one was the last one in stock and the case would have to be retrieved from storage, but five minutes later the case arrived and in three more minutes I had paid and the box containing the case had a handle attached to it for easy carrying. 

I then went back downstairs purchased the rest of the parts and headed home. We got home late so I didn't get to put the computer together until the following evening, but all in all the build was pretty easy. The hardest part being attaching all the hard drives. So far the build has worked out fine for an HTPC. It's pretty quiet and has been very reliable over the month I've been using it so far. 

Tsukumo eX
Hours: 10:00-10:00
Phone: 03-5207-5599
Address: 4-4-1 Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo

Two Top
Hours: M-F 11:30-8:30, Weekends and Holidays 11:00-8:00
Phone: 03-5209-7330
Address: 3-14-10 Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo

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