Monday, November 27, 2006

Integrating a PC into your home theater

Know your options for integrating a PC into your home theater

You traded those VHS tapes for DVDs years ago, but now everyone's talking about digital video recorders (DVRs) and using TiVo as a verb. If you want to start time shifting--which means pausing and rewinding live TV, fast-forwarding through commercials, and watching this week's episode of Lost next week, for example--getting a DVR-capable cable box from your satellite or cable company or springing for a TiVo is probably the easiest way to go.

Set-top boxes like that are great, but if you want to avoid subscription fees and wield more control over your favorite movies and TV shows, a home-theater PC is the answer. While TiVo begins and ends with recording TV, and it does a fine job with that task, adding a PC to your home theater lets you access media files--from digital photos to videos to MP3s--all from the comfort of your couch (almost any Media Center PC comes bundled with a Media Center remote). And while it's true that some set-top DVRs include a DVD-recordable drive for archiving your favorite shows, those units cost almost as much as a new home-theater PC.

Mixing a PC into your home theater is starting to sound good, right? You're not alone. More and more companies have started selling living room-friendly systems. They look less like a standard midtower PC and more like a high-end home-theater component, and most run nearly silently and use Microsoft's Media Centre OS.

Your home-theater PC options, as we see them:

1. Buy a new PC from your favorite manufacturer or electronics retailer. Get one with the Media Center version of Windows XP on it and make sure it has a TV tuner card for capturing signals from your cable or satellite box, and you're all set. If you have room in your home-theater setup to accommodate a standard midtower chassis, we've seen some fairly low-end PCs that are more than up to the task. For a more camouflaged look, either of these component-style systems comes highly recommended. In either case, you don't need to spend obscene amounts unless you also want your Media Center PC to serve as a gaming rig. Today's 3D games require high-end graphics, a powerful processor, and ample memory. Just recording and displaying TV isn't nearly as demanding, so you can get away with a middle-of-the-road configuration.

2. Upgrade your current PC or an older computer you have lying around. You may have heard that you can get the Media Center version of Windows XP only preinstalled on a new machine, but that's a classic computing urban myth. In fact, almost any computer-supply retailer will be happy to sell you a stand-alone copy of the OS, with Microsoft's full approval. The OS will come as part of a hardware bundle, most likely with a TV tuner card, which you'll need anyway. This involves the potentially scary step of opening your computer's case and plugging in the card, plus installing a new operating system, but it's nothing too challenging for the average user.

3. If you want to avoid the hassle of upgrading to a new operating system, there are plenty of third party apps out there, ranging from free to a hundred bucks or so, that can handle all the same chores as the Media Center OS. Add a TV tuner card and remote control, and you have a Microsoft-free solution for your home-theater PC. For more on these DVR apps, direct your attention to tip3 of this story.

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