At its most basic, a media-center PC is a home computer an A/V receiver combined. It has entertainment-related upgrades that make it a suitable centerpiece for a home theater. Most media-center PCs have progressive-scan DVD playback, over-the-air HDTV support, surround-sound inputs and quieter operation (some use fanless cooling systems). In a single CPU unit, you have a range of functions that encompasses pretty much every aspect of digital media, including:
- Word processing
- Stream video from the Internet to your large-screen TV
- Watch, create and burn DVDs
- Watch and record TV (acts as a DVR)
- View, edit and e-mail digital photos
- AM/FM radio (which you can record, up to 30 minutes, like you do TV shows)
- Download MP3s to your system and play them on your home-theater speakers
- Play, create, rip and burn CDs
Media storage (a typical unit might have 500 GB to 1 TB of storage space for music, movies, photos)
With a media-center PC connected to your TV and your speakers, you can access all of these functions by navigating through onscreen menus. The system is built to be controlled across the room with a remote control, but you can also use a keyboard or mouse just like with a standard PC.
There are a couple of routes to a media-center PC. You can do your own home-theater-related upgrades to a standard PC, or you can buy a prebuilt home-theater PC. If you have a fairly new PC (bought in the last five years, say), and you're up for getting at the motherboard, you can totally turn it into a media center. You may not achieve quite the same results as you would with a PC originally built for a home theater, but you're also going to be spending less cash. Let's take a look at how you can build your own media center using your current computer.