An HDTV alone does not a home theater make. For media junkies and couch potatoes alike, the gateway to living-room nirvana is a media center -- a PC running Microsoft Vista, which serves as a digital video recorder, DVD player, jukebox, photo viewer, game system, and more.
Windows Media Center, standard in Vista Home Premium and Ultimate, turns your PC and TV into a home media center.
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Believe it or not, nearly any off-the-shelf desktop can play this role, though you may need to stock it with a few upgrades and extras to fully leverage its capabilities. Let's take a look at what a media center can do for your home theater and learn how to build one that's the envy of the neighborhood.
Software packages like SnapStream Beyond TV and SageTV can turn just about any PC into a media center, but we're going to focus on software you might already have: the aptly named Windows Media Center. Baked right into Windows Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate, this remote-controllable application provides an attractive 10-foot interface (meaning it's easily viewed from your couch) for perusing music, movies, TV shows, and the like.
It doesn't matter if you're buying a new PC or retrofitting an existing one: You just need to make sure it has sufficient horsepower and a few key pieces of hardware. For starters, just about any modern processor will do, even a single-core Pentium 4. You also can get by with just 1 GB of RAM, though Vista runs smoother on 2 GB.
As for storage, the larger the hard drive, the better. Recorded TV shows, especially those recorded in high definition, consume tons of space. A two-hour HD episode of American Idol, for instance, swallows about 14 GB. It doesn't take a math whiz to calculate that a 160-GB hard drive would fill up quickly. If you like TV, choose the largest drive you can afford; the "ultimate" media center would have at least 500 GB.
Likewise, opt for the "ultimate" optical drive: Blu-ray. Now that it has emerged as the high-def DVD standard, it makes sense to outfit your media center accordingly -- especially considering that PC Blu-ray drives cost quite a bit less than standalone Blu-ray players. The Lite-on DH-401S internal drive, for instance, is available from online retailers for under $150.
If you do go that route, you'll need a video card that supports high-bandwidth digital content protection (HDCP). Otherwise, Blu-ray's built-in copy protection will prevent movies from displaying on your TV. Ideally, your video card also should have an HDMI output, as an HDMI connection to your TV (or stereo receiver -- more on that later) carries both video and audio over a single cable.
To really make the most of Windows Media Center, you need a TV tuner. It turns your PC into a full-fledged DVR, able to play, record, and time-shift TV shows -- just like TiVo. But because Microsoft provides an interactive program guide free of charge, you pay no TiVo-like monthly fees. Better yet, Microsoft Vista supports a maximum of four tuners (TiVo tops out at two), meaning you could record up to four shows simultaneously while watching a fifth.