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4/4/2008
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Build The Ultimate Microsoft Windows Home Media Center

A Windows Vista PC is all you need to set up a high-definition entertainment system complete with digital video recorder, jukebox, photo viewer, gaming, and more.

Although several companies make standalone extenders (including D-Link, Linksys, and SageTV), your best bet is none other than an Xbox 360. It's true: Microsoft's venerable gaming system doubles as an extender, providing the same exact interface as Windows Media Center itself. It costs about the same as the latest Linksys model, and it just happens to play way-cool games, too. Thus, it's a natural addition to your ultimate media room.

Ultimate Upgrades





The ultra-compact diNovo Mini keyboard/touchpad lets you access your media center PC from the couch.
(click for image gallery)

Once you've bridged the gap between PC and TV, it's time to look at some media center upgrades. For example, audio: Most TVs have pretty crummy built-in speakers, so consider piping the sound elsewhere. Logitech's $299.99 Z Cinema speaker system, for instance, provides 2.1-channel digital audio and employs SRS TruSound HD technology to deliver surround sound through two satellites and a subwoofer. It also comes with a full-featured Windows Media Center remote -- one less essential upgrade to buy.

Of course, serious audiophiles will probably want rear and center speakers and more output power, in which case you'll need a stereo receiver. One option is an all-inclusive home-theater system like the $599.99 Onkyo HT-SR800, which bundles an HDTV-compatible receiver, seven satellite speakers, and a subwoofer. Just make sure your PC's sound card has an optical audio output or 7.1-channel outputs so you can take full advantage of the surround-sound capabilities.

If you do decide to add a receiver (or, for that matter, an Xbox or any other electronics), consider adopting a universal remote so you're not juggling three or four clickers at a time. Logitech's easy-to-program, touchscreen-equipped Harmony One ($249.99) can control up to 15 devices and includes built-in help in case you run into trouble.




Windows Media Center plug-in mceWeather lets you check the forecast anytime you like.
(click for image gallery)

While you're at it, think about how you want to control the PC from the couch. Just about any wireless mouse and keyboard will do, though they're not exactly decor-friendly items. Logitech has yet another solution: the $149.99 diNovo Mini, a palm-size keyboard/touchpad designed specifically for couch-based PC operation.

Finally, consider adding some upgrades to Windows Media Center itself. Software developers have created hundreds of cool plug-ins that extend or enhance its capabilities. For example, mceWeather adds local weather, complete with forecasts and satellite imagery, to the Media Center menu. Yougle Vista lets you watch YouTube videos. And Lifextender automatically removes commercials from recorded shows.

Let's see a TiVo do that.

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