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How Media-center PCs Work

        Tech | Desktops

Creating Your Own Media-center PC

Doing your own media-center upgrades typically costs less than buying a manufacturer-built system. You can do a pretty decent upgrade for under $1,000. It's a fine way to go if you're just looking for a unit that gets the job done and has some nice home-theater features.

As far as hardware goes, you're not looking at major additions. If you already have a display and a nice set of speakers in your home-theater system, you're really just looking at upgrading your PC sound card and storage capacity (a video library takes up tons of space -- an external hard drive is fine).

  • The sound card should support whatever speakers you want to use -- stereo, digital surround or multichannel analog surround. If you're looking for home-theater-quality audio, a surround-sound system combined with a 24-bit card will provide excellent sound. If you'll be outputting to a receiver, look for a card with coaxial or optical digital outputs for the best results.
  • For storage capacity, you'll probably want to be in the 400-to-500-gigabyte range. If you'll be recording HDTV, you might want more. If you're not an audio/video junkie and you're willing to use higher compression ratios, you may need less storage space.

You're also going to need:

  • a TV tuner, preferably with DVR capability so you can record programs and skip commercials (you can buy a standalone TV tuner or else upgrade your video card to one that includes a tuner)
  • a PC AM/FM radio receiver
  • a remote-control setup, including transmitter, receiver and, if you'll be using an external receiver for your speakers, a control cable to connect your PC to the receiver

­ Technically, this is all you need (and maybe a little more than you need) to use your PC in your home theater. Your PC already has a built-in CD player and DVD player, so you simply need to connect your PC to your TV and your speaker setup using the available outputs on your computer. But if you want to really tie everything together into an integrated media center, you're going to want a piece of media-center software. The advantage to including a piece of software in your upgrade is the added benefit of the onscreen menu and integrated remote control functions that let you control everything through a single interface.

There's a lot of media-center software out there with a variety of features. Overall, a piece of software like Meedio Pro, Sage TV, InterVideo Home Theater or Beyond TV with Beyond Media lets you connect home theater accessories to your computer and control it all through a single interface. You can stream music to other computers, transfer data to a portable device, and view your digital photos on your large-screen TV. Also, a lot of these software packages can put your regular computer monitor into a "theater view" mode that makes it visible from across the room.

When you're talking about media-center software, the most complete package you're going to come across is the Windows XP Media Center Edition (xpMCE) operating system. As recently as 2005, this operating system was only available to PC manufacturers, but now you can buy it and use it as the center of a media-center upgrade. The thing about xpMCE is that it presupposes certain hardware support, so it makes a DIY upgrade slightly more complicated. Still, it is doable. And there are some complete upgrade kits out there that include all of the hardware, software and instructions you need to build your own Windows Media Center PC from the ground up, including the D.Vine D2 Quiet Media Center. This kit comes complete with a chassis, fanless cooling system, motherboard, processor and xpMCE operating system, and it costs about as much as you would spend for one of the less-expensive pre-built systems.

Which brings us to the thing about serious upgrades: Once you get into the bells and whistles that make a media-center computer the highlight of a home theater, DIY stops being all that cost efficient. If you're looking for seamless integration, near-silent operation and a unit that's actually going to upgrade your home theater as opposed to just work with it, you're probably looking at a media-center PC built by the manufacturer.